Today’s readings feature familiar words and images and they are connected through themes of welcome, repentance and hope. In our second lesson, Paul’s letter to the Romans, verse 5 reads, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus…” If that sounded familiar it is because it is part of the liturgy we use during the summer months. Verse 6 continues, “so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is where the name of our With One Voice hymnal came from. Did verse 13 also sound familiar? “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” We close our worship with that blessing during Advent.
Our first reading from Isaiah has two familiar images – verses 6 through 9 continue the theme we encountered last week in Isaiah, that of the world at peace. It is an image that often seems unattainable as reality, yet we hope and pray for it all the same. The idea of the predator living in harmony with the prey – the peaceable kingdom – is very appealing. Filmmaker Woody Allen once gave his own interpretation of that image: “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep!” We can laugh at that skeptical view of the peaceable kingdom, but Isaiah’s image is important because perhaps we aren’t waiting for God to come again, as much as God is waiting for us to work harder to create a world of justice and peace, so that God may then bring the end time.
Isaiah also provides us with one of the most familiar scriptural references of Advent: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” We receive those gifts of the Holy Spirit at our baptism. Just two weeks ago we reaffirmed that gift given to four of our young people as they affirmed their faith at their confirmation. Those are precious gifts that last for a lifetime because the Holy Spirit never leaves us, even though we may not always remember to acknowledge the Spirit’s presence.
In the chapter right before today’s reading, Isaiah warned that the trees – representing the faithless people of Judah, descended from King David – will be cut down and reduced to stumps. Yet now God promises that a messiah will arise from the bare stumps. Just as we see green shoots growing up out of the stump from the tree that was taken down on our property, so the living green shoot will grow out of the remnants of the people whom God had so richly blessed. Jesse was the father of King David, and although the family dynasty was no longer ruling Israel by that time, Isaiah assures us that the awaited messiah will share that heritage. Both Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus claimed his ancestry from King David through his adoptive earthly father, Joseph.
Paul’s letter to the Romans encourages us with words of welcome and repentance and praise. Christians are to act as one faith community, praising and glorifying God who sent us the shoot that arose out of the stump of Jesse so that we might “abound in hope.” He reminds us that God’s Holy Spirit is always with us to encourage and empower us.
In our gospel reading for today Matthew introduces John the Baptizer. He tells us that John is the one whom the prophet Isaiah spoke of, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He also makes it clear that John was rather odd, to say the least. He wore clothing made of animal skins, which would not have been acceptable in Jewish society. He ate locusts and wild honey. The Book of Leviticus tells us that locusts were actually acceptable as a food source, what we would call “kosher” today. But, kosher or not, the people of Israel did not normally eat locusts – so they thought John was pretty strange. He had a firebrand style of preaching that attracted large crowds of people to the place where he was preaching on the secluded banks of the Jordan River, a distance from Jerusalem.
John looked pretty wild and often yelled. His images of “the wrath to come,” and the “unquenchable fire” might seem kind of frightening. Yet behind those challenging words John offered a sense of welcome, comfort and hope that made him so attractive to the crowds of ordinary people who were longing for better, more hopeful lives. The people who came to hear John and to be baptized for the repentance of their sins were ordinary citizens of the city of Jerusalem, the farmers and shepherds who inhabited Judea and others who lived in a fairly wide region along the Jordan River. Terribly oppressed by Roman authority, they longed for a new life, for a messiah who would bring God’s mercy, compassion and justice.
The people that John condemned were the religious authorities, who were probably coming out of curiosity to check him out. He warns them that their heritage and their positions do not make them righteous. Instead of setting a good example they run from the truth and they are in collusion with the Romans. They believe they are worthy because they are descendants of Abraham, but John tells them they must be worthy by their willingness to repent – to turn their lives around – and to bear good fruit.
What about that “unquenchable” fire? In those days wheat was harvested by hand. The workers would scoop up the cut wheat with the winnowing forks and throw it up into the air. The heavier, good wheat would fall on the ground and the light stuff would blow away. Then the fruit of the grain was separated from the unusable chaff, which would be disposed of. A better analogy today might be the spam filter on our computers.
God is calling us to be fruitful, to repent – turn our lives around – and to follow the message of the messiah who is to come. The fruit of the wheat represents all who would believe and respond to that message. The chaff is all who are not bearing fruit. John was very serious about his message and he created a lot of drama, which was meant as a warning but not for the sole purpose of instilling fear. The ordinary people responded to John and his message because he helped them to understand that it was out of God’s great love for the world that he was sending the one who was to come, the messiah who would draw all people to himself, the one who would confirm the promises given to the people through the words of the prophets.
During Advent we focus on repenting – on turning our lives around – so that we might bear fruit that will help to bring about the peaceable kingdom that both we and God long for. Our character and our lives, like trees that bear the best fruits, ought to be consistently good. As Martin Luther says in “A Treatise on Christian Liberty” : “Good works do not make a [person] good, but a good [person] does good works.” Amen.