Dec 8, 2019: 2nd Sunday of Advent (A)

Prepare the way of the LordMake straight his paths

Introduction

Advent is well known as a time to spiritually prepare ourselves for Christmas, but there is more to the season. While we certainly prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the first coming of Christ which has already occurred, we are also looking forward and preparing ourselves for the second coming of Christ at the end of time.

The lectionary reflects this two-fold focus. The readings in the first two weeks of Advent are concerned with the Lord’s coming as judge of all at the end of time. It’s only in the second two weeks of the season that the readings shift and serve as the proximate preparation for his first coming, in the flesh.

1st Reading – Isaiah 11:1-10

On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
a spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
but he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.
On that day, the root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the nations,
the Gentiles shall seek out,
for his dwelling shall be glorious.

The Old Testament readings during Advent are prophecies about the Messiah and the Messianic age. This week we read again from Isaiah, the prophet who offered hope to the Jewish people in the 8th century BC.

The reading is an oracle of salvation in two parts: the first describes a new Davidic king bestowed with various divine gifts; the second describes a realm of remarkable peace in the world of nature.  Both are enclosed with references to the “root of Jesse.”

On that day,

A phrase used by the prophets to refer to the eschatological time of fulfillment.

a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.

Jesse was the father of King David, from whom all the kings of Judah descended.

Some context is helpful to understand the reference to the stump of Jesse:

Isaiah made this proclamation during the reign of King Ahaz.  In Isaiah’s eyes, Ahaz was unfaithful to Israel’s covenant relationship with God because instead of relying on God to protect the southern kingdom, he agreed to have Judah become a vassal state of Assyria. God had promised David and his descendants protection.  Ahaz, who is of the house of David, should have trusted God’s fidelity to the covenant, but he did not.

Here, Isaiah is assuring the people that God will be faithful to the covenant, even if Ahaz, the “stump of Jesse,” was not.  The image of a stump implies that the house of Jesse has been cut down, i.e., the monarchy has been destroyed, by Ahaz’s submission to Assyria.

However, out of this stump sprouts a shoot.  It is not a completely new plant, for it grows out of Jesse’s roots.

The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:

The shoot that sprouts is a future king who would bring peace to the land, and upon whom the spirit of the Lord will rest.

The word here for spirit is ruah, the life-giving breath that comes from Yahweh and endows certain individuals with extraordinary gifts, enabling them to accomplish feats that would be impossible on their own.

This bestowal of the spirit of the Lord suggests a return to the charismatic character of the monarchy.

a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

The gifts are listed in pairs, with each pair pointing to one of the major responsibilities of the monarchy.  Wisdom and understanding enable the king to rule with competence and insight.

a spirit of counsel and of strength,

To administer justice, one needs counsel (in the courts) and strength (on the battlefield).

a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.

Fear of the Lord is not dread, but reverential awe.

Knowledge and fear of the Lord dispose the ruler to humble reverence toward God, ensuring that the reign is faithful to God’s will.

Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.

He will have the ability to see beyond appearances and will be the champion of the poor and the meek.

Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.

A “band around his waist” would be a loincloth worn directly against the skin.

This king will be girded with righteousness (sedeq) and faithfulness (ōmen), two characteristics that belong to God but are bestowed upon his covenant partners.  Isaiah has gone to great lengths to clearly identify this individual as God’s king.

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox.

The reading now shifts to the image popularly known as “the peaceable kingdom,” which is reminiscent of the primal paradise of Eden.

This faithful and wise king is a messiah who will establish peace.  In this messianic age, all of creation has either been transformed or re-created.

The novelty of this scene is not that the wolf and the lamb are both there, but that the wolf remains a wolf and the lamb remains a lamb, and yet they dwell together without harm or hurt in God’s Kingdom. Under God’s rule, conversion and obedience do not mean the loss of identity but the discovery of our true identity as one in Christ.

The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.

The mention of babies and little children living without fear of harm suggests that humans will live in a state of innocence and safety.

There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;

“Holy mountain” is likely a reference to Zion, the mountain upon which Jerusalem was built and from which the new Davidic king will rule.

Others see this reference to “all my holy mountain” as indicative of all of Yahweh’s land, not just Zion.  In this interpretation, the whole world, not just Israel, will share in God’s protection.

for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.

Knowledge of God is what finally brings peace to this mountain.  It fills the entire earth completely, the way water fills the sea.

On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.

The final verse declares the universality of this wonder. The new Davidic ruler will be a rallying point for the people of all nations to assemble, not just the Israelites. Even the Gentiles will benefit from this wise king’s rule. Through this extraordinary descendant of David, all will be drawn to God.

By proclaiming Isaiah’s words of hope on this Second Sunday of Advent, the church is expressing our belief that God’s promise through Isaiah has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

2nd Reading – Romans 15:4-9

Brothers and sisters:
Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction,
that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures
we might have hope.
May the God of endurance and encouragement
grant you to think in harmony with one another,
in keeping with Christ Jesus,
that with one accord you may with one voice
glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you,
for the glory of God.
For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised
to show God’s truthfulness,
to confirm the promises to the patriarchs,
but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
As it is written:
Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles
and sing praises to your name.”

For the first three weeks of Advent, the second readings help us interpret the meaning of the mystery of Christ and provide guidelines for how we are to behave while we await his second coming.

In today’s reading, Paul teaches that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Israelites. He emphasizes the universality of the blessings won by Christ and the unity within the believing community that results from this inclusiveness.

Brothers and sisters: Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

What was “written previously” is what we now call the Old Testament; Paul is attesting to its perennial value. He doesn’t elaborate on the nature of the instruction, but highlights the encouragement it provides, which enables hope.

While the Old Testament originated from people who faced very different circumstances than those to whom Paul was writing, its message continues to provide instruction to the people of his day, and by implication to people today as well.

In other words, the Old Testament is our book – it doesn’t belong to a people long gone, but to us.

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another,

The word used here for thinking (phrónēsis) is more than the intellectual faculty; it is the highly-prized practical reasoning, a source of great virtue.

in keeping with Christ Jesus,

Jesus is both the source and model for the unity being described. Paul knows that only God can bring about a communion of love among a diverse people.

that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Homothymadón (“one accord”) denotes a unity that springs from an external interest rather than from some shared personal inclination; they are of one accord because of something outside themselves rather than something they have in common.  In other words, the unity Paul is praying for does not destroy the differences between them — it is a unity in diversity.

“Here Paul is blessing the Romans in the manner of the patriarchs and prophets. … It is a great blessing that they should all understand and think alike. If you want to know just how great it is, look at what the Savior said in the Gospel: If two or three of you agree, whatever they ask will be done for them by God (Matthew 18:18).” [Origen (after A.D. 244), Commentaries on Romans]

Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you,

The verb “welcome” (proslambánō) means “to take to oneself.”

Christ’s universal welcome is the model of the openness they should extend to one another.  This is reminiscent of Christ’s command in John 13:34, to “love one another as I have loved you.”

for the glory of God.

Accepting those who, though different from themselves, have also been called by God in Christ, brings glory to God.

For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs,

Jesus was born a Jew and ministered to the Jews, in order to confirm God’s promises to the patriarchs.

but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

Paul asserts that the Gentiles are included in the Old Testament promises.

“It was by mercy alone that the Gentiles were saved; hence they were bound to glorify God. It is a glory to God when they are blended together and united, when they offer praise with one mind, when they bear the weaker and when they do not neglect the member who has been cut off.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 28]

As it is written: Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles and sing praises to your name.

Just as Paul began this instruction with a reference to scripture, he concludes it with a quote found in two places: Psalm 18:49 (18:50 in NAB), and 2 Samuel 22:50.

In this quote, David (the psalmist) is praising God for having protected him from the danger posed by other nations, thereby demonstrating God’s favor for him. By taking the quote out of context and using it here, Paul is reinterpreting its meaning: it is now a praise of God for having included the other nations in the company of those who are favored.

As we set about an Advent journey of conversion, it need not be a matter of misery and dreariness, but a matter of joy. We can sing praises to God’s name as we shed the things in our life that make us unfree!

Gospel – Matthew 3:1-12

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair
and had a leather belt around his waist.
His food was locusts and wild honey.
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea,
and the whole region around the Jordan
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
He will clear his threshing floor
and gather his wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Each year, the figure of John the Baptist dominates the gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent.

In addition to the baptizing activity he is known for, John was a prophet and the forerunner to Jesus, which are the roles we focus on today. Matthew’s account portrays John as the long-awaited Elijah figure who has returned to usher in the Day of the Lord. His fiery preaching intends to lead the crowds to a baptism of repentance.

John the Baptist appeared, 

Luke’s gospel tells us that John was a relative of Jesus, whose birth was foretold by Gabriel.

The wording suggests that he suddenly appeared, almost out of nowhere.

preaching

Contrary to modern misconceptions, biblical prophets do more than predict the future.  A prophet declares the mind (or message) of God, which sometimes includes foretelling but more commonly, speaks forth God’s message for a particular situation.  They do this through both their words and their actions.

in the desert of Judea

The desert of Judea is a steep slope that falls from the central ridge of the country to the valley of the Jordan and the Dead Sea.  This is the wilderness, away from the major cities on the highlands.

and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

This summary of John’s preaching is identical to the proclamation of Jesus in Matthew 4:17.  The repentance John is calling for is metánoia, the kind of transformation that leads to a complete change of heart.  The reason for this exhortation is the imminent appearance of the reign of heaven, the dawning of a new age.

Extra-biblical sources corroborate John’s reputation as a preacher of repentance (e.g., Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2’116-119).

It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”

Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3, modifying it slightly.  In Isaiah, the way of the Lord is in the wilderness; here, John’s voice is in the wilderness.

By applying Isaiah’s words to John the Baptist, Matthew reinterprets the prophecy. Originally, the Lord for whom the way was prepared is Yahweh. Here, the Lord for whom the way is prepared is Jesus.

Remember that Matthew wrote this gospel in hindsight, well after Jesus’ departure via the ascension.  With hindsight, Matthew is subtly teaching his post-resurrection understanding of Jesus’ identity: Jesus is a divine person.

John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist.

By citing his attire, Matthew is identifying John as a prophet. This description especially resembles Elijah (Zechariah 13:4, 2 Kings 1:8), perhaps to highlight the expectation of the return of Elijah from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God’s kingdom, which was widespread.  According to Jesus, John fulfilled this expectation (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13).

His food was locusts and wild honey.

Wild food, like that of a nomad, suggesting that John not only preached in the wilderness, but lived there.  Some believe he belonged to a Jewish sect like the Nazirites or Essenes, who were known for their ascetic practices.

John’s penitential life (shown by his simple clothing and abstemious diet) reveals his sincerity: he practices what he preaches.

At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him

Despite being far from the cities, John’s preaching draws a large following from the entire vicinity.

and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River 

John’s baptism was neither one of incorporation, the kind the proselytes to Judaism underwent, not the repeated ritual cleansing the Essene community practiced.  It was a devotional rite with eschatological significance, administered to Jews, accompanied by an acknowledgment of sinfulness and a resolve to live an ethical life.

as they acknowledged their sins.

Knowing and confessing our sins is a tremendous grace.

“God’s greatest pleasure is to pardon us. The good Lord is more eager to pardon a repentant sinner than a mother to rescue her child from a fire.“ —St. John Vianney

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism,

Even members of the Pharisees and Sadducees, two prominent religious groups, came to John, although it is unclear that they actually submitted to his baptism. They do not come in a true spirit of repentance, bt in a public show of self-righteousness. Some scholars go so far as to say they were there as spies.

he said to them, “You brood of vipers!

John criticizes them harshly, using these same words for them as Jesus does in Matthew 12:34.

Throughout his gospel, Matthew paints a very harsh picture of those Jewish leaders who failed to recognize Jesus, who constantly tried to trap him as he was teaching, and who wanted him dead.

The viper is a snake whose presence is unsuspected, but which injures and can kill.  Invoking this label would likely have been interpreted as calling them the offspring of the devil, the ancient serpent. Such people deceive others and kill souls with the poison of false morality.

Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?

John accuses them of coming to him because they seek to flee from the wrath of God, which was associated with the coming of the eschatological age.

Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.

Perhaps the religious leaders were interested in the rite John performs, but not in the repentance he preaches. Here, John is insisting that their behavior and very lives must change.

And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’

He further accuses them of considering their identity as children of Abraham as a privilege that protects them from the coming wrath.

For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.

Playing on the similarity between the Hebrew words for child (bēn) and stone (‘eben), John lays bare the shallowness of these claims.  Salvation is not hereditary; at the time of the new age, only righteous living will account for anything.  It’s spiritual descent from Abraham, achieved by grace, that produces the true children of Abraham.

There is a hint of foreshadowing here: the Messiah will be rejected by children of Abraham and accepted by the Gentiles.

Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

John underscores the urgency of his message.  The people must repent and change their lives to reflect their faith; those who fail to do so will be destroyed as if by fire.

I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. 

John admits his subordinate role; a notable act of humility, given his popularity.  Although he precedes this mightier person in time, he follows him in importance.  John recognizes and acknowledges that his is the voice that announces the coming of another.

I am not worthy to carry his sandals.

John is not worthy to perform the menial tasks of a servant for the one who is coming.

Foremost among the personal qualities of John the Baptist is his remarkable humility: he resolutely rejects the temptation of accepting the dignity of Messiah which the crowds apparently wanted to bestow upon him. Instead, he pointed the way to the Messiah who would follow.

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John’s baptism of water for repentance is an interior preparation, which merely pointed to Christ’s baptism.  Baptism in the name of the Trinity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, forgives sins and fills us with divine life.

The image of fire points to the effectiveness of the Holy Spirit in both cleansing and judgment.

His winnowing fan is in his hand.

Mention of the winnowing fan introduces a theme of harvest. A winnowing fan is a fork-like shovel used to throw grain in the air – the useful wheat kernels fall to ground, while the lighter, useless chaff is blown away. It is an instrument for removing impurities so that only pure wheat remains.

He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The implication here is that those who repent will be separated from those who do not.  The time of the Messiah will be a time of both redemptive and destructive judgment. Jesus frees us from sin, purifying our hearts so that we can be consecrated to him.

As we read John the Baptist’s call to repentance and his announcement of the coming of one far greater than he, we are reminded that we too are called to repent in order to prepare the way of the Lord.

Connections and Themes

  • Today’s readings continue the pilgrimage theme from last week, profiling role models for us pilgrims as we journey toward eschatological fulfillment.
    • First Reading: The righteous messianic king.
    • Second Reading: Jesus, one who ministers to all.
    • Gospel Reading: John the Baptist, the prophet who prepares for the advent of the Christ.
  • The messianic king.  The gifts Isaiah attributes to the messianic king are the same gifts we receive with the anointing of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.  We may not exercise them in the same way ancient Israelite royalty might, but we must admit how important they are to us as we progress on our journey.  We certainly need competence and insight in every walk of life; we are all responsible for establishing and safeguarding justice in society; we all owe God our humble reverence and our commitment to God’s reign.  The image of the messianic king may have been fulfilled in Jesus, but it is also offered to us as a model after which we can pattern our lives.
  • The minister to all.  The universality of God’s call, a theme we contemplated last week, is placed before us again today.  At a time of struggle between Jewish Christians and those from a Gentile background, Paul declares that Christ came for all.  Since Christ’s invitation is extended to all, we are expected to welcome all and, like Jesus, minister to them in their need — whatever their need may be.
  • The herald of good news.  The third profile offered for our imitation is John the Baptist, who lived a life of radical self-denial.  However, he did not require this of those who came to hear his message.  What he preached was repentance, metánoia, a change of heart — not a rejection of the circumstances of life but of the character of that life.  His message echoed the prophets of old, calling for a return to righteousness, to lives of integrity, to relationships rooted in honesty and respect.  He spoke against presumption and arrogant reliance on one’s religious origin, against complacency and the shirking of responsibility, against disinterest in the welfare of others. This is a powerful image in a world such as ours, where status is everything and we are taught to get what we want with the least amount of effort.  We may not be called to prophecy, as John was, but as pilgrims on the journey to eschatological fulfillment we are challenged to heed his message in our own lives and to model it for others.

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