Remember the background of the book that we know as Isaiah. They are probably three separate groups of writings. The first (Chapters 1-39) was probably written about the 8th century BCE and includes the writings of the person that we know as Isaiah, the Prophet. It reflects the time leading up to the exile and the sense of God as creator of the whole world is reflected. The second part (Chapters 40-55) is probably from the end of the exile and the third part (Chapters 56-66) was probably written about 520 BCE when the people began reshaping their community following the exile.
When reading the Book of Isaiah, it is important to try to view this without our Christian “hindsight” lens reshaping what it was meant to be. It was not originally meant as a foretelling of Jesus’ birth. It is a story of God’s deliverance and redemption, but the notion of Christ as the redeemer was imposed by later New Testament writers. This passage that we read is extremely well-known by probably both of our traditions. The unifying theme is, of course, the coming Reign of God. Isaiah saw the Davidic monarchy as Yahweh’s means of implementing Yahweh’s will, first for Judah and Jerusalem, and then for the whole world. It looks toward the rule of one whose life and rule is shaped by God. This is the part that many more fundamentalist Christian believers will assume to be Jesus Christ, prompted, for the most part, by the writer known as Matthew.
The second part promises the Reign of God in the order of creation with the establishment of peace and tranquility among all creatures. Here, the “world” is understood as God’s Creation. The vision of the new order for all the world is set forth. Essentially, it is the hope for that which is “uncommon”, a reordering, if you will, in our world. By putting these two parts together, we’re left with a view of the relationship among justice, mercy, and peace in human society and harmony in the natural order. Essentially, “if you want peace, if you desire the fullness of the Reign of God, work for justice and unity.”
We are reminded of the many predators that are in our world. After all, it is important to name and place them. But, here, the predators, those things that we have just learned to accept as the “order of nature” or the “order of humanity”, along with everything and everyone else, are transformed. And a little child shall lead them? Like the calf, lamb, kid, and ox, the child here stands for the vulnerable, finally living in a safe and peace-filled world. This, of course, is what we Christians see in Christ—the vulnerable, peace-loving child who ushers in the peace of God and leads the rest of creation onto transformation. And, further, this New Creation, this New Kingdom, will encompass not simply the future of God’s people but of all nations and all of creation. It is the universal vision of hope for the world. We read this text in Advent as a new generation that lives between two times—we celebrate the coming of Christ and we look forward to the promised final consummation of God’s peaceable Kingdom yet to come. We stand in liminality, on a veritable threshold between what is and what will be.
In essence, the Advent, or “coming” (Latin), that we celebrate is about three comings—the remembrance of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the recognition of the coming of the very presence of God into the world, and the anticipation of the final coming of God’s Kingdom for which we all wait. When the peaceable Kingdom comes to be, all of these comings will be one, and Advent will be complete. It is then that the things that we have accepted as “natural” in this world will become the abnormal and the things of which we only dream will be life as we know it.
Here’s the hard thing about this text in all its beauty: the little child has come to us — two thousand years ago and counting — and we have not yet made it to God’s holy mountain. The cows are still grazing in the fields waiting to be processed into cheap beef for our hamburgers. The lamb is still getting shorn to make clothes that will last less than a few seasons. Children don’t come anywhere near a snake’s lair because they don’t play anywhere outside much anymore.
And righteousness? Justice? We are so drunk on the process of hurting and destroying one another that we can no longer see past the ends of our military-might-political-fight-I-am-always-right noses. Death tolls rise, wars rage on, hunger and sickness strike day after day…and we have lost sight of the mountain altogether.
If the little child has come, and shall lead us, did we simply not follow? Did we miss our chance? Did we get lost along the parade route and never realize the party broke up? ‘Tis the season to dream big dreams and hope big hopes. But the hardest question remains: Why is the earth not yet filled with the knowledge of the Lord? (From “ This Branch is Slower Than Christmas”, by Danielle Shroyer, available at http://thehardestquestion.org/yeara/advent2ot/, accessed 1 December, 2010.)
Perhaps the reason that the earth is not yet filled with the knowledge of the Lord, that the Reign of God has not come into its fullness, that poverty and homelessness and injustice and war still exists is because we do not dare to imagine it. This is not some vision of an inaccessible utopian paradise; this is the vision of God. It is worth waiting with hopeful expectation. The passage that a shoot shall come out the stump and a branch shall grow out of the roots. In other words, life shall spring from that which is dead and discarded. Because in God’s eyes, even death has the foundation, the roots of life. We just have imagine it into being. So, imagine beyond all your imaginings; envision a world beyond all you dare to see; and hope for a life greater than anything that is possible.
a. What are your thoughts about this passage?
b. What is your image of the “peaceable kingdom”?
c. What is your vision of the “ideal ruler”?
d. With what hope do you identify in that “peaceable Kingdom” about which we read?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 15: 4-13
Remember that the main theme of Romans is that God’s gospel unveils God’s righteousness, so this reading is indeed fitting for this season. In this letter, Paul concentrates on the Gentile audience, not because he thought the Jews had denied Jesus but because he truly thought that for God’s reign to be ushered in to fullness, the whole world must come into the picture.
The passage that we read begins with Paul’s explanation of the Scriptures as instructional and from which we can gain hope. It is interesting that, compared to many modern-day thoughts about Scripture, there is nothing here portraying Scripture as any sort of moral code or outline for living a godly life! Rather, Scripture’s primary purpose is to create hope. Then he turns to a prayer for unity and harmony. This is actually Paul’s regular appeal, whether or not he thinks a congregation is divided. It was important to him, though, that the church come to a “common mind”, a “common worship”, and, therefore, “one voice”. He then begins with what most call the “messianic” welcome, open to all people. He then launches into an explanation of the basis for that “messianic welcome”. Paul celebrates the theme of this united worship with three biblical quotations–Psalm 18: 49, Deuteronomy 32, and Isaiah 11: 10 (part of our Old Testament passage). The passage is ended with the hope that, for Paul, was always present. For Paul, this hope can only be realized through an awareness of our shared story of hope in God and by emphasizing two things–pleasing others instead of ourselves and praising God in unity and harmony. Hope, for Paul, is communal. It is only realized within the community that we share.
So, the advent of Christ does not just belong to one group. There is no group that is more privileged than another. All are invited; all are included; indeed, all are expected to be a part of it. That is the hope of the world. The Kingdom of God would never be complete otherwise.
The sign above Dante’s hell reads “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” To enter one’s hell is to give up hope and to give up hope is to enter one’s hell. But we are instead called to “abound in hope”, to live as though our live depends on it. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe life depends on our hope for something more, our willingness to trust in God’s vision for what we will be, and to have faith in the faith that God has put in us.
a. What are your thoughts about this passage?
b. What do you think “unity” and “harmony” mean in our world today?
c. What does hope mean in our world today?
d. Soren Kierkegaard said that “hope is the passion for the possible.” How does that change your view of hope?
GOSPEL: Matthew 3: 1-12
John the Baptist was a significant figure even in his own right. He was a Jewish prophet with his own message and disciples who was ultimately executed by Herod Antipas. He had his own movement, which continued long after the Resurrection and into the beginning of the Christian community. The description here depicts John as sort of a wild, hairy man, not at all part of elegant society. He definitely identified more with the wilderness than ordinary society. But here, John is cited as a “precursor” of the greater one to come.
John definitely saw an impending time of judgment for those who did not know God. The image of the ax at the root of the tree indicates the judgment that is already prepared and is just waiting to begin. The whole idea of “repentance” that John emphasized is not one that we good Methodists often focus on. It sometimes sounds a little too “hellfire and brimstone” for us. But repentance means turning around, a new mind, a change of direction. It means throwing off those things that bind us to the life we know for those things that point to a life with God. It does not mean that God has finally won us over; it means, rather, that our own self, our own story, has finally come to be. Just being there is not enough; just having Abraham for your ancestor is not enough. You must change your life. There are no favorites. This includes everyone.
The idea of the wilderness is a whole other concept. Think about the wilderness—it calls us into things outside our normal routines, outside of the establishments that make up our lives. It calls us to a cleansing, to a repentance and acceptance of life anew. Essentially, John message was to “prepare”; in the wilderness prepare for the coming of the Christ; in the wilderness be washed clean; in the wilderness, change your life so that you will be ready to receive Christ. John probably would be labeled today as a liberal evangelical, challenging the conservatism of his day and yet his ideas and his theologies are not new. At their very core is the heart of the Gospel itself. In Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon wrote (without identifying which one of them thought it) that “indeed, one of us is tempted to think there is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry.”
This is a good reading for Advent because the season is not only about beginnings, but also about transitions, about changes, about finding a new way—the Way of Christ. John’s wilderness sermon points beyond himself to God. Whatever our message is going to be, it is not going to be found in ourselves. We are not the message. The church is not the gospel. The community of faith is not the savior. Preaching worthy of the name strives to point ever and always to Jesus. He should increase in every sermon, and the preacher, and even the church, should decrease. (Mark E. Yurs, in “Feasting on the Word”, Year A, Volume 1, p. 49)
We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. (From “The Coming of Jesus in our Midst”, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, December 21)
Maybe that is why, to us, John’s message seems so “over the top”. Maybe he saw the same thing that Bonhoeffer did—that this vision of God that is coming closer to us each and every moment, that little by little is taking hold, will shake the world as we know it to its core. Because God’s vision and the way the world lives cannot exist together. The stump will die and from it, all of Creation will be resurrected. The Way of Life is found by turning and changing and accepting life anew.
a. What are your thoughts about this passage?
b. What does “repentance” mean for you? What stands in the way of that for you?
c. Where, for you, is the desert or wilderness that calls you out of your normal routines?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God where we met thee, Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand true to our God, true to our native land. (James Weldon Johnson)
No language about God will ever be fully adequate to the burning mystery which it signifies. But a more inclusive way of speaking can come about that bears the ancient wisdom with a new justice. (Elizabeth A. Johnson)
Believers know that while our values are embodied in tradition, our hopes are always located in change. (William Sloane Coffin)
In each heart lies a Bethlehem, an inn where we must ultimately answer whether there is room or not. When we are Bethlehem-bound we experience our own advent in his. When we are Bethlehem-bound we can no longer look the other way conveniently not seeing stars, not hearing angel voices. We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily tending our sheep or our kingdoms.
This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that the Lord has made known to us. In the midst of shopping sprees, let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts. Through the tinsel, let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star. In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos, let’s listen for the brush of angels’ wings. This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem and find our kneeling places.
(“In Search of our Kneeling Places”, Ann Weems, in Kneeling in Bethlehem, p. 19)