Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016
Isaiah has bluntly told Judah's people and king that they were in trouble because of their unfaithfulness. Now he wants to inspire hope, so he explains how God will give them a new king, like the great king David, son of Jesse, from centuries past.
The early Christian community in Rome was a mix of Jewish converts and pagan converts. Paul helps them to live in harmony, and endure persecution faithfully, by placing their situation in the context of God's eternal plan.
The gospel harbors a vivid memory of one potential portrait of a coming Messiah. Though Jesus did not fulfill this expectation literally, elements of it remain in the church's hope.
Our Liturgical Setting: This Sunday the Church does her last meditation, for a while, on how Jesus will come again in glory at the end of history. Today's gospel, Matthew 3:1-12, gives us the end-time vision of John the Baptist. From our vantage point, we know John got some details wrong, and that the One who came after him did not (then) bring history to its climax. But John's call for conversion still rings true. Whenever God will finally transform this world, we're sure that it will still make a difference whether one has acted faithfully or wickedly.
The Historical Background: In the late eighth century B.C.E., God's people are already divided into a northern kingdom, called Israel, and southern kingdom known as Judah. Israel is already under the heel of Assyria, while Judah and its capital Jerusalem are quite shaky. As early as chapter 1 of this book, Isaiah has been criticizing Jerusalem and its king for faithlessness. In this passage, he wants to stir up hope among his people, hope that God would soon intervene dramatically to change their world and their fortunes, by the advent of a new king. To describe the king in hopeful, recognizable terms, Isaiah reaches for an image from their glorious past. Their national pride had peaked during the kingship of David, about four centuries earlier. Ever after, Israel hoped for a new David, ready to give him, when he would come, the royal title Messiah. (See Lector's Notes for the recent feast of Christ the King for more detail.) Now David had been the son of Jesse. When the prophet speaks of a shoot (a branch) sprouting from the stump of Jesse, he means a new king in the family of Jesse and David. "Stump" suggests a poor remnant of a once-glorious tree, an unlikely source of promising new growth.
Your Proclamation: This Messiah's first qualities are his wisdom and fairness; he'll know what's right, he'll see through the self-serving lies of the wicked, he'll make things fair for the powerless. To proclaim the first paragraph of this reading correctly, feel again the outrage you've felt about dishonest politicians, monopolistic business moguls who pollute our world with impunity, school board members who push their personal single-issue agendas, gangsters who escape conviction.
The sentence about the wolf and the lamb marks a slight break in the thought, and you should pause there. While the prior sentences were about the qualities of the coming king, the next are about the state of the world under that king's reign. Pause again before the last sentence ("On that day, the root of Jesse ..."), because the so-called root of Jesse is the new king, on whom our focus should be.
In the whole reading, notice how hopeful expressions are paired:
|On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,||and from his roots a bud shall blossom.|
|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.|
|Et cetera. In the next verses, unlikely pairings of animals are themselves paired:|
|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;|
|And so on. Feel the rhythm of this poetic structure, and let it inform your oral interpretation.|
More Liturgical Considerations: Perhaps this reading is in the Lectionary today because it recommends patience, appealing to the lessons of patience in Scripture. This is, after all, the season of patient waiting for the Lord to come. There's also a very seasonal statement about why the Lord came: to fulfill God's promise to the Jews and to extend mercy to the Gentiles.
Some of the Theological Background: To grasp the import of this dual purpose, refer to Romans, chapters 9, 10, & 11. There, Paul executes a marvelous inquiry into how the Jews could have forfeited their chosen status by rejecting Jesus. As a faithful Jew, he was really bothered by this, and he labors over the solution. What he finally declares is that the Jews' rejection of Jesus gave the few believers the impetus to take the gospel to the Gentiles, until then outside the scope of God's mercy. This was God's plan all along. The Jews will catch on and accept Jesus when they see the Gentile world converting. Lector's Notes covered this in somewhat greater detail on the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A. This is the struggle and solution that led Paul to exclaim "How deep are the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!" (Romans 11:33).
And this is what's behind Paul's assertion in today's passage that Christ became the servant of the Jews (or, as some translations would have it, "a minister of the circumcised") "because of God's faithfulness in fulfilling the promises to the patriarchs," that is, the promise to make the descendants of the patriarch Abraham God's special Chosen People. This amounts to mercy for the Gentiles, too, because their sinful status and their outsider status are being reversed as they accept the gospel.
Proclaiming It: We can imagine Paul quite full of hope and joy as he wrote this. He's solved a great, painful mystery, and he's in awe of the goodness and wisdom of God. Those are the feelings that he'd like to stir up in anyone who hears, or proclaims, these words.
And there is that nicety about the historical differences between Jew and Gentile, now overcome. Blessed is that assembly where the preacher takes this on, because it's a hard idea to grasp from Paul's words alone. You can help by using your tone of voice to make sure people know that something changed for the Gentiles because it changed first for the Jews.
Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch — by American artist Edward Hicks (1780–1849), Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S.A. Created circa 1826–1830. Image source: the-athenaeum.org, a massive collection of fine-art images. Hicks titled dozens of his paintings with variants of "Peaceable Kingdom."
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated October 22, 2016