Lectionary Passages for Dec. 8, 2nd Advent. Isaiah 11:1-10, Ps 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matt 3:1-12
Isaiah is familiar reading territory for Advent. If you attend church around this time of year, you know the bit about the shoot from the stump of Jesse. A few years ago, another pastor told me he doesn't like preaching during this season, because the repetitive themes get old for him. I see his point, I have that worry too, but so far (I think I've preached about 15 advent seasons) it just hasn't happened. Each year there are different things going on in my life, the church, and society, and each time I read the same old scriptures, new things strike me.
This year Isaiah 11:3 seems fresh, how have I not noticed this before? In describing the coming messiah, Isaiah says that he will not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear....That's odd. Right away my mind jumps to the idea that "God judges the heart", but that's not the answer contained in this passage. Here the answer is that he judges with righteousness. That seems less about heart than about how the people have acted. This answer is given to whole peoples, not to individuals. When God comes, the poor and the meek will be rightly treated and the wicked will die. It's a righting of national relations, a setting up of a new governance that puts what is right before what is profitable. And somehow that new system will be prosperous. A huge, mysterious hope for something very different than the world we know.
Psalm 72 also lifts up the cause of the poor and underprivileged, talking about prosperity in practical terms like abundant food and peace. Here David (the psalmist) envisions justice as something that might be channeled through an earthly king, he wants God to give the king (himself) the ability to act righteously. The final sentence of the Psalm, however, makes it clear that David knows that all good ultimately comes from God, David knows who the king really is.
Matt. 3 is the familiar story of John the Baptist preparing the way. This year, however, I notice some parallels to the Isaiah piece. In verse 8, John tells the corrupt religious leaders of the time that they are to "bear fruit worthy of repentance." Again, it is less about the heart than it is about how the people are acting-what the results are evident. Verse 12 does the judgment bit too, the grain is gathered while the chaff is burned. Of course, we assume we are grain...
Romans is a bit different than the other scriptures, what I notice here is again the corporate nature of the message. Paul is speaking to a divided church, a church where two cultures (Jew and Gentile) have come together. How do we get along with whole different cultures within the church? More than ever, we are seeing great cultural diversity in our society, and in the Christian church. How do we truly listen to, respect, and value each other? Paul claims the "root of Jesse" for the Gentiles in verse 12. Those adopted into the faith have every bit as much claim to God as do those whose faith is inherited.
So, the new challenges for me in reading these scriptures this time.
1. The passages are written to groups, to nations. How do I hear these out of my context living in an individualistic culture? What does group justice look like today? Is it all about laws, or is this a challenge for the church as a group to take on? (In a time when churches are more congregationally minded and thinking less of denominational structures, is there something here we need to pay attention to?)
2. No matter what is going on, God judges in a way that is beyond human eyes and ears. That is encouraging for the times we feel misunderstood, but can also be humbling because there is nothing that can be hidden from God. God expects us to bear fruit-are we doing that?
3. I'm struck, again, by the heavy emphasis on good news for the poor. the Advent message is a challenge to change systems, to work toward eliminating poverty and to involve all types of people in the church. I can't help but hear the words of judgement in Isaiah and Matthew and wonder if our actions (as mostly wealthy people) are simply inadequate. There is a need for John's repentance message for all of us!