Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advent 2

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

“On that day, a shoot shall sprout
from the stump of Jesse…”
On that day.
On what day?
Even leaving aside the question of who Jesse is
(he’s King David’s father, by the way),
it would certainly be helpful to know when it is
that this mysterious descendant of Jesse will appear:
this one upon whom the Spirit of God will rest,
this one who will judge the poor with justice
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted,
this one who will be girded with justice and faithfulness,
who with his words will strike those without mercy.
When is “that day” when the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb
and the lion shall eat hay like the ox
and the knowledge of God will flood the world?
The prophet Isaiah doesn’t tell us;
he simply says that “on that day”
the root of Jesse will be set up as a sign for the nations,
so as to draw all people into God’s kingdom.

Matthew, the author of our Gospel reading,
believes he knows when “that day” occurs.
He tells us that “in those days”
John the Baptist appeared
preaching that God’s kingdom was at hand.

“In those days.”
The phrase in Matthew’s Greek is almost identical
to the ancient Greek translation of the book of Isaiah
that Matthew would have known.
That day that the world has been waiting for?
That day of justice and mercy and peace
when the wolf will be the guest of the lamb?
That day when the earth shall be filled
with the knowledge of the Lord?
John the Baptist appeared two thousand years ago
saying that this is that day.
John arrived to tell us to prepare the way of the Lord
by producing good fruit as evidence of our change of heart,
because the one sprung from the stump of Jesse
was about to appear with his winnowing fan in his hand,
to gather the wheat and to burn the chaff,
to judge the poor with justice
and to strike the ruthless with his words.
With the appearance of Jesus we can truly say
that this is that day.

So, was John wrong?
As far as I can tell,
the poor are still often unjustly judged
and the ruthless seem often to go unrebuked.
Knowledge of the Lord does not seem
to be in particularly abundant supply
and I don’t see wolves and lambs
spending much quality time together.

Indeed, Jesus, the Lamb of God,
himself fell prey to the human wolves
who tore his flesh and hung him on a cross.
The shoot who sprang from the root of Jesse,
the one upon whom God’s Sprit rested
with the fullness of her gifts,
was himself cut down and cast into the fire of death.

So perhaps we still await that day of which Isaiah spoke.

Yet our faith tells us that John the Baptist was right.
The Lamb who was slain has been raised
and reigns gloriously,
not simply at God’s right hand in heaven,
but even now within the hearts of his disciples.
That day is truly this day
when, as Paul says in our second reading,
Christ’s followers think in harmony with one another
and with one voice glorify God;
when they welcome one another
even as they have been welcomed by Christ.

But on this day, the transformed world spoken of by Isaiah
is present to us primarily in sign and mystery.
We sense it when we welcome a child
through the waters of baptism,
or when we gather at the altar to glorify God
and to be fed by Christ the Lamb.
We feel it when people respond to tragedy with generosity
or when a leader acts, not in his or her own interest,
but in the interest of justice and mercy.
But these are only signs, only glimpses,
and it takes faith to read these signs,
to know that this day really is
that day of God’s great triumph.

So in Advent we wait.
We wait for the feast of Christmas
when we celebrate that day
when Jesus Christ was born,
the great sign to the world
of the mysterious real presence
of God’s kingdom of love among us.
But we also wait for that day,
the day when God’s kingdom
will be present to us
no longer in sign and mystery,
no longer dimly perceived,
but in the clear and certain light
that flows from the Christ the Lamb,
filling with earth with the knowledge of the Lord
as water covers the sea.