Mass readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent:
Isaiah 11.1-10 Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17 Romans 15.4-9 Matthew 3.1-12
Here we are in Advent, and we’ve heard another beautiful, poetic, moving passage from the prophet Isaiah: “A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…”
It’s lovely, and it’s a message to ancient Israelites about the coming of a Messiah who will restore Israel, and the royal House of David.
But why do we as Christians read this in Advent? We know Jesus Christ is that Messiah. Jesus has come; that’s already happened. Why read prophecies that have been fulfilled? It’s a lot like reading old newspapers: we know who won the hockey game, who won the election, and so on. I guess we can say, “good for you Isaiah, you got it right.” But what’s the point of that?
Perhaps in the earliest days of the Church when many who were being evangelized were Jewish, this helped them understand who Jesus is. But today the vast majority of people we encounter would not think of Isaiah as any kind of authority.
So, why do we listen to him? Well, one might well ask, why come to church? Why do we keep doing this?
We listen to these ancient words, and we learn the stories of Jesus, not for the sake of learning about the past, but to know how to live today. That might seem obvious when stated so plainly: that’s why western civilization is noted for its commitment to the study of history generally. I saw a statistic the other day that said on the subject of the Second World War alone, there are more than 60,000 published books. The general aim of all that is so that we might learn from the mistakes that led to the war and acknowledge the errors that were committed during that conflict, so we don’t repeat them. I think we all get that.
As Christians, we understand that the eternal quality of scripture makes it a resource to us in that it is an historical record, but it is also a living word that speaks directly into our current experience.
It is very important to understand why God became a human being and lived among us: it wasn’t to send to humanity a conquering king who would annihilate the wicked, but rather, we have the Son of God who comes to show in himself how we are to live.
Christ, the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity becomes one of us, a person like us, and by the force of his personality that is both human and divine, he saves us, if we follow him.
Think about your own personality, and what people say about it, where it came from.
For example, I’ve heard more than once, “you’re cheap like your father!”
I don’t believe that I inherited what I prefer to call “being frugal” from a y chromosome. Rather, from being around my dad – all those trips to Canadian Tire and elsewhere, through a thousand little examples and a few words of wisdom here and there, he taught me the value of a dollar; how something hard earned should be carefully spent. By his word and example, I’m the frugal fellow I am today.
The repeated encounters with God’s Word over the course of a lifetime does the same. St. Paul tells us, “Whatever was written in former days, was written for our instruction.” So, we come here to listen to the stories about him and to hear his very own words; and with each hearing of this story, we go deeper into their mystery and meaning. Hopefully, the preacher has something new for us, either from academic research, from the wisdom of the Church Fathers, or from his own prayerful reflection, to add something such that it opens up the Word of God to us all and we learn something new from scriptures that are nonetheless so very ancient.
Alright, but back to Isaiah: why are we listening to old news, fulfilled prophecy from someone who lived 2700 years ago?
Well, let’s go back to our understanding of just who Jesus Christ is – he is our role model. Remember, he is the “New Adam” – he is “the great reset” for humanity. The old Adam is the fellow who ate the apple, who with Eve, doubted God’s love for them and tried to become gods themselves. They were cast out of Paradise. You know the biblical myth – it’s timeless story about our fallen human nature. And so, apart from God, out of relationship with our Creator, we are like Adam and Eve wandering through the world.
Now when we hear the prophet Isaiah describe how the people, were to recognize the Messiah, the one who was going to put things right, as much as he is describing the characteristics of Christ for the ancients, he is also laying out for us the virtues we are called to live as Christians now. That is the value of Isaiah for us.
Indeed, how will the world recognize Christ as its saviour if his Church cannot show how he is present in us.
The problem people had at the time of Christ’s first coming as the man Jesus of Nazareth, is that he subverted their expectations. They had in their minds the idea of the Saviour as someone coming with power in the worldly sense of that word: a general at the head of an army; a dread judge sitting on the judgment seat hearing case after case brought before him; that singular man of wisdom that millions would travel from the four corners of the earth to Jerusalem to hear. It would all be about him, and he would do it all.
And yet, the power Jesus brought was not this; and it’s not all about him, but about us and our relationship with Christ.
Because there was no army, and he never held court, and while he preached to many crowds and taught groups gathered in the Temple, never in his lifetime did people travel the length and breadth of the earth to come see and hear him.
Christ brought the power of his personality into the world: Isaiah tells us that Christ is a person of wisdom and understanding, of good counsel and might, of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and so on.
In Jesus we had in the flesh, a human being who shows us how to be fully human, to be human as God intends us to be human.
And so, we are called to be people of wisdom and understanding, of good counsel and righteous might, of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and so on.
And you’ve got to be careful of who you look to for your role models, who it is who can look to all the world like paragons of virtue when they are all deception and lies.
Today in the gospel passage we hear John the Baptist encountering those duplicitous, devious Pharisees and Sadducees.
Now, I’ve spoken about these two groups before. They were religious factions in the Temple. They have different understandings of what right religion is; and Jesus is very critical of what they teach people about God and their relationship with God. But they are also political factions, and so, they resemble to some degree modern political parties; and never more so than in the fact that they were about gaining political power in ancient Judea. They were also among the elite of society; many were men of wealth and influence – “insiders” as you might put it.
John the Baptist has them pegged. Their joining in on this whole repentance thing was like what so many politicians do: they get out in front of the crowd to give the impression they are leading it! They were like so many corporations today who like to plaster their products with the logos of whatever the current cause happens to be – “See, we care. Now buy our stuff.”
So, when Isaiah tells us that Christ will not judge by what he sees nor by what he hears, what at first doesn’t make sense, now does completely. We are called to emulate Christ in this. Don’t be fooled by people who say all the right things, and for the cameras, for the sake of their image, support the current thing to show how good they are.
I am amazed at how this Isaiah anticipates the problems we have today with mass media, and social media, and the ways in which these are manipulated by the powerful to fool us into thinking they are genuinely concerned with our well-being, that they are compassionate and caring.
The virtue-signalling politician or corporate ceo has got to be scrutinized; indeed, anyone who tries to exercise power of us should be looked over very carefully. What they say and how they appear before us often does not match up with what they effectively do in this world.
Yet we do have one person whose words and actions were always consistent with a mission to bring healing, reconciliation, peace and joy to people: Jesus Christ.
And with this Advent, we are coming again to know him: for some it’s really the first time; for others it’s a deepening of a relationship, for us all it a time for us to gather together so that in one voice we may glorify God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.