(Isaiah 11:1-10; Ps 72:1-7 and 18-21; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12)
The readings we have just heard are laden, appropriately on this second Sunday of Advent, with hope.
Isaiah paints a fantastic vision. The lopped tree shall sprout again bringing forth one who will lead Israel like no other. He will be characterised by the Spirit of God and therefore brim with wisdom, understanding, wise counsel, might, knowledge and that magic balance of both fear and delight in YHWH. This one will judge well – not by surface images but for the poor, meek, and just. He will be dressed in righteousness and faithfulness. His very presence will be transformative to both humanity and all creation – reconciling even that which seems irreconcilable: wolf and lamb; leopard and kid; calf and lion; cow and bear; lion and ox; child, asp and adder.
It is a vision of a hope beyond hope that climaxes with a new vision of creation’s relationship with itself and with God: ‘They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’
The church has long seen here the vision and purpose of the one they called Emmanuel – God with us. Jesus among us with the mission of healing all.
John the Baptist, too, enters the gospel narrative as, among other things, a figure of hope.
The gospel of Matthew has centered, so far, around the birth of Jesus and the events and fears this caused in Jerusalem. Herod, the man of power, has acted out his power-crazed terror at this rival royal birth. He has lied, and he has killed.
But now he too is dead. The one, who looked immortal, lies cold in his grave. His reign – once seemingly immovable – is now little more than memory.
But our text steers us to consider God’s action outside the royal palace. This is no surprise to the careful reader. After all, God has been acting in an unknown virgin, a stable, and through ancient prophecies and mysterious foreign star gazers. God, it would seem, likes to work at the margins.
And John the Baptist is probably the most marginal of them all. There were few places more foreign to Herod’s palace than the wilderness from which our prophet emerges. He even dresses and eats like one from another time.
He is more like an ancient seer than a royal herald – but still he reminds our author of Isaiah’s promise. Here is the ‘voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
John is a forerunner. His life joins the ancient world of desert prophecy with his contemporary world. God is depicted here as one who is working across time.
And God’s consistent message is one of hope.
This hope is found not only in looking back. It is also, as is the nature of hope, profoundly forward looking: ‘…one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ John is a middle-man.
But there is, also, another hope-filled theme embedded in this passage. We might not always see it as such, but it is most certainly here. I refer to the gospel summary credited to both John and Jesus: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Rather than being primarily a message of judgment, here is an invitation to change, to transform.
Matthew opens the gospel of Jesus with the insistence that we are not stuck in our self-destructive and God-independent ways. Given that ‘… the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’, this is very good news. We are being invited here to participate in God’s future.
Yes, John’s appearance is laden with a faith-instilling and transformative hope.
And then there is Paul writing to the Romans. He too is insistent that ‘…whatever was written…was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.’
For Paul this God-instilled hope is anything but passive. Paul sees this hope dismantling barriers. He calls his readers to action – to ‘live in harmony with one another’. It is an act of praise to the God who makes our life together possible. Paul envisions a people who ‘welcome’ each other (a significantly greater call than the idea of merely ‘tolerating’ others). Here is a call to actively love others as Christ loved us.
As I read Paul, and consider the significance of Nelson Mandella’s passing, I am reminded of Madiba’s wise words regarding action and vision:
Action without vision is only passing time,
Vision without action is merely day-dreaming,
But vision with action can change the world.’
I suspect there is a very close relationship between vision, as Madiba uses it here, and the hope to which our scriptures have pointed. Both, accompanied by action, are transformative. Hope can transform the world.
Paul goes on to express the vision of God with a number of scripture references that emphasise the nations of the world praising God. This is clearly a communal vision beyond any individual. Perhaps it is even beyond our capacity to imagine.
But this is not our vision. It is God’s. We are merely entrusted with it.
This Advent we are reminded that God is working towards a time of joy, peace, and reconciliation. All we are really asked to do is to participate where we are able. Our transformed and transforming lives are to tell the story and vision of God.
On our own this is fantasy – wishful thinking. We alone are not big and strong enough to hold together the nations, let alone all of creation.
But we are not asked to do this alone. We are accompanied in this journey by God. Each reading today makes specific reference to the ‘Spirit of God’. This is the Spirit that lives in and empowers this ‘shoot of Jesse’; it is this Spirit that Jesus will baptise believers into, and; it is this same Spirit with which Paul so generously blesses the Roman community.
Hear his blessing of hope once again and may Paul’s scripture soaked vision be yours:
‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’