Second Sunday of Advent – Year A
As with all the Sundays of Advent, the readings this week refer to preparation for the coming of the Lord. Isaiah, from whom the first reading is taken, exercised his prophetic ministry from 738 to around 690 B.C.E. He was court prophet to at least three kings in Jerusalem. One of the hopes that emerges from his prophecy is that the divided kingdom of north and south Israel might be restored in unity to its former status.
The prophet here hearkens back to the glory days when David was king presiding over a united Jewish realm. David has always been known in Jewish history as the greatest of Israel’s kings. He was the quintessential ‘messiah,’ that is, the anointed one of God (mashiakh is Hebrew for ‘anointed one’). In truth, every Israelite king was a messiah, because all the kings were seen to rule in God’s name. In fact, the kings were known by the title ‘son of God’ because they represented God among their people. Today’s reading would appear to come from later in Isaiah’s career at a time when he looked forward to the coming of a king who would really be an authentic ‘son of God.’ The prophet seems to be reflecting on the reign of David and is hoping that one day another David would turn up and guide Israel through a time of peace and prosperity.
Isaiah’s reference to the stock of Jesse, who was David’s father, is an allusion to a family tree that would give rise to a truly noble king.
In a burst of imagination Isaiah lists some of the impressive qualities of an ideal authentic ruler who would govern with justice, honour and compassion.
In the two and a half centuries before Isaiah there had been an array of kings who were quite mediocre. Some were complete no-hopers and others were downright corrupt. A few even took the throne by assassinating their predecessor. So, Isaiah’s hopes in this passage amount to a pipe dream. Hezekiah, a contemporary of Isaiah, and Josiah (640-610) stand out as two kings who came reasonably close to the qualities mentioned here by the prophet. Naturally, the early followers of Jesus saw these qualities in their Master and considered him to be the ultimate ‘anointed one’ in whose life God was seen to be present.
Honesty and fairness are revealed in transparency
These same qualities of the ideal king are echoed in the psalm. This psalm is a prayer for the king and probably dates from a period around 700 B.C.E. and it recognises that in a world of conflict and competing empires true peace can only come when a king respects goodness and justice and walks in the way of the Lord.
Reflections on kingship and rulers convince us that human nature doesn’t change much. There have always been heads of state who give in to the lust for power and wealth and turn to corruption and skulduggery to gain personal advantage. Bono, of U2 fame, made the wise remark, ‘The worst disease in the world today is corruption. And there is a cure: transparency.’ Individuals and organisations, both secular and religious, would do well to live by this truth. Honesty and fairness are revealed in transparency.
St Paul, in the second reading taken from his letter to the Romans, approaches the same theme from a different angle. He argues that by living according to the values of Jesus Christ Christians will radiate a transparency of goodness that will draw non-believers to God.
Jesus made the same point when he urged his followers to live the life of compassion and love that will shine a light of wholeness and integrity to the world around them.
Paul urges us to treat others as Christ treated us by his life of generosity and his outstanding acceptance of difference.
Advent reminds us of the importance of change and renewal
The reading from Matthew’s gospel contains a characteristic Advent message, that is, an appeal to a change of heart as a way of preparing for the coming of the Lord’s anointed one. John is the herald of the messiah and it totally convinced that the time of God’s reign was drawing near. There was the belief in Jewish tradition that the Lord’s anointed would come in the worst of times and John, along with many of his contemporaries, considered that under Roman occupation the Jewish people were in a pretty low and desperate situation. John’s approach to this was to urge his contemporaries to turn back to God by abandoning a life of superficial and shabby values and embrace the values of goodness and compassion.
In most English versions of the gospels, the Greek term metanoia is translated as ‘repentance’, which does not quite get across the idea of a change of heart. John, a native Aramaic speaker, is clearly drawing on the Aramaic idea of touv, which means return, come back. The Hebrew word shuv means exactly the same and is often translated into English as repent.
In Hebrew spirituality, and this stands out conspicuously in the writings of the prophets, regret and sorrow for sin is best expressed in a revitalised lifestyle that abandons all negativity and self-seeking. Feeling sorry is not the issue. What is important is action, that is, acknowledge your fault and then get on with it to a renewed way of life that has no time for self-indulgence, which leads to wrongdoing and bad behaviour.
John spoke out about the importance of people cleaning up their lives in order to welcome and be ready for the coming of the messiah. He used the Jewish custom of ritual washing as a symbol of the cleaning- up process and invited his listeners to come forward and join him in the River Jordan and submit to a symbolic washing. He then ducked or fully immersed individuals in the river as a sign that they were determined to change and adopt good and wholesome attitudes and behaviour.
The Greek verb to duck or immerse is baptizein, which is where we get the words baptise and baptism from. Unfortunately, John has become known in English Bible translations as John the Baptist, a term that is quite misleading because of its association with sacramental Baptism. John certainly was not offering sacramental Baptism, which is a peculiarly Christian ritual. John had no notion of original sin because that idea does not exist in the Hebrew Bible or in Jewish spirituality. All John was doing was getting people to make a public declaration of their readiness to turn from mediocrity to goodness. His philosophy was sound, that is, his ritual immersion would have more impact as a sign of change for the better because it was public, physical and real. A more accurate nickname for John would be John the Immerser. My personal favourite is Jack the Dipper. But, levity aside, the heart of the issue here is that full immersion was an undeniable and in-your-face symbol of inner cleansing and a change of heart.
John refuses to compromise on matters of principle and importance
Clearly John had no time for hypocrites, and he was vehement in his disdain for those Pharisees and Sadducees that he suspected of fraud, calling them a brood of vipers and no doubt making them feel uncomfortable. In this way John was challenging the authority and prestige of the religious leaders. He says he immerses people with water but the Lord’s anointed one will immerse people with fire and the Spirit of God. Here John is using the symbol of fire that will either cleanse the wicked or destroy them if they refuse to change. Likewise, the upright will be immersed in fire, but it will be the fire of passion that drives them to unyielding commitment to the way of goodness and wholeness. There is nothing wishy- washy about John; he refuses to compromise on matters of principle and importance. Jesus will come and adopt the same attitude. Both men are clear in their priorities and firm in their resolve, and both men will pay the ultimate price for their commitment.
While John generally stands in the shadow of Jesus we do well to reflect on the strength of his personality, the power of his manhood and the passion he brought to his prophetic mission. The fact that crowds followed him and were impressed by his persona and his message says a lot about his image. Collective human nature can detect a fraud, but there was nothing fake about John. Like Jesus, John has a lot to offer us as a model of conviction and perseverance, enduring criticism and carrying through with faith and courage in the face of opposition and hardship.
Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent. Steve Martin
You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.
A very angry Paddy runs into the police station. ‘Somebody has stolen my car!’ he proclaims loudly.
The duty officer at the desk replies, ‘Settle down, sir. Everything is going to be OK. Now, did you get a description of the suspect?’
‘No,’ says Paddy. ‘But I did copy down the number plate.’