Theme(s): Justice and Judgment // Just a prophet (!) // Prophetic justice // Jesus comes as judge
Sentence: 'With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.' (Isaiah 11:4)
Collect: taken from here.
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Some psalms are prayerful and this is one of them. The psalmist prayer for the king of Israel, likely Solomon (according to an ascription at the beginning, 'Of Solomon'). His prayer covers 'all the bases' of what we would expect from a ruler. Reading this psalm in Advent we naturally read into it the character of King Jesus.
The last two verses remind us that great kings are a blessing from an even greater God!
This prophecy is 'thick' with content. Looking ahead from a context of a shattered kingdom of David, the prophet sees 'a shoot' growing out of the 'stump of Jesse [=David's father]'. (Alternatively the shoot is depicted as a 'branch' growing out of the roots of the stump, v. 1, and later the shoot/branch will be referred to as 'the root of Jesse', v. 10). As Christians we understand that shoot to be Jesus. Isaiah sees ahead what we see in hindsight: this shoot was full of the spirit of the Lord.
But the shoot will be a Spirit-endowed, wise king who will 'judge' the world. Unlike judges who may rely on human senses of sight and hearing, the shoot of Jesse will judge 'with righteousness' (v. 4, 5). This judgment will be severe: the wicked will not survive it (v. 4b).
But that is not all Isaiah sees. Beyond judgment, Isaiah sees a new world of peace, harmony and wellness. He depicts this with inspiring word pictures: 'the world shall live with the lamb ... the cow and the bear shall graze ... the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den' (vss. 6-8).
This epistle is chosen for today because it cites Isaiah 11:10 (in verse 12). That is, relative to Isaiah, the epistle passage offers evidence of fulfilment of the ancient prophecy about Jesus as the root or shoot of Jesse. Paul (apostle to the Gentiles or nations beyond Israel) can confidently declare the fulfilment of the Isaianic prophecy because he himself has been party to the fulfilment as he has preached the kingdom of God around the Mediterranean world.
There is much more to the passage than this connection with Isaiah, but the theme of Christ fulfilling Old Testament prophecy is resounding through 15:8-12.
A couple of themes to note in the remaining verses:
1. Verse 4 is an endorsement of the importance of the Old Testament for Christians: 'whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scripture we might have hope.'
Within this passage this verse also functions to chart where Paul is about to go in verses 8-12: the glory and greatness of Christ includes the wonderful note that his coming into the world is fulfilment of scriptural promises and visions.
2. Verses 5-7 and 12 offer a picture of wholesome life in the church when we understand who Christ is: steadfastness and encouragement; harmony and unity; welcoming fellowship together; marked by joy, peace, and hope. What is not to like!
Recall that chapter 15 is at the end of this long epistle. Paul is setting out his closing thoughts as he brings an amazing theological journey (chapters 1-11) joined with a challenging application pathway (chapters 12-16) to an end. Like a musical composer who brings notes sounded at the beginning into the ending of his piece, and maps out the ending with notes at the beginning that will be reinforced as the whole ending is played out, Paul says some things which recall what has gone before while charting how the future of the church should look.
In particular, verse 7, 'Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God' is a summary of Paul's theological argument about the inclusive nature of the gospel of justification by faith in which both Jew and Gentile are welcomed into the kingdom of God.
Following the lectionary is a good thing - it encourages common reading of Scripture across the global church and it offers readings appropriate to the calendar. But there are idiosyncracies which result. Today's passage is about the coming of Jesus Christ (per reflection below) but it is also the story of John the Baptist told through Matthew's narratival lens. Do we continue that story next Sunday? No! We next read about John the Baptist in Matthew 3 on Sunday 8 January 2023, when Matthew 3:13-17 is the gospel, and the theme of the day is "the Baptism of the Lord."
First, John the Baptist is preparing for the coming of Jesus' mission and ministry so this gospel reading reminds us that Jesus didn't just come to be an adorable baby but to do something for God as a mature adult.
Secondly, as we think in Advent about Jesus' Second Coming, we think about judgment and this reading is full of judgment! 'You brood of vipers!' Etc.
Here I will concentrate on themes of judgment in the reading.
1. To proclaim the gospel is to proclaim judgment: verse 2,
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
To accept the good news, to respond to the invite to enter the kingdom is to end one way of life and to begin another way of life. That is a judgment on the old way of life: it is not up to kingdom standards! (E.g. self-centredness does not match up to the kingdom standard of generous regard for others).
2. To live a different lifestyle is to proclaim judgment: verse 4,
"Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey."
John lived differently and challenged the 'normal' way people were living. It appears that it was not only the message he proclaimed but the lifestyle he lived which drew people to leave their homes and journey to the wilderness. They did not come to gawk but to be baptized as they confessed their sins: that is, they accepted the judgment proclaimed by John in word and deed.
3. To preach a message of judgment is to proclaim judgment. In verses 7-10, John holds nothing back in a specific, pointed denunciation of Pharisees and Sadducees. Sometimes religious people, including religious leaders and leading religious groups get things wrong. Implicit in John's message to these folk seems to be a denunciation of superficiality (they were not bearing fruit worthy of genuine repentance) and of complacency (they relied on Abraham's faith rather than having their own faith).
What would John say to you and me today?
What would John say to the faith community (local church and/or denomination) we belong to? It would be a bit surprising if there was no superficiality or complacency among us!
4. To preach the coming of Jesus is to preach the coming of God's Judge: verse 12,
"His [Jesus Christ's] winnowing fork is in his hand ... he will burn with unquenchable fire."
John uses strong, even frightening pictures to talk about the mission of Jesus. At first sight they may not resemble much of what we perceive about Jesus' activity as compassionate healer, sympathetic provider of food, carefulness in treating children and women well. But the larger story of Jesus includes his battles with Pharisees and Sadducees, whom he often denounced for their hypocrisy and manipulative zealousness. Perhaps more importantly, wherever Jesus went he divided people into those who were for or against him. Finally, heading towards execution on the cross, he exposed the crowds with whom he was popular as superficial in their allegiance, for they too turned on him.
Jesus was indeed a winnowing fork, sorting the wheat from the chaff.