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We invite you to meditate privately on each text before reading the reflections that follow.
Isaiah 11:1-10 (English Standard Version)
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples-of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
Reflection by Bruce Johanson
For all who are weary and sick of a world that is wounded, torn, and oppressed by those who are full of greed, anger, violent power and indiscriminate injustice Isaiah 11:1-10 offers a promise of hope and healing. Putting aside all the technicalities of interpreting this passage in its historical context, I will focus instead on metaphor, motif, topical pattern and flow.
The promise of the one who will bring relief and change serves to frame the passage with a picture of old dead wood giving birth to a sprouting, green branch that grows spiritual fruit and creates a glorious place of rest (11:1, 10). The divine Spirit, the Breath of God, may be seen as blowing among the branch’s leaves and filling them with healing for humanity (11:3-9). It produces the fruit of a wisdom, understanding, council, power, and profound reverence for God (11:2), so that judgment penetrates below the surface of all the deceptive froth of human smoke screens and machinations (11:3). In doing so it brings justice to the poor and meek and a rod for the wicked. For the former this implies a call to patience until fulfillment, for the latter it constitutes a warning that wicked choices will bear the fruit of dire consequences. Both outcomes are sure because the Branch is just and faithful (11:3-5).
I have always found the descriptions of promised outcomes taken from the realm of the animal world (11:6-8) to be powerful and yet a bit off the edge when depicted literally in pious art. Bears, we know, may indeed eat grass, but lions eating straw with fangs?! Even more horrifying is the thought of children playing near the dens of snakes! And yet the use of adynata here, the piling up of impossibilities, drives us, I believe, to the heart of the message, namely, that what the Spirit of God can achieve in his Branch, and in us who choose to rest in his shade, is beyond our wildest conceptions and expectations.
Associations with many of the motifs of Isaiah 11:1-10 in the New Testament are too numerous to take up here, but a few are particularly significant. There is the connection between Spirit and fruit in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control….” In Romans 5:5 it is through the Spirit that God’s love is poured into our hearts. And finally in 1 Corinthians 2:9-16 it is the Spirit that reveals “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him….”
So what is there in this brief meditation on motifs for the troubled heart in a world gone mad? Is it not that out of old dead wood God’s Spirit can bring a living, life-giving branch? And in the shade of that Branch we can rest in the comfort and justice of God’s love? And that where ever the Spirit is, there is unimaginable hope?! This is the promise of Advent, “a signal for the peoples.”
Romans 15:4-9 (J.B. Phillips New Testament)
We who have strong faith ought to shoulder the burden of the doubts and qualms of others and not just to go our own sweet way. Our actions should mean the good of others - should help them to build up their characters. For even Christ did not choose his own pleasure, but as it is written: "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me." For all those words which were written long ago are meant to teach us today; that when we read in the scriptures of the endurance of men and of all the help that God gave them in those days, we may be encouraged to go on hoping in our own time.
May the God who inspires men to endure, and gives them a Father's care, give you a mind united towards one another because of your common loyalty to Jesus Christ. And then, as one man, you will sing from the heart the praises of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. So open your hearts to one another as Christ has opened his heart to you, and God will be glorified. Christ was made a servant of the Jews to prove God's trustworthiness, since he personally implemented the promises made long ago to the fathers, and also that the Gentiles might bring glory to God for his mercy to them. It is written: "For this reason I will confess to you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name."
Reflection by Rachel Davies
Oh God, during this season of Blessed Hope, will you heal the way we look down our noses at the faithlessness of our neighbors? Help us to hear their petty problems, which are our burdens in a world so prone to scorn, criticize and condemn. Forgive us and teach us and make us like Christ, true sharers in the collective human burden.
Join us as a choir under Christ making precious music, melody and harmony in the unity of our differences. In this way we lift you up, honoring you with full disclosure, as Christ himself was naked before the Father.
You came as you promised, teaching us the truth about God. And because of your humility, even the spiritually poor may enter your peace. Teach us, God, that we are all poor, and we are all loved. Amen.
Matthew 3:1-12 (Today’s New International Version)
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Reflection by Jared Wright
So wade with me into Repentance River
We’ll confess our complicity in the American Frontier Myth
With its rags-to-riches economy
That has produced a grossly disproportionate ratio of rags to riches.
Wade with me into Confession Creek
We’ll repent of buying shares in the American Frontier Myth
With its John Deere landscapes
Landscapes soiled with the muddied stories of los campesinos qué trabajan en nuestros campos--
Those who grow our broccoli, our strawberries and our potatoes
Whose meager wages bury them beneath the poverty line
Let the sackcloth we put on remind us of their rough-ragged garments.
Let the dust we put on our heads remind us of the soil that clings to their hair and covers their nostrils, even as they labor to put food on their tables, and on ours.
We’ll let the water loosen the filth of our collective injustices--
The baptism of repentance
And become partakers of God’s economy:
Blessed are the poor--
God’s kingdom is for them.
Blessed are those who hunger now--
That they might be filled.
That no man, woman or child be left behind--
Fruit in keeping with repentance.
Truly the kingdom of heaven has come near.
A straight path for God to traverse.
The way of the Lord, prepared.
We await God’s advent among us.
Bruce Johanson just retired from his post as Professor of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington.
Jared Wright contributes to the blog and is editor of the film reviews column here at Spectrum.
Rachel Davies is editor of the spirituality and interviews columns for the Spectrum website.