Date: Second Sunday in Advent, December 8, 2013
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Context: Advent has a two-fold focus: remembrance of our Lord’s birth, and more importantly the anticipation of his return. As we move closer to Christmas, the readings begin to relate more directly to his Incarnation 2000 years ago. But we always bear in mind that even our celebrations of his birth are conducted with an eye towards his return.
Isaiah 11:1-10—What are the characteristics of the promised Messiah, and what will be the effects of his presence? Seven different “spirits” are attributed to him—a number of completion and perfection culminating with obedience. He will not be limited to human, experiential ways of knowing, but rather infused with the Spirit of God he will transcend human limitations. In him justice and righteousness will be perfectly expressed, and his judgment will be true and powerful. The wicked will have no way of standing before his judgment. All creation will be restored to a state of blessed and perfect innocence. Fear and death, predation and sickness will have no place under his rule, and all the nations will find in him their peace and understanding.
Psalm 72:1-7— God’s people Israel demanded a king like the nations around them, and their God allowed them their request, though with fair warning about the limitations and dangers of having a king. But this kingly psalm prays for a king who will be pleasing to God and blessed by God to be a good ruler. In light of the reading from Isaiah we can see similar desires for the king as God’s agent on earth. Righteousness and justice are once again in the forefront of the signs of a king blessed by God. But rather than creation literally being renewed, this psalm expresses the hope that the king will be as gentle and natural with his kingdom as the rains that fall and the dew that coats the grass—his actions being wise and healing and nurturing rather than heavy-handed and destructive.
Romans 15:4-13—We are yet waiting for our perfect Messiah to return and institute his perfect reign. In the meantime we deal with any number of very human, very flawed potentates. The Psalm above might catch in our throats with no little amount of bitter irony, yet it is written down to give us hope, to remind us that one is coming who will perfectly fulfill those kingly duties. We are to take encouragement from this hope rather than to be weighed down with cynicism and bitterness at the inability of our human leaders to do their jobs well. But as any given leader is only a leader to those people under his control, our Lord is King and Lord over all people—not just the people of God the Jews, but over all creation. As such, it should be expected that one day people of all backgrounds and ethnicities will lift praise to their Lord and Savior. We are to hope towards this day, confident that it will come, and prepared to give thanks when it does!
Matthew 3:1-12—The Gospel lesson takes us back to the events that preceded our Lord’s ministry. John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus who apparently is living the life of an ascetic, comes from the desert lands to the north and east of Jerusalem preaching. His appearance is unusual to say the least, and his message is compelling, so that many people come out to see and hear this strange event. He is preparing people for the arrival of their Savior. While their Savior has already been born, He has not begun his ministry. Therefore preparation is needed, so that when He appears, they will be able to recognize him for who He is and to hear what He has to say to them. John the Baptist is preparing the people of God for the arrival of the Son of God.
But external preparation is not enough. We can go through the motions of repentance and appear very convincing on the outside. Yet John is not fooled by the outward actions of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who likely came in order to be seen by the masses, further confirming their holiness by participating even in these unorthodox rituals that John demanded.
But God cannot be played. He reads the heart. He knows our minds. We may put on a good show for everyone else but we cannot deceive God, and his righteous anger will not accept anything less than perfect repentance. But who can give such repentance?
Nobody, of course. Just like everything else about us our repentance is flawed even in our most contrite moments. We do not rest our hope for salvation in the frequency or sincerity of our repentance. Rather, we trust in our repentance and even more in the waters of baptism by which God has called us to be his own. When Satan attempts to make us doubt our repentance, we can admit that even our repentance is imperfect and sinful, but the Word of God in baptism is sure and perfect. He claims me, and though I am a poor son, I have not rejected God the Father but rather must rely entirely on his own grip on me, allowing him to hold me and refusing every temptation to reject him.
The coming of our Lord will be a day of judgment, and this ought to rightly cause us to fear. As much as we may like to consider ourselves the poor and the weak whom the righteous branch of Jesse will vindicate and protect, we are also the sinful oppressors of others both actively and passively. As such, we cannot depend on our own innocence as the surety of our rescue. Rather, we must trust and pray that through faith in Jesus Christ we will be awarded not the justice we deserve but rather the mercy we do not, the mercy that we can only lay claim to through faith in the innocent suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God.
We offer nothing of our own to God as evidence of why He should accept us. Even our repentance is imperfect and self-seeking. But by accepting God’s work in us through our baptism, we can breathe easily, trusting and giving thanks that his grip is sure, and so there is no need to fear our Lord’s return—we can anticipate it gladly and eagerly.