The Second Sunday of Advent – Year A December 8, 2019 The Rev. Anna C. Shine
Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strong rock and our redeemer.
Advent and Holy Week are two of the most fascinating seasons of the Christian calendar, in my opinion. Space and time have a way of not quite working in the ways in which we understand them. And this makes sense, given that Holy Week depicts a narrative of trauma, and trauma rarely abides by the rules of time and space in the effect and impact it has on those who experience it or recall it. Similarly, a narrative of expectation, of something that has already happened and is anticipated still, does not follow those rules of time and space either.
Consider our Gospel passage for today. We are celebrating the season of Advent, marking the coming of Jesus in the incarnation of his birth. And the story of John the Baptist from Matthew’s gospel occurs decades after that incarnation event. And yet, in some ways, this makes perfect sense, because we also anticipate in Advent the return of Jesus for what has been variously called the Second Coming, the Last Days, the Day of Judgement, and so on. This is not to say that space and time are unreliable, but rather that our common perceptions of them do not always make sense in our expectations of God. The benefit is that we can glean from these texts that both post-date the Incarnation and pre-date the Returning Presence of Jesus information that pertains to both the historical time and space in which it occurred, as well as for our present circumstances today.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ I love that John simply appears in the wilderness. We don’t really know much of his story leading up to this, but suddenly he appears as a prophet and ascetic living off honey and locusts in the desert wilderness of Judea. He proclaims repentance, following the prophetic traditions of the past, while our text points out that John himself was foretold by the prophet Isaiah, as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ John is the bridge between the old and new. He straddles our Bible, with one foot in the Old Testament prophets, and the other in the New Testament proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. His message of repentance is a result of the pronouncement that the kingdom of heaven has come near, one of Jesus’ central messages. God’s kingdom, John says, has come near! For the Jewish people, this message would be clear. God’s reign is coming, and their expectation for what that will look like is the return of the line of David to the throne of Israel, defeating all oppressors and challengers to that end. So John calls for repentance of sins, of recommitting to the covenant of Israel with God.
And people respond to his call. The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. This is all well and good until a group of Pharisees and Sadducees come along, seeking baptism. ‘You brood of vipers!’ John sneers. ‘Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.’ Clearly, John does not believe in the sincerity of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but rather sees them trying to check the boxes in order not to be condemned in the future. Live your lives in a way that suggests true repentance, John tells them.
Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Just because the Pharisees and Sadducees come from the lineage of Abraham and belong to the people of Israel, does not mean that they are guaranteed access to God’s kingdom. John paints a picture of destruction of trees that do not bear fruit before making his humble confession – that his is not the baptism that people should finish with. Rather, another, more powerful than he, will baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will be able to distinguish the truly repentant from those who live lives insincerely.
This is an incredibly powerful text! Both for the time in which it was written and for us today. Because, although Jesus was at this point already incarnate, John the Baptist had not yet met him and baptized him. And so John is expectantly waiting for the time he will come, while pronouncing that it is indeed near. And we, too, living in a post-resurrection world, are waiting expectantly for that time when Jesus will return. But the message remains. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. We must be careful not to think, like the Pharisees and Sadducees thought of their Abrahamic lineage, that by simply being Christian, we are guaranteed a life of righteousness. It takes faith, it takes that baptism of the Spirit and fire that we received into Christ’s body, and it takes work. Preparation. Constant returning to God. Sincere repentance. And an openness to whatever might come when Jesus appears again.
Time and space do a funny thing in the season of Advent. We participate in the dance of already, but not yet. The Kingdom is near, has come, and is not yet fully arrived. Jesus has been incarnate, has lived, been present, and yet is currently absent physically while we await his return. As we wait, in this paradoxical state, may God grant us the grace to open our hearts and minds to the ways in which we can continue to prepare, and keep us ever mindful of those baptismal vows to help us bear the fruit of the Kingdom.