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Thursday, December 05, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

I’ve written before about my interest in family history.  Some of my family traces to British royalty.  Some would be proud of that, but a lot of those monarchs were less than admirable.  Being related to them certainly does not make me a better person.  I’m also a descendant of French Huguenots, pilgrims and Puritans, and pioneers to the American West---all of whom fled or moved on to escape establishment dominance (although some of them---myself included---along the way came to participate in or benefit from such establishments).

I’m not sure what all drives people’s interest in their ancestry.  Maybe it’s just curiosity.  Maybe it’s to figure out what health characteristics, personality and national traits, etc., may affect their identity and way of life.

I know that what some people call “roots” become a great source of pride.  In biblical times we see it in their sometimes thinking that being children of Abraham gave them special privileges.  John the Baptist addresses that pride in this week’s Gospel lesson from Matthew.

The season of Advent draws our attention to John because some in the early church saw him as the prophesied forerunner of the Messiah.  Matthew speaking of John the Baptist draws our attention to the words of Isaiah 40:3---“This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’” (Matthew 3:3)  This season of anticipation introduces us to John (Jesus’ cousin) doing what gave him the designation “The Baptist”---baptizing.  There is so much we could say about John and his place in the politics of the day.  He fits right in with those we sometimes call countercultural.  (See vs. 4)  What is noteworthy in this reading is that his baptism was a symbol of repentance, turning, being cleansed and beginning a new life.  (vss. 6 & 11)  While he’s there “in the river Jordan” (vs. 6), “many Pharisees and Sadducees” were “coming for baptism.”  (vs. 7)  John does not greet them warmly.  “You brood of vipers!” he calls them.

John perceives that they have come for show without any intent to repent.  If he baptizes them, they will have come and gone unchanged.  So he challenges them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  (vs. 8)  “I know you’re proud of having Abraham as an ancestor, but it doesn’t matter who your ancestor is.  If you are unfaithful to what Abraham stood for, God will find other people to carry on God’s work.”  (That’s a free-handed paraphrase of vss. 9-10.)  “What matters is bearing good fruit, so that how you live shows evidence of God’s Spirit in your lives.” (See vss. 8 & 10)  John compares his baptism with water to one who is coming who will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  (vs. 11)  God’s Spirit at work in human lives always trumps ancestry.

Pride in our roots, our ancestry, our own tribe, often leads to deep divisions.  People who are not our kind are excluded.  People without the right credentials and pedigrees aren’t worthy.  In Jesus’s day and earlier, lines were drawn between Jews and Gentiles.  In other eras it has been between blacks and whites, between gays and straights, and a host of other groups deemed to be on the inside or outside.  Paul set out to overcome such barriers.  In Ephesians 2:14 we read, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility . . .”

Most of what Paul writes in Romans, including the portion in today’s lectionary readings, can be understood in the context of that great division.  His prayer is that “the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another . . .” (Romans 15:5)  “Welcome one another,” he says, “just as Christ has welcomed you.”  (vs. 7)  He quotes a series of Old Testament passages to show that it was God’s intent all along for the Gentiles to be included.  (vss. 9-12)  We can’t use our ancestry to exclude anyone.

His final quote is a free interpretation of words used in the lectionary reading from Isaiah, chapter 11.  The version in Romans has it, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”  (vs. 12---See Isaiah 11:10 for comparison)

There’s the word “root” used in our title this week.  Let’s put it in context.  Advent is a season of expectation and hope, a Christian interpretation built upon centuries of waiting for a Messiah, an anointed one known under a variety of names with a variety of characteristics that altered and developed through the ages.  Originally, it was a vision for an earthly ruler, sometimes even expressed as what the people desired in the next king.  It was not unlike what comes out of one of our presidential political campaigns.  In every age, people want a leader to come along and fix things, even save them.  The Messiah (a Hebrew term translated into Greek as “The Christ”) was the one.  Over time, it moved beyond the immediate king to describe one who would eventually come and set things right, maybe even through some kind of supernatural intervention.  Christians saw Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, but the kingdom of which he spoke had more to do with what values and spiritual realities are meant to reign in human hearts than with a governmental authority who sits on a throne or in an oval office.

We revisit those hopes during the season of Advent, trying to understand what they mean for us today and to recapture the power and inspiration that hope has to offer.  Even in the reading from Romans is all about hope.   Its first verse calls us to find “hope” in the “steadfastness” and “encouragement of the scriptures.”  (Romans 15:1)  The reading ends with this benediction:  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  (vs. 13)

Advent is a season to remind us that digging up our roots is not what life is all about.  It is not that researching genealogy is some sort of sinful activity to be avoided at all costs.  It’s only when it becomes prideful, almost to the point of worship, or prevents us from looking ahead.  Advent is not about preserving roots, but for anticipating new growth from those roots.

The reading from Isaiah begins, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  (Isaiah 11:1)  It ends declaring that “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples . . . “ (vs. 10)  Jesse was the father of King David, one of the most revered people in Jewish history.  He was far from perfect, but his reign was remembered with longing as sort of a Golden Age.  This is one of the great poems about the attributes of an ideal king, a Messiah.  The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.  He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” (vss. 2-4)  This is not a king who claims pride of position.  He builds a world in which peace and justice reign.  “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”  (vs. 9)  Even the animals and children will live together in a peaceable kingdom.  (See vss. 6-8---much the same vision we read a few weeks ago in Isaiah, chapter 65)

Psalm 72 waxes eloquent in offering a prayer for such a king.  “May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.  May the mountains bring prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness.  May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor.  May he endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations.  May he be like rain falling on a mown field, like showers watering the earth.  In his days may the righteous flourish and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.”  (Psalm 72:2-7)

Branches are the growth that emerges from the roots.  Imagine one branch saying to another, “My roots make me more special than you.”  All the branches get into a great brouhaha about which has the more legitimate claim to the roots which give them all life.  Sound familiar.  In nature it is the branches that breathe oxygen into the air giving life to the entire planet.  We are the branches.  Which will it be?  Pride over our roots or acting in ways that breathe life into the world?  It doesn’t take much to figure out what is the Advent answer.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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