Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12
As Advent moves toward Christmas, the Lectionary interweaves some of the great prophetic and narrative scriptures to prepare us for who Jesus is. Isaiah’s promise that out of destruction will come renewal (a “shoot from the stump of Jesse”) is fulfilled in Jesus, signaled by the return of the prophet Elijah, “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Matthew identifies this messianic precursor as John the Baptist. The image of a highway in the desert describes a great warrior, leveling mountains and filling in valleys to smooth his triumphant arrival.
John, a fierce, uncompromising figure, strikes terror in the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who flock to the Jordan to be baptized to escape the wrath to come. John calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He warns everyone that the messiah is a judge whose “axe lies at the root of the tree” and whose winnowing fan will separate the wheat from the chaff.
One of the great paradoxical twists of this prelude to Christmas is that John proves wrong in his depiction of Jesus. He is not a warrior-messiah or judge, but instead comes as the human face of divine mercy, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. He will save the world not by destroying his enemies, but by offering himself to restore sinners to God with love.
How do we prepare the way for this to happen in our own lives and in our troubled, fractious times? Fear makes us defensive, ready to fight in order to defeat our opponents. Fear defines our politics, our view of other nations, makes us see strangers as threats to our security and way of life. Fear drives conflict, hardens us against those competing for the same resources, those holding different ideas and values, real or perceived.
Advent is a journey within our own hearts to fill in the gaps and level the barriers that prevent God’s mercy from transforming us. Our “repentance” is to replace fear with love so the servant within us can come to the fore, ready to welcome others. The Christmas story is filled with moments when compassion opens the way for God’s coming. We become the inn where a weary family finds refuge. We side with the angels and shepherds in welcoming the child, the vulnerable, weak, and anxious. We quiet our competitive spirit and slow the pace of our own wants and needs to listen, share and serve. We become precursors of the coming of God into the world by letting divine mercy flow through us to others. We are road builders who smooth the way for love.