A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
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 around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling 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 asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Give the king your judgements, O God, •
and your righteousness to the son of a king.
Then shall he judge your people righteously •
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains bring forth peace, •
and the little hills righteousness for the people.
May he defend the poor among the people, •
deliver the children of the needy and crush the oppressor.
May he live as long as the sun and moon endure, •
from one generation to another.
May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, •
like the showers that water the earth.
In his time shall righteousness flourish, •
and abundance of peace
till the moon shall be no more.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, •
who alone does wonderful things.
And blessed be his glorious name for ever. •
May all the earth be filled with his glory.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
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.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 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.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then 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.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 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. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Sermon on Second Sunday of Advent
Do we really believe “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction”? Or are we too cynical nowadays to think that whatever we read is instructive? Is it all written to cajole us into one thing or another? That “whatever is written down” is trying to lead us into one particular course of action?
But, hold on, that is not what Paul is telling us, is it? Let’s look at the culture of the time. Books were held in high regard. The written document was something that the ancients turned to as a ‘lamp to their feet’ as the bible says somewhere. The houses of the Roman world were not full of books. Letters, the odd sheet of paper and books (what were scrolls and bundles of paper) did not decorate their houses as they do ours. Rather, all these manuscripts were locked away in the treasury. We have to remember only the most important things were preserved on their paper. The chain libraries – where books were chained to their shelves – speak to the value of books until quite recently, until volume marketing of the paperback, I suppose.
Unlike today, only rumour coursed the highways and byways as a means of telling the stories of the day during ancient times, whereas today we have “the media”, and leaflets all around us, and our postboxes are full of advertising which has formed our opinion of “whatever is written down”. No longer do we think that the books on our shelves sum up ancient knowledge. But that is precisely how the ancient world treasured their books.
Why else do you think the Gospel of John could begin with its declaration about the Word? The written Word and the spoken Word combine into The Word incarnate because, when one read in the ancient world, it was a vocal exercise, just like when you are asked to read in church. It confirms that words themselves have power through speech. We know this ourselves, when we hear a powerful speaker (and I don’t mean a sub-woofer). – Doesn’t that phrase itself reveal the reality of the conjunction of the Word in hearing?
But the ancient world respected what was handed down – tradition – because it came from ancient times. So an ancient manuscript becomes “whatever was written in former days” and we are to learn from it. We are to treasure the ancient. Don’t we do that with memory anyway? Don’t we treasure the remembrance of things past? That treasure is a heavy burden on our conscience. The lessons may be positive or negative – we may not get the point quickly, but by always keeping the ancient with us we have memory, we have tradition. We finally get it, don’t we?
Paul, when he speaks of the eucharist, speaks of “tradition”, doesn’t he? How quickly tradition arises! Paul codifies it in his letters which were written just decades after the death of Jesus. Now we respect those ancient letters of Paul as “written in former days”, something I am not sure he meant for his letters to become. Rather, I think his letters were written to be read in the ancient way, out loud for the sake of others then and there, in the power of the word.
Paul wrote for the benefit of the epistle’s recipients. They were public teaching about the faith. Everyone now can benefit from his ad hoc advice about how christians should live. Everyone can now rejoice in the exhortation to the faith he gave to those young churches, just as young in the faith as we are. Who would not benefit from his message of love, a message declared for all to hear? Don’t we also revere that ancient scripture today?
The christian tradition continues this in its discussion of holy scripture, all of those discussions of the bible being the Word of God, which does not change meaning over time, even though we do not view the book in the same way as did the first christians. We are exercised about the meaning of scripture just as much as the ancients, but there is two thousand years of tradition and scholarship between us and Jesus. However, there is also the very real presence of meaning in our own lives which the verses of the bible reveal as we hear those words as if they were written just for us. We, like the ancients, want to make scripture our own – every generation does, and so the Word of God is heard by each person. We hear like our parents did in some cases, and in others we rebel and grasp a new hearing of the Word.
Our response to the Word of God is our own, isn’t it? Each one of us has to make tradition his or her own, individually. There is no collective system of personal faith – even though we pretend there is from time to time, as when we recite the Creed.
“Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” – that still directs our behaviour, positively or negatively. We read the papers, our books, even those letters advertising the latest thing which we are implored to buy. We are inclined to think we can learn from them, aren’t we? Perhaps all those letters advertising something may give us some insight into something. “Former days” may only be half-an-hour ago, but it still controls us. Why else are there now 24-hour news stations on the television – and we read the headlines as they speed by at the bottom of the screen, don’t we!
The written does instruct, doesn’t it? We all agree about that. But “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” – how does that make sense today when the lines have been processed through the filters of the marketing men and women who try to control our taste and behaviour? How do those written words instruct us? The literary and redaction critics explain a lot to us about the sort of literature we have in the ancient texts and how they were put together. But always we ourselves have to take the meaning on board. We alone hear the sense of the powerful Word which the other person – through letter or speech – tries to impart to us. Instruction is a two way thing – the teacher and the pupil. Both have to participate fully in the relationship if there is to be instruction.
We all, I believe, have a lot to learn, every day. The texts for our instruction are myriad – manuscripts, books, notes, paintings, poetry – I suppose all the arts, as well as all the sciences. We must turn to our world as the text for our instruction. We must learn the positive and negative lessons written for our benefit. This, I think, is the message of Advent, when we prepare our hearts for the incarnation.