Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Narrative Lectionary: Esther 4:1-17 (Matthew 5:13-16)
For the second Sunday in Advent, the Hebrew scriptures continues a series in Isaiah with 11:1-10. The prophet Isaiah, having witnessed the corruption of kings that led to the northern kingdom of Israel’s demise and Judah’s own troubles, prophesies a new king who will come and lead as David led. While Isaiah was hoping for the new king Hezekiah in his time, the prophet’s hope is for all future leaders, that they would judge with righteousness and equity the poor and those in need. That a future king would not look to what benefited them but to the wisdom of God, and to seek God’s guidance in how they led. When the leader of the people seeks God, peace comes over the land, for there is no more competition with each other—it is only how they can best live according to God’s ways. The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard live with the goat—these symbols of peace in creation are representative of God’s abundant love. There is enough for all when we look to God’s ways. Other nations will look to Judah, to their king, and be drawn to them because of what God has done for them.
Psalm 72 is a blessing upon the coronation of a new king. The psalmist prays for God’s blessings for the new king, that God would grant them wisdom to rule with justice. The psalmist prays that the new king would remember the poor and those in need, and prays that the king would defend the most vulnerable, and that the king be blessed with long life and his reign with abundance and peace. The psalmist concludes by blessing God, for it is God alone who can accomplish peace and justice.
The Epistle reading continues in Romans with 15:4-13. Paul writes that the scriptures written before were to give us hope in the here and now, by God’s steadfastness and encouragement through the ancestors of our faith. Paul gives instructions to the church in Rome to welcome one another—indeed, throughout the letter Paul has encouraged the Jewish followers to welcome in the new Gentile converts. According to Paul’s explanation, Jesus was Jewish to confirm the promises made through the ancestors of the faith, but Paul also quotes the scriptures where it lifts up the Gentiles as people who also praise God. Finally, Paul quotes Isaiah, linking Jesus as the one who will come from the root of Jesse. It is important for us to remember that while Paul and other early Christians made this connection to Isaiah and Jeremiah, there are other interpretations among Jews about the Messiah, from before and after Jesus’s time.
The Gospel turns to John the Baptizer in Matthew 3:1-12. The writers of all four Gospel accounts link John the Baptist to Second Isaiah, where in 40:3 the prophet declares that a voice cries out from the wilderness. Second Isaiah was writing of the time when the people returned from exile in Babylon, around 520 B.C.E. However, the Gospel writers identify this as John centuries later, who came from the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Some scholars believe John may have been part of the Essenes, a group of Jews who gathered near the Dead Sea and prepared for the Day of the Lord to come. They had similar practices of not eating meat, and the Jewish practice of the mikveh, a ritual cleansing in water immersion, was practiced more rigorously by the Essenes. John came from the wilderness and proclaimed this baptism, and people from all along the Jordan came to him. However, when some of the Sadducees and Pharisees, two other different Jewish groups, came to be baptized, John warned them not to rely on their identity or ancestry, but that they must go through the inner transformation, to bear fruit worthy of repentance. John declared that one was coming after him who was more powerful, one whose axe lay at the foot of the tree and whose winnowing fork was on the threshing floor. The one coming after John would work on them and they might not like it, for anything bad would be cut off, anything chaff would be torn from the wheat and would be burned. In other words, the one coming after John was coming to purify and cleanse. The masks any of us wear for the world, the things we hide behind—our religious identity, our lineage, wealth, power—whatever it is, it will not hold up to the truth of God—it will be torn away. We can’t hide who we are from God. Too often we want to hide our faults and shortcomings. But if we allow God to work in us, God can help us bear good fruit.
The Narrative Lectionary turns to Esther, specifically chapter four. Esther’s cousin Mordecai went into public mourning at the gates of the city. Esther tried through her servants to get him to wear proper clothing, but he refused, and she didn’t know why he mourned. Mordecai was making it public that he was both Jewish and mourning for what would happen to the people, while Esther was comfortable in the palace, no one else knowing she was Jewish. When Esther finally was able to get a messenger to Mordecai, he told her about the decree Haman issued to destroy the Jews and told her she must go to the king and tell him what had happened. Esther replied that no one could go to the king without being summoned or risk being put to death. However, Mordecai warned her that she would not be safe, not even in the palace. If she refused to speak, someone else would come to their aid, but perhaps she ought to look at all that had happened to get her to the palace—perhaps she ought to recognize her privilege in this position might be for “such a time as this.” Esther recognized that it was indeed such a moment, and ordered that Mordecai let all the Jews in Susa know what was going on and to fast on her behalf, for she would risk her own life and go to the king to save her people.
The supplementary verses are Matthew 5:13-16, in which Jesus tells the disciples after giving the Beatitudes that they are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. They are meant to give flavor, to shine and not be hid. They are meant to be known so that God might be made known through them.
Advent means “coming into view.” This is the time when masks are falling off and our true selves are revealed. Either we are watching for the signs of Christ’s return in our world and in our lives, or we are still living in the ways of this world. The ways of this world call us to desire more and to consume more, to look for ways to increase our privilege and power. The way of Christ calls us to seek the welfare of others, to live into righteousness and justice. John prepares the way because John reminds us that we have to bear fruit worthy of repentance. That we can’t pretend we are faithful to Christ when we haven’t been faithful each and every day. It’s better for us to be honest with ourselves, that we have fallen short, that we have failed to seek God at times, and that we try to do better, than to put on the world’s mask and pretend that we are good and faithful people. John calls us to tear off the mask. Esther reminds us that even if we have privilege, we must use that privilege to help the most vulnerable among us and if we aren’t willing to risk it, then we’re still living with the mask on. We’re being fake, and we’re seeking the ways of the world and not God. We are called to get real with ourselves, for Christ is coming.
Call to Worship
Watch for it! It’s coming into view—
The ways of this world have led to dead ends,
but Christ leads us to life.
Wait for it! The signs are around us—
When we seek the welfare of the most vulnerable,
we seek the well-being of all.
The time is at hand! Repent!
It is time to recognize where we have gone astray,
Time to turn back to God’s love and justice.
We are almost there!
Let’s be real with one another: we need each other.
May we find a way to journey together in hope.
Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Creator God, we confess that we put on masks in this world: masks of happiness to cover our depression. Masks of wealth to cover our emptiness. Masks of social status to cover up our feelings of inadequacy. We think some masks are better than others, when underneath it all we are simply bone and flesh, brought together by You. Help us to take off the mask and be our real self. Help us to acknowledge our shortcomings and mistakes. Help us to embrace our depression and illness so we can find ways of healing. Call us to look in the mirror and see our true self: the image of the Beloved One, the image of You. Help us to remove our masks, so we can truly view the world as it is, and work to repair what is broken. Amen.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are tenderly cared for by our Beloved God. May we be tender with each other as we remove the masks of the world. May we help each other repair and heal, restore and make whole. May we love one another with the tender love of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we have life. Amen.
O Come, Thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. To us the path of knowledge show, and cause us in her ways to go. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, God With Us, and lead us away from the ways of the world we have made, and into Your wisdom. May we listen to the prophets and sages of old, and hear the cries for justice in the hear and now. O Come, Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease. Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. May we rejoice in Your arrival in our hearts and world in a new way. Amen.