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Introduction To The Scripture For The Second Sunday of Advent - Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 27:1-7,18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Second Sunday of Advent - Year A
 

ISAIAH 11:1-10           This is one of  the many Old Testament prophecies
which the early Christian Church reinterpreted as a prediction of the
coming of Jesus Christ.  Without question it envisions a messianic figure
born "of the stump of Jesse." This colourful phrase refers to Israel's
ancient hope for another king born of David's line.  However, this passage
was composed at least six centuries before the birth of Jesus.  The passage
includes a remarkable vision of a peaceful and just world over which the
Messiah will reign.  This is the Shalom we shall be hearing about in
sermons and Sunday school lessons through the Advent and Christmas seasons.

     
PSALM 72:1-7,18-19       Another messianic poem, but probably written for
some royal occasion such as the monarch's coronation or as a liturgical
celebration of the new year when the king was reaffirmed as God's chosen
leader of Israel.


ROMANS 15:4-13           The church in Rome in Paul's time included both
Jews and Gentiles.  Paul appears to be justifying why Jesus had to be a Jew
by quoting from the Jewish scriptures.  He also claims that this was so
that Gentiles as well as Jews might be faithful to God through the power of
the Holy Spirit.


MATTHEW 3:1-12           John the Baptist appeared as the fulfilment of the
prophecy in Isaiah 40 that the Messiah would  be preceded by a forerunner
calling Israel to repentance.  John's message was particularly harsh.  The
baptism he offered was the symbol of a sincere repentance and moral renewal
in preparation for the coming of the Messiah/Christ.  It is entirely
possible that Jesus was not only related to John the Baptist as Luke 1:36
implies, but may have spent some time as a disciple of John.  In John
1:36-39 we also find that some of John's disciples left John and joined
Jesus' followers.
                                               
================

ISAIAH 11:1-10   In ancient Israel, the king was anointed as the
representative of Yahweh and hence regarded as a sacred person.  Most
ancient Near Eastern cultures shared a similar concept of monarchy as a
divinely appointed institution.  As such the king upheld the social order. 
The care of the poor and weak and the building of temples served to prove
their divine appointment.  Israel's kings not only enjoyed a unique
intimacy with Yahweh, they embodied Yahweh's blessing and inheritance. 
They also had a cultic function celebrated by offering sacrifices and
exercising authority over the priesthood.    
     
When Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, was led into exile and died in
Babylon, the national disaster long anticipated by prophets like Isaiah and
Jeremiah became a reality.  But the concept of a divinely appointed king
did not die.  A vision of an ideal king descended from David soon developed
into the hope for a future Messiah.  The word Hebrew word for Messiah meant
simply "the anointed one."  Its Greek translation was "Christos." 
     
The very first verse of this passage envisions a king of David's line
(Jesse was David's father) who with wisdom and justice would restore God's
harmonious creation.  Its poetic grandeur points to its use as a liturgical
hymn at the coronation of a new sovereign or the anniversary of such an
event.  The coronation of Hezekiah as king of Judah (715-698 BCE) has some
support among OT scholars.  Others believe it refers instead to the
accession of Jehoash, an earlier king of Judah (837-800 BCE).  Before the
Babylonian exile every king inherited the title of "the anointed one" as
Yahweh's representative.  Each king's accession held promise of a golden
age such as described here.
           
Soon after his resurrection, the early church applied this prophecy to
Jesus.  The genealogy of Matthew 1:1-17 was created to "prove" his Davidic
ancestry.  This was a theological interpretation of the many messianic
references in the Psalms particularly, then regarded as of Davidic origin,
but also in the royal ideology of Samuel and Kings.  Scholarly debate
continues as to whether or not Jesus claimed the title of Messiah for
himself.

The emphasis of the passage, however, is on the peace and justice of the
king's reign.  Vs. 10 appears to form a transition to an expression of the
hope for the glorious return of the exiles from Babylon.  This indicates
that the prophetic poetry comes from the period during the exile (596-539
BCE) when the hope for the return of a remnant was developing.  Another
point of view claims that vss. 10-16  represents the strong faith of 5th
and 4th century Judaism that their enemies would be overthrown and the
diaspora of Israel restored to their own land and temple.


PSALM 72:1-7,18-19   This is one of several prayers in the Psalter for the
monarch, God's anointed representative.  (Cf.  Pss. 2; 18; 28; 21; 45; 89;
101; 132)  It may have been recited during public worship at the New Year
festival, the ruler's birthday or some other royal celebration.
     
Despite much hyperbole about longevity and the extent of his kingdom (vv.5,
8-11, 16), it also contains a challenge to the monarch to be accountable
for his divinely appointed role.  He is to rule with justice and bring his
people prosperity and freedom (vss. 2-4; 12-16).  The psalmist wrote in
hyperbolic phrases.  The monarch soon came to be regarded not only as
governing lord, but also saviour of the people, especially in times of
distress.  Not even David, the most celebrated of Israel's monarchs, ever
came close to living up to this standard.  

This raises the question whether the idealistic attitude so expressed
proved the point made in1 Samuel 8 regarding the prophet's reticence about
the whole concept of kingship, modeled after the practice of other nations,
to replace the governance of Yahweh with a human political figurehead.  In
later times, however, after the monarchy had been removed by the Babylonian
exile, the concept of a human monarch was again transformed into the
promise of a divinely anointed messiah.  The Christian community adapted
this concept to their earliest Christology.  Advent celebrates the theme of
Jesus as the fulfillment of the messianic promises of Israel.  Indeed, this
not is the theme that runs through the whole biblical story from Advent to
the Reign of Christ the King?
     
The benediction in verses 18-19 was not part of the original psalm, but
served as the conclusion to one of the collections brought together in the
final edition of the praises of Israel.  


ROMANS 15:4-13   Paul was one of the early interpreters of the Old
Testament in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Though typical of
Jewish rabbis of his time and frequently adopted by modern preachers, this
method of proof-texting (i.e. making a text from scripture fit one's own
theological purpose) may not be very helpful to us now.  This passage
illustrates how he used the Hebrew scriptures familiar to him to encourage
Roman Christians whom he had never met, presumably both Jews and Gentiles,
to live harmoniously so as to give a common witness in their rather
uncertain and increasingly dangerous surroundings.
     
Like Isaiah and many other prophets and psalmists, Paul had a very hopeful
vision of a world based on unity, peace and justice, especially between Jew
and Gentile.  He fervently believed that this could be achieved through
faith in Jesus Christ.  Convinced that the Messiah had to be Jewish, he had
dedicated the whole of his ministry to show that Gentiles too were 
included in God's purpose and plan of salvation.  

In a sense, this was the whole of the argument he had set forth in this
letter.  Here he fortified that argument with a series of scripture
quotations strung together to prove his point.  These quotations come from
such widely separated writings as Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:32; Psalm
117:1 and Isaiah 11:10.  We may well claim that his interpretation of these
texts deny their contexts.  
          
Paul's mission was to the Gentiles and hence he interpreted the OT
scriptures from a universalist point of view.  He most likely read them
from the Greek Septuagint (LXX) which in itself had been created to adapt
the Jewish mission among Greek-speaking peoples of the Hellenistic age.  As
a fully bilingual Hellenist Jew himself, he had no difficulty in reading
into the texts he quoted a different intent than their original authors. 
As we saw in reference to the messianic role of the monarch in the Isaiah
reading, we have done this with OT scriptures since the very beginning of
the Christian era.

One may well ask: How else are we to make homiletical use of scripture? 
Dr. James Forbes, of New York, once said that it is perfectly alright to
quote a scripture text and then use it for one's own purposes which in no
way provides an  accurate exegesis or exposition of the text.  He added the
caveat that one must also frankly admit that one is doing so.   


MATTHEW 3:1-12   John the Baptist was more than an OT prophet.  According
to Luke 1:5 he belonged to a priestly family, but his history beyond that
is lost in hypothesis and speculation.  Compelling as such proposals by
some scholars may be, there is no conclusive proof that he had been at one
time associated with the Qumran community.  His practice of baptism as
moral purification, however, does lend itself to such a view.  On the other
hand, his denial that descent from Abraham did not guarantee salvation
suggests that, if he had ever belonged to that sect, he had broken with
them to carry on a separate ministry.  One could identify numerous other
similarities and differences.  
     
Baptism as John practiced it was more than the ritual cleansing of the
Qumran sectarians.  His baptizing in the River Jordan recalled the ancient
tradition of Israel becoming a new people by passing through its waters. 
John's call for radical repentance and immersion did not serve to
inaugurate a new religious tradition.  He only sought to renew the ancient
relationship with God implicit in the ancient covenant.  His task was to
call the Jews to prepare for the coming of God's Anointed One whose
spiritual baptism would be different yet again.
     
There were many parallels with Isaiah in John's ministry as we have it
described by Mark and Matthew.  We must recall that the gospels were
written for the second or third generation of the Christian community. 
Undoubtedly these are reflections of later apostolic interpretations of the
only scriptures they had from a Christian perspective.  To the early church
John represented the transition from the old covenant to the new.  The
writers of the gospels either used or composed the stories  about John in
their proclamation of the messianic age inaugurated by Jesus.  He was the
herald who called the attention of the crowd to an imminent event - the
coming of Israel's true Messiah.  

In passing, it is worth noting that at least one radical interpreter of the
gospel narratives, Bruce Chilton, regards John the Baptist as Jesus' mentor
from whom he learned what today is recognized as kabbalistic practices. 
Chilton also regards John's baptism as frequently repeated ablutions rather
than a once and or all time religious experience and event.  The purpose of
this repetition was not to emphasize original sin or hopeless depravity,
but to impress upon the baptismal candidate the ever present reality of
renewing one's relationship with God through repentance and release from
sin, i.e. forgiveness.  (Chilton, Bruce.  *Rabbi Jesus: An Inimate
Biography.* Doubleday, 2000.)

Despite the severity of John's message (vss. 7-12), Matthew cast Jesus in
the role of the true Messiah.  Are we, like those to whom he called to
prepare for the Messiah's advent, too distracted by the trends and trinkets
of our own age to hear what he had to say or to listen for the new and
living Word from the One to whom he pointed?

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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