A Reading from the Book of Isaiah (11:1-10)
A shoot shall come out from the stump 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.
Psalm (72:1-7, 18-19)
1 Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King’s Son;
2 That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;
3 That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.
4 He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
5 He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.
6 He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.
7 In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
18 Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, *
who alone does wondrous deeds!
19 And blessed be his glorious Name for ever! *
and may all the earth be filled with his glory.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (15:4-13)
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”; and again, “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.
The Word of the Lord.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (3:1-12)
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 ax 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.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
This time of year, our mailbox is jammed with a daily delivery of catalogs. I’m sure that yours is, too. Some of the senders have familiar names. Others are companies that I’ve never heard of before, and I’m not sure where they got our name and address.
There are a group of mail-order companies that all seem to sell pretty much the same things. Maybe they are actually just one company operating under a dozen different names. Their catalogs are filled with all sorts of gift and novelty items, including t-shirts that boast supposedly witty sayings.
One that arrived about a week ago had a three-line inscription. The first line read “Let’s eat [comma] Mom.” The second omitted the comma, and so it read “Let’s eat Mom.” The third declared simply “Punctuation saves lives.” Now I don’t know whether or not a punctuation mark has every actually saved a life, but correct quotations and correct grouping of words do make a difference.
In today’s gospel reading, St. Matthew, in introducing John the Baptist, quotes the book of Isaiah as saying, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” As those who attended today’s Adult Forum session know, the actual passage from Isaiah 40:3, reads: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” The voice is not necessarily in the wilderness, but the coming of God is. The wilderness is the place to and through which God is coming to bring new life to God’s people, and it is in that wilderness that the prophet is calling us to prepare the way for that advent.
A wilderness can be a lifeless and frightening place. Those who traveled to Israel a couple of years ago will remember the wilderness of Judea – through which we traveled on our way to Qumran, Masada and the Dead Sea — as a mostly barren, dry, rocky place where very little grows. As it is portrayed in the scriptures, it is a place that threatens the very survival of those who dare to venture there. A wilderness can be a place of at least potential death.
But a wilderness can also be a place of new beginnings and new life. Israel traced its very existence as a people to its forty years in the wilderness, during which God formed them and blessed them with the Torah as the basis for their lives. Elijah, fleeing from threats from Ahab and Jezebel, found in the wilderness God’s strength to return and complete the work for which he had been sent and to set Israel on a new course. Jesus, after his baptism by John, confronted in the wilderness his special calling from God and prepared to launch his public ministry. And St. Paul, newly converted to a conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, traveled to the wilderness to prepare for his new life and for his new life’s work.
The term “wilderness” can mean different things to different people. It can be an experience that is either positive or negative, or a mixture of each.
Sometimes we can experience wilderness in unlikely places. Young people growing up in drug- and crime-infested parts of our cities can experience them as a wilderness: one devoid of opportunity, one devoid of hope. People struggling in poverty can find in up-scale shopping malls and in society’s avaricious pursuit of the latest in clothing, electronics and other status symbols a wilderness: an alien world where they do not belong. And immigrants trying to establish a new home in a foreign culture can find it to be a wilderness: an environment that is largely unintelligible and too often hostile to them.
Wilderness can be any place that is alien to us and that, at least potentially, threatens our way of life. It is a place or an experience that can turn our lives around or upside-down.
As familiar as it is to those of us who have been church members most or all of our lives, our liturgy, and in particular our scripture readings, can be a wilderness. The Pharisees and Sadducees, who appear in today’s gospel reading, knew the scriptures. They had heard it, studied it, and sometimes even taught it to others. Yet suddenly, as a strange man known as John the Baptizer began shouting it at them, that word became a wilderness. It threatened their entire way of thinking about God, about themselves, and about life itself. “You brood of vipers!” he thundered, “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 in this season of Advent in which John plays such a pivotal role, I don’t expect a wild-looking man, with uncut hair and beard, dressed in a rough outfit made of camel’s hair, and munching on locusts, to be walking down our center aisle and confronting us as “a brood of vipers”; but I do know that the word that he spoke – the word of God – can still plunge us unexpectedly into a wilderness.
That word constantly challenges the accepted values of our society. It insists that the needs of the many take priority over the wants of the few. It rejects our focus on our life as that of a separate, autonomous individual, and calls on us to see ourselves first and foremost as members of the one human family, responsible for one another. It breaks through our illusion that we can go through our lives ignoring the needs of the people of our community and still claiming to be faithful followers of Jesus.
And, when that word does challenge us, in these and other ways, it can make us feel like we are suddenly lost in a wilderness: a place where our way of life is threatened — and maybe it is. But, at the same time, that wilderness of the Word of God can be a place where a new and greater life is born. Just as it was for Moses and the Israelites, just as it was for Elijah, and just as it was for both Jesus and, later, for Paul, that wilderness can be a place where we are stripped of our old illusions about ourselves and about our lives so that God can make us new. It can become for us a place where we can truly hear and experience that Good News proclaimed both by John and then by Jesus: the Good News that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”