Old Testament: 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.
The Response: 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.
The New Testament: 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 Gospel: 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 t 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. Mike Kreutzer
One major attraction at the meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion that I attend every November is the Exhibit Space or Book Display. It can be overwhelming. Approximately 150 publishing companies display their books. They do so hoping not only that some of the 10,000 people attending the meetings will buy what they have to offer, but that at least some of them, teaching in many of the world’s great universities, will require their students to buy them as well. Some of the displays are rather modest in size, while others would fill the entire front aisle of our nave. And many publishers make their books available at a significant discount.
Typically, I come home from the conference with at least a couple of new books, and I have ordered a few others which will arrive in the coming days. The past few months, however, I have been giving away many of my books; and, this year, I returned with just one new addition to my library. I had attended a book review session focusing on that new study. It is by Joel Marcus, Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke University Divinity School, and is titled John the Baptist in History and Theology. Not only is it very interesting, but it is certainly timely, since John is the focus of the gospel reading every year on this Second Sunday of Advent.
Drawing on his lifetime of study, the author explores the figure of John as he appeared in his own time and culture and religious context, making use of both biblical and non-biblical sources. He explores the prophet’s relationship with other religious movements of his time, with those who held political power, and, of course, with Jesus. He notes that, at the time that the gospels were written and for at least a couple of centuries afterward, there were communities of believers who held that John was God’s greatest, and maybe last, prophet, and that these communities were apparently in competition with those who insisted that that role belonged to Jesus, namely the early Christians. That not-always-friendly competition is evident in the way that the gospels portray the two men and their relationship with each other.
But in Matthew’s version of the gospel, the one from which today’s reading and most of those that we will be hearing throughout the coming year were taken, the relationship is simple – or so it seems. John serves as the precursor of Jesus, preparing the way for him and his ministry. He, in a way, sets the table for the great feast that is to come.
Nowhere is the close linkage between the two more apparent than in the fundamental message of the two. In today’s gospel reading, Matthew begins by summarizing John’s entire message in this way: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” In the very next chapter, when Jesus begins his public ministry, Matthew declares that his basic message is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” — exactly the same words as John’s. Jesus picks up where John left off. For both of them, the “kingdom of heaven,” or the “dominion of God on earth,” is central. It’s all about dedicating one’s life to remaking the world into what God intends it to be. The building up of the kingdom is everything.
As I approach my retirement, I have naturally been thinking back on my decision to come to St. Mark’s way back in 1996 and join you in ministry. And a central reason for coming here was the fact that I saw this parish doing exactly what John and Jesus called their hearers to do: ensuring that the building up of God’s kingdom, God’s dominion on earth, is everything. That is why this church is here. That is why all of us are here.
Too many churches forget that or simply choose to ignore it. For some, their focus is on themselves: on maintaining a pleasant community of people who center their attention inwardly, on those who gather within the walls of the church. For others, there might be some emphasis on ministry to those outside the congregation, but only if it is something that they originated, that they control, and for which they might get the credit.
But St. Mark’s historically is different. This church’s focus has been, and continues to be, the doing of God’s work in the world, the building up of the dominion of God. It hasn’t mattered who originated a particular mission or a particular initiative, who controls it, or who gets the credit and the recognition. All that matters is that God’s work is being done.
For decades, for example, this church has supported the vital work done by the Food Pantry at St. Paul United Methodist Church in east Dayton. In addressing the problem of hunger in our area, there was no reason to “reinvent the wheel.” That Food Pantry is feeding the hungry in one of the neediest parts of our community; and so we are glad to support them and work with them in that. For over 20 years, CARE House has served countless children and young adults who have been subjected to neglect or abuse; and St. Mark’s has been happy to support them in that work. For decades, Canterbury Court Retirement Community has provided a safe and loving home for its low-income, elderly residents; and St. Mark’s has eagerly supported that ministry. And through our efforts and active participation in initiatives such as Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together Dayton, we have supported their important work of providing homes for the homeless.
None of these have been “St. Mark’s Church programs” or (except for Canterbury Court) even “Episcopal Church programs.” Some of them have not been affiliated with or sponsored by any church at all. But all of them have been and continue to be ways that God’s people are served and that the dominion of God is being built up in our community. And the building of that kingdom is everything.
As we continue our journey through this season of Advent, our attention is focused on God’s coming into the world and on the building up of God’s dominion in the world. Two thousand years ago, God came into the world in a unique way in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Today, God continues to come into the world in new ways through us and through our faithful ministries. It is by our active, generous service to God’s children in this community and beyond that we proclaim, along with John and Jesus, the great good news that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And it is by our active, generous service to God’s children in this community and beyond that we, too, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”