Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
Text: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12.
The Pharisees and Sadducees in today’s Gospel reading were the privileged elite of Jewish society in Jesus’ time. They considered themselves above everyone else by right of birth, being sons of Abraham, and were quick to claim their prerogatives. John the Baptist called them out on their pride, saying that they were sons of snakes, not of Abraham, because they did not act and bear fruit as sons of Abraham would.
Who are the privileged elite today? Looking around, I fear that I number among them. I’m a white male, born into an educated middle-class family in one of the world’s richest countries, with no disabilities. In our social context, this puts me at a considerable advantage. At least for me, this Gospel is anything but reassuring: are my fruits worthy? Am I using the power I have for my own benefit at the expense of others, exploiting them through my advantages? What’s a well-meaning modern-day Pharisee to do?
In the reading from Isaiah, we heard about wolves lying down with lambs and lions with calves. This is a clue: the wolf and the lion are surely given advantages over the lambs and calves by the strength into which they were born, yet they don’t prey on the others, choosing not to exploit them for their own gain. The prophet doesn’t tell us how they are fed, but I think that we can trust that in God’s kingdom, no one will be neglected. This is the return to Eden where, as Paul writes, all will “live in harmony with one another … so that together [we] may with one voice glorify God ….”1
Jesus is the ultimate example of this refusal to abuse privilege: he had all privilege and power, being God, yet became a servant and submitted to the will of God and the limitations of his flesh. Especially in the coming Nativity, his power is only apparent in how he transforms everyone around himself, redeeming everyone who is willing, and showing up those who harden their hearts for what they are. This is the mysterious power of the branch of Jesse’s tree, which was incarnated in Jesus and which lives today as the Holy Spirit moves in us. In the very next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is tempted to abuse his power immediately after his own baptism, as he goes out into the wilderness to pray and find the meaning and mission of his baptism, and there, three times refuses the devil’s offers.
This weekend, we celebrate Nathalie’s baptism. She has been moving toward this moment for a long time, serving in the Parish as a Minister of Welcome; this simple, humble service is an example of what must be true in us for baptism to be real. We come to it not in pride and confidence, but in humility, receiving a gift unearned. We too can be renewed in our own baptisms in this font, if we refuse the temptation to stand above others, instead coming down to the waters, realizing that we are newborns in God’s presence.
To the privileged among us then falls a mission, a duty to use our talents in the service of Jesus the King, the little child who leads us. We too are called to use our power in the service of others, as Isaiah says, to judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth,2 rather than judging in our own favor and for the powerful who could benefit us in turn. It is not out of condescension, but out of solidarity, that we are to do this: in God’s universal love, we are all equal. A life of bearing good fruits like this is the proclamation by which we confess Christ to the world, and the praise we sing to God’s name.3
1: Romans 15:5-6
2: Isaiah 11:4
3: Romans 15:9