ZEPHANIAH 2:3,3:12-13 | 1 CORINTHIANS 1:26-31 | MATTHEW 5:1-12
The most famous passage in the New Testament, the Beatitudes, sometimes called the Sermon on the Mount, is the focus of our reflection today. These nine one sentence statements act as an introduction to the teachings of Jesus. They begin with chapter 5 and continue through chapters 6 and 7. By setting Jesus’ teaching on a hilltop Matthew is clearly referencing the giving of the Law, the commandments, to Moses on Mount Sinai. These three chapters comprise the new law, the new commandments. Let’s compare them briefly.
The account of Moses giving the Law is in the book of Exodus, chapters 20 thru 31. Here’s the progression. Moses went up the mountain, was given the Law, and then returned to present to the people the commandments God had given to them. After the presentation of the 10 Commandments, a long series of applications followed: laws about the construction of altars, laws regarding the treatment of slaves, laws concerning violent acts, the responsibility of land owners, about repayment, moral and religious laws, liturgical laws etc.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the giving of the New Law begins with the presentation of the 9 Beatitudes. They aren’t laws. They don’t begin with “thou shalt, and thou shalt not” statements as in the old law. Rather, they’re a celebration of a new way of living. “How happy are the poor in spirit!” “How happy are the those who are humble!” Continuing, Jesus tells us to be the salt of the earth and light for the world. He teaches how to deal with our anger, with divorce, with revenge. He teaches about the necessity of loving our enemies. He teaches the Lord’s Prayer and a new way to pray; he teaches us to ask so that we can receive, to seek so we can find and to knock so
that the door to heaven can be opened for us. He tells us about the narrow gate that leads to God.
I’m making this comparison of the old law to the new law for several reasons. We need to be aware that Jesus’ teaching represents an evolution. The old law wasn’t only a spiritual document, it was secular, too. It formed the basis of a constitution for Israel. It made Israel a nation based on the rule of law. In Jesus’ time, Roman law was the law of the land. Jewish law applied only to Jews; it was only religious law. The Roman republic had engulfed Israel as a nation; Roman law was now the law of the land.
The new law that Jesus preached reigned in the kingdom of the heart. In fact, if embraced, it could enrich any national constitution or body of laws. It could give law a soul.
I think we Christians have forgotten Jesus’ teaching. We look to the law of the land as the final word; but law needs to evolve. In the United States, for instance, slaves were legally two-thirds of a person under the law until 1886. In Canada, women only came under the definition of a legal person in 1929.
The sermon that Jesus preached that day on a hillside in Galilee put the spotlight on the heart. There would be no voting yea or nay on these laws because they’re personal goals. Each of us must make them part of our lives one evolutionary step at a time. These laws will change us. As we change, so will the laws of the land. There’ll be more soul to the laws, more justice, less political polarization and more unity.
Read the teachings of Jesus often. Spend time contemplating them. Make sure they’re the basis of your prayer. Feed your soul with them. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
ISAIAH 8:23, 9-3 | 1 CORINTHIANS 1:10-13, 17 | MATTHEW 4:12-23
The time had come. John the Baptist, the voice preparing the way for the Messiah, had been arrested. He had publicly denounced Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying his brother’s wife. It would not be long before Herod’s new wife would succeed in having John beheaded. His precursor’s voice silenced, it was time for the Messiah to step out and begin his work.
Jesus left his hometown, Nazareth, and moved to Galilee. Jesus knew what he was doing. Galilee was a densely populated area, and the most fertile area of Palestine. In addition, one of the great trade roads of the Middle East passed through Galilee connecting Syria to Egypt and Africa.
Galilee had a mixed population. Many of the original inhabitants, the Canaanites, still inhabited the area. Many Assyrians remained after they invaded in the 8th century BC. This rich mixture of Gentiles, Jews and foreign visitors passing through on the trade roots, gave Galilee a cosmopolitan flair. Galilee was the one area of Palestine that was in touch with non-Jewish influences and ideas. Galilee was the perfect place for Jesus to begin his preaching. His message was simple; he called for personal repentance, a change in the direction of one’s life. He announced the dawn of a new world, the kingdom of God.
As he walked along the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers casting their nets. These fisherman, Simon and Andrew had probably heard Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. His message wasn’t new to them; but today something happened. He called them. He looked right into their eyes. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” There was something about the call they couldn’t resist. They left their nets! They left their ordinary lives behind. They followed him.
They followed him a short distance when he spotted two other brothers. They were Zebedee’s sons. They were with their father in a boat mending their nets. Jesus called them. They left their father, their boat and their nets. They joined Simon and Andrew. Jesus wasn’t alone any longer. People we beginning to see possibility of the kingdom of God.
Thought for the day.
We, like Simon, Andrew, James and John, know about Jesus’ message. We know about his teaching and his healings. We know about his death and resurrection. Now, are we ready to change the direction of our lives? Are we brave enough to hear and respond to his call? Are we ready to follow him? Do we believe “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
ISAIAH 49:3, 5-6 | 1 CORINTHIANS 1:1-3 | JOHN 1:29-34
“John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Behold. The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’”
When I stand at the altar in St. Jean’s, I face the stained-glass window that’s above the ceremonial central door of the church. It depicts John the Baptist pointing at Jesus as he walks by. Andrew and another of John’s disciples look on. Under the scene are the words, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Those are our words of welcome to the visitor, the stranger, Christian and non-Christian.
Behind me, on the high altar with its gleaming sunburst monstrance some forty feet above the sanctuary floor, John the Baptist appears again. He stands at the base of the sun with his arm stretched up above his head. His index finger points to the host at the center of the sun. Here, he witnesses to Jesus a second time, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
In the evangelist’s account of this moment, Andrew and the other disciple followed after Jesus as soon as they heard John’s testimony. After a few moments Jesus turned around, looked at them, and asked, “What are you looking for?”
Jesus asks the same question of everyone who walks into our churches. These words define our ministry. Through us, Jesus gives the same answer he gave to Andrew and the other disciple, “Come, and you will see.”
As we begin a new year, let’s recommit ourselves to Father Eymard’s ministry of invitation and welcome. Let’s raise our arms and silently point to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Let’s invite everyone, and anyone, to bring their burdens, to lay them at the feet of the Lamb. Let’s encourage them to breathe deeply, to fill their lungs with the breath of the Spirit. Let’s help them listen to him. “Behold, I make all things new.”
Balaam gave voice to this oracle:
“The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor, the utterance of the man whose eye is true, the utterance of one who hears what God says, and knows what the most high knows, the one who sees what the almighty sees, enraptured and with eyes unveiled.
I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel…”
ith this famous oracle from the Book of Numbers in his mind’s eye, Matthew began writing his narrative of the birth of Jesus. The prophecy was delivered by Balaam, a Moabite prophet. The Israelites, having fled from their slavery in Egypt, were en route to Canaan, the “Promised Land.” Their migration led them to the plain of Moab, northeast of the Dead Sea. There, they requested permission from Sihon, the king of the Amorites, to allow them passage through his land, but he would not permit them. Israel then battled against him, and conquered his army. Shortly after, Israel fought against Og, the king of Bashan, and conquered him.
Learning of the defeat of Sihon and Og, Balak, the king of Moab, summoned his court prophet, Balaam. He commanded him to curse the armies of Israel. But every time Balaam tried to utter a curse against Israel, a blessing came out instead. The fourth, and last, “curse” became the prophecy that Matthew used as the inspiration for his infancy narrative. “I see him, though not now; I behold him though not near: a star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.” Balaam had looked into the dark cloud of the future, and saw a light, a great ruler who would emerge from the Jewish people. When Balaam could not curse the Israelites, Balak became frightened and withdrew his forces, leaving them in peace. During the Israelites sojourn in Moab, Moses died, and was succeeded by Joshua. He eventually led the people into Canaan, the “Promised Land.”
Matthew’s infancy narrative is a short, sacred drama bound together by a series of divine revelations that manifest themselves in dreams. Joseph had three dreams, and the magi another. This was much the same way that Luke’s narrative will use three angelic visitations, one to Zachariah, another to Mary and the third to the shepherds, to develop his story of the birth of Jesus.
Matthew began the narrative with a short introduction. “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” Notice that from the very beginning Matthew called Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one. After this very brief introduction, he began the narrative.
Joseph had discovered that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant. He had decided to divorce her quietly, but he had a dream. An angel told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because she was pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. He was told to name her child Jesus, Joshua in Hebrew. Matthew stressed that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”
Matthew then gracefully introduced a number of themes. “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of king Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.’” He tells us where Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. Notice that there was no census, as in Luke’s Gospel, compelling the family to travel there. He didn’t name the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. Instead, he mentioned Herod who was the king of Judea at the time. He will become a central figure in Matthew’s narrative.
Perhaps as long as two years after the birth of Jesus, a group of magi, astrologers from the east, arrived in Jerusalem in search of a newborn king of the Jews. These men weren’t Jews. Matthew may have been referencing Persian, Zoroastrian mystics. They were stargazers. The star the magi were following was a cosmic phenomenon, but they had connected its appearance to the birth of a great king. This prophetic star led them to Judea, the land of the Jews. They thought they would find the newborn king in the capital city, but they walked into the lair of an evil king who wanted only the destruction of this would-be “King of the Jews.”
Throughout his Gospel Matthew consistently presented Jesus as the new Moses. In light of this, King Herod immediately takes on the image of the heartless Pharaoh in the Exodus story who tried to eliminate the Jewish people by killing their newly-born male children. Jesus would become a great liberator, even greater than Moses. He would lead a New Israel to a promised land that had no national borders. Jesus referred to it as the Kingdom of God.
Herod immediately called the religious leaders together to ascertain from them where the Messiah would be born.
They quoted a yet another prophecy. Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, was the place. Asking the magi to return to him so that he could “go and do him homage,” Herod sent them off to find the child for him. After their audience, the magi again followed the star. “They were overjoyed at seeing the star and on entering the house saw the child with Mary his mother.” They prostrated themselves before him as one would before a great potentate. They offered three prophetic gifts: myrrh, frankincense and gold.
This child’s death would be central to his life and mission, so they presented him with myrrh, the ointment used for healing and embalming. This child was no ordinary child, he was divine. So, they offered him incense. This child was a king. They gave him the royal gift of gold.
These visitors from the east were not Jews. Yet they, unlike the people of Jerusalem, weren’t “troubled” over his birth. They recognized this divine king, and paid homage to him.
Looking ahead to the end of his Gospel, we note that Matthew concluded his drama of redemption with a pagan centurion’s profession of faith. When he witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross the centurion proclaimed: “Truly, this was the Son of God.” Jesus was not only “The king of the Jews” as the plaque on his cross asserted. He was truly “the Son of God.”
A dream warned the magi not to return to Herod, but to go home by an alternate route. They had witnessed the cosmic event, the birth of the new star. They saw the newborn King of the Jews. They had peered into his future. They had intimated his redemptive death. They returned to a world that had never heard about a Savior, but they brought with them the Good News of his birth.
Matthew ended his infancy narrative with several allusions to the Exodus event. An angelic messenger returned to Joseph in a dream telling him to flee to Egypt. The young family fled, under the cover of night, to the land from which their ancestors had fled on the night of the Exodus centuries before. Meanwhile, Herod, infuriated by the deception of the magi, ordered “the massacre of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity.”
The family stayed in Egypt until an angel again came to Joseph in a dream reporting that Herod had died; it was time to leave. Returning to Judah, they discovered that Herod’s son, Archelaus, had replaced him. Joseph feared him, and hesitated to return. In yet another dream, an angelic messenger directed him to settle in Galilee.
Matthew concluded his narrative in the same way he began it, with a reference to a prophecy. “He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazorean.’”
For Matthew, Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s yearning for liberation and redemption. All the past prophecies came to fruition in him. But his coming was tinged with sadness. The people of the covenant would ultimately not receive him.
However, there was reason to rejoice. The Messiah would not only offer freedom and redemption to the Jewish people, he would offer salvation to all people. On the cross, the Divine Messiah would stretch out his arms to everyone. This was the greatest moment in history. Even the stars celebrated.
NUMBERS 6:22-27 | GALATIANS 44-7 | LUKE 2:16-21
The short gospel passage we’re reading on this Feast of Mary, the Mother of God, is the conclusion of Luke’s nativity narrative. Its five short sentences are a treasury of insight and teaching. As we begin our reflection on the passage we must keep in mind that Luke isn’t simply reporting events. He’s writing a narrative containing his insights into the person of Jesus, and Jesus’ role in the Christian community.
In the dead of night, angels appeared in the light of God’s glory to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks and announced: “Today, in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Overwhelmed and excited by the message, they went in search of the sign. It was just as the angels described, an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They saw, too, Mary and Joseph. The shepherds told them, and everyone else around, what the angel had told them. “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” The shepherds returned home telling everyone what they had seen and heard.
The sign, an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, contains Luke’s entire gospel message. This child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, will be wrapped again in cloth – the cloth of his shroud. This child, this Messiah, is the lamb of God. His death on the cross will redeem not only his own people waiting for redemption, but all humankind, past, present and future. The Lord’s blood, shed on the cross, will be the sacrificial blood that will seal a new covenant with God, a covenant of love that can never be broken.
The Lamb of God, the Messiah and Lord, who, at his birth, was laid in a manger, will be the source of life-giving nourishment for anyone who welcomes him, and believes in him. He will break bread with them. He will tell them, “This is my body, which will be given for you.” His disciples will break the bread as he did, and they will break themselves for others in loving memory of him. They, like the shepherds, will give witness to all that they’ve seen and heard.
Mary, gazing on the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger, is Luke’s image of the Church. She is everyone who believes in him and who, throughout the ages, will hold this image in their hearts and share it with anyone who will listen. Mary is all of us who will come together to break the bread, to share it and to renew the covenant of love.
As we remember Mary today, and as we begin a new year, let’s place the image of the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying a manger deep in our hearts. This is the Good News, this is the gospel we preach. This is what we celebrate every time we gather to break the bread. As the year goes on, may each of us, in our own way, witness to this good news. May we be light for the world and a continual source of hope to all. Happy new year!
There were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping night watch over their flock. An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the lord shown around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today, in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger…”
When the angels went away from them to heaven the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go then to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So, they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in a manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:8-12, 15-19)
In this portion of the account of the birth of Jesus, Luke doesn’t relate this story as one would relate the stories on the 6 o’clock news. He’s creating a sacred narrative meant to teach the generations after him the essence of the good news of Jesus Christ.
In the narrative, the blinding light of God’s glory appears in the dead of night to simple shepherds. From within the light angels proclaim the good news of the birth of a Messiah who is Lord. They speak to them of a sign, an image, that will teach them all they need to know about this child. “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Luke mentions this twice in this short account. The angels tell the shepherds of the sign. Then Luke tells us that the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the sign for themselves. Let’s look into the meaning of this sign.
The two images, the swaddling clothes and the manger, speak volumes about this child. The
clothes used to wrap the baby are long strips of cloth. They’re wrapped around an infant to keep it secure and warm. But these long strips are reminiscent of another long strip of cloth that would wrap this child at the end of his adult life. The swaddling clothes are an image of Jesus’ shroud. His destiny was marked from the first moment of his life. Luke is telling us that Jesus’ death is an essential part of the good news.
The second image is of the child lying in a manger. By placing the child in a manger, a feeding trough, Luke is telling us that the good news is that this child will be, in some mysterious way, food for all people. John the evangelist makes the same point in a title he gives to Jesus, the Bread of Life. The image of the manger evokes the eucharistic meal where Jesus breaks the bread, where Jesus says, “This is my body which will be given for you.” Where Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me.”
These two images stir up rich theological reflection. Throughout his gospel Luke will expand the image of the manger through his depiction of many meals Jesus ate with his disciples. Each meal presents an aspect of the eucharist. The meaning of the manger and the swaddling clothes become clear when they again come together at the Passover meal Jesus eats with his disciples, his last supper with them before sacrificing himself on the cross.
At the end of his nativity narrative Luke adds an essential note. “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary is the Church, you and I, and all those who, throughout the centuries heard of the child that was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Mary is all who gathered and who continue to gather to reflect on the meaning of his death when they come together to break the bread. Mary is all of us who recognize him. Recognize him when we pass on his story. Recognize him when we ponder the meaning of his death. Recognize him when we break the bread and share it.
ISAIAH 7:10-14 | ROMANS 1:1-7 | MATTHEW 1:18-24
Our Christmas reflection begins a few days early as we ponder the scripture readings for the last Sunday of Advent. We begin by listening to the most famous prophecy in the Old Testament.
At a time of grave national crisis, as kings were uniting to wage war against Judah’s king Ahaz, Isaiah delivered these words of hope to him. “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Isaiah was speaking to the dire situation Ahaz was facing, but at the same time, his prophecy was peering into the future. In today’s gospel, Matthew incorporates this prophecy into his infancy narrative that begins, like the story of King Ahaz, with a crisis.
Joseph had discovered that his betrothed was pregnant. He had decided to quietly dissolve the engagement until he had a dream. In the dream an angel explained to him that he and Mary were part of a divine intervention that was beginning to unfold through the working of the Holy Spirit.
Mary would give birth to a son who was to be named Jesus, Joshua in Hebrew, a name that focused his destiny. Joshua means: to deliver – to rescue – to save. He would be the long-awaited savior, a military leader.
Matthew then quoted Isaiah’s prophecy but implied a radically new interpretation. The child would be named Emmanuel, “which means ‘God is with us.’” For King Ahaz the child that was to be born would be supported by God’s power to rescue Judah from invading armies. Matthew declared that, at the very moment Joseph heard the angel’s message, Isaiah’s prophecy had come to fulfillment. This child named Jesus is literally “God with us!”
Lord Jesus, with you at our side we can take up the work
of establishing your kingdom here, on earth.
Give us courage and perseverance
we will need to let your light shine and your love reign.
ISAIAH 35:1-6A | JAMES 5:7-10 | MATTHEW 11:2-11
As we read the Advent scriptures we can feel a dramatic pressure building. There’s anticipation and a deep sense of hope within us. Think of the messianic prophecies Isaiah proclaimed to us over the past three weeks.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” “Strengthen the hand of the feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong fear not! Here is your God.”
When we think of the messiah and the new world to come, we’re filled with hope, which is the core of our Advent commemoration. But these words of hope can, and often do, backfire on us. We listen to these wonderful prophecies, and then look at the world we live in. We see the war in Ukraine, the heartbreaking starvation in parts of the world, the results of global warming, political corruption, a global refugee crisis – and on and on. It’s no wonder that there’s so much depression during the holidays. We’re torn between hope and despair.
James, in the portion of his letter that we read today, gives us some good spiritual advice. “Be patient brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains. You too must be patient.”
Yes, we must be patient but also deeply dedicated to the work of the promised kingdom. The messianic time will come through people like me and you who relentlessly work for justice, harmony, forgiveness and healing. In today’s first reading, Isaiah warns us that this work will be challenging, so he lifts up a prayer for us. “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: ‘Be strong, fear not! Here is your God.’”
Let’s recommit ourselves to the work of hope today. Let’s recommit ourselves to do the work of justice, reconciliation and healing as we pray during the Eucharist we celebrate today. “Our Father in heaven, we bless your name. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
ISAIAH 11:1-10 | ROMANS 15:4-9 | MATTHEW 3:1-12
We’re beginning our reflection this week with more of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messianic time. He reassures us that, no matter how devastated our world may seem to be, a “shoot shall sprout…a bud shall blossom.”
This sprout, this shoot, is the Messiah whose attributes Isaiah describes in detail. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord…He will judge the poor with justice and decide aright for the land’s afflicted…He will strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.”
Isaiah moves on to paint a poetic picture of the new world, the world of the Messianic time.“Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together with a little child to guide them.” Isaiah sees a world rejoicing in peace and harmony. “There shall be no more ruin on my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.”
It may be difficult to take this prophecy seriously, today. Our world, and our country, are in turmoil with civic unrest, racial tensions, violence, corruption among the highest government officials,
religious leaders and even parents bribing to get their children into good schools. Even though we believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, realistically, the world he came to save is still a mess of violence and corruption. Let’s move on to the gospel to add Matthew’s insight into our reflection regarding the Messianic time.
He begins by quoting Isaiah 40:3. “A voice crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Matthew presents John the Baptist as “the voice” declaring the advent of the new time. Interestingly, John doesn’t use the beautiful poetic images of Isaiah when he speaks about it. Instead, his voice publically condemns the religious leaders who are coming to him to be baptized as a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. He knew that they weren’t coming to him with repentant hearts.
“You brood of vipers!” He spits at them. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance.” There was nothing subtle about John’s condemnation. He understood that the world could never be changed by a powerful political leader even though he might conquer the whole world. His message proclaimed that the world would be transformed from the inside out!
He understood that laws wouldn’t change the world because they’re fragile band-aids to immediate problems, and that clever lawyers and politicians would inevitably squirm around them. Historically, political messiahs ended up thrusting the world into war and turmoil. No, these “messiahs” could never usher in the Messianic time.
The new world, the Messianic time, will appear and shed its light, through the human heart – a heart cleansed of ego – a heart filled with love. Saint Paul understood this when he wrote to the Romans, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14)
The message for this Second Sunday of Advent may sound simple, but it’s a profound challenge for every Christian. The new world will come when each of us empties ourselves and become Christ.
ISAIAH 2:1-5 | ROMANS 13:11-14 | MATTHEW 24:37-44
Today we begin the new liturgical year with a spirit of anticipation and unbridled hope! Today we begin Advent. The first scripture of the day is taken from the inaugural prophecy of Isaiah. For Christians, it’s perhaps the most well known passage of the Old Testament.
It would be helpful to put Isaiah’s prophecy into an historical context. In the year 736BC a young king, Ahaz, succeeded to the throne of Judah inheriting a serious political situation. The king of Damascus and the king of Israel tried to persuade him to join them in an alliance against the king of Assyria. When Ahaz refused, they declared war on Judah. The king reached out to Assyria for help.
Isaiah tried to dissuade him, begging him to rely on God’s faithfulness, not on untrustworthy political alliances. To persuade him he delivered his famous oracle of a messianic time to come. We’re reading this oracle today.
Ahaz agreed to an alliance that put Judah under Assyrian protection. Assyria used it, however, as an opportunity to annex the northern kingdom, Israel, in 734BC. Samaria fell in 721BC.When Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz as king in 716BC, he reached out to Egypt to support him in a revolt against Assyria. The result was disastrous. The Assyrian forces devastated Palestine in 701BC. Only Jerusalem survived destruction.
The fear and uncertainty must have been traumatic for the Jewish leadership and the general population during those years. It’s in this context that Isaiah delivered his first prophecy. It began with a lament for Jerusalem, symbolic of the rulers of Judah.
“The faithful city, what a harlot she
has become! Zion, once full of fair
judgment, where saving justice used
to dwell, but now assassins! Your
silver has turned to dross, your wine
is watered. Your princes are rebels,
accomplices of brigands. All of them
greedy for presents and eager for
bribes, they show no justice to the
orphan, and the widow’s cause never
reaches them.” (Isaiah 1:22-24)
This lament over the corruption of Judah and Jerusalem is followed by a vision of a new world – a Messianic time. In the vision, Jerusalem is transformed from the place of corruption to the glorious kingdom of God. The temple mount, Zion, the Lord’s house, is seen flooded by people streaming in from every part of the world. The divisions and hostilities that have kept people and nations apart have dissolved. The Lord’s house welcomes everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.
This is a revolutionary image. The word “nations” is goyim in Hebrew. It has a much broader meaning than various countries. It means all those people who aren’t Jews – who aren’t God’s chosen people. In the Jewish vocabulary it’s the disparaging word for “them,” those who aren’t one of us. In the Messianic Time there will be no them and us. National borders no longer exist so that “the nations” may freely stream into the Lord’s house. The prophecy goes on:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not rise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”
What a prophecy! Imagine – a world with no national borders to defend – a world with no wars – a world at peace – a world in which God’s house is its only capital!
Isaiah’s prophecy leads us into Advent, but we must prepare ourselves for this procession to the house of God. We’re asked to shed our crippling cynicism. We’re asked to envision the corruption all around us as a thing of the past. We’re encouraged to abandon our narrow and divisive notions of nation, race and creed. We’re asked to open our eyes to the new world of the Messianic time. We are asked to take a spiritual step into that bright new world, and “walk in the light of the Lord!”