Second Sunday in Advent
Is. 11:1-10, Rom. 15:4-13, Mt. 3:1-12
The gospel of Advent, which is to say the gospel of Jesus, is irreducibly political: it aims at nothing less than the greatest common good and harmony of all men. The question is not whether people will have a Lord, the question is only who that lord is and how that lord rules. The good news of Advent is the good news of the Lord who has come to end all animosity and bring peace and unity to all through weakness.
Allegiance to the King
When Isaiah prophesies a shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse, he is making a political announcement: the restoration of the Davidic dynasty (Is. 11:1). In the previous chapter, the prophet has just finished announcing judgment against Assyria, the rod of God’s wrath (Is. 10:5-6). Just when Assyria believes itself to be unstoppable, God will judge them for their arrogance, and their “forest” will be burned to the ground (Is. 10:12-19). God will use Assyria like an axe to lop the boughs of Israel and chop down the forest of Lebanon, but the Lord will raise up a remnant shoot from the roots (Is. 11:1, cf. 10:20ff). Notice here that God is actively involved in the history of nations. He is the Lord of the nations: He wields them like axes and chops them down like trees. John’s warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism is related to this (Matt. 3:7). Are they really coming out to be baptized in order to submit to God’s Kingdom? Or is it just politically expedient? If they put their trust in their ethnicity as Abraham’s children (Matt. 3:9), they are no different than Israel of old: the axe is already laid at the root of the trees, and fruitless branches/trees will be thrown into the fire (Matt. 3:10). John says that his water baptism is preparation for the Powerful One who is coming who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit and judge the earth (Matt. 3:11-12).
The Wisdom of the King
John is describing the Davidic King that Isaiah foretold: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him… And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth (Is. 11:2-4). This is perfect justice for the whole world precisely because it is non-partisan. He doesn’t judge with his eyes or ears; He judges by the fear of the Lord and by the Spirit of His wisdom. How does He carry out this judgment? “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Is. 11:4). Left to ourselves in the wilds of human depravity, we are like wolves and lambs, leopards and young goats, bears and cows, cobras and babies (Is. 11:6-8). Just check Facebook or Twitter. Isaiah is promising that one day a King will come who will be full of the Spirit of God’s Wisdom, who will not judge with any bias, whose judgment will not be colored by any allegiances. And by the rod of His mouth, He will untangle the most entrenched human divisions and animosities: They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9). The peace of Christ comes through His word, such that the nations come inquiring after it (Is. 11:10).
The Encouragement of the King
Now the Romans, like us, lived after the first Advent of Jesus, the promised King of Isaiah and John, but the world was (and is) still full of animosity and division, and Christians are like “sheep led to the slaughter” (Rom. 8:36). What happened to the lion lying down with the lamb? John said that Jesus was the Powerful One. Paul is answering that question. He says that whatever was written in the former days was written for our instruction, so that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:4). And not just a generic hope: the kind of hope that continues pursuing harmony with one another in King Jesus (Rom. 15:5). In other words, Paul says that nothing has changed, the plan hasn’t failed, and the goal is still harmony in Christ – just like Isaiah promised. Paul says, go back and read it again and you will be comforted and encouraged to keep pursuing peace. How do the Scriptures encourage us and give us hope to continue believing and working for the vision of Isaiah? First, they proclaim and demonstrate the good purposes of God triumphing over all evil. We see this in Joseph (Gen. 50). We see this in Assyria (Is. 11). We see this preeminently in Jesus. In the very acts of evil, treason, and hatred, God is ruling over them for good. Second, the Scriptures teach us to recognize the patterns of God’s action in the world, doing what we consider impossible: weakness overcoming power and the union of enemies. Both of these are at the heart of Isaiah’s vision: a shoot from a stump and a new David for the world. And both are realized in Jesus Christ: risen from the dead to reconcile all things. Paul says that the goal of all human harmony is the worship of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:6). Therefore welcome one another as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God (Rom. 15:7).
Conclusions & Applications
The great fear of human politics is loss of power, and this is because human powers fear retribution. Lions must be killed or at least tranquilized before they can be trusted to lie down with lambs. Fear drives humans to kill before being killed, to demand the upper hand, to build walls. But Paul doubles down and says that God’s truthfulness to Israel in Jesus Christ will be the reason the nations come (Rom. 15:8ff). In Christ, the nations find mercy, not destruction, not retribution, not exclusion.
It’s important to note that the weakness of God really is powerful. This is sometimes because God works supernaturally, but this is also sometimes because we can only think like humans. Of course God was with David, but a well-aimed stone at a heavily weighed-down giant really is an advantage – though it didn’t look like it. Fundamentally, when we speak of Christian weakness, we mean obedience to God. Sometimes the weakness of God means telling the truth despite the consequences; sometimes weakness means silence in the face of accusations. But obedience to God often looks like weakness because it doesn’t put its trust in man. And that is profoundly good news. Advent is the signal to the nations that there is a King who rules in perfect justice (Is. 11:10).