On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
a spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
but he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a 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.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.
On that day, the root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the nations,
the Gentiles shall seek out,
for his dwelling shall be glorious.
Brothers and sisters:
Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction,
that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures
we might have hope.
May the God of endurance and encouragement
grant you to think in harmony with one another,
in keeping with Christ Jesus,
that with one accord you may with one voice
glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you,
for the glory of God.
For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised
to show God’s truthfulness,
to confirm the promises to the patriarchs,
but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
As it is written:
Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles
and sing praises to your name.
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair
and had a leather belt around his waist.
His food was locusts and wild honey.
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea,
and the whole region around the Jordan
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
He will clear his threshing floor
and gather his wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
By far, the most important section of today’s Isaiah reading is the line, “. . . The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of Yahweh as water covers the sea.” But the key to appreciating its importance revolves around being aware of the ancient Hebrew meaning of the words “knowledge” or “know.”
Our biblical authors normally employ know or knowledge when they’re talking about a person actually experiencing someone or something. It implies a far deeper relationship than just having a casual familiarity with persons or things, like I know the times tables, or I know him when I see him. When the word is biblically used in the context of men and women knowing one another – as in “Adam knew his wife Eve,” or in Luke’s annunciation pericope, “How can this be since I do not know man?” – it usually implies sexual intimacy.
So when the prophet speaks about the earth being filled with the knowledge of Yahweh, he’s basically sharing his conviction that all of us one day will experience Yahweh’s presence in everything and everyone we encounter. God will be as much a part of us as water is a part of the sea. For those who have that God-experience everything will change; even natural enemies will become friends.
Yet at this point in salvation history (8th century BCE), Isaiah is still locked into the Jewish monarchy. He believes it’s through one of the country’s kings that Yahweh’s presence eventually will become an everyday experience. That’s why he spends so much time enumerating the gifts such a unique sprout from the stump of Jesse will possess. (By the way, it’s from this passage that we got six of the seven gifts of the Spirit we had to memorize in our Confirmation classes, not from any of Paul’s lists of the Spirit’s gifts!)
By the time Jesus of Nazareth was about to begin his public ministry, most Jews had given up on one particular king creating an ideal God-present age. A few centuries before this itinerant preacher shuttered his Capernaum carpenter shop, they started to believe Yahweh was going to step outside the reigning monarchy and send a special “Messiah” who would usher in this longed-for day and age. That’s why Matthew’s John the Baptizer is forced to set people straight, emphatically informing them he’s not that special person; he’s just preparing the way for him.
But even if we believe Jesus is the Messiah, we can never forget his basic “stump speech.” He’s not going to bring about God’s presence, he’s simply announcing that God is already present. Remember the first words of his public ministry: “The kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe in the good news!” In other words, “Why are you still waiting for something that’s already here? You simply have to change your value system and you’ll notice God working effectively in your everyday lives!”
Our earliest Christian writer, Paul, presumes his readers in Rome have already gone through such a value changing repentance. The eyes through which they filter everything happening around them constantly surface God’s presence and actions. That’s why, as Isaiah prophesied, they can experience the unity between people who traditionally were opposed to one another; especially the oneness between Gentiles and Jews. Jesus’ ministry of helping people recognize God working in all people has made it possible to experience God in all people, even in natural enemies.
Often, especially during Advent, it seems we’re still passively expecting God to enter our lives, instead of being committed to living the way Jesus of Nazareth thought necessary to recognize that God’s already here. Perhaps a change in our value system is simply too much to expect.