First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
1There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 2And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3And 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, 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. 6The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 9They 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. 10In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples — of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
1Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the King’s Son; 2That he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice; 3That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, and the little hills bring righteousness. 4He shall defend the needy among the people; he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor. 5He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, from one generation to another. 6He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, like showers that water the earth. 7In his time shall the righteous flourish; there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13
4Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” 10And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” 11And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” 12And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” 13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
1In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7But 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 wrath to come? 8Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The God of Hope
There are two basic attitudes toward life–one of hope, trust, and optimism, or, one of dread, fear, and gloom. A misprint of a weather forecast read like this: “There is a five percent chance of . . . today and tomorrow.” Now on the one hand, I’m hoping for Jesus to return today! Yet, I also would hope that the odds are better than 5% that tomorrow will come. As Christians, we live with the tension of serving the kingdom of God now and with the eternal hope of tomorrow. In a “Frank and Ernest” cartoon, you see Frank rousing slowly from his sleep, then looking out at the sun coming up. He says dryly, “Well, the sun is rising in the east . . . so far, so good.”
It’s said that comedian W.C. Fields died with money in hundreds of bank accounts which were never identified. Wherever he went, he opened a bank account. Often, he used fictitious names and kept no records whatsoever of his deposits. At one point, Fields told a friend, in confidence, that he had over seven hundred accounts and knew exactly where they were. Unfortunately, he died without telling anyone else the locations of those accounts or the name in which they were held. He had one account in Berlin that alone was said to have $50,000 in it. However, during the bombing of Berlin during WWII, all traces of that bank and the money were destroyed.
Fields attributed this strange behavior of storing money in all these cities to a dream he repeatedly had in which he saw himself stranded in a strange city without money or friends. The dread this dream produced, caused Fields to open these strange, anonymous accounts in every city in which he played. Writer, Pirandello once told a story about a man filled with so much dread that it drove him mad. When he fell in love with the woman of his dreams, he pretended that he didn’t care about her. He was afraid that if he gave in to his feelings of love for her, he would lose her. He kept up this display of disinterest so long that he nearly did lose her.
When the man finally asked her to marry him and she accepted, he nearly went crazy planning the honeymoon. He told everyone that they would be going to Florence and Venice. Instead, he took his new bride to Naples—a town in the opposite direction. He did this because he felt he could fool the misery he knew would be awaiting him in Florence and Venice. That was the only way he could enjoy their honeymoon in Naples.
There are some people who live with such dread and doom in general, that they dismiss all possibility of joy. Even when life is being good to them, they just know that it cannot last. Somewhere–sometime–somehow–something out there is going to happen to them that will wreck their best-laid plans–that will frustrate their fondest dreams–that will crush everything they hold dear. That, of course, is one attitude towards life. Fortunately, it isn’t the Christian attitude. It certainly wasn’t St. Paul’s attitude to be sure.
St. Paul knew that we live with a different outlook about the future. He had experienced more than his share of sorrow and suffering. But St. Paul knew that somewhere–sometime–somehow–something good was waiting for him. He knew that tomorrow would be a better day than today. St. Paul believed that lasting joy and peace were not only possibilities in this life, but would someday be permanent realities. This is why he wrote in our Epistle lesson for today, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). When we place our trust in God, we will experience joy, hope, and peace by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
This is the season of the year when we celebrate the God of hope, the mood of Advent is one of joyful anticipation. Through us, God’s joy, hope and peace, can infect all of society. Like many of you, I remember the 1970s. The Vietnam war was in full swing, and it was a very turbulent time in our society. There was a “Doonesbury” cartoon during those turbulent times that showed the campus radical Megaphone Mark falling off to sleep. Above his head you could see this thought: “It’s Christmas Eve as a tired, disappointed and disillusioned student activist drops off to sleep.” The next frame shows him sleeping. The frame after that shows him stirring as if startled by an unexplained noise. In the final frame he explains, “I thought I heard reindeer.”
The joy of the Advent and Christmas seasons was intruding even into the generally cynical Doonesbury cartoon strip. The bells, the lights, the hymns and sounds of this time of the year, speak to us about hope. God is alive. God is in control, and God is active in our world. Love, joy, peace and good will are real possibilities. There is far more than a five percent chance of today and tomorrow. And because of a babe born more than 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, hope came into our world. It’s a hope that is unquenchable and eternal. There’s a wonderfully reassuring story back Genesis.
Abraham, who’s still called Abram at this point, is complaining to God that he has no heir to take over his house someday. The writer of the book of Genesis says that God brings Abram outside and says to him, “Look at the heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15). That’s the call that God always gives to us in our times of doubt and despair. “Look at the heaven, and number the stars . . .”
During the Advent season, we only need look for one star–a star that shines much brighter than all the rest. It’s the star of Bethlehem, always the world’s greatest symbol of hope. “May the God of hope,” writes St. Paul, “fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Advent is, first of all, hope for the world.
H.G. Wells once wrote a story titled “In the Days of the Comet.” Wells’ story is a somewhat typical science fiction fantasy. A mysterious green vapor of unknown origin descends from the clouds and covers the earth. The vapor has the immediate effect of putting all the earth’s people into a deep sleep for three days. When they finally awake, something amazing has happened. Their inner nature is radically transformed. Petty quarreling comes to an end. Instead of seeking fame, power, and wealth the people of the world seek to serve one another. Love, kindness, and generosity become more important than greed or success. In short, the perfect society emerges–a society in which the dignity of every human being is honored. The prophet Isaiah prophesied that that kind of a day would someday come.
Isaiah foretold of a day when “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (11:6). Of course, Isaiah wasn’t anticipating a green vapor that would come down out of the clouds. He was prophesying “a shoot [that would come] from the stump of Jesse . . .” That was God’s way of announcing, through Isaiah, that there was a Messiah coming, who would establish a new world order, who would bring into being a new kingdom in which love is more important than power and service is more important than domination.
Several hundred years later, God sent John the Baptizer as the herald of that Messiah–the one whose job it was to prepare the way for the Messiah. The concern of the prophets wasn’t simply one of personal salvation, but also the salvation of Israel, and through Israel, the salvation of the world. We need to affirm that when the Messiah–the Christ–came into the world, He brought with Him the seeds of a new kingdom–a kingdom that’s still alive and still at work whenever, and wherever, the name of Jesus is proclaimed. It’s a kingdom that dispels the forces of darkness, arrogance, greed, and slavery to sin everywhere the good news is faithfully proclaimed. No tyrant can forever suppress it, no evil can forever resist its fury. No wonder John spoke with such starkness of the wrath which was to come.
And Jesus proclaimed that “The gates of hell itself cannot prevail against the kingdom” (Matt. 16:18) which came into the world with the birth of the Christ child. No wonder the angels sang in the heavens and wise men bowed in adoration. Phillip Brooks was right when he wrote of the events that occurred in the little town of Bethlehem: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” The first message of Advent is hope, hope for all for the world. And second, Advent is also hope for all who would believe.
In London during the Second World War, Hitler’s war planes were bombing the city with regularity. In order to safeguard the children, trainloads of them were evacuated to the country. Somebody asked one young lad, “Where are you going?” He thought for a minute and replied, “I don’t know, but the king knows.” You and I are in the same situation. We don’t know what the future holds, but our king knows, He who is King of kings and Lord of lords. This is the season of the year when we’re reminded that this is God’s world. He is at work in this world, and even though we may be surrounded by darkness, we know there’s “a light shining in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome” (John 1:5). And even the prospect of death cannot dispel the believer’s sense of anticipation.
Damon Runyon once wrote a charming story about a man he called Doc Brackett. Doc Brackett was a beloved old physician whose office was open to the poor and needy. He would get up, even in the middle of the coldest night, and ride twenty miles to doctor a sick woman or child or to patch up some fellow who got hurt. Everybody in town knew Doc Brackett’s office over Rice’s clothing store. The office was up a narrow flight of stairs. A sign at the foot of the stairs said: DR. BRACKETT, OFFICE UPSTAIRS. Doc Brackett never married.
The day he was supposed to marry, he got a call to go out into the country and doctor a young Mexican child. His bride-to-be was so angry that she cancelled the wedding, but the parents of the Mexican child were very grateful when the child recovered. For forty years, the lame, the sick, the injured, and the blind of that town had climbed up and down the stairs to Doc Brackett’s office. He never turned anyone away. Doc Brackett lived to be seventy years of age, and then one day he keeled over on the sofa in his office and died. He had one of the largest funerals ever in those parts. Everyone turned out. The town’s people wanted to erect a nice tombstone for his grave but couldn’t agree what should be engraved on the stone. The matter dragged on and nothing was done.
Then one day someone noticed that there was already a proper epitaph over Dr. Brackett’s grave. The parent of the Mexican child that Doc Brackett had saved many years back had worried about him having no tombstone. They had no money to buy a marker, so they simply took the sign from the foot of the stairs at Doc Brackett’s office and stuck it over his grave. Now he had a fitting epitaph. It read simply, DR. BRACKETT, OFFICE UPSTAIRS. And just as ole Doc Brackett gave hope to the people he served, God in Jesus the Christ gives hope to all who come to Him.
Jesus came, Jesus died, He was raised, and now He sits at the right hand of our heavenly Father, waiting. He’s waiting for the day when our Father tells Him it’s time, time to return to bring justice, peace, and joy on earth. Our God is a God of Hope. You and I are free to choose the attitude with which we confront life: one of pessimism or, one of eternal hope in Jesus Christ, God’s gift who came to us in Bethlehem.
We can believe that there’s a five per cent chance of today and tomorrow, or we can believe the Good News of Christmas, that God is alive and well, is in control, and at work in our world bringing in a kingdom of justice, love, joy, and freedom. We can face the future with fear and foreboding, or we can trust in the God who has sustained us through the years and has promised us that He will never forget us nor forsake us regardless of our situation. We can choose to live in continued darkness, or we can step out into God’s Light of hope and triumph and eternal victory.
The choice is ours: to live for ourselves alone, or we can make the world a better place to live, for all persons, by sharing the hope and joy of the Christmas message. The Good News of Advent and Christmas has the power to change one’s attitude about life and about the future. It’s a message of hope that encourages us to anticipate that sometime–somewhere–somehow–something good, not evil, is out there waiting to happen in our life. That’s the kind of change that takes place when the Christ Child is born anew in our hearts.