2nd Sunday of Advent A. Dec. 4, 2022

 

2nd Sunday of Advent A. Dec. 4, 2022

Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

 

Theme: Produce Good Fruit as Evidence of Repentance

Today is the second Sunday of our four-week journey of preparation called Advent. I think it is important to remind us that although Christmas gives us the image of a holiday with decorations and shopping, let us not forget that Advent is a special time that the Church, our mother, offers us for our personal repentance and preparation for “the comings” of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We are called to repent and prepare ourselves because our Lord Jesus Christ is coming at Christmas, he will come at the end of time on an unexpected day, and he comes every day into our hearts and lives. Last Sunday was the kickoff of this process of repentance. The scripture readings of that Mass invited us to stay awake. Jesus, in the Gospel, referred us to the people at the time of Noah to see how they all perished in the flooding because they ignored the call to repent. That was to teach us that we need to take this call for repentance seriously. Matthew in that Gospel told us that each one of us is like the master of the house who stays awake to protect his house from being broken into by the thief. We are the ones to decide whether to stay awake or sleep. (Matthew 24: 43-44). To stay awake in Isaiah’s words (the first reading) meant that we need to “climb the Mountain of the Lord which is to come to Church regularly (especially on Sundays) where we renew our covenant with God and where we are instructed by his Word through the scripture readings and homilies which enable us to walk in God’s paths. (Isaiah 2: 2-3). For Saint Paul (second reading), to stay awake meant for us to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. This results in conducting ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. (Romans 13: 12-13). We will be capable to do all this if only we are united with Christ. That is why he invited us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” (Romans 13: 14).

Let us now see what the Bible readings of today teach us. In the first reading, we heard the Messianic prophecy of the prophet Isaiah. Note that Isaiah exercised his prophetic ministry in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC in Judah. During that time the Assyrian Empire was destroying the northern kingdom of Israel. Around the year 700 BC, they conquered the entire kingdom of Judah except for the capital, Jerusalem. Amid this destruction, Isaiah, in our first reading passage, sees a vision of a new king who will rise from the line of David. In three sections, this passage summarizes so effectively the several dimensions of the role and ministry of the Messiah. The description of the new king who had to come found in the first section (Isaiah 11: 1-5) refers to king David: “… a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.” Note that Jesse was the father of David.  So, our Lord Jesus whose coming we are preparing for is our “New David”, our new King. He rules over the Church, our families, societies, and over all the nations. He rules in our hearts.

The second section (vv. 6-9) makes us return to the original peace that existed in the Garden of Eden. “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… There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain…” The mention of a little child in v. 6 could be a symbol of peace. Also, it could spiritually be the image of the child Jesus who at his birth in the cave “guided” animals. This makes that spot of Bethlehem a sort of new Eden on that night when God became Man (Incarnation). Also, the mention of the “Holy Mountain” alludes to Eden. Note that Eden was not just a garden. Ezekiel tells us that it was a mountain with a garden on top. (See Ezekiel 28: 13-14). On last Sunday’s first reading, we heard Isaiah prophesize that on this Mount Zion the LORD’s house shall be established and raised above the hills. (Isaiah 2: 1-2). In my interpretation of this text last Sunday, I identified this “LORD’s house” with the Church that Jesus established at the Last Supper in the Upper Room which is located on this same Mount of Zion. (Hebrews 12: 18-23). Our local Church, Saint Bartholomew/Saint Augustine is the “House of the Lord” that Jesus established. Look how all of us, coming from different families and backgrounds, came to “climb” this mountain that is our Church to worship our Lord. This fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. Putting all together, the “holy mountain” refers to the new Eden. And both, “holy mountain” and “New Eden” refer to the Church of Jesus. So, with this imagery of the Garden of Eden, the second section of today’s first reading compares the new king who had to come with Adam. Jesus who is coming at Christmas, who will come at the end of time, and who comes every day into our hearts is our new Adam. He makes us taste the fruit of the Tree of Life of the Garden Eden through his Body and Blood that we receive in the sacrament of the Eucharist. And he makes us experience the waters of the River of Life through the water of our baptism. So, in baptism and Eucharist, we have eternal life as it was in the Garden of Eden before the fall of Adam and Eve.  

The third section of our first reading is in vv. 11-15. The lectionary for this Sunday returns just v. 11 and omits vv. 12-15. Note that this section, especially v. 15, clearly points to the Exodus imagery and compares the new king to come with Moses. Lord Jesus is our New Moses. As Moses lead the people of Israel from Egypt to the promised land by crossing the Red Sea, Jesus whose coming we are preparing during this Advent leads us from the slavery of sins, by crossing the river of Baptism, to our home on the “new Mount Zion”, the Church that his mystical Body and Temple.

The vision of Isaiah, in our first reading, told us what Jesus whose comings we are preparing for in this Advent season will accomplish or is accomplishing as he comes every day into our lives. Now, the Gospel and the second reading focus on our responsibility: what we need to do in terms of preparation for Jesus’ comings.  

If the liturgy of last Sunday called us to repentance as a process of our preparation, that of this second Sunday challenges us to produce good fruit as evidence of our repentance. In today’s Gospel, we heard the homily of John the Baptist in the desert of Judea. The theme of his preaching is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3: 1). Note that Mark and Luke speak of the “kingdom of God” instead of the “kingdom of heaven as we see here. Matthew is the only one who uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven”. The reason is that Matthew avoids using the divine name as he addresses his Gospel mostly to the Jewish community who substitutes “Adonai” (Lord) for “YHWH” avoiding then to pronounce the holy name of God.  “Kingdom of heaven” here does not connote a geographic area, nor does it refer to the kingdom that will happen at the end of time. The word “basileia “kingdom” means “reign” or “rule” but not a territory. Therefore, by saying “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, John just means that the “heavenly reign” is already present and visible here and now. He refers to Jesus who is already among the people to start or establish this heavenly reign. From now on, the people will be governed by the “rule” of the kingdom of heaven. To help the people to recognize this embodiment of God’s saving power in Jesus, Matthew adapts Isaiah’s words (Isaiah 40: 3) and portrays John the Baptist in the likeness of Elijah.

Notice how Matthew identifies John with Isaiah and Elijah. In v. 3: “It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: (…)” Matthew makes John the Baptist play the same role that Isaiah did in the Old Testament, especially with his vision about the coming of a new king that we heard in our first reading. With the clothing description of John in v. 4 (garment made of Carmel’s hair and his leather belt), Evangelist Matthew associates John the Baptist with Elijah as this was the style of the prophet Elijah’s dress. (See 2 Kings 1: 8). Matthew identifies John the Baptist with Elijah even more clearly at 11: 10, 14; 17: 11-13. We can connect this reference to Elijah to the prophecy of the last canonical prophet Malachi which says that Elijah would return before the day of God’s judgment on Israel (Malachi 3: 22-23; 4: 5-6). Here Matthew teaches that John the Baptist is “Elijah” who was supposed to return and therefore, Jesus is the Messiah who is to come. The food that John eats (locusts and wild honey) in v. 4 is probably to connect John to the community of the Essenes of his time.  

Matthew tells us that inhabitants of Jerusalem, Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to John the Baptist and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (Vv. 5-6). Matthew is the only one to name Pharisees and Sadducees among those who were going to John. Note that the Pharisees were lay religious leaders, and the Sadducees were priests from the more elite class. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection (Matthew 22: 23; Acts 23: 8). Also, while the Pharisees had influence over the ordinary laypeople (telling them how to be faithful to the Torah in their daily lives), the Sadducees had influence over the political elite and the temple personnel. By mentioning these two religious groups here at the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew probably intends to prepare his readers on how Pharisees and Sadducees, later in his Gospel, will constitute the prime opponents of Jesus. (9: 11, 14, 34; 12: 2, 14, 24 15: 1; 16: 1, 6-12; 21: 46; 22:15).

 This image of the people going to John the Baptist reminds us of the prophet Isaiah in last Sunday’s first reading who invited us to come and climb the house of the Lord where God instructs us with his Word which enables us to walk in God’s paths. Coming to Church for Masses, especially on Sundays, is the first sign that attests that we want to repent. Matthew mentions that these people “acknowledged their sins. The Greek word is exomolegoumenoi, which could be translated as they “confessed” their sins. With either translation, “acknowledge”, or “confess” this verse challenges us to consider often using the sacrament of confession.  

John the Baptist challenges the Pharisees and Sadducees that it is not enough to seek baptism or to claim Abraham as their father; rather, they need to produce good fruit as evidence of their repentance. (Vv. 7-9). First, John’s fierce accusation (“you brood of vipers!”) reveals that Pharisees and Sadducees, though they seek baptism, do not intend to repent. In chapter 23, they will be the ones to falsely accuse Jesus. Baptism alone without producing good fruit cannot serve as evidence of our repentance or of our Christian faith.  Second, for John, repentance is not something that we inherit from our parents, grandparents, or ancestors. If our parents or grandparents are good Christians, this does not make us automatically good Christians nor is this evidence of our repentance. Producing good fruit as evidence of repentance is mandatory for every single person, Abraham’s descendants or not, priest/religious or lays, Baptized by the bishop or by a priest/deacon, you have worked many years in a Catholic school/Church or not.

Still in his sermon, John the Baptist prepares us for the final judgment. He says that “the one who is coming” (Jesus), the mightier than I will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will cut down every tree that does not bear fruit and throw them into the fire. He has in his hands a winnowing fan. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Vv. 10-12). The question that we should ask here is where you and I will be: among the wheat or among the chaff? If we want to be among the wheat, which means among those who will be saved at the last judgment, the condition is that we need to produce good fruit as evidence of our repentance.

Saint Paul, in our second reading, talks about one kind of good fruit that we need to produce as evidence of our repentance. This fruit is “to live together without discrimination”. The context of this passage is to be found in the debate within the Roman community (which was composed of both Jewish and Gentile members) about whether circumcision is necessary to become Jesus’ follower or not. This debate results in a division between the circumcised (Jews) and the uncircumcised (Gentiles). The question here was to figure out how they were to follow the Christian way with different ethnic practices. Paul tries to bring a solution in the passage that we heard in our second reading. For him, the answer lies in “endurance” and through “the encouragement of the scriptures.” He then invites both Jews and Gentiles to think and live in harmony and welcome one another as Christ welcomes everyone without looking at skin color, language, or social class. Living in harmony is a big problem today for many of us. We see divisions among the members of the Church, the members of the same family or large family, inhabitants of the same country (especially the political division), and division between the countries and societies. Saint Paul exhorts us to consider “living in harmony” as good fruit that we need to produce during this Advent season.

Jesus who is coming on Christmas, who will come at the end of time, and who comes every day into our hearts is our new David, new Moses, and new Adam. Then, as we are in preparation for his comings, this second Sunday of Avent calls us to produce good fruit as evidence of our repentance. And one of the kinds of this good fruit is “to live in harmony with one another”. Amen.

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

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