December 8, 2013
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” As with the rest of Isaiah, especially this passage, this first verse has exerted a strong influence on Christian imagination. For example, in medieval art – illuminations and stained-glass windows, the Jesse Tree these images, which vary in detail and complexity, offer highly symbolic representations of the ancestry of Jesus.” (See “Jesse Tree” in the “Images of Salvation” CD, University of York, 1999.) Jesse is usually recumbent at the bottom of the image, with a rod or shoot springing from his loins. The rod branches out, with further images of Isaiah, David, the apostles, the virtues, and the church frequently represented among them. At the very top is Jesus Christ.
Arguably, the most interesting aspect of the various versions of the Jesse Tree is that Mary is generally featured prominently somewhere in the center of the image, connected to Jesse through the rod. Scholars point to the cult of the Virgin Mary that formed so much of the church’s theology as well as the word play engendered by the Latin words for “virgin” – virgo – and “rod” – virga as the reasoning for these images. When one reads Jesus’ genealogy as given by Matthew, however, it is Joseph who is demonstrated as the descendent of Jesse. Perhaps, as others, including Rowan Williams, have suggested, this is not a literal family tree at all. Williams reminds us that “Mary’s child is of God” (“Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgment,” Eerdmans Publishing, 2000, p. 20). Perhaps Jesus’ connection to Jesse is a theological one, a spiritual one.
As we continue through Advent, draw your spiritual family tree. Who would you include? Why? Take some silent time to pray and give thanks to God for them.
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
How do you pray for someone else? How do we converse with God about someone other than ourselves without making the prayer about ourselves? Perhaps today’s psalm shows us the way as an example of intercessory prayer. (See Howard Neil Wallace’s “Words to God, Word From God: The Psalms in the Prayer and Preaching of the Church,” Ashgate, 2005, p. 116.) What do you notice about the language? What is missing in this psalm that appears in many other psalms? Who is the focus of this psalm? How is that focus represented by the psalmist’s language, in other words?
“The need of the other is related to our faith and hope in the kingdom of God” (Wallace, p. 116). How is this statement reflected in today’s psalm? How is this statement reflected in the other passages for today? How is it reflected in your own life this Advent season?
“If I’m king, where’s my power? Can I form a government? Can I levy a tax, declare a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.” Colin Firth, as King George VI, says this in the film “The King’s Speech.” He feels a sense of impotence, of helplessness at what he perceives to be a weakness on his part, as he stutters when he speaks. Part of that is his feeling that he does not have a voice, that his voice does not matter.
Today’s passage is all about voice. Paul is wrapping up his exhortation (parenesis) to the Roman community, hoping that his words, his voice will help this community of Jews and gentiles work toward listening to each other instead of finding fault with each other. However, Paul has not yet traveled to the community at Rome; they do not know him except by reputation. Is it possible that Paul felt slightly unsure of himself in this context? Was he concerned that his voice would carry no weight, even though his experience and standing with the other early Christian communities to which he wrote gave his words authority?
We cannot answer this question with any surety, though we can remember that just like King George, that Paul was a thinking, feeling human, as are we. We can also, in this Advent season, marvel that Paul’s voice is with us still. And that his voice gives us hope for our own voices.
Read verse 5 again. What do Paul’s words “so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” mean for us as Christians? How do you put them into action?
In this passage, Paul uses the word “hope” rather than “faith” or “love.” How might these concepts be linked for Paul? For the Roman community? For Christians today?
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” With these words, Matthew sets in motion his narration of Jesus’ adult life. We see Jesus through John’s eyes, through John’s ministry. How does this affect our expectations of the rest of Jesus’ life, as Matthew relates it?
How do you read the gospels, for instance, today’s passage? This might seem like an easy question on the surface, but take a few moments to reflect on this. Do you read these words of Matthew to answer your own questions? In other words, do you have questions already formed in your mind when you come to this text? Questions about Jesus, about God, about yourself in relationship with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit? Or instead, do you approach the text seeking information, to learn what Matthew has to say about John and Jesus, in this case?
Either way, do you hope for a clear-cut meaning, something that is direct and to the point? Words that provide clarity, whether in response to one’s questions or easily accessible information? We often hope that meaning will be right on the surface. Possibly, we ask someone else to tell us the point of the story – summarize it in one sentence. Perhaps someone asks that of us. How do you respond when someone asks you about the gospels, when someone asks you about today’s passage, which can be problematic if we, as Christians, don’t ask questions of the text?
During this Advent season, maybe our answer should be, “Let’s read it again, together.”