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Bible Study Guide for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2022

November 23, 2022
  • Isaiah 11: 1-10
  • Romans 15:4-13
  • Matthew 3:1-12
  • Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19

As we await the Christ Child this Advent season, it feels like our violent world yet groans in labor pains for what it hopes for and often seems to have not received: the long-awaited justice of the Messiah’s promised Kingdom. Sometimes, my own longing for the Messiah walks hand in hand with a concomitant desire for a King (recalling our readings for Christ the King Sunday), a Lord who will wipe away all terrors and tears by at long last providing retribution for evil.

It is my temptation when reading this week’s texts to perhaps focus on the idea of the Messiah’s role in distributing retributive justice to the wicked in light of current events: see Is. 11:4: “with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”; Ps.72:4: “he shall crush the oppressor”; and John the Baptist’s rebuke to the Pharisees and Sadduccees in the Gospel text. While this focus would be justified (as well as scripturally warranted) given our present moment (Where is God’s justice in Ukraine? In Uvalde? And painfully so forth...), our texts here might yet have more to offer.

In the Old Testament readings, we encounter the hope for justice within a particularly Jewish context, namely, with respect to the Messianic hope for a King who will offer deliverance from political oppression and war. Isaiah 11:1-9 refers to an ‘Ideal King’ in the context of the Syro- Ephraimite war (735-732 BCE); this, after the split between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah about two hundred years prior. Here in Ch. 11, the prophet declares that this ‘Ideal King’ will descend from “the stump of Jesse” (Is. 11:1), a reference to his belief that a monarch in the Davidic line would reclaim Jerusalem for God and thus restore justice to Judah after it had been repeatedly ripped apart by these wars. Despite the violence imparted upon his people by wicked political rivals in his own day, however, the prophet assures his audience that this ‘Ideal King’ will nonetheless usher in what’s often called the ‘Peaceable Kingdom’, wherein: “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Is. 11:6). In this Kingdom, the prophet says, no one will “hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9). Here, the preyed upon will live harmoniously with their predators, a striking message given the bellicose context of this text and the history of oppression against the Judeans that stands behind it. Similarly, the Psalmist longs for the peace of God’s Kingdom as delivered by a righteous King. The poetry here echoes Isaiah’s reference to God’s justice raining down like water, “showers that water the earth” (Ps. 72:6) such that all people—and indeed all of creation!—will enjoy prosperity through the fecundity of God’s righteousness. These Old Testament texts speak to a hope that, like the waters that comprise the sea, our present reality will be thus “pregnant with God” (to borrow a phrase from St. Angela of Foligno), and that the broken reality around us will be healed through the holy Kingdom established by the Messiah.

Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish audience to proclaim Christ as the fulfillment of these hopes, brazenly declaring that this longed for King and Kingdom had already arrived in the person of Jesus. Citing Is. 40:3, Matthew identifies John the Baptist as a prophet who prepares the way for this Messiah, specifically here by performing baptisms in the Jordan River. Repentance is required of everyone who thus desires to participate in that Kingdom. Throughout this passage, David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament helpfully translates the fraught phrase, “repent,” as “change of heart”: “Change your hearts,” says John the Baptist to the crowd, “for the Kingdom of heavens has drawn near” (Matt. 3:2). “Brood of vipers!,” he accosts the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Bear fruit worthy of a change of heart” (Matt. 3:7-8).

Again, my own temptation is to read John’s ensuing rebuke in a way that focuses only on how the Pharisees and Sadducees will “get what’s coming to them”—that they will justly be left out of the Messiah’s Kingdom for their wickedness. But here especially, I suspect this misses the Baptist’s point. If the Sadducees and Pharisees have not yet changed their own hearts, the arrival of Jesus the Messiah nonetheless gives even them hope, whereby the gift of Christ’s Spirit desires to “burn away the chaff” in their hardened hearts “with inextinguishable fire” (DBH translation, Matt. 3:12). Matthew’s broader message in his Gospel is not that we should rejoice in the damnation of our enemies while we, the righteous in our own eyes, shall be saved, but that Isaiah’s ‘Peacable Kingdom’ has arrived in the person of Christ, a babe in a manger who will ultimately reject earthly political power, and whose Spirit intends to purge the world of the violence that plagues it precisely by making our collective repentance possible—by burning away the chaff in all our hearts that we might all be fecundated with God. In this and this alone, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Is. 11:6). Here no one will “hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9).

As I continue in the present moment to long for this Peacable Kingdom, I look to Paul’s message to the Romans for comfort. He assures the fledgling Church that even the Gentiles of Rome—the historical enemies of Israel!—have hope of “liv[ing] in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5). May I have such hope in my own imperiled time, that in my cry for God’s Justice, I might be assured that Isaiah’s vision of a world free of violence has already been made possible in the arrival of the Messiah-Child, even if we live in that achingly liminal space between his Ascension and what’s to come.

– Katie Wrisley Shelby


How would you define justice? How does your definition compare and/or contrast with the scriptural vision of divine justice in the Kingdom of God in this week’s texts?

If, according to Matthew’s Gospel, the Kingdom of God has already arrived in the person of Christ, why is there still suffering, war, and violence?

In what ways do we need to “repent”— to “change our hearts”—in our own lives as we prepare for Christmas? How might we open ourselves to permitting the Spirit’s fire to do that?

What does the name “Messiah” mean to you?


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