Isaiah 11.1-10 / Matthew 3.1-12
2nd Sunday of Advent / Year A
I’ve heard a rumour that there’s some kind of election coming up.
I don’t want to speculate on what the result will be, but in this country, when there’s a change of government the changeover is instant.
On polling day itself there are removal vans standing by in case someone needs to leave Downing Street so that someone else can move in straightaway.
Things are different in the USA, though.
In normal times, at least, when the president isn’t being impeached, the election is held in November but he, or hopefully one day she, doesn’t take over until January.
This time between being elected and being sworn in is known as the transition time.
It’s when the old regime begins to withdraw and the new one prepares to start governing.
And we are also in a transition time, now, not only politically but also spiritually.
For Advent is, among other things, about transition, and the prime symbol of that is John the Baptist.
John is a symbol of transition because he’s the link between the Old Testament and the New.
Some people don’t see the relevance of the Old Testament.
They think that the Old has given way to the New, so we can get rid of it.
Or they think that the Old Testament shows a nasty God and the New Testament a nice one.
This is obviously oversimplifying things but understandably people would rather focus on what they see as the nicer New Testament God.
But what we now call the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus’s day, so if we’re to understand Jesus’s story we need to understand the scriptures of his time, the ones he grew up with and which shaped the worldview of his time and people.
So, in that spirit, let’s go back to our Old Testament reading from Isaiah for a moment.
This reading contains a prophecy that would’ve been very well known to people at the time of Jesus.
It gives a promise that one day a Messiah will be born in the family line of Jesse, who was the father of King David, whose hometown was Bethlehem.
Suddenly we are in the royal town of Bethlehem, looking at a little baby in a manger who is in the family line of Jesse and David.
This Messiah will establish a new world order where righteousness and justice bring about safety and peace, where there’s an end to violence, destruction and fear, and where God rules over all.
A new era
This is what the Jews were waiting for when John the Baptist appeared.
They wanted a new world where they didn’t have to fear invasion, where they were no longer occupied by a foreign power, and where God would rule the world from Jerusalem.
Then John appeared in the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt.
It’s interesting that we get a description of his clothes because nowhere do we get told what Jesus or any of his disciples wore.
The gospel writers weren’t often very interested in people’s clothing in general.
But John the Baptist’s appearance was very much like that of the prophet Elijah in 2 Kings 1, verse 8, where Elijah is described as ‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist’.
John presents himself almost as a stereotype of one of the old prophets that the Jews knew so well from the scriptures, so it’s no wonder that people flocked to him.
They wanted to be ready for the new kingdom of God and were excited that at last God seemed to be acting.
At last, an end to being looked down on by the countries around them, finally an end to Roman occupation, and a chance to be top dog for ever.
Some of them got a shock, though, those who thought they were automatically better than everyone else.
They didn’t think they needed to repent so much as be baptised to show off their piety.
They were seen for the hypocrites they were and denounced in strong terms, while those who came in humility and real repentance were welcomed.
But John himself wasn’t the new thing that God was doing.
He himself wasn’t the longed-for Messiah.
What John was doing was announcing the end of an old era and the start of the new.
He was preparing the way, making people ready, ensuring Jesus got off to a good start.
He’s fierce about it, but only because of the urgency of his message and his burning desire for people to be saved now that the Messiah is here.
This is why he’s the symbol of transition and the link between our Old and New Testaments.
He speaks, looks and acts like an Old Testament prophet but brings in the era of the New Testament, where the Messiah that the scriptures have been pointing to has finally come.
But, we might object, we don’t yet have all those promises of safety, peace, righteousness and justice.
And this is because we are still in a time of transition.
When Jesus came as that baby in a manger he came to start a process.
He started the process of bringing in the kingdom of God by being born as one of us, living with us and showing God’s power at work in him by healing the sick, raising the dead and showing compassion and mercy to the unloved and outcasts, before dying and rising again for us to win the final victory over sin, evil and death.
What Jesus didn’t come to do was judge the world and wrap everything up in the way that John was expecting.
I guess even great prophets don’t always understand everything.
This is probably why later, in Matthew Chapter 11, John the Baptist writes to Jesus from prison to ask if Jesus really is who John thinks he is.
John has got worried because things aren’t going as expected but Jesus reassures him by pointing to what he’s doing.
That final time of wrapping things up when there really will be safety, peace, righteousness and justice is still ahead of us
Right now we are part of the start of the kingdom of God coming on earth.
Right now we are all voices crying in the wilderness for people to come to God and receive his blessings.
We are charged to proclaim the good news that God has come to us.
Our work for God is to comfort, heal, help and bless, and to be light in the darkness for those who need it.
And we are invited not to try to do this in our own strength but to draw near to God, not only at Advent but all year round, to receive from him, learn from him, be changed by him and strengthened by him.
During this time of transition, when the kingdom of God is growing but not yet fully revealed, we are signs and buds of that glorious future which the Old Testament, John the Baptist and generations of Christians have looked forward to, when death will be no more, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be justice, righteousness, peace and mercy for all.