Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bible Study for Isaiah 11:1-9 and Matthew 3:1-12, Second Sunday of Advent readings

Our Old Testament reading is from Isaiah 11:1-9.  Before we read this, however, we have to look at chapter 10.  Remember this is written in a time of war and upheaval.  God’s people are divided – North and South, Israel and Judah, and the superpower of Assyria is in conflict with these people as well. 

God promises in chapter 10 to eventually take care of the Assyrians. 
               Isaiah describes the Assyrians as being tools for God’s divine purpose.  God uses them to judge Judah.  The Assyrians interpret the events in arrogant terms – they see themselves more powerful that the God of Judah.  They have no idea they have been part of God’s divine plan.
               But God will also judge and put down the Assyrians.  And in verse 33 of chapter 10, we find Isaiah talking about how God will mow them down – literally.  Assyria is like a great forest of trees and God will take the ax and cut them down.
               So this is what we find in verse 33 and 3 of chapter 10.
 See, the Lord, the Lord Almighty,
    will lop off the boughs with great power.
The lofty trees will be felled,
    the tall ones will be brought low.
34 He will cut down the forest thickets with an ax;
    Lebanon will fall before the Mighty One.

Isaiah 11:1-9
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
In the way that God has promised to chop down the forest of Assyria, the people of God feel they have been chopped down by Assyria, but out of this destruction, from the stump of Jesse, will grow a branch. 
Before I bought my house someone chopped down a line of trees, as well they should have – they were too close to the house.  But what they did was simply take a chain saw and cut them at the base.  I can’t use my lawn mower there because the stumps, small as they are, are just too high and my blade will hit the wood.  One by one I’m taking an ax and digging up those stumps, but meanwhile, there are shoots coming up out of those stumps.
So this is what the promise is to the people of God.
It looks hopeless, but it is not.  It looks like there is no life, but the roots are alive and a branch is about to grow.
Now what makes this passage particularly odd is that scholars believe this was given at the coronation of the King, possibly King Hezekiah.  Strangely, when Isaiah stands to speak, he doesn’t talk about the new king being installed, but looks over that king’s shoulder to a future king – Jesus Christ.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
I think verse two is a lovely verse, but let’s break it down and dig into it a little.
The spirit of wisdom and understanding – these are essential intellectual qualities of a leader, king or judge.
The spirit of counsel and might – these reflect the ability to make decisions and carry them out. 
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord – these represent the spiritual qualities of leadership.
So you have in this verse 2 all the qualities of a king – the mind, the heart and the soul.  It would be nice if our own national leaders would always exhibit these qualities, especially the ability to make decisions and carry them out. 
What is missing in this description of the new king, the Christ?  Military language.  And that is sometimes used with the Messiah, but not here.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
This is the second time that we see that phrase “fear of the Lord.”  It is repeated so as to give emphasis.  It is to drive home the fact that the leadership from this king is to be more than anything else, a spiritual leadership in the will of God. 

3 He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
We all judge by what our eyes see and by what we hear.  We judge people in the court of public opinion, not in the court of law, and even in the court of law I sometimes think that the lawyers are presenting their cases to the television audience as well as the jury.
Christ set’s his judgment not on rumors, but on truth and righteousness.

3 He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
Does this remind you of any other passage of Scripture:
Ephesians 6:
13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

It is not exactly the same, but there is an occasional theme in Scripture that says we are to be clothed with the elements of spiritual values – that means two things.  First clothing is how we present ourselves to others.  We can dress casually, or formally.  We can dress neatly or as slobs.  We need to live our lives as people who project to the world spiritual values.  Second, military clothing is protection against attacks, and to be clothed in spiritual values is to be protected from the assaults of the devil.
In Isaiah, Christ is clothed with spiritual values.  These are what helps him to resist temptation in the New Testament, but they also project who Jesus is – he is righteous and faithful.
We now move into a very poetic, lovely passage of peace – idealistic, sweet, wonderful peace.
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.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not 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.
The wolf in the Bible is what Jesus is often warning us about – people who are evil and take advantage of us – those are the wolves.  We are the lambs.  So here in this text, we are reconciled and living together.
All of these creatures are animals that do not live in harmony in nature, but in the new nature that Christ will establish with his kingdom, all natural enemies now become natural friends.

Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”
The movement of John continued after the Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 9:14, 11:2-3).  It even lasted after the resurrection and beginning of the early Christian Church (Acts 19:1-7).  At times that movement was in competition with the Christian movement, but the Christian movement helped bring John’s disciples into the fold. 
Mark’s Gospel, and Q – that lost source material for Mark and Matthew – started with John’s ministry.  Matthew turns his attention to John after establishing information about the birth of Christ. 
John is identified with a passage from Isaiah, chapter 40.   
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
The clothing of John separates him from elegant society.  But more than that, it places him in an Elijah like role.  2 Kings 1:8 says of Elijah that he was, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.”
John wore a leather belt, just as Elijah did (cf. 2 Ki. 1:8), and that John wore a garment of camel’s hair, apparently a traditional prophetic garment (cf. Zech. 13:4).
He ate locusts, which was poor person’s food.  These are literally those grasshopper bugs.  While considered pests by many, locusts are enjoyed as a delicacy in some countries, including China and New Zealand. Locusts are high in protein and can be incorporated into many dishes, such as stir-fries or soups, in place of traditional meats.

I have a blog on the Internet with all of my recipes, but I don’t have one on how to prepare locusts – but I’m going to share it with you.  This is how to prepare locust:
Rinse the locust under cold water to remove any dirt or debris.
Remove the head by grasping it firmly and pulling slowly. Use the same method to remove the wings and legs.
Place locusts into a pot of boiling salt water and cook for 5 minutes or until soft.
Incorporate locusts into your favorite recipes in place of meat. They can withstand any cooking method, including frying, baking, broiling and grilling.
Of course, John probably ate the raw and used honey as a dip.
 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Here is that image of the ax to the tree that we saw in Isaiah 10, just before our Old Testament text.
11 “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. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This text leads into the Baptism of Jesus, but as an Advent theme in the lectionary, it serves to keep in mind this spirit and attitude of PREPARE.    John was sent to prepare, as seen with the reference to Isaiah 40.  And at the end of the text, John is warning that we need to stay in an attitude of preparation for God’s judgment.