Have we heard it all before?

Signpost for Advent 2, Sunday 8 December 2013: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matt 3:1-12.

Isaiah 11: 1-11 is a beautiful piece of poetry that many people have read many times. It starts off with an image that seems so apposite after chapter 10 where Assyria is cut down as a great forest, because now a shoot will rise from a tree stump (Isa 11:1). YHWH’s power to bring life from a death is what it seems like. But the Jewish Study Bible tells me that the Hebrew word ‘geza’ can mean the stump of a tree that has been cut down or the trunk of a living tree. So bang goes the poetic justice of that train of thought. Maybe it’s just that Isaiah is very fond of using tree imagery.

That’s the things about these first 39 chapters of Isaiah; are they literal, symbolic, or both? Are they ultimately about Israel or about the whole world, about David or Jesus or both? Personally I am inclined to believe it’s all about David.

Matthew 3: 1-12 is another passage that many people have read many times. So we might think we’ve heard it all before. Here comes John the Baptist, dressed in camel-hair, living on locusts and honey and berating the Jews into repentance. But what do we know? First off, he wasn’t the only one partial to the odd locust. They were quite popular, usually roasted or sundried and they taste like shrimp, apparently. Secondly camel-hair clothes were the cheapest available. John didn’t necessarily make them himself as we moderns might think. And, John grew up in a place within view of Mt Nebo (from where Moses saw the Promised Land), overlooking the Jordan where Joshua crossed over. He spent his childhood not far from Jericho whose walls came tumbling down and he was close enough to make regular visits to the stream at Cherith where Elijah was fed by ravens. Another reason that Elijah became his style guru perhaps.

The big thing was, though, that there had not been a prophet in Israel since Malachi, around 430 B.C. John’s modelling himself on Elijah would have really stirred up first century Jews.

Then, there’s his baptising in the river Jordan. Baptism was a common enough rite, particularly self-baptism for proselytes. That’s why John loses his camel hair rag and lashes out at the Pharisees and Sadducees when he sees them coming. He knows jolly well that they are not sincerely seeking repentance because for them it would have been seen it as a humiliation; they’d be undergoing what they essentially saw as a ritual meant for Gentiles. So if they were prepared to go through with it, what was their game? Johns tells them, they can jump in the water if they like but they won’t fool anyone, certainly not his cousin, Yeshua bin Yusuf.

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