Against this background of a weak and witless king, Isaiah wrote,
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
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. (Isaiah 11:1-2)
While Isaiah couched his prophecy in language of the future, his listeners could not help but see the contrast to Ahaz’s behaviour.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
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.
Isaiah’s prophecy says one or Jesse’s heirs will put forth shoots and branches and will become a literal ‘family tree’ of the future king. Many hoped for someone like David, Jesse’s father, a warrior king who could assert Judean independence against overwhelming odds. While the people wanted immediate delivery from their situation, the prophecy became embedded in their hopes of eventual freedom.
The earliest Christians understood the prophetic words of Isaiah as pointing directly to Jesus, a descendant of David and Jesse. They saw him as arriving with the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might and knowledge and fear of the Lord… who judged the poor and meek with righteousness.
St. Aidan’s Advent discussion of Refugia Faith, by Debra Rienstra, borrows the concept of refugia from the opening verse of Isaiah: A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Refugia are little pockets of safety where some plant, insect, bird and animal life shelter during a seemingly all-encompassing environmental catastrophe. After the explosion of Mount St. Helens, for example, when 40 square miles of land around the mountain had been blasted and scorched by the eruption, it was thought that the area would be a wasteland forever. Yet, within years new life had re-emerged from holes and places sheltered by rock to cover the area with plants, flowers, trees, birds and wildlife.
Rienstra defines ‘Refugia faith’ as an alternative posture to the prevailing culture, based on a humble discernment of God’s will and nurture of God’s Kingdom in a seemingly devastated spiritual wasteland. Isaiah’s followers defined such a culture.
The gospel for the second Sunday of Advent prophesied the imminent arrival of the king (Matt 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.”’
John sensed the imminent arrival of Isaiah’s promised one. In fact, Matthew used Isaiah’s words, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight (Isaiah 40:3) to describe John and to link Jesus’ anticipated arrival to the prophecy.
John’s call to repent, meant "to turn one’s life around or reorient oneself". Repentance meant more than saying, ‘I’m sorry’. It involved changing how one behaved and avoiding the situations that were likely to tempt one to sin.
The wilderness of Judea east of Jerusalem, slopes down to the Dead Sea. The Qumran community, notable for the Dead Sea Scrolls, had its settlement near there and there is evidence of other religious communities having been located there. John may well have associated with others who lived an ascetic spiritual life in the region.
Matthew uses the Kingdom of Heaven to refer to the fullness of God’s power and presence that will be acknowledged by all creation. In his gospel the phrase appears thirty-one times: many more than the other gospels, combined.
When he arrived, Jesus repeated John’s exact words…Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matt 4:17) as an endorsement of John’s message.
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 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.
Dried locusts taste like pretzel sticks and contain 62% protein, 17% fats and trace magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese, sodium, iron and phosphorus. They are nutritious.
The gospel continues, 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…. Even now the axe 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. ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one 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. 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.’
Both Isaiah and John the Baptist understood that their respective societies were not aligned with the will of God. Each addressed the situation in a unique way: Isaiah with a promise of rebirth from the stump of Jesse and: John with a call to repent. Both Isaiah and John lived and preached as outsiders to their dominant culture, and John as an outsider even to the religious institution of the day. Yet, each spoke prophetically to their audiences as a representative of a faithful remnant…a refugia…and urged it to change its ways. It was message from an estranged but caring prophet.