The Second Sunday of Advent tells of the new beginning when “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). The advent of this new leader will inaugurate a new world order where righteousness and peace will prevail. Because God’s Spirit will rest upon him, he will lead according to God’s purposes. All creation will rejoice and live in new harmonious patterns “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord . . .” (11:9b)
The Epistle lesson echoes the theme of living in harmony with one another, “in accordance with Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5). The encouraging hope offered through his life allows his followers to welcome each other, the cultural chasm between Jew and Gentile notwithstanding.
While in Myanmar, I observed how tribal groups must be intentional to relate to those “others” also present. It is all too easy to live in insular ways within our own culture. Our group from Central had to make sure we were not just talking among ourselves, also. Welcoming the other requires that we de-center ourselves and make space for one we can only see, at first, as different. And most human groupings tend to measure others by what is familiar to their own practices.
It is easy to be dismissive of those we consider “too different.” When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea in his wild garb, proclaiming his wild message, it is amazing that he got such a hearing. Perhaps it was because he was embodying the message of the prophet Isaiah as “the voice crying in the wilderness” (Matthew 3:3). It is hard to dismiss a real prophet; his critique of the religious ethos of his day was too perceptive to be ignored.
That religious leaders would submit to his baptism, especially after he called them a “brood of vipers,” demonstrates their repentance. Even so, the Baptizer is quick to point beyond himself. They should look for the “one who is more powerful than I [who] is coming after me . . .” (v. 11). The coming One will set much discord into motion, toward the goal of reconciliation and peace.
Living in harmony is the eschatological hope for humanity, yet ignoring difference or denying our need for repentance makes such harmony unrealizable. We tend more toward self-protective exclusion than authentic embrace, to use Miroslav Volf’s categories. It is precisely this fear of the “other” that God’s reign undercuts. No longer does lineage or ethnic identity grant privilege; it is one’s relationship to Christ that matters. The One who welcomes all—Jew and Gentile, American and ethnic tribes of Myanmar—makes it possible for us to be filled with joy and peace, and together we can “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:13).