Joy provides the focus for the second Sunday of Advent. We tend to equate joy with happiness, and there’s certainly a connection there. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Sometimes a life undergirded by joy (particularly if it’s connected to the good news of Jesus Christ) contains a sparse amount of “happy talk.” Take, for instance, a man whose life-long dedication to the establishment of justice and equality in his homeland of South Africa continues to inspire the world long after his death.
We could certainly do far worse on this Second Advent Sunday than to spend some time honoring the memory of Nelson Mandela. Yes, he was an imperfect man–husband, father, soldier, leader–and was the first to admit it. But he will be remembered as the father of a new South Africa, the unifying figure who envisioned a far better day for his people. He worked for an end to the evil system of apartheid and spent 27 years in prison for opposing the government that instituted and sustained it. He cast a ballot in a democratic election for the first time when his name was on it for the office of president.
Mandela’s longing for the betterment of humankind and indeed the world at large has been expressed in multiple ways throughout the centuries. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah sketched a vision for his countrymen at the very moment when they faced their greatest challenge:
A shoot shall come out from the stump 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. 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. 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. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. –Isaiah 11:1-10 NRSV
The people of ancient Judah would spend more than seven decades in Babylonian captivity, with only fading memories of their once glorious temple in Jerusalem. It would become a place of desolation. And although they would eventually return to rebuild the city and temple thanks to the generosity of the Persian king, Cyrus, life would never return to the glory days of David and Solomon.
Yet the words of Isaiah and other prophets would remind them that God had not forgotten them, that they still had a future in which justice, equality, and righteousness would be the hallmarks of society.
Centuries would pass before another prophet would appear in the Roman province of Judea. John the Baptizer called and challenged his people to turn from the path that was taking them away from God and to prepare for the coming of God’s anointed one, a messiah who would save his people. The Gospel writer Matthew offers this account:
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.’ ” 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. 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. 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. “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. 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.” –Matthew 3:1-12 NRSV
John counseled the crowds that followed him out into the wilderness to “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” that they could not rely on their ancestors’ relationship with God: “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
It’s worth noting that John did not call people to repent primarily because of their sins. No, he called them to repent because the kingdom of God was at hand. Despite the awesome power of the Roman Empire and the spiritual and moral failings of the people of Judea, God still had intentions to bring to fulfillment the vision expressed by Isaiah centuries before.
John prepared the way for Jesus, whose coming marked the inauguration of God’s reign of peace, justice, and equality on earth as it is in heaven. That vision, of course, remains to be accomplished in full. But because of Christ Jesus we can joyfully expect that day to come.