December 1 is World AIDS Day. Worldwide, 15 million children have lost one or both parents to the AIDS pandemic; in Zimbabwe, one in five children are orphans. Yet in North America, December marks the start of our annual frenzy of conspicuous consumption, and churches often counter the market’s hijacking of our feast day with poor substitutes: charity and triumphalism.
The scripture passages for these weeks do not support our holiday evasions. While sometimes hopeful, the verses are neither cozy nor celebratory. Certainly we find stories of Jesus’ birth, but they come amid news of prisons, lions, vipers, swords, armor, and genocide. The lections’ strongest themes are of justice, violence, and the role of prophets.
Over five Sundays the lectionary takes us through seven books spanning eight centuries, and we engage with some of the best-loved passages in scripture: “A shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1); “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6); “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Matthew 3:3); and “my soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:47). The dominant texts are Isaiah, the book from the Hebrew Bible most quoted in the Greek Testament, and the gospel of Matthew, the book in the Greek Testament that draws most often from the Hebrew Bible. In a complex interplay, the texts read each other, we read the texts, and the texts read us and our times.
Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus.
Hunger and War
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
The first passage, Isaiah 2:1-5, is a prophetic oracle or short poetic revelation that also appears in Micah 4. The verses from Psalm 122 follow the same pattern as the oracle: diverse groups go up to a high place to worship, God’s divine judgment follows, and then there is peace. This ringing declaration from Isaiah describes peace under God’s reign: “[T]hey shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).
The transformation of weapons into tools used for planting and harvesting crops shows that war and hunger are intimately connected, that finite resources cannot feed both the hungry and conquest. As Dwight Eisenhower said of modern weapons in a 1953 speech, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in a final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
The Isaiah reading also points out the deliberate and studied nature of war: nations learn and teach it. It is neither natural nor accidental when farmers are trained as soldiers and tools of life become tools of death. War in Central Africa and drought in the South have made AIDS and hunger a lethal combination, which escalates as it kills a generation of African farmers.
Call of the Prophets
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19: Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Prophets call insistently for justice and faithfulness in the present and point to the future consequences of injustice. This week, the importance of Isaiah, the portrait of John the Baptist as a new prophet (dressed in the garb of the prophet Elijah), and the repeating phrase in Matthew, “this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet,” can lead to the mistaken notion that prophets are fortune tellers, or in the business of predicting the future. Worse, it can imply that the Hebrew Bible and, indeed, Judaism, are incomplete without the Christian scriptures and Jesus. Prophecy is not about insiders knowing what will happen next. As last week’s readings from Matthew and Romans make clear, Christians are to expect the unexpected. We must not be complacent, for God does not move in the world in predictable ways.
In this week’s passage from Isaiah, the prophet speaks again of peace, a peace so profound that not only nations but all creation ceases to engage in war. Matthew uses the Hebrew Bible to tell the story of God’s movement, with Jesus as Isaiah’s messiah and his community as the true remnant. The Romans passage quotes Isaiah, styling Jesus as the “root of Jesse” (Romans 15:12) who brings about the era of lasting peace. Matthew calls John “the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke” (Matthew 3:3).
These conversations between biblical books are not about predictions or copying, and they do not release us from the prophets’ call to do justice in the world. In these passages, peace, the poor and meek, and the leadership of children are core—just as they are to the call and actions of prophets today.
Signs of God’s Reign
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Central to this week’s readings is an anticipated and hoped-for time, the Messianic Era, the Year of the Lord, the Kingdom with many names—what some feminists call the Kin-dom and Martin Luther King Jr. named the Beloved Community. More important than the name or its expected date are its characteristics. Isaiah, the psalmist, Mary, and Jesus all announce an era of celebration—with agricultural abundance, legal and economic justice, food security, freed prisoners, healing, joyful bodies, and care for society’s most vulnerable: widows and orphans.
In the gospel passage, John the Baptist is in prison and sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one?” (Matthew 11:3). Jesus responds typically, with a message not about himself but about the signs of the awaited age, using language and images from Isaiah. It is telling that to John—who is seeking “the one”—Jesus shows the signs of the kingdom of justice for which John has waited and worked. But to the crowds seeking a spectacle, Jesus shows the way to that kingdom and the consequences of speaking truth to power: He praises John, a prophet who is imprisoned.
In our time we listen to prophets such as Darlina Tyawana, a 62-year-old grandmother from South Africa who marched with 500 others in Ottawa, Canada, to demand more support in the fight against HIV/AIDS. “We have buried our own children and we will not raise our grandchildren for the grave.” While big pharmaceutical companies defend patents, property rights, and profits, she calls for the justice our scriptures describe. “We do not need a great deal, but we need enough. We deserve income security, training and education, emotional and social support, affordable health care, and access to medication to treat HIV and AIDS.”
God is With Us
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
The author of Matthew says that “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” (Matthew 1:18), using a story from Isaiah of another child who was to be a sign to Israel. This child and the child Jesus are to be called Immanuel, meaning “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23). What did this curious name and its implied promise mean to Isaiah, to Matthew, and now to us? This week’s readings do not make it clear, so we need to look to the passages’ surrounding materials.
Isaiah repeatedly describes the characteristics of the Messianic Era: “God with us” means peace, justice, and food security, not divine military sponsorship. And the verses immediately preceding today’s gospel reading, which contain the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17), give striking examples of God with us. Among the generations of Jesus’ forebearers, five mothers are included: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), and Mary.
None of the first four women is a model of sexual propriety, and each is in some way an outsider in Israel. But each appears in a story where powerful individuals fail to do justice and unconventional action is shown to be righteous. God’s work is characterized through them, and Mary, as active, inclusive, and unexpected.
Together, these readings suggest a kingdom-building movement that includes small-scale direct action, openness to gender diversity, grassroots leadership, the centrality of women, and work for justice on issues of survival and livelihood.
Weeping for her Children
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
Again in Matthew we see how the gospeler uses old stories to tell the new. As in Genesis, here we have a Joseph who dreams (Matthew 2:13), and as in Exodus, an infant leader in Egypt escapes an evil ruler’s genocidal decree (Matthew 2:13). To tell of the “Holy Innocents”—those male children Herod condemned to death—the gospel writer quotes Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18).
In the Hebrew Testament, Rachel weeps over her own death and the child she leaves behind (Genesis 35:18), just as in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa dying mothers grieve a generation who are raising themselves. In Portraits of HIV/AIDS in Africa, published by World Vision, Nokuthula Gamedze of Swaziland says, “My life is coming to an end. I just hope my child will be okay. It’s not easy to die and not to know what will happen to my daughter. I’m afraid she might end up alone in an orphanage. What will she remember of me?”
We end these reflections with Psalm 148. Just as Isaiah expects peace from all creation, the psalmist calls for praise from women, men, stars, animals, elements, and even sea monsters. In our own time we are called to praise God, to do justice, to announce Jesus in a world where mothers grieve, and war, hunger, profiteering, and disease make orphans at a rate of more than one a day.