In these verses of the penultimate chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul begins by exhorting his readers to the hope Christians must attain through the examples of endurance, perseverance and hope found in the scriptures. This perseverance or refusal to give up must lead to tolerance and harmony found in the example of Christ himself. Christ is the only model on which Christians must base their words and deeds.
“The voice in the wilderness” found in the Gospel text of today belongs to John the Baptist who uses strong images to describe what the coming of the Messiah will entail. Though particularly strong with the Pharisees and Sadducees, John calls all people to repentance. No one is excluded. This repentance must be shown in action and not merely words. Like in the case of the king mentioned by Isaiah, “the one who follows” will here separate the wheat from the chaff. While the wheat will be gathered into the barn, the chaff will be burned in a fire.
In what is known as the third “Emanuel prophecy” Isaiah prophesies about whom many thought would be King Hezekiah. He was prophesied as one who would be filled with the gifts of the spirit which were wisdom, insight or understanding, counsel, power or might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. However, he did not come up to the expectations of the prophecy and of the people and so people began to look for a new successor to King David who would fulfill this expectation.
The world had to wait for eight centuries for this expectation to be fulfilled in its entirety. It was fulfilled in every single aspect in the person of Christ. He was and is the one who continues to stand as an ensign or signal to all peoples everywhere. He is the one who though he followed John the Baptist was more powerful than John the Baptist could ever hope to be and who baptizes not merely with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.
In his coming and in his person he invites each one of us to make a choice. We can choose to be struck with the rod or to be judged with integrity. We can choose to burn in an unquenchable fire or to be gathered up into God. The choice is entirely up to each one of us. It must also be remembered that just because we have the name Christian and have been baptized does not necessarily mean that we have chosen life over death. The choice that we make has to be shown in our lives.
When we look around at the injustice, poverty, division and disharmony that continue to exist in our world, it is not easy to believe that the Messiah King has indeed come and set his seal over all humanity. But he has indeed come. Why then do we seem to prefer to choose death over life? Isaiah seems to offer an answer to this question when he speaks of the “knowledge of the Lord” which we seem to have lost. The consequence of this knowledge is indeed harmony and transformation but because we have lost it we are caught up in disharmony and sameness. Paul takes this point further when he reminds us that we may not have persevered and lost hope. We have removed our gaze from Christ and have stopped relating to each other the way he relates to us. We have instead of being selfless preferred to be selfish, instead of reaching out have preferred to be locked up in our own small worlds and instead of enduring and persevering have lost hope and given up.
The challenge then is to go back to “our root” Jesus Christ and continue to keep our gaze fixed on him. We continue to learn from him that only in dying to ourselves can we hope to be born to new life and be gathered up like wheat into his barn.