‘That we might have hope’ Is 11:1-10; Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Rom 15:4-9; Mt 3:1-12 In his letter to the Romans cited in our second reading for this Sunday, Paul affirms that the Scriptures were written for our instruction, “that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” In many ways, Paul defined the meaning of Advent. Endurance and hope are two virtues that stand at the heart of the Christian life and are essential for human thriving. What is it like to be without any hope? To be without anything to look forward to? What satisfaction is there in life if we cannot find any meaning in our everyday lives? In his beautiful encyclical “Spes Salvi” (“Saved by Hope”), Pope Benedict talked about the difference between our “small hopes” and our “great hope.” Small hopes are the ordinary and wonderful things we look forward to on a daily basis: a weekend with family and football, some quiet time away from the chaos of the workplace, a vacation being planned, a good meal with people we love. You can add to the list. These little hopes keep us going and bring joy to our lives. But beneath and beyond these everyday hopes, the pope suggests, there is a great hope that our lives have ultimate purpose and meaning, that those we have lost in death are not lost forever, that when all is said and done our fragile faith in a God of infinite mercy and tenderness is not in vain. To hope, Paul added the virtue of endurance. Sustaining both our small hopes and especially our great hope through the setbacks and sufferings we all encounter is a challenging virtue. The onslaught of illness, an economic setback or strains on our relationships test the strength of our hope. Here is where the beauty of our Scriptures can be a tonic for our hope, especially when remembered in the midst of our Eucharist. The readings for the Advent season are exceptionally beautiful and challenging. The first reading today from the prophet Isaiah is a prime example. This vision of the ultimate future is one of the most frequently cited passages from the Old Testament. Jesus himself and the Apostle Paul evoked it as have theologians and artists throughout the centuries, including one of most beautiful canticles of Handel’s “Messiah.” The prophet speaks poetically of a future Messiah or savior, who like King David will be “a shoot that shall sprout from the stump of Jesse” (the father of David). The tree of the Davidic dynasty had been cut down through exile but from that stump new and abundant life will come. Here the prophet breaks into ecstatic praise for the beauty and strength of that future Messiah, one filled with the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, of compassion for the poor and thirsting for justice. Surely from the view of Christian faith this is an apt description of Jesus himself. Remarkably the hope for salvation, justice and healing that the prophet evokes reaches into nature itself, reminding us the Bible cares about our connection to the earth. The primal violence reflected in nature will also be reconciled and healed. The wolf will be the guest of the lamb. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors. The lion will eat hay like the ox. A child will play by the cobra’s den without fear. In our world itself, so filled with wanton violence, the eloquent hope expressed by Isaiah can never be forgotten: “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.” The Gospel account today about the preaching of John the Baptist at the Jordan reminds us that our hopes cannot be fantasies. If we long for justice, we must work for justice. If we long for peace, we must work for peace in our everyday lives, including in our own families. If we hunger for a world without violence and enmity, then we must use even the smallest opportunity to respond to violence with patience and small gestures of love.