Sermon for Dec. 8, 2019 on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12 for Advent 2A. Audio will be here for several weeks.
A shoot shall come out from the stock 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.
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 axe 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.”
How are we going to get through this? How am I going to get through this? Those questions can keep you up at night. Whether you are thinking about our country, our church, your health issues, your economic situation, or your personal relationships, the question haunts us: how will we get through it?
As a seminarian, learning Hebrew, I was struck by the way ancient Israelites referred to the future. They used the phrase, “in the behind of the days.” They faced the past that they could see, and backed into the unseeable future.
Where is God in This?
Another question we ask ourselves, as people of faith, is, “Where is God in this?” Some think that God is the master puppeteer, orchestrating events from behind the curtain. They think that God has a plan which is unknowable by mere mortals. The world would make sense if we could see it from God’s perspective, they assure us. Even the Holocaust. Even child abuse.
I personally cannot accept that view. To have a plan that included every crime ever committed would make the planner as monstrous as the people carrying out the plan. God is not a moral monster, in fact, just the opposite. So that view cannot be correct.
Well, then, if not a master puppeteer with a pre-set plan, then we are back to the question, “Where is God in this?” Is there a plan at all? This is a huge issue for all of us. We can only scratch the surface here, today. We will look to our wisdom tradition, to see what possible insights may help us get through all of this, and see where God is in it.
We will start with a glance at the text from the Hebrew Bible, from the prophet Isaiah. You have probably seen one of the paintings by Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister, and artist, in which lions and leopards are sitting peacefully with lambs and little children near them. Hicks painted 62 versions of that painting called, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” He was grasped by that beautiful vision of a world at peace, where there were no longer predators, and no more victims. He was painting the vision of this text from Isaiah 11.
But the question for Israel in the time of Isaiah was, how do you get there? How do you get from here to there? How do you get from the mess we are in, to that future state of peace, security, and abundance?
The prophet imagines that the way will include new leadership. A new shoot will grow up from the stump of the ancient king David’s family tree.
What can we expect of this new Spirit-inspired leadership? Some things are clear: this leader will be just; the poor will have the same standing before the law as the rich.
But other things are unclear. Vagueness and ambiguity in the poetry make it difficult to know whether the way forward will include violence or not, as a means to get to the time of peace and harmony.
The poet says, “He shall strike the earth,” but only with “the rod of his mouth.” He shall “kill the wicked” but only by “the breath of his lips.” Does this mean he will use only words, so that the striking and killing are metaphors for victory by persuasion? Or will there be blood on the ground? It’s not clear.
So then how does this provide us with wisdom, if the message is ambiguous? At least one thing is clear. The end state we wish for is a time of justice, peace and abundance. We share the vision of Hick’s paintings. What we long for is justice for all the poor and oppressed of the earth; for a world in which every child is safe, and there is no fear of being hurt or destroyed, as the prophet envisioned. A world in which there is enough for everyone.
John’s Take On It
So how do you get from here to there? Let us fast forward several centuries to the time of John and of Jesus. Everyone is still asking “How are we going to get through this?” And they are asking, “Where is God in this?” It’s a mess. They are humiliated, oppressed subjects of the Roman Empire, with no foreseeable way out.
John still believes in the ancient vision. The Divine will is for that peaceable kingdom of justice, peace, and abundance. But John believes there will be blood on the ground before you get to peace. He anticipates the new leadership. He expects Messiah to come, striking the ground and killing the enemies of God. His imagery is violent. It involves the “wrath to come.” “The ax is lying at the root of the trees” ready to be wielded with force. Limbs will be chopped off. Whole trees will be “cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Jesus was part of John’s group. He was baptized by John. But Jesus eventually separated himself from John’s group. Details are scarce. New Testament scholars suggest that perhaps Jesus took a lesson from what happened to John and what failed to happen.
John was critical of the current political leadership, so he was arrested. Herod Antipas’ troops got him, and Herod had him executed. God did not intervene. There was no fire burning down the trees that were bearing such evil fruit.
Bad people were not prevented from doing bad things. That seems to be how it goes in this world. Children get abused. Nazi’s march and salute. Gas chambers run smoothly. People who were sent back to Mexico to await asylum hearings are assaulted, kidnapped and raped by the hundreds.
So, back to the same questions: “How are we going to get through this? And, “Where is God in this?” Jesus took a different view. He still believed in the long term vision of justice and peace, but he rejected violence as a means. So, with “the breath of his mouth,” he taught. He taught things like “Blessed, are the peacemakers.” And, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
Was Jesus then, an advocate of passivity? Was Nietzsche correct that Christianity is “slave mentality?” Not at all. Though this teaching has been missed by the church, as so much of the teachings of Jesus have been, Jesus advocated neither violence nor passivity. He did not just roll over for the Romans. His way was a third way of non-violent, but active resistance. What do you think that demonstration in the temple was, the day he shut it down? The leadership got the message, and killed him for it. He had the courage to face even death, living for the vision of the kingdom of justice, peace, and abundance.
What about Now?
So, back to the questions. How are we going to get through this? First, by doing what Jesus did: by holding onto the vision. We will refuse to allow the current situation we are in to vanquish our hope. We believe in justice. We believe that our liberation, our wellbeing, our “shalom” is inseparably bound up with the liberation and wellbeing of the poor and the oppressed. We practice nonviolence. We are allies of and advocates for the poor and the oppressed, resisting systems of injustice.
We believe that God is not the master puppeteer, but rather the master persuader, who has put the longing for justice and peace in every heart. God is present always and everywhere, not coercing us into a pre-planned outcome, but luring us towards the good.
Where is God in this? God is right in the middle of it all with us, experiencing it with us — all of it — the joy and the pain, and offering us the possibility, in each situation, of the next right thing. That means that God is in relationship with us, with love and grace, enabling us to have the courage we need in the short term, to keep living virtuously toward the long term vision.
It is Advent; Christmas is coming. How will we get through this time in our country? How will we get through this time in our church? How will we get through all the things we face in our personal lives? We will get through it, not alone, but with God, and with each other.
God’s plan is for our wellbeing, our shalom. God’s plan is for the wellbeing, justice, peace and shalom for our society, and for our world. God’s plan is not static and pre-made, but dynamic and evolving with every moment.
So, we will have the courage to keep painting paintings of the peaceable kingdom. We will keep practicing our daily spiritual disciplines, our prayers, and meditations. We will keep gathering in common worship, giving gratitude to God and being strengthened by the sacraments.
We will keep walking backwards into the unseeable future, responding to the lure of goodness, cooking meals for the poor, making muffins for sack lunches, giving gifts to angel tree kids, providing a house for the DHS children, and reaching out to our community with courageous commitment to an ancient vision. That is how we are gong to get through this.