Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 8, 2013 on Isaiah 11:1–10 and Matthew 3:1–12
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.”
Before I went to seminary, we lived in Cincinnati where we were members of a local church. I had an experience there, more than once, that I can only describe as liminal. Liminality means feeling as though you are in two conditions at once. It’s like standing on the threshold of a doorway; you are both inside and outside at once.
I usually got something out of the sermons and I tried to listen carefully. But sometimes in the middle of a sermon my mind would wander. Not just randomly, but rather, introspectively.
I would find myself thinking about my life, what I was doing with it, and where it was going and whether or not I needed to reconsider my path.
I would think about my daily habits and routines and sometimes resolve to change things. It is not that the subject of the sermon was about the need to make those changes – that’s what made these experiences so oddly liminal – often the subject had nothing to do with the direction my mind had taken.
I was hearing the sermon, but it seemed that I was also receiving a message intended for me, coming from another source. I don’t know if this ever happens to you, but I hope it does. I hope that regardless of my words, sometimes you receive a message that has nothing to do with what I’m talking about.
Church as Liminal
We prepare to go into a liminal space – neither out of the world nor entirely engaged in the world as we normally are. The TV is not on. The radio is not on. We don’t hear conversations in the background, nor even a Muzak soundtrack. Sundays are a liminal time. We slow down, get quiet, and become open to hearing God speaking.
Advent itself is a liminal time. We are anticipating the celebration of Christmas, but we are still in a time of waiting. Each week we light another candle in the advent wreath, but the Christ candle remains unlit until the right moment. Maybe God can speak to us in a new way in this liminal time of Advent.
The Church itself is in a liminal moment. We know that a past world is ending for the church. We know a future is emerging. We inhabit both conditions without knowing how the future will look. Perhaps this is a time God is speaking to the church in a new way?
John and Liminality
Getting people into liminal space is exactly what John the baptist was doing. Can you imagine what it would have meant to go to see him back then? It would mean leaving your city or town where you worked and lived, and going out into a kind of no-man’s land.
It would be like going camping – leaving the normal everyday comforts and routines and going some place you generally stayed away from; the wilderness.
But it wasn’t just any wilderness. If you were part of the crowds that went out to the banks of the Jordan River where John was preaching, it would be like going to Gettysburg, or Pearl Harbor or Ground Zero – it was a place of historic national importance.
You and your people would knew the history – there was a time when your people were on the other side of that river, out in the wilderness, before any of you had come into the Promised Land.
That was a liminal time for the whole nation: wilderness was where you were freed former slaves, but not yet in the land as a settled nation. It was a time of God’s blessing – as the story goes, it was there that you received the manna from heaven, and the water from the rock.
But it was also a time of repeated testing – and failing.
And yet, in that liminal wilderness time, you had also heard God speaking. You received the Ten Commandments and all of the rest of Torah – God’s instructions for their life as a covenant-community.
You heard the vision of the common good.
Why does God seem to speak to us in liminal wilderness times? Maybe we needed to be out in the wilderness to hear God speaking.
Maybe the din of Egypt’s commercial machine – bricks without straw, 24/7, no Sabbath, no non-productive time, is too much noise.
Maybe God has to call us out in to the wilderness, or at least into the liminality of a Sunday morning in Advent so we can be still enough to hear his voice.
So, you find yourself down at the Jordan River. What does John, this rustic, Elijah-looking prophet say? He says:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
It sounds so harsh, so judgmental. We do not use the “R” word much any more. We used to. The church used to be the world heavy-weight champions in judgmentalism.
We made scarlet letters to help us all know whom to shun, we made unwed mothers feel like criminals, we used to treat divorcees like lepers, and we didn’t even let a conversation about gay people get started. We used to be experts in making people feel guilt and shame. The word repent was heard among us.
But just like John, we were experts in getting it only partly right. Partly right means partly wrong. John was both right and wrong, we have been both as well.
John told the people to “repent” – literally to change their thinking and their lifestyles – because the kingdom of God, (or “heaven”) had arrived. That much was correct. Jesus had come. God was doing a “new thing.”
In the past, there at the Jordan, they crossed over from wilderness into the Promised Land – that is, from wilderness into their own kingdom. Now, John was inviting them into those waters again, but this time to prepare for a new kind of Kingdom that was finally at hand.
It was time to get into the water and enact a cleansing baptism, to wash off the old way of living, to go down into the water like descending into a grave and to come up as if raised from the dead. It was a time to stop the pretense that the status quo was good, or acceptable, or working.
The political status quo of Herod and Pilate and Caesar – with all of its injustice, discrimination, oppression, violence was intolerable.
The religious status quo of abuse and empty formalism was vacuous.
The personal status quo of hopelessness, guilt and shame and was about to be transformed. That’s what John was right about.
What he did not get right was the method. He was anticipating something that he described with violent images like axes cutting down trees, and burning fires of judgment.
What he got instead was Jesus, who came saying things like “turn the other cheek, go the second mile, I was hungry and you fed me.” It confused him.
The church has been, like John, partly right, but partly wrong. We have been good at saying things need to change, but not always so good at recognizing what it is that needs to change.
Repentance is needed, but from what?
It’s like when you are going through your refrigerator to remove the spoiled food. You can throw out a lot of containers, but if you don’t get the one in the far back corner behind the mayo where the rotten stink is coming from, it’s not going to help.
In this liminal Advent season, we need to stop everything, pause, and review the vision. What are we about? Why are we doing this? Where is this going? What is God’s dream – because that is the only one worth dreaming.
For this, we turn, just as Jesus did, back to the ancient vision of the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah said that when the new shoot appears, that grows up from the fallen family tree of Jesse, the father of the ancient king David, the Spirit of the Lord will empower him to begin a new kingdom.
“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 old exhausted status quo conditions will be transformed. The poor and the meek will no longer be victimized, but rather, in Isaiah’s dream we read,
“with righteousness he shall adjudicate for the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”
A Halt to Harm
God’s good dream is a a world in which harm has been halted. The single defining characteristic of nature and of humanity – kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, prey and predator, judgment without mercy, is over.
“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… They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;”
Repentance Needed Here
Repentance is needed. We have accepted harm as a natural condition. We have not dreamed this dream. We accept the harm that free markets do as if we were helpless to redress the disparity in incomes and wages or to respond compassionately to unemployment.
We have accepted the harm that meritocracies produce, as if productiveness defined human value, as if every life were not precious.
We have accepted the harm that money does to our political life, as if we served Mammon’s interests and agenda.
We have accepted the harm to our own spirits and our families that consumer-culture creates, we have even let them call us “consumers” as if consuming was what we were here on earth to do.
In God’s dream that “c” word should be as offensive as the “n” word. But we have embraced it.
We have accepted harm being done to our planet as if we were not responsible. As of ends justified means – which is an impossibility. As if “energy needs” were the only topic to bring to the discussion. As if we were entitled to destroy what we did not create.
But we have a vision that is better. We have a dream of a kingdom in which hurting is no longer tolerated. When the meek and the poor in spirit are called blessed.
Let us be loyal to this ancient dream. It is God’s dream for us. It is Jesus’ dream of the kingdom of God.
In Advent, on a Sunday morning, we step into this liminal space, a space of wilderness, a space of waiting. We get quiet and reflective.
We ask: How is my life going?
What needs to change?
What do I need to repent of?
What part of God’s good dream do I need to begin to dream, for myself, for my neighbor, for my church, for my family, for my planet, for my world?
A voice cries out to us, in the wilderness. May we listen.
May we hear.