Sermon on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12k for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, Year A, Dec. 4, 2016
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
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.”
Living Towards the End
No one can expect to be perfectly healthy – perfect blood pressure and heart rate, perfect breathing, perfect muscle tone and flexibility, and to be perfectly free from all illnesses. But we all have a notion of perfect health as an ideal state. Perfect health is the goal, so that is what we try to work towards.
Most of us are aware that there is a profound connection between our bodies and our inner lives. In fact, it really is a mistake to speak of our bodies and our minds, or spirits, or souls (whatever you want to call it) as if they were two things that are connected. We are really one whole being with different organs and limbs and systems, and among them are our hearts and minds.
So, the ideal state of perfect health must include a perfectly in-tune spirit. One that is not consumed by anxiety, or fear, or remorse. One that is not closed off from others, either from sharing joy or from sharing pain and suffering. We could say that perfectly in-tune spirit would be filled with faith, hope and love.
We do not expect perfect health of our bodies and spirits, that is the ideal that we aim for. By diet, exercise and rest, and by regular Christian practices, we grow closer to the goal. Letting them slide takes us further away.
So, we need two things: a goal to work towards, an ideal state, and a robust set of habits, disciplines and practices to help us move towards the ideal.Our two Advent texts today give us both the ideal and the practices.
The Vision of Isaiah
Isaiah gives us the ideal in a beautiful poem. Written from a time of hopelessness, in which the Kingdom of Israel, pictured as a tree that had been cut down to a mere stump, Isaiah imagines a future with hope. King David had led the nation to greatness, but that was long ago. David’s father was Jesse, so Isaiah says,
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
The hope Isaiah has is for a new leader to emerge. What kind of leader?
“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.”
This kind of Spirit-filled, wise, faithful leader will have specific aims for his land, and specific programs to accomplish. He sees deeply into the needs of the people, past the surface layer of wealth and prestige, deeper than the typical power politics played by local elites to serve their own interests.
“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 has opposition. He has enemies. But the weapons he wields against them are the non-violent weapons of words: words of persuasion rather than coercion. With rhetorical intensity Isaiah says,
“he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
So what kind of kingdom does this kind of leadership produce? Here is the ideal, the vision of the end result:
“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.”
This is our vision: a world with out violence or injustice. The ideal state is shalom; peace, wholeness. A world in which the vulnerable, like children, have no fears. A world in which the poor and the meek find that their lives matter. A world without violence. Isaiah says,
“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.”
Knowledge of the Lord
The knowledge of the Lord is what propels this vision of shalom. Knowing the Lord means knowing God as Creator, who loves the good planet God made and the people, male and female, made in the image of God. Knowing the Lord means understanding that our original state is blessed and called “very good” by our Maker.
And so our vision of the ideal state to live towards is this vision of universal shalom.
Practices that Move us Towards the Vision
We need practices to move us toward this vision. Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew give us the practice to begin with. It is the much-maligned and misunderstood practice of repentance.
For some, repentance conjures up images of people in emotional turmoil, expressing deep regrets, perhaps feeling shame. But the word comes from roots that mean to change the mind; to think differently and therefore to live differently. There is no necessary connection to an emotional state.
Repentance is like a light bulb coming on in a dark room. It is like waking up from sleep. It is like an ah-ha discovery or realization that leads to a change.
The way Matthew tells the story, to be prepared to receive what Jesus is offering, first you need what John brings: a specific practice of preparation; repentance.
Repentance is not a negative state. It comes from the willingness to look honestly at our lives and ask: what needs to change? If I am going to live authentically towards the vision of shalom, what do I need to think differently about?
The problem we all have is that we live in a world that is not helping us get to that vision of shalom. We live surrounded by messages that promote the opposite. We hear voices calling for division rather than reconciliation. We live in a culture that is intoxicated by violence. You can hardly find films to watch that do not have violence at the center.
We live in a society that never tells us to let go, but always offers more. But maybe it is the “more” that is the problem. Maybe letting go is the step we should consider.
Come Down to the River
So John calls the people to come out to the wilderness – with all of the meanings and memories that evokes for Israelites – the place they wandered for 40 years looking for the promised land. John has them come down to the river Jordan, the border that marks the end of wandering and the land of promise.
And John invites them to baptism. It is a ritual that enacts a cleansing; washing off that which needs to be let go of. And baptism, going into water and back out again, is like a death and resurrection. Death to an old way of being. A new birth into a new way.
It is not the ritual alone, that John called people to, but to the deep change of thinking and therefore living that the ritual symbolizes. That’s why he has such harsh words for those who he believes are coming without sincerity or authenticity.
But just like the original Hebrews crossed that river and immediately changed their identities from being landless wanderers, to people of the promised land, citizens of a new nation, so John’s call to repentance is a call to a new identity.
Change your thinking; the kingdom of God has come near. This is how to prepare for the arrival of the Spirit-led, wise and faithful one who is the branch springing up from that ancient stump, the one who will bring God’s saving shalom.
So, let this time of waiting for the advent of Christmas be a time of preparation; a time of reflection. Let us take time daily, in silence, to consider and take stock. What do I need to let go of to help me move towards the end goal? What practices do I need to initiate, or to restore? What habits have I acquired along the way that need to change?
As we take stock, we consider our lives in all their facets. Since we are not separate bodies and souls, but an integrated whole, we consider the changes we need to make both in our bodies and in our inner lives.
We take stock of both our personal worlds and our public lives. We consider not just how we live as members of a family and social world, but also how our lives participate in the greater community of our nation, and our planet.
How does our vision of shalom for the world find expression in our politics? How does our vision of shalom for the world affect our treatment of our environment?
The practice of repentance accomplishes at least one amazingly powerful feat in our lives: it eliminates the possibility of thinking we do not need to change. This is tremendously freeing. To repent is to acknowledge that I am not there yet. There are things I do that are not helpful. There are things I am not doing that would be helpful. There are habits of living and habits of thinking I have picked up along the way that need to be broken.
There is a better way. Repentance means that I embrace that better way. I will keep focused on that ideal, that vision of the end, and live in such a way that moves towards shalom, in my personal and public life.
So hear the call: the kingdom of God has come near. Repent; change your thinking and therefore your living, and so, prepare the way of the Lord, body and soul, privately and publicly. Live towards the vision of the ideal; the shalom that God intends for all the world.