Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Prepare the way of the Lord

Isaiah 11:1-10
1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2The 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.
3His 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;
4but 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.
5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6The 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.
7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
9They 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.
10On 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.

Matthew 3:1-12
1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."3This 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.'" 4Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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. 10Even now the ax 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.

11"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. 12His 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."
Advent is about expectation. It’s about expecting God’s kingdom and preparing for that kingdom. This morning we hear the voices of two prophets to help us prepare, to focus our expectation. We hear two prophets speaking about the future, about the amazing things God is doing.

Isaiah talks about a shoot from the stump of Jesse. Jesse was King David’s father, so Isaiah is really talking about a shoot of new life from the cut down family tree of David. God promised David that his descendants would always rule Israel if they were faithful to God. Unfortunately, the history of the kings of Israel is a history of turning away from God and seeking power like other rulers. That turning away led to the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah and finally led to the defeat and exile of the people as David’s line faded into obscurity.

Looking with eyes filled with God’s Spirit, Isaiah sees the day when new life will grow from that stump. He sees a day when God will call the people of Israel back to God under the rule of a faithful king. That king won’t just be a king for Israel, he won’t just lead the original people of God. Instead, as Isaiah says, “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him...” On that day the king of Israel will lead all the people of the world.

He won’t seek power and look out for his interests and the interests of the rich, as other kings have. Instead he will lead and judge with righteousness. The poor will finally have justice and the wicked will be put in their place. Instead of violence and greed, peace and justice will reign, not just in Israel but throughout the world.

It’s clear that Isaiah isn’t just thinking about a king, he’s thinking about the kingdom of God. The righteous rein of this king won’t just bring justice and harmony to Israel or to the human world, even the animal world will be transformed into a vision of peace. Instead of eating each other and oppressing the weak, animals and people will live together in harmony. Imagine how different that world would be.

We read this passage in Advent because we believe that Jesus is the king Isaiah promises. Luke and Matthew provide Jesus’ family tree tracing him back to David. Jesus is the righteous king Israel expected and Isaiah looks for. He certainly didn’t look like a typical king, but Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promised ruler and one day we will see his kingdom clearly.

Maybe John has a similar vision of God’s kingdom, but he preaches it in a different way. John focuses on what we have to do to get ready for God’s kingdom. We have to repent. In different ways we all get caught up in the injustice of our current culture. The way we drive pollutes the air. The cheap products we demand come at the cost of oppressive wages and unhealthy workplaces for those who make them. We struggle to make ends meet, often because we stretch the ends around things we don’t really need, but people around the corner and around the world go hungry.

We are caught up in a system of injustice. When God’s kingdom comes in power, injustice will vanish and there will be true justice for all. John’s question is whether we will turn from that injustice through repentance or cling so tightly that we will be destroyed along with it. God’s kingdom is coming someday. What side will we be on when God’s kingdom arrives? Do we want the kingdom of God or our own comfortable kingdom of commerce?

John pushes on. Repentance doesn’t mean feeling bad about the injustice in our lives. It doesn’t mean going about our business with a heavy heart and a guilty conscience. Repentance means turning around; it means changing our lives. The people who hear John’s message want to know what that means for them; “What should we do?” His answer is disarmingly simple: If you have more than you need, share with others. It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t mean giving five bucks to charity; real repentance means radical change, and the kind of generosity that addresses the deep disorder in our world also has to go deep.

This is a hard passage for me, no matter how many times I read it. It’s a hard passage because in the light of God’s justice my own commitment to justice is revealed in all its weakness. I want justice for all people, I love Isaiah’s vision of the peaceful kingdom, but my daily choices reveal that I do not want justice as much as I want material comfort.

This passage makes me uncomfortable, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one. I’ve lived with this discomfort for years. Usually what happens for me is that I hear a message like this and feel guilty about my privilege and possessions. I recognize God calls me to deep and radical change. I imagine that God might want me to give up my house or my car or my salary. Then I decide I’m not ready for such a radical change and resolve to “work on my spiritual life” so I will be ready sometime in the future. This process leaves repentance mostly in the world of ideas and leaves me feeling vaguely guilty without changing much about my life.

I think the better path doesn’t have anything to do with guilt. The better path doesn’t think much about what God might be calling us to give up. Instead we can think about the prophetic hope John holds up. We can keep Isaiah’s vision of the peaceful kingdom in front of us and move in that direction. This morning our prophets are asking us, inviting us, to imagine a different world. They’re asking us to imagine a world where everyone has enough to eat, a world where everyone has clothes to keep them warm, a world where everyone has a roof over their head and freedom from preventable disease.

Our prophets are asking us to imagine that world and invest in it. What kind of world do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a world full of violence and hunger, or do we want to live in a world of plenty for everyone without excess for some? The question isn’t hard when we think about it that way.

Of course, the question gets harder when it comes down to the smaller choices that make up our lives. The question gets harder when it comes down to how we stop investing in this world of injustice and greed and start investing in a world of peace and justice. Obviously, we can’t do it alone; we can’t end warfare alone; we can’t end disease or hunger or ignorance on our own. But we can take steps in the right direction and we can call others to join us.

This passage makes me uncomfortable and I’m not going to smooth over that discomfort. This Advent I’m not going to let myself off the hook. I’m not going to let you off the hook either. Each week this Advent let’s each take one step towards God’s kingdom. Let’s do one thing to change our investment from the unjust world we live in to God’s kingdom we want to build. John offers his listeners practical steps to prepare for God’s kingdom. Let’s take practical steps to change our lives each week during Advent.

This week I’m signing up as a volunteer to work with kids at the Nathaniel Hawthorn Elementary School on Goodman St. I’ll have more information in the bulletin about this opportunity, so maybe that will be your step another week. What will you do this week to prepare for God’s kingdom? What practical, sustainable, challenging step do you want to take this week to make your life fit better with God’s kingdom? Don’t just think about preparing for Christ; actually do something to get ready. What will you do to prepare the way for the Lord this week?

Thanks be to God.

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