Sunday, December 5, 2004

Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Blessed be Jehovah God, the God of Israel, Who only doeth wondrous things: And blessed be his glorious name for ever; And let the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen, and Amen.

One of the most common religious Christmas card designs is a picture of a lion and a lamb laying together. This beautiful image brings to mind the ideal peace for which we are supposed to hope during this special season. It is a peace without violence and fear, where the strong stand with the weak. This image comes from the Old Testament passage for today. Isaiah tells of what it will be like during the reign of the Messiah.

“And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea.”

This is an image that is hard to believe because it goes against everything we know. Lions eat lambs, particularly when they are hungry. As a parent, I certainly would not allow my child anywhere near an adder’s den, because poisonous snakes do not make good playmates. But this is a picture of the restoration of the world to be as God created it, a return to the Garden of Eden. There would be something great and unusual about this new king.

When Isaiah spoke these words, Israel was falling apart. They had no power or authority. They were a defeated people with no king and no home. God allowed Assyria to punish his people because they had turned so far from his word. But even in the midst of such destruction and dispersion, there was still hope. God would never forget his people or turn away from them. Their enemies would be punished for their own sins and Israel would be restored to Jerusalem.

Israel lived in the hope that one day the line of David would also be restored, that they would have a king to rule once again. The psalm for today is a cry for a just king and a line of power that would continue in righteousness. This would manifest in harmony between people as goodness comes upon those who are oppressed. It would be as if the lion were lying with the lamb, but it would be the powerful with the powerless. It was the hope of the people that a king like this would last forever and that his line would be eternal.

However, the line of David had become corrupt. The story of Israel’s kings reads like a broken record – there was a king that followed God’s heart whose son turned away. By the third or forth generation, the king did evil in the sight of the Lord. Then a new king was found that followed God’s own heart who would rule for a time and there would be peace until subsequent generations turned from God. A human king would never bring about the kind of peace that God was promising because the royal line was made of sinful human beings.

This kind of restoration would take something more. The peace that brings harmony between all of creation would have to come from God Himself. This anointed one would bring righteousness and right judgment. The poor and the meek would be lifted up while the wicked would be destroyed. This king, this Messiah, would not come from the line of David, but rather from his father Jesse. He would be a new David, not a son of David.

Isaiah tells us that the spirit of God would rest upon this shoot of Jesse. He would receive the gifts of the spirit. “And the Spirit of Jehovah shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Jehovah.” It is by these gifts that peace is possible. Wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety and the fear of God leads directly to justice and righteousness. Where there is justice and righteousness, there is peace.

While Israel did return to Jerusalem after the Assyrians and the Babylonians did their damage, things were never right with God’s people. They still had no king; they were longing for the promised Messiah to save them. Men came along claiming to speak for God, false messiahs used whatever means were necessary to bring power and authority back to Israel. John the Baptizer was one among many prophets claiming to speak for God.

Yet, there was something about John. They saw him as the fulfillment of the promise. He drew great crowds, had many followers. Hoards of people were being baptized in the Jordan by this man who appeared to be like Elijah. His clothing and dietary practices were similar to those of the Old Testament prophets. He was obviously a holy man by his rejection of the outward façades of the day. He was the son of a priest and should have followed in his father’s footsteps. The priestly position would have given him power and prestige. He could have worn fine clothes and eaten good food. Instead, he lived in the desert and ate the barest necessities to stay alive.

Those who were in power were curious about John. The Pharisees and Sadducees went out to where he was baptizing to see what sort of hold he had on the people. They wanted to know if he was claiming to be the Messiah and what he was teaching so that they could squelch the ministry before it got out of control.

John knew why they were there. “Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” They thought they were righteous by virtue of their heritage, but John warned them that their lineage would not save them. They were unwilling to shed their self-righteousness for faith. John came to prepare the way for the Messiah and they thought they were ready to receive Him as they were.

When we visited Scotland several years ago, we went to a castle that had once hosted Queen Victoria for a month. The preparation that went into this trip was incredible. The queen’s entourage left months before her expected arrival, taking with them many of her own items. Extensive work was done to repair and restore the castle, almost rebuilding it for her sake. Her household goods were moved into her rooms and a home was established where she would feel comfortable and safe. When she arrived, she was very pleased and honored her hosts with fine rewards.

I read a story about another king who was traveling around his kingdom. He sent word ahead to a village to prepare for his coming, but no one bothered. When the king’s court arrived to see that the village was not ready to receive the king, the king passed them by and went to the next village. John was the herald preparing the way for the King, but some of the people were not willing to do anything to receive Him. When He came, He passed them by. They were warned. John told them he was not the one, but that someone would come after him to baptize them with the Holy Spirit. John’s message was one of repentance for the coming kingdom. Jesus brought the kingdom to the people but some did not see that He was the fulfillment of the promises.

They did not see because they knew the coming kingdom would mean change. They would no longer be the power and authority, so they rejected the truth to keep their position. John said, “…whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”

I once watched as someone threshed their wheat by hand. First the farmer takes the fresh picked stalks and beats them on the ground until all kernels fall off the straw. Then he takes the pile of kernels and throws them in the air. Each kernel is covered with a useless casing which must be cast off before the seed can be used for bread or planting. The threshing floor was established in a place where the wind would blow away the covering, or chaff, when the seed was thrust into the air. Eventually all that is left on the pile is good seed. The chaff is burned. For us, the chaff is our façade, the mask we where that makes us seem more important than we really are. When Jesus comes, He will separate the chaff from the wheat.

While this passage seems to indicate a separation of people – the righteous from the unrighteous, we can also look at it from the perspective that we all have ‘chaff’ which needs to go. We have our façades, our masks, and our sins for which we should repent. We are arrogant and haughty. We do not bear the fruit worthy of repentance. This is why we remember John’s call for repentance each year, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord. Though Christ has already come, we are still longing for the fulfillment of the promises for a world restored completely to God. We remain sinners even while we are saints. We have been baptized with the Spirit, but we still need daily repentance.

This is the tension of Advent. We know Christ has come. We know the Kingdom of God is near. But we still long for Christ to come again. We are still waiting for the king who will bring peace to the earth so that the lion will lie with the lamb and the powerful will lie with the powerless. We live in this hope even while we see the disharmony of the world that surrounds us each day, the disharmony of which we are a part. This is why we need to be continually reminded to repent, because we still turn from God.

Paul reminds us of the promise from Isaiah so that we can live in hope and joy. “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit.” This joy and peace won’t come from our work or our righteousness. It is a gift of God. When we live in this hope, we can find harmony where this is disharmony and live together with our brothers and sisters in Christ despite our differences.

The Garden of Eden, the world as God created it to be, will not be restored until His second coming. Until that day, the lion will not lie with the lamb. However, in Christ we can live in harmony with one another, the powerful with the powerless. We can work for justice, caring for the poor and the weak. We can be herald’s of God’s grace, proclaiming the coming of the kingdom so that others might prepare their hearts to receive Him. Through our witness, God will be glorified in this world. “Blessed be Jehovah God, the God of Israel, Who only doeth wondrous things: And blessed be his glorious name for ever; And let the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen, and Amen.”

Thanks be to God.

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