Second Sunday in Advent
And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek; and his resting-place shall be glorious.
After we moved into our house in California, we walked around the lot planning our landscaping. We talked about which bushes to plant and were to put flowers. We talked about pruning the trees and removing the old, dead plants. In the front corner, a very prominent spot, there was a plant that perplexed us. It was a stick, a single branch sticking straight out of the ground. It looked ridiculous. We thought about removing it, but wondered what it might be, so we decided to leave it there until the spring to see what it would do.
We were so glad we did. By the next spring we realized that we had a treasure on our hands. It was a lilac, a white lilac. Lilacs are not typically found in the Sacramento valley, and white lilacs are even rarer, so we had something special. By the time we left that house, our lilac bush had spread and was so beautiful that many of our friends begged us for some to plant in their own gardens. We didnít know what to do and we didnít have the Internet back then, but we discovered that lilacs propagate by spreading the root system and then sending shoots through the surface of the earth. We were able to dig down and cut through the root system, pulling out each shoots which could then be replanted anywhere. For a moment our friends had a single stick somewhere in their yards, but they too ended up with big beautiful bushes.
Sadly, the people who bought our house saw no value in the lilac bush. We heard from a neighbor that they parked an old car on top of it. Thankfully, the lilac was not lost forever because we were able to share those shoots with others.
In the beginning, Israel was little more than that lilac bush when we moved into the house, barely a branch sticking out of the ground. God blessed Israel, and she became a great nation. Throughout her history, however, there were many who saw her as nothing of value, driven over and destroyed. Israelís troubles were not always caused by other nations; sometimes she suffered from self-inflicted wounds. The kings did not live according to Godís Word. The people chased after false gods. They were caught up in their own lusts. They lost sight of God.
But God continued to bless Israel; He was faithful to His promises. Every few generations saw a king that remembered God and they repented. At times God allowed Israelís enemies to overwhelm them, and each time the people turned back to Him. They cried out to Him and He answered. The priests offered sacrifices, the people sought forgiveness, and God had mercy. Those sacrifices and the forgiveness they gained were not lasting, however. The priests had to repeatedly offer the sacrifices in the Temple, regularly returning on the Day of Atonement to seek Godís grace for another year.
From the beginning, however, God knew that He would have to do something permanent. Human nature is fickle. We will always turn from God if we go it on our own. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we will try to become our own gods. But human beings cannot be gods. We are perishable. We make mistakes. We sin. On our own we will always make choices based on our flesh, and we will always find that those choices will lead us back to the place where we have to cry out to God for salvation and appease Him with sacrifices. We will even think that making a sacrifice will make everything right, turning our faith inward, trusting in our own works.
God knew human nature, and He planned from the beginning a way of overcoming our frailty. Jesus was the plan all along, and we see the promise of Him throughout the Old Testament scriptures. During Advent we look at these promises and we see Christ woven into the whole plan of God. He will be the King of kings. He will be the Lord of lords. He will be the final sacrifice that will restore Godís people to Him forever.
In our first lesson, Isaiah describes the perfect leader, the shoot that would come. This leader has wisdom, understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear. Perhaps this sounds redundant. After all, isnít wisdom, understanding and knowledge the same thing? No, they arenít; a good leader has all three. Wisdom is the ability to discern between right and wrong, good and bad. Understanding comes from the heart, being able to identify with the circumstances. Knowledge is having the facts. A good judge has all three. A good judge also accepts counsel, heeding the advice of those who might have a better grasp of the situation. Might, or strength, means authority and power, and when used appropriately can provide justice. Fear is not meant to be understood in terms of a bad horror movie, but as a state of awe for the One who truly rules. A good leader will be all these things.
A leader will also be righteous, meaning he (or she) will have a right relationship with God. This means he has the heart to do what God would do. And a good leader is faithful. He keeps his promises. Can you imagine what the world would look like if we had leaders that were wise, understanding and knowledgeable, who accepts right counsel and proper authority, and who has the heart of God? Can you imagine if we had leaders that were righteous and faithful in all things? We might have leaders that display one or more of these characteristics, but it seems like none truly fit this bill. Only One, Jesus Christ, is the perfect leader.
Isaiah tells us what the world will look like when we have a leader like this. The lamb will lie with the lion, the bull and the bear will eat together. The world will be at peace; there will be no more enemies, no more hunter and prey. This is a world we long to experience, but it is a world that will not come by means of flesh and blood. Only Jesus can fulfill this promise. As we wait the coming of the Christ child, we are reminded by this text that we also await a second coming, for only in that advent will this kind of peace become real.
God created a perfect world where everything and everyone lived in harmony. Human creatures brought sin into the world by rejecting Godís Word and trying to be like Him. Through Adam and Eveís disobedience, even the animals have to live in a world where there is hunger and thirst, threats and danger. Even the animals are forced to live in conflict with one another.
Human beings are the only animal that fights and kills for all the wrong reasons. Even lions, which are thought to be so wild and violent, will only kill when they are hungry or threatened. Even then, the killing is limited to only what is necessary for life. Unfortunately, that is not always true of humans. Human beings stalk after a different kind of prey, the weak and the innocent. They leave a pile of waste in their wake. Human beings do not find satisfaction in Ďjust enough.í We want more. We want everything our heart desires, and that often means causing unnecessary pain to others.
I love the image of the lion lying with the lamb, but it seems impossible. My own cats canít even lie down together or go through a day without getting into a cat fight. My kids, as much as they love one another, have found a million ways to disagree, often bickering about the silliest things. Look at our nation these days: we are divided by ideology and find it difficult, if not impossible, to even get along. We see a picture of a lion and a lamb together and we assume that the lion is salivating in want for the lamb. It is a dog eat dog world, and the only way to win is to be the first to attack. We are no different than those kings throughout the history of Israel. We turn inward, trusting in ourselves, and we leave our neighbors and our God in the dust.
Yet, there will come a day when the entire world is in harmony again. Even the wolves and the leopards will lie with the sheep and the goats. There will be no need for animals to kill, for even they will be satisfied by Godís provision. In that day even human beings will live in harmony with one another. No longer will men and women harm others for the sake of some unnatural desire. There will be no need for war or hatred. We will be restored to our God and will live in His presence for eternity; we wonít have need of anything because God will provide. Our work will be praising God and our joy will be lasting. It is no wonder that we sigh with anticipation, especially since our human leaders so often fail us.
The Pharisees and Saduccees were the leaders of Godís people in Johnís time. In the Gospel lesson from Matthew we hear his voice, the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ďRepent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.Ē John the Baptist knew that the leaders were not taking care of Godís people. They were like those kings throughout history who sought their own righteousness, their own power, their own glory. They had been called to fulfill for that generation the promise of justice and peace, but they failed. John spoke to those that had followed him into the wilderness and he asks, ďWho told you to come here?Ē The Pharisees and the Sadducees had their history, the same history we read in the Old Testament prophecies, but they did not understand.
John promised the coming of the One who has wisdom, understanding, knowledge, authority, righteousness and faithfulness, as well as that humble relationship with His Father. He will come and He will make all things right. He will baptize with more than water and feed us with more than bread and wine. He will give us His Spirit and remove from our lives the imperfections that bring us down. It won't happen overnight. It won't happen in the next few weeks. Itíll take a lifetime or more; it will happen in Godís time.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees went to the river because they were curious about his ministry. They wanted to know if he was claiming to be the Messiah. They wanted to squelch his ministry before it got out of control. They wanted to destroy his ministry. John was talking to them when he said ďYou brood of vipers,Ē but his words cut to our hearts too. We have our facades, our masks, our sins from which we must repent. We are arrogant and haughty. We do not bear the fruit worthy of repentance. This is why we remember Johnís 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 promise of a world restored to God. We remain sinners even while we are saints. We have been baptized with the Spirit, but we still need daily repentance.
We dwell in a time between the already and the not yet. We know that the Christ child has come, but we wait for Him to come again as King. We know that Christ has died, but we wait until that day when the forgiveness that came with His blood is fully realized. We wait for that which already is, but is yet to be.
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 the lion and the lamb to lie together in peace. We live in hope for the day when the powerful will lift up the powerless. We live in this hope even while we see the disharmony of Godís creation in the world today. We are part of that disharmony. That is why we need to be reminded to repent. We still turn from God. We still forget to meet the needs of our neighbors. We still trust in ourselves rather than in the One who can truly save us.
Paul writes of the harmony that exists in a kingdom where God rules. Like the promise in Isaiah, the people join together as one voice, glorifying God. We canít do it without Godís help. Jesus came at Christmas as a down payment on the promise, to give us a glimpse of what it will be in the day when He rules over all. For now we have to wait for the promise to be fulfilled. We wait for the king who will bring peace to the earth so that the lion will lie with the lamb and the powerful will care for the powerless. We live in this hope even as we dwell in the disharmony of the world as it is.
Israel was once like that lilac in my yard, barely worth the trouble of keeping around. It is no wonder that she was trampled over throughout history, even until today. It didnít help that some of the trampling came from within, from those who were entrusted with her care and protection. But God knew, and God was prepared with a plan that would provide His people with an eternal solution to their frailty.
The psalmist prays that God will give the king justice, that he will dwell in Godís righteousness. Every good and perfect thing that can come to a nation and a people begins with the goodness of the king or leader. This particular Psalm was sung by David for his son Solomon, and during Solomonís reign the nation of Israel did prosper. His heart for God, his desire for wisdom, his pursuit of justice brought a golden age to the land. The world sought Solomonís wisdom and the kingdom benefitted. The kingdom benefitted because Solomon stood as a leader and the people followed. They did what was right. They listened to his wisdom, experienced his understanding, sought out his knowledge. They respected authority and had a healthy awe of the Lord. Together they lived in Godís blessing.
But even Solomon was not perfect, and his kingdom didnít last forever. The offspring of Jesse, David and Solomon failed to be all that God intended for His kingdom. Only Jesus could fulfill the promises of the psalm. Only when Jesus rules the entire would will peace abound and righteousness flourish. Until that day, however, we can try to be wise, understanding, knowledgeable, seeking counsel and might, fearing the Lord. Perhaps, just maybe, weíll experience a little bit of that promised peace.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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