Sunday, December 9, 2007

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.

A few months ago a lion became aggressive with one of the caretakers in our local zoo. The man was injured, but has fully recovered from the incident. After it happened, everyone asked the question, “What happened?” They wanted to know what would have made the normally mild cat attack the man who was there to take care of him. The problem was not with the lion. The man made a mistake. The caretakers follow a very specific guideline when taking care of the animals. They do not do their work when the animal is in the habitat. On this day, the man had carefully ensured the animal was penned while he worked.

When he was done, he let the animal free. He then noticed that he had forgotten to close a door. He thought he could sneak in the habitat, close the door and get back out without the lion seeing him. He was wrong. The lion attacked because he felt threatened. The man did something that the lion did not expect. He was afraid and so he used his strength and skills to protect himself. Lions do not attack unless they are threatened or hungry. That’s why the animals in a zoo are well fed and why the caretakers are so cautious when they do their work.

It is amazing to see a lion lazing around in his habitat in a zoo on a sunny day, he seems so harmless. Yet, if you have ever seen video of a lion attack, you know that they are far from harmless. Lions can bring down much larger animals in a matter of minutes. Their claws and teeth are deadly. One bite from their strong jaws can render a lamb lifeless.

That is why the image in today’s Old Testament lesson is so startling and comforting to us. We might think that the sheep or the goat would not stand a chance against the wolf or the leopard, but Isaiah looks forward to a time when the animals will live in harmony. It will be as it was in the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve destroyed the harmony of creation by trying to be like God. Their sin brought grief to the entire creation and now the animals face hunger and thirst, threats and danger. Even the animals were forced to live in conflict with one another.

There will come a day, however, when the entire world will be in harmony once again. Even the wolves and leopards will like with the sheep and goats. There will be no need for animals to kill, for even they will be satisfied by God’s provision. In that day even the humans will live in harmony with one another. No longer will there be men and women who harm others for the sake of some unnatural desire. There will be no need for war or hatred. Everyone will know God and will live according to his word. Then, and only then, will we know true peace.

When Isaiah spoke these words, the nation of Israel was falling apart. They had no power or authority. Assyria threatened their safety and their peace. They had turned from God and his word. They were no longer living faithfully. 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 fourth generation, the king did evil in the sight of the Lord. Then a new king was found that followed God’s own hear 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.

It would take something, someone, much greater to bring about the restoration and peace that God was promising to His people. The peace that brings harmony between all creatures has to come from God himself. The anointed one will bring righteousness and right judgment. The poor and the meek will be lifted up while the wicked will be destroyed. This king, this Messiah, will not come from the line of David, but rather from his father Jesse. He will be a new David, not a son of David.

Isaiah writes, “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.

There was something about John. The people saw him as the fulfillment of the promise. He drew great crowds, had many followers. Hoards of people were baptized in the Jordan by this man who seemed to be Elijah reincarnate. His clothing and diet were similar to the Old Testament prophets. He was obviously a holy man by his rejection of the outward facades of the day. He could have been a priest, wearing fancy robes and eating fine food. Instead her chose to live in the desert and to eat the barest necessities to stay alive.

John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the promised Messiah. Though many followed him, listened to him and were baptized by him, John was never the one they were seeking. He was simply the messenger sent to prepare the way. He knew that his purpose was not to be great, but to point toward the one who would bring salvation to the people of Israel. He had a wide following, yet he knew that he was not even worthy to touch the sandals of Jesus. John was the greatest among prophets, but he was nothing compared to the One who would follow.

The powerful leaders were curious about John. They wanted to know if he was claiming to be the Messiah. They wanted to squelch his ministry before it got out of control. When those who considered themselves righteous – the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders – went to see John, he called them a brood of vipers. They thought that they were good enough to meet the Lord, but he reminded them of the warnings from the prophets. The Day of the Lord would be a day of judgment. They would not be saved by their own righteousness or their lineage; they would be cut off from the blessings of God if they were not ready. If they did not repent, they would fail to see the promise fulfilled.

John said, “…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 wheat by hand. The farmer takes the fresh picked stalks and beats them on the ground until all the 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 situated between two open doors that allowed the wind to blow through. The thresher threw the seed in the air. It was heavy enough to drop back to the pile, but the light and useless chaff blew away. Eventually, only good seed is left on the pile. Then the chaff is burned.

John was talking to the Pharisees and the Sadducees who had come to destroy his ministry, but his words cut to our hearts too. We all have chaff. 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 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 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.

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 God’s 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.

A few years ago there was a television commercial produced by Anheuser-Busch advertising Budweiser beer. The commercial began with a colt frolicking in the field with its mom and dad watching. He ran into the barn and found the wagon all ready to go. The tiny horse slipped his head into the harness and pulled with all his weight while his mom and dad watched from the doorway. It was difficult, but as we watched, and strained with him, the wheels began to give way. Finally the wagon moved and the colt proudly drew the wagon toward the door. As the camera pulled back away from the scene, we could see the mom and the dad horse were at the rear pushing the wagon. Meanwhile, a man and a Dalmatian were watching nearby. The man said to the dog, “I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”

The older and stronger horses gave the baby a moment of joy by pushing that wagon. He will grow up in the environment meant to foster his vocation of pulling the wagon. It will take time. He has to grow bigger and stronger, but for that moment he had a glimpse into the future. In our faith journeys, there are times when we aren’t quite big enough or strong enough to accomplish our purpose in God’s kingdom. We need someone to give us a lift or push to get us moving on our way. We need others to give us help in our faith. Equally, we are called to lift up our brothers and sisters in Christ when they need a boost. We don’t do this for the acclaim; we don’t do this to get ahead. We do it to build up the church.

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 there is disharmony.

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 weak. We can herald 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.”

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