A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on December 8, 2013 (Second Sunday of Advent)
A 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. – Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12 (John the Baptist)
In order to understand the beautiful passage from Isaiah we read this morning, it is important to know something about the kings of ancient Israel and Judah, and also to know something about geneaology. During the time that God’s people Israel had their own independent kingdom, they had kings who were supposed to rule over them on God’s behalf – with wisdom and faith and justice and care for all – from the greatest to the least and most vulnerable. The Bible’s judgment of the kings is that most of them weren’t very good. The best of the bunch was the second king, named David. It was David who unified the twelve tribes of Israel, led the armies of Israel in defending the kingdom from neighboring peoples that threatened them, and made the city of Jerusalem his capital. David was very human – he had flaws that got him into trouble, but he truly loved God with a passion rarely seen afterwards.
The Jewish people came to believe that God made a promise to David near the end of his life – an unbreakable promise that a descendant of David would always sit on the throne as king of Israel. And for several centuries that happened – even after David’s original kingdom was split in two by a civil war after the death of Solomon – David’s son, and the third king of Israel. But eventually both kingdoms of Israel and Judah were conquered by invaders. By the middle of the sixth century before the time of Jesus, the people of God had no king of their own. In the time of Jesus there was a King Herod who ruled that part of the world, but he was not a descendant of King David. He was from an aristocratic Jewish family loyal to Rome, and he was allowed to rule Judea for the Romans.
If you have ever looked into your own family history you know that families can be depicted in the shape of a tree. In the case of King David’s family, David was the youngest of eight sons of a man named Jesse, from the town of Bethlehem. So Jesse is the trunk of David’s family tree. David himself had many sons – so the tree quickly branches out — but one of them – Solomon – became the third king of Israel. And the dynasty continued for a few hundred years until the kingdoms were conquered and the line of kings came to an end. It was as if the family tree of Jesse and David was cut down.
Isaiah expressed the hope and the belief that eventually a new king would from that family tree (“the stump (or stock) of Jesse”) who would rule as the kings of God’s people were supposed to rule. This became part of the Jewish hope for a Messiah – one chosen and anointed by God to save God’s people and rule over them in a new kingdom. This is why it was important for those who believed that Jesus was that Messiah, that he was a descendant of King David.
But Jesus turned out to be a very different kind of ruler than any the world had seen before. And the Kingdom Heaven (or Kingdom of God, or Realm of God) that Jesus proclaimed was unlike any earthly kingdom before or since.
The fascinating thing about this breathtaking passage from Isaiah is that this new ruler in the line of David would not just bring justice and peace to the people of the new kingdom, but would bring in a whole new creation:
“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.”
I don’t think this was ever intended to be taken literally. I’m not sure I want our cat Mario to become friends with the mice that occasionally seem to sneak into our house! And if this were to happen, does that mean we can no longer eat meat because it means killing an animal? No, I don’t think this is meant to be taken literally.
Instead, it is poetry that makes us look at our own divisions, fears, stereotypes, and enemies. God’s new creation in Christ is one in which we have no more enemies.
Old enemies can become friends – even in this creation. Yesterday was the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Today, Americans would probably count Japan among their closest allies. Change is possible!
The early Christian church tried to live out the new creation that Isaiah hoped for. In the early church, Jews and Gentiles learned to worship together and eat together. It wasn’t easy. It required patiently overcoming years of suspicion and mutual distaste. But it happened. John the Baptist claimed that God could raise up children to Abraham even from stones – and in Christ, we all share in covenant with the God of Israel, just like the children of Abraham.
In the early church men and women were together (although it would take many centuries before women could be leaders and ministers of the church). Sometimes people don’t change as quickly as God does! In the early church, free men and women worshiped and broke bread with slaves; wealthy with poor; good, respectable people with society’s outcasts. Old dividing walls came down. And it astonished the Roman world.
We still have some work to do. God’s new creation has not come in fullness. There are still barriers that I think Christ calls us to overcome: gay and straight; black and white, and Asian and Latino and middle-eastern. Jew and Christian and Muslim and Buddhist, and maybe even atheists, too. God’s new creation is an unfamiliar place.
John the Baptist invited folks to enter that new creation. “The kingdom of heaven has come near!” John had caught a glimpse of that new creation, but he knew that he was only a servant to the one who would fully embody the new creation. John said, if you want to see the new creation, if you want to live in it, you must repent.
Repent. For some reason, that word has always sounded very judgmental to me. It has often been used to warn people they must give up anything fun or pleasurable. Certainly, we all do some things that aren’t healthy for us or others that we need to change. But I think what John was talking about is something much more fundamental. I think to “repent” as John meant it is to give up our attachment to the old creation – to the way things are. You can’t embrace the new things God is doing if you have a tight grip on what is old and passing away.
You can’t live in a creation where there are no enemies if you insist on having enemies!
I think someone who caught a real glimpse of God’s new creation is recent years is the man who died just a few days ago – Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Mandela lived under the oppressive system of racial apartheid in South Africa, and he was imprisoned for calling for it to end. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison until he was finally released. But he knew that South Africa could not move forward if it meant taking revenge on those who had been the oppressors. Mandela made friends of his captors, and he called for both uncovering the truth about the injustices that had happened, but also for forgiveness, and an opportunity to work together to build a new South Africa. Nelson Mandela was able to let go of his need to have enemies.
Christ offers to show us a new way of living as God’s people – in a new creation. Christ offers us hope, and peace. But we must repent of our fears and cynicism in order to find new hope. We must repent of our need for revenge in order to find peace.
John was a model of new creation living. He knew it wasn’t all about him. Instead, he pointed people towards the one who was far greater than he. John’s ministry was to prepare the way for the one who is God’s new creation in the flesh – here among us. That is who we are waiting for, and preparing for.
What do you need to change – to repent of – in order to receive? What enemies do you need to learn to live with?
Robert J. von Trebra