Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, December 4, 2022

YEAR A 2022 advent 2

Advent 2, 2022
Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, here we are in our second scary week of Advent.  I hope you’re enjoying our journey toward Christmas as much as I am preaching about it.  But let’s start here . . .

It’s important to keep in mind that every word spoken in the Bible does not get equal weight.  The words of God in the beginning of creation, speaking everything into existence, are not on an equal plain with Job’s friends telling him to curse God and die.  And in a similar way, the words of John the Baptist today are not on the same level as any words spoken by Jesus.  In fact, at this point in the story, John has not even met Jesus, and does not know who Jesus is, so he’s definitely not speaking for Jesus.  Just a point to keep in mind.

Now, specifically, the reading we just heard, that confrontation between John the Baptist and the Pharisees and Sadducees needs a little context.  As the historian Josephus tells us, there were three main political groups operating among the Jews in Jesus’ day.  You had The Pharisees, who had extra rules and believed in the resurrection.  And you had the Sadducees who stuck to the written word with fewer laws, and denied an afterlife.  But John, they say, belonged to a third major group, called the Essenes, who shared all their possessions in common, and stayed out of public life.  Pharisees and Sadducees would have been John’s political enemies.  

So the situation we just heard would be like a group of republicans and democrats heading out together into the wilderness and walking into a Bernie Sanders rally.  “The Pharisees and the Sadducees are nothing but a brood of vipers!”  So, yes, this is a religious confrontation, but it is also a political confrontation.  And it’s important to keep that in mind when we hear this episode in Matthew.  Like, these guys have history, as they say.

And then John the Baptist says, “Even 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.”  Now I’ve talked about this before, but I want to ask again: whose fault is it when a tree does not bear good fruit?  Sometimes it’s the gardener’s fault; sometimes it’s the soil’s fault; sometimes it’s the insects’ fault; but under no circumstances is it the tree’s fault.  There is nothing within a tree’s power to control the quality of fruit it produces.  If what you want is to change people’s behavior, this is just a bad metaphor John, because trees have absolutely no say in what kind of fruit they produce.  They are what they are; they produce the fruit they produce given their circumstances; just as God created them to do.

So let’s forget about the “brood of vipers” and the trees with bad fruit, and let’s look at what else John says here.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  The word “repent” comes from the Greek word metanoia, which means “a change of mind,” or, “a change of heart.”  So John is saying, “change your minds, change your hearts, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  So what does that mean?  Well, first off, saying the kingdom of heaven has come near implies that it was not near before, right?  God’s kingdom coming near to us is a new thing.  And so, hearing that the kingdom is now near to us, how should we change?  What would be different from how things were in the past?

For this, we can helpfully turn to the other readings we heard this morning.  And I think all of these readings can best be viewed by looking at the distinction between hope and fear.  Who has hope, and who is afraid?

Let’s start with today’s Psalm, from Psalm 72.  You may remember last week I said that peace and justice must go hand in hand.  In an unjust society, there will be no peace, since inequality causes violence and unrest.  So, look at how Psalm 72 starts out, “Give your King your justice, O God, that he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice.”  And it goes on . . . rescue the poor, crush their oppressor . . . the righteous will flourish and there will be peace until the moon shall be no more.  So, who’s got the hope here?  Well, the poor and the oppressed of course.  The poor and oppressed have hope.

And the fearful ones would be the oppressors and the wealthy.  Their fear would come from losing power and wealth; and the hope would be for a just and peaceful society.  You see how the goal of hope is NOT to become the oppressor?  Hope wants equality and justice; fear wants the status quo, where some people are oppressed—as long as I’m not one of them.  Hope and Fear stand opposed to one another, and they have different goals.

In the first reading, from Isaiah, it’s even more pronounced.  From the opening verse, we have a stump (which we might consider dead) and we have a shoot growing out of it (miraculous life, in the midst of death).  The “stump of Jesse” here refers to King David’s father, Jesse; so this is a new and surprising branch growing out of the line of David.  And, as with any family in power, fear is what kept David’s line going.  All sorts of scandalous things along the way, but David’s line continued all the way to Joseph.  Fear kept the family line limping along until it was all but dead, but Hope appears in this little shoot growing out of a stump.  

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.  The spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge.  But I find it fascinating that he will judge not by what his eyes see, nor by what his ears hear.  How would it affect our judgment not to use our eyes and ears?  Not to accept society’s standards of value, and judgment, and justice?  Not to judge with eyes and ears, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.  The spirit of the Lord rests upon him, and he will judge the people with righteousness.

And then what?  What difference would that make in the world?  Well, just look at that list!  The wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the lion and the calf, and the little child shall lead them.  But it gets worse!  The cow and the bear will graze together?  The lion will eat straw beside the ox?  Children playing with poisonous snakes?  What kind of crazy world is this?  I imagine this is a world that scares us, to be honest.  This is not the way the world is, according to our eyes and ears.  It’s not the world we expect, and maybe it’s a world we have some fear about seeing.  But imagine this for a minute . . .

What if that crazy world, the one where the wolf and the lamb are at peace, and where lions and bears eat grass, what if that world IS the normal world?  What if that’s the way things are supposed to be?  What if the way things are is the wrong way?  What if in order to truly judge with equity we had to close our eyes and ears?

We can’t imagine a world where the lion and the lamb lie down together because the images burned into our heads are the ones from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  We think of lions taking down gazelles, not lying down next to them.  But this impossible branch from the stump of Jesse sees the world differently than we do.  “On 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.”  Hope and fear.  Do we hope for that day?  Or do we fear that day?  

Which brings us back to John the Baptist.  Repenting: changing our minds, changing our hearts.  Knowing that this kingdom has come near, this world where lambs and wolves live peacefully together, where the lion and the calf are friends, where a little child shall lead them.  Knowing that kingdom has come near, how does that change our minds?  How does that change our hearts?  

Maybe you felt a jolt of fear when John the Baptist says, “His 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.”  Scary stuff!  But maybe that’s because you are worried about the chaff.  The extra.  The shells.  Jesus saves the wheat and gathers it into his granary.  It’s the other stuff, the useless stuff that is carried away and burned.

You and I are the grain in this imagery.  All that extra stuff that gets burned away is what keeps the world from being what it is meant to be.  Our fears and our prejudice and our selfishness, those are the chaff.  And when those are burned away, there will be nothing left but good fruit, in a world where the lion and the lamb lie down together.

The little child who will lead them is on his way, and as we anticipate his birth, we are reminded that a different world is possible, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.  And together, we are filled with hope for a better world.  A world of peace, and justice, and righteousness.  Where a little child will lead us.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus, and lead us into that world.


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