Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
I think God is trying to get my attention this Advent. It started off with the odd juxtaposition of ancient words coming through the earbuds of my iPhone.
I’ve shared with you before that I pray Morning Prayer as I take a walk with my dog in the pre-dawn darkness. Well, it just so happens that, as we enter this season of Advent and prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ among us, the podcast of Morning Prayer that I use has evaporated. I wonder what’s happened to the priest who’d been dutifully providing it each day. So, on Monday, I went looking for another podcast of Morning Prayer, and the only one I could find was from the 1928 prayer book. OK, I thought, this will take me back to my childhood. So I subscribed. And as I began my walk in the darkness, these are the words that welcomed me into Advent:
Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy. (BCP 1928, 5-6)
It went on like this for several more sentences, imploring me to confess my manifold sins and wickedness. And then the voice launched into the old words that shaped the humble hearts of generations:
Almighty and most merciful Father; we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name. Amen. (BCP 1928, 6)
So, here we are today, gathered to offer our prayers on this second Sunday of Advent. You’ll notice some variety in the colors the clergy are wearing this morning. Many of us of a certain age will remember an earlier day when the season of Advent was bedecked in purple, just like the penitential season of Lent. In fact, Advent was seen as a mini-Lent, with people preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ with a sense of holy foreboding. The readings still implore us to get ready, or else. As we heard in the Gospel reading last Sunday, Advent begins with a vision of the end of days, when Jesus returns in judgment; and we are told to “keep awake, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44). Today, we hear the prophet John the Baptist calling us to account, along with the Pharisees and Sadducees. He says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7). Yikes – that’s pretty intense for people with Christmas parties on their minds. So, a generation ago, many Episcopal churches switched to blue to shine the light a little more fully on the expectational sense of Advent. Blue is the color associated with the Virgin Mary, and it helps us join with her in waiting hopefully for God-With-Us. But whichever color we choose, Advent is a “both/and.” In these four weeks, we live in the tension of repentance and expectation, aware of God’s judgment and God’s unending love for the people and the world God has made.
Love and judgment certainly run through the words of the Old Testament prophets, including the prophet Isaiah. In the reading this morning, it’s loving hope we hear, the promise that the ideal king from the house and lineage of David will come to rule God’s people – a shoot from the stump of Jesse, King David’s father. But the prophet’s hopeful promise also comes with judgment implied. This coming faithful and righteous king will stand in contrast to the kings who had led Israel and Judah into the state in which we find them by Isaiah’s time. The king was thought to be God’s viceroy, the descendant of David anointed to lead the people into faithful obedience to God’s law. If the people followed faithfully, so God would bless the nation. But faithfulness and blessing hadn’t exactly been the story in the years following kings David and Solomon. Israel became divided. Both the northern and southern kingdoms suffered invasions, and Isaiah lived during mass deportations of his people by the invading Assyrians. Not long after Isaiah, the people of both kingdoms would find themselves in exile, their nations destroyed. Eventually, the judgment of exile gave way to God’s faithful and loving restoration of the people to their promised land. But they came back without the restoration of God’s monarchy. The people waited and hoped, but a national monarchy was not going to inaugurate the kingdom of God.
We see a similar truth today. We can’t rely on secular or governmental efforts to inaugurate God’s rule and reign in our time. The United States is not the kingdom of God, no matter how much we love our country, no matter who our elected leaders may be. The message of Advent is this: that God’s king has already come and will come again, inaugurating a new kind of kingdom, a peaceable kingdom; a new kind of community, God’s beloved community. The world around us will not follow him, and we have the Cross to prove it. But this ideal king asks each one of us to choose to follow him instead. And when we do, we bring to light the true kingdom that stands in contrast to the world – and we can invite others to join us in its light.
How? It starts with our repentance, our turning in a new direction, which is why John the Baptist and Jesus both begin their ministries with that startling call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 3:1; 4:17). John is dressed in camel skins, and he survives in the desert on locusts and wild honey. To us, that makes him sound crazy. But to the people of John’s time, the crazy get-up said something else. In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah dressed like this (2 Kings 1:8), and the return of Elijah was the sign that God’s messiah, the anointed king, was about to make his appearance (Malachi 4:5). So, the people, the regular folks, go out to the wilderness to see John, and confess their sins, and be baptized as a mark of turning their hearts in a new direction, getting ready for the king.
And that’s great, as far as John the Baptist is concerned. But along with the regular folks, John sees the religious elites coming out for a piece of the repenting action. The Pharisees and Sadducees were ones who set the rules, the burdens too great to bear for the peasants trying to follow the Law of Moses (Matthew 23:1-36). Conveniently, those rules included practices that took resources from poor peasants and enriched the aristocratic religious leaders instead (Mark 12:38-40). So John the Baptist stops them short: “You brood of vipers!” he says to the religious elites. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. It’s not enough to feel badly for the poor choices we make, says John the Baptist. Guilt is not God’s bottom line. Don’t come to the Jordan confessing your sinfulness unless you intend to do something about it. The trees that don’t produce for the kingdom will be “cut down and thrown into the fire,” John says (3:10). The one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire is coming soon. “His winnowing fork is in his hand” to separate the wheat from the chaff, says John, and “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:12).
Well, if you think I’m going to try top that sermon, think again.
I can’t say precisely what repentance looks like for you, but I’ll bet you’ve already got a pretty good idea. This much I do know: It involves bending the knee of your heart to God, listening to what God has to say about your journey, and being willing to change your life in ways that align with the practices of God’s kingdom, God’s beloved community. In your own life, what doesn’t align with the reign of a king who seeks “equity for the [poor and] meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4)? In what specific ways might God be asking you to turn in a new direction? In Advent, even as the world calls us to shop and decorate, God calls us to do some interior housekeeping and sweep out the dark corners of our lives to make them ready for the king who’s about to come.
So, I’ll ask again: In what specific ways is God asking you to turn in a new direction? Maybe it’s about mending broken relationships. Maybe it’s about saying “no” to habits and practices that isolate us from other people’s struggles. Maybe it’s about being and working with people who are poor or sick or imprisoned. Maybe it’s about paying more to the people we employ. Maybe it’s about raising our voices when you see injustice. Maybe it’s about quieting our voices so others might be heard.
We might want to write off John the Baptist, with his bizarre foods and his crazy prophet’s get-up. But his call to the religious authorities applies to all of us who find ourselves in the category of the elite: Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Bear fruit worthy of the kingdom of heaven that has now come near and will come nearer still. In these next three weeks before the king comes into our world and into our hearts once again, ask yourself: What would it look like for me to join the wolf that lives with the lamb? What would it look like for me to follow the little child who leads the peaceable kingdom? What would it look like for my life to reveal God’s reality in which people do “not hurt or destroy on all [God’s] holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9)? How can my brief time on this side of eternity help bring about the day when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9)? What fruit of repentance is God asking me to bear?