Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7,18-19; Matthew 3:1-12
Well, that’s quite a Gospel reading! Here we are, sending cards and decorating trees and buying presents; and here comes John the Baptist, wearing animal skins and eating locusts, crashing our pre-Christmas party. Prophets are good at that, coming onto the scene with just what folks don’t want to hear. And, of course, that puts me in the role of standing up here, two and a half weeks from Christmas, and talking about fire and wrath and repentance. Just call me Fr. Buzz-Kill.
Well, I want to start this morning with a little history. If you aren’t a fan of history, hang in there because we’ll then move to a little prophetic witness. And if you aren’t a fan of prophetic witness, still hang in there because all this will come down to you, in the end.
So, here’s the history: That first reading we heard, from the prophet Isaiah, comes from the time of the Syro-Ephraimite War in the 730s BCE. That little-remembered conflict may not mean much to us, but for the people of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, it meant a lot. Here’s the short version: Israel and another tiny kingdom decided to ally against the major power of the day, Assyria. They tried to get the Kingdom of Judah to come along, but Judah declined to kick the Assyrian bear. In the end, none of the small kingdoms made out well. Israel was taken over by the Assyrians, who began deporting the conquered people. Judah, and its capital of Jerusalem, turned into a vassal of Assyria, losing its autonomy. So, when Isaiah writes about the “stump of Jesse,” he’s acknowledging that the Kingdom of Judah has become next to nothing, just a stump, compared with the glory days of kings David and Solomon.
But even in this sad situation, Isaiah says, don’t lose hope. From that stump will spring new growth, a green shoot no one expects from dead wood. A descendant of King David will arise, and he’ll reign like David, only more so: bringing God’s rule to the people once again, governing with righteousness, bringing justice to poor and powerless people – in fact, ruling so faithfully that God’s peaceable kingdom will arise, the paradise of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the young goat, and a little child leading them all.
OK, here’s some more history. Fast-forward 700 years, and we find ourselves out in the desert wilderness, near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. The Jewish people are still waiting for their faithful king to arise, and the waiting has only gotten harder over the centuries. At this moment, the Romans are the imperial oppressors du jour, and the people are yearning for freedom and justice and empowerment more than ever.
Into that world, God raises up our Christmas-party crasher, John the Baptist. John goes out into the deadest place you can picture and proclaims hope – that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). Matthew identifies John as the prophet expected for centuries, returning to get people ready for the coming of God’s king, even wearing clothes that harken back to stories about the prophet Elijah. John and his message are attracting quite a following, with crowds coming out from Jerusalem to hear him rail against their oppressors and to purify themselves through baptism, to make themselves worthy of God’s intervention on their behalf.
But John isn’t content with haranguing the Romans; he broadens the indictment to include some of the folks in the crowd. He sees “many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism,” and he calls them out: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt 3:7). Now, it helps to know who those folks were. The Pharisees were legal rigorists, calling people to apply the law of Moses strictly to daily life while missing the point of relationship with God that the law was intended to nurture. The Sadducees were powerful, aristocratic priests, concerned primarily with position and authority. Together, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the religiously privileged and powerful, fighting with each other while failing to lead regular people to love God and others, thereby bringing God’s kingdom to life.
So, to these privileged and powerful religious leaders, John says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:8) and then come back and see me about baptism. You’ve got bigger trouble ahead than me calling you out in public, John says. Someone’s coming who will indeed baptize you –purify you – but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He’s coming to separate the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, and guess where you folks in charge will fall? Good luck, coming out here and going through the motions, John says, because “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12).
John the Baptist, and the prophet Isaiah, and our psalm this morning all call us to righteousness and justice and repentance. So, it’d be good to understand what these concepts mean on the ground, in our day-to-day lives, because we may not all hear these churchy words the same way.
For example: We might hear “righteousness” as being about personal holiness – doing good things and not doing bad things. But God’s intent is deeper, because righteousness is the orientation of our hearts. Righteousness means being in right relationship with God – giving God praise and glory, following God’s heart of love, living out the dictum that God is God and we are not.
Similarly, we might hear “justice” as being about the proper functioning of legal systems. But God’s intent is deeper, because justice is the outcome of righteousness in the world around us. As we note in our Baptismal Covenant, justice means honoring the inherent dignity of every human being – sharing opportunity with the poor, hearing the powerless, giving challenging people the respect and love we’d want for ourselves.
Similarly, we might hear the call to “repent” as a call to be sorry for things we’ve done and left undone. But God’s intent is deeper, because repentance is the choice to reorient our way, to choose a new and Christlike path, to turn toward righteousness so that justice will roll down from it like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
So, there’s your bit of history and your prophetic call. I appreciate you hanging in there, because now the rubber meets the road. Ultimately, neither John the Baptist nor Jesus Christ came to clarify concepts for us. They came to offer us a choice. This prophet, and our Savior, each came proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2, 4:17). Now, that’s not exactly news. Preachers calling for repentance is not groundbreaking stuff. But here is some news, and it is good: Your repentance, your choosing to turn toward righteousness and justice – this isn’t just your personal ticket out of unquenchable fire, though it is that, too. It’s also where your life finds its meaning.
Let me give you an example, a story we celebrated just last Sunday. In the Jewell Room after the 10:15 service, we honored the 100th birthday of parishioner Jean Dooley Peterson. Most of us probably know her as Ann Hyde’s mother, and the two of them sit up here near the front at 10:15. What you may not know is that Jean Peterson earned a doctorate in psychotherapy and religion, and she worked for years as a family therapist, improving people’s lives and honoring their inherent dignity at every turn. Several years ago, she decided she wanted to be confirmed, and I got to know her in that process.
Now, at about the same time, Jean was the first person at St. Andrew’s to challenge us to provide hot lunches to the 150 or so students at our partner school in Maniche, Haiti. Jean saw the connection between full bellies and minds ready to learn, so she sponsored lunch at the school one day a week. And that support went on, year after year.
Fast-forward 12 years, and the school has grown to more than 400 students. As we heard from Kathy Shaffer last Sunday, it’s still open and forming young minds even in the midst of Haiti’s worst political and economic crisis in decades. And as she turns 100, once again Dr. Jean Peterson has renewed her gift in support of the lunch program at St. Augustin’s School. Years ago, she made a choice to turn her heart and her life Christ-ward. In her faithfulness, she became an agent of God’s justice, respecting the dignity of those children by opening doors of opportunity for their futures. After 12 years, she’s been responsible for more than 75,000 lunches served at our partner school. Through her witness, the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Of course, the truly amazing thing is that Jean’s story is just one of hundreds in this room. Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near through lives of prayer for the well-being of others. Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by mentoring children at local schools. Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by creating living-wage jobs that lift people out of poverty. Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by hiring or renting to people others might write off. Those choices do not go unnoticed by the One with the winnowing fork in his hand.
Now, I imagine that, for most of us on any given day, we may not feel like we’re particularly vital parts of God’s work of salvation. In fact, on our more challenging days, we may doubt the holy value of what we have to offer. But here’s the surprising truth: God brought the shoot of new life, Jesus the righteous King, out of what seemed the dead stump of the house of King David. God brings the hope of divine justice to people oppressed by one imperial power after another. God calls us to turn our hearts and our lives toward righteousness and justice, committing ourselves to follow this king and bear fruit worthy of repentance. Our stories can mean so much more than we think. Our choice for repentance and righteousness and justice can change the world, one person at a time.
And the time to make that choice is now, as we see the Lord coming toward us this Advent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.