Preached more or less on Sunday, Dec. 5th, 2010. Lessons: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15: 14-13; Matthew 3: 1-12
Christian spiritual life, especially if we follow
a liturgical year, has a pattern of worship and praise,
that sometimes feels like a circle dance.
Each season has its interwoven rhythms, music, and steps,
and each season, like Advent,
has a particular invitation.
This is the season of the Incarnation—
and we’re invited to pay attention, to wake up,
to prepare for the entrance of God as partner in our humanity.
God descends, bends and comes toward us,
entering our human existence,
so profoundly, that we meet him here—where we are,
in the circle of the threshing floor, this earthly realm
in our sometimes graceful,
sometimes stumbling daily dance of life.
This season begins with a call and an invitation:
to turn, just as one turns in a dance toward a partner,
turn more profoundly, more deeply toward God.
This is the season when we hear
that the kingdom of heaven really does draw near,
leaning into us, as a partner leans in a dance,
until we have to move and turn and trust.
Trusting and partnership go hand-in-hand;
you know what I mean if you’ve ever danced
with someone you don’t trust. Toes get stepped on.
God leans in, during Advent,
and we’re invited to trust more deeply.
John the Baptist, herald of Jesus calls it out:
Repent, turn, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.
Turning is about trusting—repentance is about
turning in deeper trust to a loving gracious God.
John the Baptist appears this morning like an old friend—
who makes us uncomfortable.
In Matthew, we hear a little about his appearance
and his lifestyle—his camel hair shirt,
and his diet of locusts and wild honey
speak of spiritual austerity.
He lives in the wilderness along the Jordan river,
practicing a powerful ministry to a large following.
who come seeking a spiritual cleansing.
John uses strong soap.
Like Elijah, John is a desert wanderer,
coming up out of the wilderness,
with a spiritual vision that won’t leave him alone–
it just doesn’t leave him alone.
His sense of the approach of God is overwhelming.
And like Isaiah, and Elijah, and all the prophets of old,
John sees the distance in our life between what God intends,
and what we actually do.
John calls us to authentic faith: live it, don’t just talk about it.
Wake up, don’t take anything for granted.
Faith isn’t grandfathered in.
You can’t count on your ancestors’ faith to get you into heaven.
It’s not enough that your grandparents trusted God: you do it, too.
Here and now, in your life, repent,
and watch for the coming of the Savior.
When he tells his critics that God will raise up children,
even from the stones—he’s making a pun. We don’t see it
in English, but in Greek, the verb for “raise up,” is related to the
verb root “to wake up.” It makes sense, doesn’t it, for when we wake up,
we get up, we raise ourselves up.
God can raise up children from stones.
John is speaking in metaphor–
He’s offering hope for those with hardened, stony, hearts.
Even the hardest heart can be raised up, softened, awakened by God.
One of the commentaries calls John’s message pure fire and brimstone.
It’s true, there might not be any way around his bombastic language,
like “you brood of vipers,” but perhaps we
can think about what it really
means to have the kingdom of heaven draw near.
What happens when the kingdom of heaven draws near?
What does it mean for us when all that is good, gracious, lovely,
beautiful, true, worthy, healing, just, and peaceful draws near?
What does it mean for us to see all that wonder of God,
the justice of God, and turn toward God,
not in fear, but in hope, in our own longing for goodness and truth?
St. Paul tells us this morning, that the scriptures are meant for our instruction, to encourage and strengthen us.
We can turn to them for a vision of what our faith
teaches about the kingdom drawing near. These are the visions
we’ve inherited from our tradition–so important, for they were
Jesus’ vision, too, of the kingdom, or dominion of God.
Isaiah and the Psalmist today offer a sense of what
it means for the kingdom to draw near:
they prophesy, the dividing walls between us will really come down.
The theme of harmlessness is repeated again today,
from last week—we spiritually disarm ourselves.
We hear an invitation from God
to live in a vulnerable way towards each other.
Both the Psalmist and Isaiah show us what that
harmonious co-existence looks like from God’s perspective.
When the Messiah comes, the world will flourish,
and he will be like rain, the Psalmist says,
on a mown field–he’ll raise up the poor,
the proud will bow. This is equity–equitas,
a harmony between peoples.
God will send us a savior, a servant king,
says Isaiah, whose spirit is God’s own spirit, wise, just and merciful,
a prophet shepherd king,
who leads the nations, in justice and compassion.
We share this same spirit in our own baptisms; we offer these lines
as prayers for the newly baptized:
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence of God.
The clothes of the shepherd-king, figuratively speaking,
will be righteousness and faithfulness,
like the armor of light we put on last week.
He is the king of our hearts, our lives.
His realm is peaceful—here mortal enemies relinquish their hostilities,
stop their bristling at each other: wolves and lambs,
calves and lions, leopards and children will live
under the canopy of God’s peace.
Isaiah holds out for us the hope of God’s reconciliation—
God reconciles and restores us so deeply, that
even earthly creatures put aside their violence.
Predator and prey live as they lived once in the Garden of Eden.
Sheath your claws, stop growling, Isaiah calls.
Put your life in the hands of the child who leads us into all peace.
Entrust God with your fears and your hurts,
surrender the need for revenge,
ask for forgiveness,
let go of grudges and resentments.
Walk into the peaceable kingdom, as the Holy Spirit
takes down the walls between each us.
Isaiah’s vision gives us a glimpse of what God hopes
and does for us, for all of creation, through Christ.
Isaiah is preaching the gospel here—
God’s way is the way of mercy, of harmlessness. Turn toward it.
That’s part of what it means
to have the kingdom of heaven draw near.
The kingdom of heaven draws near,
as well, St. Paul reminds us, in our neighbor.
Just as Jesus made himself the servant of all,
opening the door for everyone
to come to the banquet table of the Lamb,
so we serve, the neighbor, too.
Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you.
For what is the Gospel, but a divine word of welcome.
What is forgiveness, but a divine embrace?
Repentance, in this season, a turning toward God
could look like a more profound turning toward our neighbor.
Christ draws near when we lay down our lives for our neighbor.
When we feed, clothe, pray for, visit, receive, the neighbor in need,
we have done those things for Christ.
When we practice holy hospitality,
the kind of harmony we saw in Isaiah happens.
We can’t welcome God or any one else
without laying down our defences.
To love the neighbor as ourselves means a fearless risk-taking.
Look at the risk God took for us,
by entering human life as an infant,
as someone helpless, and expecting us to respond.
The kingdom of heaven, our faith teaches,
always draws near the people near us, in need of care.
Advent invites to prepare ourselves as guesthouses
to receive God and each other with
reverent respect and good will.
John the Baptist, full of fire and passion,
calls us to return, this morning,
to turn and welcome the kingdom of heaven coming into the world.
Isaiah’s vision shows us the way to do that:
we lay down our hostilities. Let the wolf dwell safely
with the lamb. God’s hospitality is the absolute
opposite of the violence we see around us.
It’s the absolute opposite.
Paul prays for us to have strength for the task:
May the God of steadfastness
and encouragement grant us to live in harmony
with one another—so we will praise God with one voice.
Welcome others as Christ welcomes us,
entrusting ourselves and our relationships to the mercy of God.
This Advent, as we turn, prepare, and wake up our hearts,
may God come near to you as dance partner in your humanity.
May the peaceable kingdom come toward you as beloved friend,
in those you meet as neighbors in need.
May the reign of heaven draw near as breath, near as embrace, may it overwhelm you with peace, love, joy, and hope,
and make you ready for Christ.