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Advent 2A Sermon
Isaiah 11: 1-10,
Romans 15: 4-13,
Matthew 3: 1-12

December 4, 2016

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” These are the first words from the mouth of this wild, camel hair-wearing, locust eating figure who appears in the wilderness. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” What does John the Baptist mean by telling people to repent? Is he calling on people to say that they are sorry for the things that they have done out of sin and evil? Is he telling people to turn their lives around? Is he warning people that if they do not change their lives in a hurry, they are going to burn up in judgment, much like the chaff is burned after it is separated from the wheat on the threshing floor? We have all probably wondered and thought that these are the things that John is talking about over the years. If you are like me, you have tried to reconcile the concept of judgment with the fact that our God is loving and gracious. After all, you cannot dismiss the language of judgment that John uses as he talks about the ax lying at the roots of the trees which produce no fruit, and winnowing forks which divide the good wheat from the useless chaff. We cannot ignore the fact that judgment is one of the themes that Matthew focuses on as he tells the story of the life of Jesus. So how can these passages, especially John’s warning that we repent, help us to prepare for this kingdom of heaven which has already come near, and for which we are preparing during this Advent season?
For me, the meaning of the call to repentance is rooted in the Greek word for repentance, metanoia. Metanoia does not have anything to do with being sorry for one’s actions or behavior and trying to do better. Literally, metanoia means, “to change one’s mind” or, “to adopt a new mind.” With that in mind, we hear John’s call to repentance in a much different way, especially when we consider the second part of that sentence, “…for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

What does the kingdom of heaven look like? Jesus talked a lot about it, and it was mostly in parables. Some of those parables are quite confusing – it’s like a woman who lost a coin, like a mustard seed, and like leaven - and they sound nothing like what this life is all about. If we consider our first lesson from Isaiah 11, we see a vision of something new which is hard to imagine. As I shared with the children, the picture on the front of the bulletin is Edward Hicks’ famous original painting of, “The Peaceable Kingdom” based on this passage. In its original context, these words were written to people who saw no future – their land had been conquered, leaders killed, and many of them had been carted off into exile. Indeed, they felt like God’s promise that a king in the line and manner of David would always rule them was as dead as a tree which had been chopped down and a useless, lifeless stump left behind. But Isaiah proclaims God’s words which promise that a shoot shall break forth from that stump – the Jesse who is mentioned here is David’s father, so this promise is that someone like David will come again with wisdom, council, might and with knowledge and the fear of the Lord. Even though it appears that David’s line is gone and dead, all is not lost; God is bringing new life out of that which is seemingly dead.

The prophet then speaks of this peaceable kingdom – where the predators live peaceably with their prey, and where a helpless child not only plays safely over the hole of a venomous snake, but a child also leads them. It is a picture that helps us to envision a time of peace, when all people can live together without threat of violence or aggression, and we can be vulnerable enough to let down their guards, know that they are safe and secure with everyone. This is a lasting vision of the kingdom of heaven, and I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait until that vision comes in its fullness. Imagine not having to spend any money on defense or weaponry! Imagine not having to lock our doors or windows. Imagine not needing security systems or cameras. Imagine the day when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord!

But we do not live in that reality now, and we were reminded of that this last week when a young man who, even though he came to this country for safety with his family, did not feel safe because of the propaganda of radical individuals. He crashed his car into a crowd of people and attacked them with a knife on the Ohio State campus. There is a reason that we in the northern hemisphere observe Advent during the winter months – the presence of darkness is very real around us, in literal and figurative ways! We do not always feel safe, and because of that, some of us lash out in ways that cannot be described in any other way except evil.

So, the question that is posed is this: What does it mean for us to repent in this season, in this place, and at this time? For me, it means that we dare to believe and trust in John’s proclamation: God promises that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. I heard the definition of metanoia put another way this week, besides to change one’s mind or adopt a new mind. It is this, “to wrap your mind around the kingdom of heaven.” I like that imagery. To repent, then, means that in the reality of a dangerous, often dark world, where we are told who not to trust and who wants to do us in, we are to wrap our minds around the kingdom of heaven which is described in Isaiah 11 … and which Paul talks about in his letter to the Romans. Paul told people to repent … not in so many words, but when he says, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God,” Paul is telling us to wrap our minds around a community where sinners live together peaceably, no matter what they look like or how they live. In his original context, he was talking to those who were formerly pagans, and those who were formerly Jews. For us, it means that we do not believe the language of stereotypical hatred and division, and we risk ourselves, becoming vulnerable in order to welcome everyone … even those who we might have been told are different or dangerous to us.

I firmly believe that to repent is to grasp our minds around the vision of the peaceable kingdom even while God is in the midst of transforming this sinful world into that which we lovingly call, “The Kingdom of Heaven.” To repent is to embody the qualities of the Kingdom of Heaven even while we are still living during this time of transition between the old and the new, the stump and the shoot, the wheat and the chaff of the world. We hear voices telling us who not to trust all around us – especially this week, we heard voices once again condemning those people who came to “our country” to escape persecution much like many of our ancestors did. But we cannot trust them because they are different from US. But Paul says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles with his people. Praise the Lord all you Gentiles.” The gentiles were people who were different in so many ways, including religion and culture. World peace is an attractive concept in the abstract, but concretely, it is a very challenging thing to accomplish. Most of all, it takes repentance – it takes us wrapping our minds around a new vision of community and life, and trusting that God will continue to rule and defend and provide safety and life and light, in the midst of the darkness that we all fear.

Isaiah, Paul, John the Baptist and especially Jesus all present a radical vision of what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about. It is a future reality … but it is also a reality which God desires us to live into today, wrapping our minds around it as the rule for our lives even as the darkness of sin and evil are all around us. As we continue to watch and wait for the coming of Christ, and for the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven, may we believe in the promise that God is still with us and ruling, and like the shoot that springs forth from a tree-stump, we look forward to a new time of peace in the world and in our lives. That is the hope which is so important in this season. Amen.