A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the
and decide with equity for the meek of the
he shall strike the earth with the rod of
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill
Righteousness shall be the belt around his
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole
of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on
the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge
of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
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
In those days John the Baptist appeared in
the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent,
for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah
spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair
with a leather belt around his waist, and
his food was locusts and wild honey. Then
the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were
going out to him, and all the region along
the Jordan, and they were baptized by him
in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees
coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You
brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from
the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We
have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I
tell you, God is able from these stones to
raise up children to Abraham. Even now the
axe 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.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance,
but one who is more powerful than I is coming
after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and
fire. 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.’
May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with
us in the name of our risen Lord and savior,
Jesus Christ; Amen.
When I was on my internship in southern Minnesota,
I remember preaching on the Second Sunday
of Advent. Always one for a dramatic flair,
I ascended the pulpit and did my best John
the Baptist imitation – calling people
snakes for their sinfulness and pointing out
the ways that their lives were not bearing
fruit in Jesus Christ. I berated them for
about a minute, then sat down, feigning disgust.
Of course, after about 30 seconds I got back
up and ascended the pulpit again and sort
of did a, “rest of the story”
sermon about the promise of Jesus coming into
the world not only to judge all of creation,
but to purify and redeem it. I am sure it
had limited effect, but at the time I saw
myself as, “cutting edge”!
John the Forerunner, as he is referred to
in the icon on the front of our bulletin,
was certainly cutting edge in his day. He
broke onto the scene and captured everyone’s
attention! Wearing camel’s hair &
a leather belt, and eating a diet of bugs
and honey, he had a reputation with the people
of his day as the non-traditional itinerant
preacher. And yet he did not turn people away
or off; in fact, we are told that he had a
strange essence to his being that attracted
people to him … Matthew reports that
people walked the 135 or so miles from Jerusalem
to the Jordan River to be baptized by him,
and others even further, since they came from
all over Judea! This rather wild figure had
something about him that created a desire
to travel a long distance to hear him preach,
confess their sins, and then be dunked into
the waters of the Jordan River.
Maybe the reason John was so successful and
I was not is that John’s intention was
to point toward the one who was to come, the
one whose sandals he was unworthy to untie.
As a 25 year old seminarian trying to pass
internship, I am sure I was more interested
in hearing positive responses for my dramatic
message than to point to the coming messiah.
To be sure, that was one of my motivations
… albeit probably down the list a way.
Although I do not remember much response to
that sermon to this day, we know the response
to John’s message as he pointed people
to the coming messiah. He was so faithful
in his calling that he not only baptized lots
and lots of people, also caught the attention
of King Herod, and next week we will hear
about how that landed him in jail …
but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves
– next Sunday will be here soon enough.
It is hard not to notice that the images of
judgement in both Matthew’s reading
and Isaiah’s are agricultural in nature.
Both talk about chopping down trees with an
axe; Isaiah speaks of animals who are usually
predators and prey, living peaceably together;
and John in Matthew, speaks of separating
the grains of wheat from the chaff on the
threshing floor and burning up the chaff with
unquenchable fire. Many of these pictures
either frighten us or confuse us. Are we trees
to be chopped down by the divine lumberjack,
or will we be spared? Are we chaff which is
to burn in the fires of hell, or are we wheat
to be used to feed people? Why in the world
would a bear or a lion pass up on a good bit
of red meat and settle on a salad? Images
that spell out God’s judgement can be
confusing and frightening, and that is not
what we want to hear as we approach the celebration
of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem!
It is important for us to realize that the
intention for divine judgement is not to punish
evildoers, or to enact retribution from those
who have wronged others. Divine judgment is
meant to straighten out the crooked paths
between us and God. Divine judgement is rooted
in truth-telling, expressing God’s reality
including disappointment with us as sinful
human beings AND THEN, God’s desire
that we be restored to full and right relationship
… not only with God, but also with each
other. That restoration has never happened
in human history, this side of the fall of
humanity. Life in the proverbial Garden of
Eden is expressed by Isaiah as he follows
up his words of judgement with words of hope.
Hope and judgement – these are not opposites
of each other; rather, they are opposite poles
of the same magnet. They need each other so
that we can truly receive salvation, which
is the free gift of the Christ child in our
In those agricultural images of judgement,
the chopping down of the trees is not the
last word. Instead, a shoot coming out of
the stump, and a branch coming out of the
roots is the last word, and these bring new
life and possibilities! The stump of Jesse
in its original context referred to the line
of David – a promise that we associate
with Jesus, who was an ancestor of David.
Just as the people of Yahweh may have been
defeated and exiled during Isaiah’s
time and were returned and restored hundreds
of years later, so we also hold out hope that
when all seems lost for us, there is that
possibility for new life.
We also spend some time trying to figure out
if we are the wheat or the chaff – the
fruit bearing trees or the barren trees. John
wants everyone to see themselves in these
images as capturing both essences of the plants
– we all are the entire stalk of wheat
that has at once the good grains of wheat
and the chaff whose only use is to fuel fires.
We all are the forest containing those wonderful
trees loaded down with apples and pears and
olives and citrus, and the trees who seem
to be just taking up room in the land without
producing anything. God’s judgement
comes to us as simultaneously saints and sinners,
and promises to chop down the useless, to
burn the chaff, and to encourage and restore
the fields and orchards in all of our fullness.
That’s not always easy … as a
matter of fact, that is rarely ever easy.
But it is possible thanks to the judgement
and the hope – the two poles of that
same magnet – that make up the free
gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. What will
it look like when it is happening, or when
it is completed? It will look totally new
and different to you … like a baby putting
her hand into a snake’s nest, or a bear
passing on a steak for some hay … but
it will also be glorious!
Someone once shared an observation that people
who live in situations where they are suffering
– because of being overweight, drinking
or taking drugs too much, living with an abusive
spouse, living in poverty, the list goes on
… - are more likely to want to remain
in that state even if they are very unhappy,
than to put in the effort it takes to improve
their lives – to lose weight, get help
with addiction, leave an abuser, take a chance
on a career move. Some say that the devil
I know is better than the devil I don’t
know. Others say we become satisfied and used
to the life we have, and we just cannot see
living any other way.
The promise of hope and judgement in Jesus
Christ is not an easy one for us human beings
to adopt, because we just don’t exactly
know what life will look like when the chaff
of our sin has been burned off. This is why
Advent is such an important time to prepare
for Christmas – we need this time to
contemplate what about us God will purify
in order to straighten the path between God
and us. Some have treated Advent as a mini-Lent,
and while we don’t quite go that far
anymore, this is an opportunity to consider
what exactly IS the proverbial Reason for
the Season: that is our need for judgement
and God’s promise in Christ to both
judge AND purify.
As we continue our journey toward Bethlehem
and the sanctity of that Holy Night, may God’s
promise of new life and new opportunities
encourage us beyond the fear that is present
when we face the prospect of something new
… even if it is joyful and glorious.
For God has promised something new –
that, as Paul said, we will be filled with
joy and peace in believing so that we may
abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord;