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Advent 2A Sermon
Isaiah 11: 1-10, Matthew 3: 1-12
8, 2019


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Isaiah 11:1-10

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 LORD.
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 poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
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 glorious.

Matthew 3:1-12

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 wilderness:
“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 lives.
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; Amen.