Texts: Isa 11.1-10; Rom 15.4-13; Matt 3.1-12
The kingdom of God. The very phrase stirs the imagination. It is this kingdom that we long for in the midst of suffering and evil. Isaiah imagines God’s kingdom as an existence in which justice and peace reign, so that even predators lie down beside their prey, everyone eating straw* together. He sees children playing over the dens of poisonous snakes with no fear of being bitten because nothing will kill or destroy.
But is this really what we want?
John’s message is one of repentance. The Greek word for “repent” literally means to change one’s mind; not in the sense of reversing a decision, but in the sense of a complete and utter realignment of the way one thinks and acts. To “repent” is to be so completely changed that one is scarcely recognizable, say, for example, a wolf that eats straw.
Isaiah’s vision depicts a world that is peaceful and beautiful and serene, but it is the result of tremendous upheaval. Predators that eat straw? What Isaiah is describing is not a return to the world as it was created at the beginning, but an entire natural order that has been fundamentally and entirely changed from how it was first created and intended to be that it is scarcely recognizable. Everything that we take for granted about the human condition and the nature of the world has been turned upside down in this “peaceable kingdom.”
John’s sermon and his warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees drive this point home. God’s kingdom does not come without repentance. An orchard full of trees that do not bear fruit must be cleared and replaced with trees that will bear fruit—“fruit worthy of repentance.” The kingdom for which we hope is a kingdom built through repentance; the kingdom is repentance. The wolf cannot lie with the lamb without learning to eat straw.
John lashes out at the Pharisees and Sadducees because they come—either to be baptized or to see what all the fuss is about—without understanding this. They believe that they are right; they believe that they have the correct answers and the correct beliefs and the correct piety, and so there is no need for them to change. They belief that since they are descendants of Abraham, they are heirs to the promise God made to him. If we do not see ourselves in the Pharisees and Sadducees, then we are missing half of what Matthew is saying. John must remind them—and us—that God’s coming kingdom brings with it profound change. It starts with an axe lying at the foot of the trees and ends with wolves eating straw. This change must by necessity include us. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, having Jesus as our spiritual ancestor is only the first requirement of inheriting the kingdom, not the last.
During Advent we remember the promise that God does not wait for us. The coming of God’s kingdom, like the coming of God’s Christ, does not wait for us to repent; God’s kingdom and God’s Christ “repent” us. God does not wait for the wolf to acquire a taste for salad, God “repents” the wolf to live in peace with the lamb. God does not wait for us to repent, God’s kingdom “repents” us, it changes us, so that Christ reigns in us. Just as the ax clears way the dead wood to make room for trees that bear good fruit, so too does God’s Spirit clear away all that is within us that is opposed to God’s kingdom, preparing a way for the LORD and making his paths straight.
Isaiah envisions this peaceable kingdom of God coming about through the reign of a just and wise ruler, a ruler upon whom rests the Spirit of the LORD. It is this Spirit that repents the ruler and causes him to enact peace and judge with justice. “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,” Isaiah writes, “The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.”
Did the description sound familiar to you? These are the words read at baptism; this is the Spirit we each receive as we are washed with water and the Word of God. In our baptism, God “repents” us, changes us from fruitless trees into the tender shoots of God’s own kingdom, vulnerable but filled with potential for growth and new life. Through baptism, God begins for us the lifelong process of daily drowning the old sinner within us and daily rising to new life with Christ, and invites us to continue this work—with the promise that if we should refuse, God will finish that work for us.
At Christmas, we celebrate the love of God come down to take human form and change the world. Advent is a time for us to remember that the love of God that comes down is fierce in its judgement upon those who resist love’s demand. One way or another, the wolf will lie down with the lamb; one way or another, the orchard will produce fruit. Isaiah and John remind us that there is much work to be done and much ground to be broken before God’s kingdom will be established. “He is coming to make all things new,”** and that includes us. As Pr. Stephanie said last week, Advent is a call to us to get a hand on the plow and get to work; but Advent is also a reminder that should we decline the invitation, we will eventually find ourselves dragged along anyway into God’s peaceable kingdom.
** During Advent, we are beginning each worship service with a litany. Each section of the litany ends with the call and response: "Christ is coming./He is coming to make all things new." Having just said these words repeatedly, I wanted to include them here to help us incorporate this meaning of those words when we say them each week.