Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!
Sorry, I just love saying that every year. John the Baptist is my favorite Biblical crazy man, and this is my favorite John the Baptist schtick. And today it seems appropriate, since the “brood of vipers” thing is in our Gospel for the day.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I got a little whiplash looking over today’s readings. That happens sometimes. We start out the day with Isaiah again, and he’s talking about a time under the Messiah when
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
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
It’s a beautiful bit of poetry, isn’t it? A beautiful image of a world where peace prevails.
Then we get to the Psalm. The Psalmist tells of the coming of a King:
He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,
like showers that water the earth.
In his time shall the righteous flourish;
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
Wow, this seems to fit right in with the reading from Isaiah. I think we’re on to something here.
Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, directly connects the “stump” or “root” of Jesse spoken of by Isaiah, to Jesus:
Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”;
and again he says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”;
and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
I think we have a theme here!
And then, we come to the Gospel and John the Baptist. It starts out fine, with John wearing his camel hair clothes, and eating bugs with wild honey. He tells everyone that the kingdom of heaven is close!
So far so good. But then John starts calling people names! He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees the children of snakes! It doesn’t seem like a good way to win friends and influence people. What is up with that?
Now, the Pharisees and Sadducees did not get along, so you’d think John might side with one group over the other. But no, he tells all of them that they need to repent, and to show that they have repented by their works.
Then, and only then, he tells them there is one who is coming to baptize the world with fire and with the Holy Spirit. He’s going to come and clean house! Repent now
This is where my whiplash starts. How did we go from the wolf living with the lamb to repenting and baptizing the world with fire? Those two themes kind of clash!
But it made me think: how do we get from the world we have — the one with hate, with violence, with starvation, with war — to the one we want, the one described by Isaiah, the one where every creature lives peacefully with every other?.
I would submit that there is going to be a lot of repentance involved. And I think this is what John was getting at.
Let’s do a little thought experiment.
What would it be like to be presented with a world like the one described by Isaiah, but with our attitudes, our ways of acting and reacting, our relationships with everyone else exactly the way they are right now? Do you think that would work out well? Or would we just ruin things? Could we even enjoy that perfect world? Sure, God could just snap his fingers (metaphorically speaking) and fix us so we didn’t lie or cheat or steal or any of those things he told us not to do, but he doesn’t appear to want to do that. He wants us to choose that.
And this is the connection between Isaiah and John. This is what we need to do during Advent. This is part of that “preparation” I spoke of last week. We need to prepare to live in that perfect world. We need to do what John said: repent (which means “turn around”) from the way we have been doing things and do them God’s way instead. We need to be getting ourselves ready to live in that world. We are a people who believe we will live forever in a perfect world, but all too often we don’t act like it. We need to repent — yes, even we Christians, we all have things to repent of — and to “produce fruits worthy of repentance” to use John’s words.
The Pharisees and Sadducees weren’t doing what they needed to do to get ready for that new world. The people that were repenting and being baptized were on the right track.
In order to live in the world that Isaiah spoke of, we need to do what John tells us: repent and do good works. This is how we “prepare the way of the Lord.” This is how we make the crooked road straight, how we smooth out the rough places. In order to do that, we have to start with ourselves.
John was right. The kingdom of heaven really is near. So near you can taste it. So near you can almost touch it. But in order to really live in it, we have to prepare for it.