December 4, 2022.
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12.
It’s a beautiful description right? That place which Isaiah called God’s holy mountain. It’s also referred to as the Peaceable Kingdom, and there are many artistic renderings of this impossible sight: all the animals of the world, mighty hunter and vulnerable prey together in peace and safety.
This is Isaiah’s vision of God’s reign fully present in this world – the Garden of Eden restored. Isaiah confidently and powerfully prophesied that such a time was coming. But what of Isaiah’s vision has ever come to pass? Woody Allen said of the peaceable kingdom, “The lion and the lamb will lie down together, but the lamb won’t get much sleep!”
Isaiah expected a righteous King. He believed that it was God’s plan to so govern the Israelites righteously with justice, and from Israel outward, to so govern the world. Isaiah’s expectation was political and spiritual shalom with God at the center of it all.
Isaiah understood that our spiritual and physical worlds are inextricably linked. In saying that the wolf and the lamb would lie down together, he was saying that by God the Israel and Assyria could be at peace – led there by a righteous king. He was also saying that if the people were at peace, the land itself would be at peace, and therefore every living creature within it.
If this peace could begin with Israel and Assyria, it could exist in every part of the world: for all nations. There would be justice for all of creation. In the presence of physical peace and justice, the human spirit also experiences fulfillment. Paul similarly says that by God this is possible.
How do we describe our world? “It’s a jungle out there”, is one saying. Isaiah offers hopeful words, but we all know that our reality is not the peaceable kingdom. The fact is it wasn’t Isaiah’s reality either. But he understood that the only way out of wilderness is by a new vision.
John the Baptist was all about a vision of God’s coming reign. John’s urgent wilderness call to repent and be cleansed of sins, being washed in the river got a big response. Even some Sadducees and Pharisees came, though John accused them of skipping the repentance part. And that’s how we know that repentance was the key to John’s message.
John might have been an Essene, belonging to an ascetic community dedicated to lives of simplicity, mutual care, and teaching about God. John’s appearance is reminiscent of the prophet Elijah in 2 Kings 1:7-8. “He was a hairy man with a leather girdle…” When the people of the towns and villages went to see John, it was not to poke fun or gawk. They went to listen to John because he was a visionary with demonstrated credibility in his life and spirit.
John announced that the reign of God was near, and repentance would prepare their eyes to see and ears to hear God’s reign coming into their midst in an unexpected way. John did not name Jesus as God’s means, but used lively descriptors: more powerful than I…he will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire…winnowing… gathering…burning with unquenchable fire.
How does this message from John translate for us? We are far from the wilderness, far from John’s river, far from those Biblical times. Are we to fear fire and brimstone as God’s judgment upon us? And what does repentance mean for us?
Repentance is about changing directions. This message has never lost its relevance, but perhaps in our present circumstances, it might resound differently in our ears. The world that we once knew is fading away. For generations we have relied on certain things. Things like social norms, shared values, our political system, the Church.
Now everything is shifting. It’s tempting to respond by holding more tightly to what we know. Even when it’s not the best we can do. We don’t know how to move forward and yet we can’t go back. It’s easy to grow pessimistic about the future we can’t see. And where is God in this?
It’s not that this has never happened before, but the intervals between relative stability and immense change have been very long. Our collective human memory for responding to change of this magnitude is dim.
But we’ve got this. Yes we do. As people of faith we have the long record of our Scriptures and we have reminded ourselves of whole worlds and people lost and found.
John the Baptist spoke to this with his assertion that God can produce new growth from cut-off stumps, and bring fertility from stones. It’s what God does. It’s why Jesus came. God’s reign brings something completely new, along with the assurance that it will be okay, so keep faith.
The words pivoting, and resilience, recently popular in public discourse, have always belonged to Advent. Isn’t pivoting really repentance? It’s the amendment of our ways of being and living, in anticipation of something we cannot yet see or even entirely imagine. And resilience sure sounds like the ability to persist through adversity by being grounded in God.
Oh yes, the reign of God feels near. It’s a reign that suspends the laws we know, challenges all the rules about who has the power, the pride, the advantages, and the hope. God’s reign is Jesus challenging the assumptions about who is righteous and who is not. God’s reign upending things was why Paul could boldly preach the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s community.
This season also is way of practicing God’s reign. All around you, people who customarily do not give, are throwing coins and bills into the cans of bell-ringers. People who do not customarily care are thinking about folks who have less, or even nothing. You can call it senseless sentimentality, a product of clever advertising, or anything else you think it might be. But to those who are paying attention it just might be the reign of God coming near.
One last thought: what about those Pharisees and Sadducees? John the Baptist was so hard on them. But what if we think in a new way about this? Yes, the reign of God comes in power, cleansing, winnowing, gathering, burning with unquenchable fire. Yet God’s reign comes in love. Therefore since the Peaceable Kingdom can accommodate asps and adders, there must be room for a brood of vipers too.