Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Isaiah 11: 1 – 10
The Peaceful Kingdom
11A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 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.
3 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;
4 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.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 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.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 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.
Return of the Remnant of Israel and Judah
10 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.
Romans 15: 4 – 13
4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel for Jews and Gentiles Alike
7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess* you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
10and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
12and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 3: 1 – 12
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’* 3This 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.” ’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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. 10Even 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.
11 ‘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. 12His 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.’
Here we are on the second Sunday of Advent, that strange season where we look forward with excitement to the birth of Christ, and yet where the coming of Christ also suggests the need to repent.
We see this illustrated in the readings this morning where one speaks of a glorious future and another of God’s judgement. The key, I think, to understanding the link between these two is to ask what is necessary for participation in God’s future. In other words, does the exciting coming of God imply any response on our part?
On 23 October I preached about being a Pharisee and two weeks later, on 6 November about being a Sadducee. (And by the way, if you were not here for those days I sincerely suggest you look those sermons up on the St Peter’s website.)
Who remembers the essence of the modern Pharisaic spirit?
(The Pharisees wants things to change – in particular they want others to move towards engaging with God as they think they should). They look for qualitative change in other people.
Who remembers the essence of the modern Sadducean spirit?
(The Sadducees want nothing to change – in particular if anything does have to change they want to hire someone else to do the job and that change is generally more of the usual). They look for quantitative change in the system.
The thing both have in common is that they themselves do not want to change. They have the sense that they are fine. In John the Baptist speak – I am a son of Abraham. i.e. you can’t tell me anything. My heritage makes me who I am and I’m fine thank you.
The bad news is that there are varying degrees of both these types in us all.
Now slap in the middle, on the Sunday between those two, on 30 October, we recall Jesus saying to Zacchaeus, the repentant tax collector, that he too was a son of Abraham.
Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were defined by their religiosity- they were religious people. The Tax Collector was not. If anything he stood for everything that was not religious – enriching himself at the expense of others.
And yet he is embraced by Jesus while the others are not.
In the very early days of Facebook – you know – when you sent Friend Invites to all in sundry – I came across another Jonathan Gale, He was a Canadian school student about to go to uni to study theology. He has done so with some success and is now, as far as I can make out, working towards a PhD.
On 18 November he posted the following:
The problem with religion is it hardens you to the truth, and what following Christ actually looks like. It hard-boils you, and makes it harder to accept Christ because it lies to you that you’ve already been here and tried it.
Let me extrapolate that last bit.
In Advent we expect, we anticipate. But what do we anticipate? Do we anticipate the repetition of a tradition: the mental and emotional buzz of the Christmas Christ-child in the manger, visited by shepherds and wise men and fleeing to Egypt because of a murderous king?
Or is there more to our expectation? Does our expectation translate into faith – that key to engaging with God? Do we have a sense of God engaging with us (whose presence always changes us) and if we do, what do we do about it?
In short, does the repetition of our religious practice open us up to God, or does it shut God out by being clearly defined by past religious experience?
No change takes place without a change in direction. The New Testament Greek word metanoia means changing direction and it is translated as repent.
If your heart has been hardened, if you are no longer sensitive to the urgings of the Holy Spirit, if you are comfortable with where you are: you may well be a hard-boiled by religion ( to use the language of my young Canadian friend).
My job, I was informed by one of the people who trained me, is “To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
If you are comfortable, if you have fallen into a religious rut, please get out of it; for your own sake!
8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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.
John the Baptist also said something disturbing.
10Even 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.
John goes on to say: 11 ‘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. 12His 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.’
It really is very simple. Our religious encounters should have us 8Bear(ing) fruit worthy of repentance. Repentance is the characteristic of a son or daughter of Abraham.
When John saw Jesus he said I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
John acknowledged that there was in himself, the person Jesus described as the greatest of all people, a lack of worth – dare we even suggest it – a sinfulness, for though he was an extraordinary person he was nonetheless just like you and me.
I said earlier that the bad news was that we all have a bit of the Pharisee and the Sadducee in us – we resist change within ourselves.
But the good news is in the rest of John’s sentence – He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire.
The Holy Spirit has been described as the Hound of Heaven. In other words, he is unrelenting in the chase. God does not let us go. He pursues us until we are caught in his love and mission, and it is the mission that is our response to god’s love, that forges our purpose in life.
In the words, He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire, lies both a dowsing and a burning. Two contradictory images. The image of baptism that drowns who we were (that resistant, impermeable me – no thank you God, I’m fine as I am) and the image of fire that sets us alight and consumes us for God. (Thank you for your love, God! What do you want me to do?)
The Good News to us in Advent comes to us as a challenge: how do I prepare for the coming of this Christ-child? Even as I look at the potential that lies in this God-infant, am I going to grow with him? Let us all find ourselves in the position where we allow our lives to bear fruit worthy of repentance?
Let’s allow the baptism of water and of fire to work is us. Will I allow the baptisms of water and of fire to work in me? Let’s hear hear the words, “You too are a child of Abraham.”