Whose company would you prefer? Isaiah or John the Baptist? Which message resonates better with you?

Whose company would you prefer? Isaiah or John the Baptist? Which message resonates better with you?

December 8, 2019 Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

            Whose company would you prefer? Isaiah or John the Baptist? Which message resonates better with you?

            “A spirit of wisdom and understanding” or “you brood of vipers?” “A spirit of knowledge and the wolf that lives with the lamb, a leopard that lies down with a kid” or “the wrath is coming?”  “A lion eating straw like the ox” or the “ax is lying at the roots of the trees?” “They will not hurt or destroy on all my mountain but the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord” or “repent and bear fruit worthy of repentance!” 

            I think I know what your answers would be. John the Baptist is not easy to be with. His message is not a comforting message or one that mainline churches easily embrace. It is true that there are preachers on the margins who love to preach fire and brimstone sermons. There are a few preachers who love to scare people with the wrath of God. And interesting enough they often use John the Baptist as their role model: “The wrath of God is coming!! Repent sinners!!!

            They use the wrath of God to convince people to repent. They seem to use fear to nudge people towards God. Now in all fairness the use of fear to move people to repent has been used for a long time! My home church minister when I was a child, was good at it, but even back then I was not convinced that it was very effective or desired. In my view, God’s love has always been a much more powerful force to draw people to the Divine.

            We love to do what I have done at the beginning of the sermon, don’t we? We love to make things either-or.  Isaiah or John? Love or wrath? Brood of vipers or the wise and the meek?

            Such a dualistic way of looking at the world works well. Either or? Republican or Democrat? Black or white? Right or wrong? Left or right?  Good or bad?  And then we apply this either-or approach to God as well!

            The only problem is that the world is more complex than this. Human beings are more complex than this. And it is much harder for human beings to fully comprehend God. Maybe it would be better if we accept that an either/or approach is not always the best approach.

            Furthermore, it is a good question whether the message of Isaiah and the message of John are that different after all. Their worldviews are not as divergent as it seems. Instead of focusing on what seems to be a contradiction between them, perhaps we should see if there is a common thread in their messages.

            Both of them present us with a reality that challenges and opposes the natural order of things! And let me remind you that the expression natural order of things is a philosophical concept that in essence means that natural law has the final word. You cannot change it! It basically accepts that things and that include people are what they are! All you can is to accept this fact- thing and people don’t change! Both Isaiah and John say no! Wait a minute! There is another worldview! Both of them trust that God is able to make things new, people and everything else. Both of them trust in God to do marvelous, new things.

            Israel finds herself in a situation that would confirm the natural order of things: Babylon was stronger, they defeated Judah! The Jews are now prisoners in Babylon, they have no rights. They lost their land and the powerful Babylon determines their fate! This is how things were back then! The natural order of things-an accepted and conventional world-view!

            The prophet Isaiah challenges this reality for he believes that God is able to make things new: “A Shoot shall come out of Jesse and 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.” Let me remind you that the reference to the shoot from Jesse refers to the tribe from which King David came. And when David was elected king of Israel, his very election went against the natural order of things: In 1 Samuel 16, old Samuel anointed the next king of Israel. Those days, one of the many natural-order-of-things was that the oldest son was the one that would be blessed! So, Jesse’s sons walked in. First the oldest: Eliab! He was tall and handsome. Samuel immediately thought he was the one, he would make a great king. God’s says no, do not look at appearance. In the end it was David, the youngest, who was neither tall nor physically strong, who became king. You see even here God is not bound by “the normal-order-of-things.”

            The One to come, the shoot from the branch of Jesse will not be bound by the normal-order-of-things either: He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear. He will see another world and hear another voice: “He shall judge the poor with righteousness, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”.

            You see the prophet presents to Israel back then and to us today another vision of the world. A vision that is radically new and radically different! But the newness and difference go way beyond our understanding and way beyond the normal-order-of-things: God’s word presents us with the most radical image of this newness in the entire Bible. Only the resurrection of Jesus is more radical. “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.”

            Now our normal response to these verses is something like this: Oh! It is beautiful and sweet-but let’s get real! You see how we are prisoners of the “normal-order-of-things- philosophy?”  We look at the world with an either-or lens! We immediately put this on a level of – can’t be done, will never be done, and then we move on to our realistic world.

            To this is I want to say: Wait a minute! Aren’t we people of faith? Are we not people who affirm that God is real and that God is not bound by the natural order of things?

            The natural-order-of-things philosophy is one view. The either-or worldview is one view. However, the prophetic, Biblical view is another and it is equally legitimate! The question therefore really is this: “Am I willing to make the leap and embrace and live with this Biblical view?” This view, or call it theology or philosophy has a place in the world! A very important place. Why, because the natural-order-of-things philosophy is not working too well! The world where the strong, the adult, the wealthy, the one with the biggest or most guns, the most money, determine how the world is working is not working out very well either. A world where people live by the rule of “the survival of the fittest” has resulted in a world where more and more people don’t make it, they are not quite fit enough. A world that lives by the normal-order-of-things motto of an eye for an eye, ended up being a blind one. A world that uncritically and unconditionally accept the dualistic view of either-or is in my view, missing an important perspective. 

            I think that this sermon is one of the most important and challenging sermons I have ever preached. It is so demanding that no-one can look at the world ever again and see what is going on and accept it by saying: “It is tragic but it is what it is! That is how the world works”. No, Isaiah and John are saying: It does not have to work this way! It can and should be different. And for people who believe that God in Christ became flesh, walked this earth, died and was raised, we should know that God is not bound by the natural-order-of-things. And neither should we!

            John the Baptist stands solidly in this prophetic tradition. He, in essence does the same thing as Isaiah. He too shows us an alternative world.  He wraps his message around the concept of repentance- “repent for the kingdom is near.” German theologian Walter Grundmann in his Commentary on Matthew writes (and I freely translate): “John the Baptist uses the prophetic tradition of repentance to call for a change of view– to turn away from evil and turn towards God. This turn leads to a new beginning.”

            Another theologian points out that Isaiah and John offer “God’s life-giving, future-creating, world-forming, despair-ending power which can create an utter newness.”

            You see Isaiah and John urge us to reorient ourselves, to turn away from our former ways, to change our attitude and perceptions. It further means that we look at the world through a difference lens. Traditional Christian theology is correct when it describes repentance,

  • as a personal action by the individual to change your life, but there is more to it,
  • as an action that mourns my sinfulness, but it is more
  •  as a turn away from sins and turn towards God, but it is more,
  • as an embrace of God’s love revealed in Jesus Chris, but it is more!

Biblical repentance implies a complete change: As Johan Heyns puts it: “Repentance starts with a change from within, a change of our thoughts, feelings and will and continues externally in new actions, new words, new relationships because it is a change of heart!” I would add to this that repentance renews our eyes so that we are able to recognize a new world. It enables us to see something different than the natural-order-of-things! It helps us to see another reality, God’s reality that is different from the status quo!

            For us as people of faith our worldview boils down to this: We see potential where others see threats! We see opportunities where others see dread! We see life when others see death. In short we see a reflection of a new heaven and a new earth!

            This reflection of a new heaven and new earth results in exuberant joy and boisterous hope, unbridled excitement and childlike enthusiasm. It results in confidence even in the face of despair. It makes us optimistic about the future even when everybody is predicting doom.

This is faith in a God who brought life when everyone thought death was victorious! This was Isaiah’s hope, this was implied in John’s preaching and his call to repentance. This is our hope in Christ Jesus. Amen.