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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent - 12/04/2016

John the Baptist apparently missed the preaching class where you’re told that beginning a sermon by calling your audience a brood of vipers, a brood of venomous snakes, is probably not a good idea.  Such comparisons don’t tend to go over well.  Or perhaps he was there and just didn’t care; he was going to tell it like it is and if someone didn’t like it, that was their problem. 

However you look at it, John the Baptist always shows up like an uninvited guest during the middle two weeks of Advent, saying things that no one really wants to hear, words about repentance and judgment, trees that don’t bear fruit being thrown into the fire and then chaff being burned with unquenchable fire, never very pleasant images.  You could say that John didn’t have any filters; he just laid it out there, the truth as he saw it, and if you can’t handle the truth, too bad.

John the Baptist does crash the party and says things we don’t want to hear; but…are they things we need to hear?  In this year when we’re thinking about Martin Luther and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation we’re reminded that Luther talked about the need for sermons to include both law and gospel, the law that tells us what we should do, the gospel that tells us what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ.  In this case, John is definitely a law guy and we do need to pay attention to his call for repentance, harsh as it sounds.

Personally, I’m not crazy about the “repent or else” nature of John’s proclamation.  I don’t think scare tactics are the way to go and threats about being burned in unquenchable fire seems to be just that, a scare tactic that runs contrary to a gospel of grace.  On the other hand, what John gives us is another Advent wake up call, emphasizing as he does the importance of repentance not just for the sake of repentance, but for the sake of bearing fruit.  We have been given a gift of grace but John’s message is that the gift comes with a “to do” list.  We have a role to play in making God’s kingdom known and John the Baptist lets us know it in no uncertain terms. 

In announcing the one who will come after him, in one sense John announces a gift that is complete.  In Christ our fallen humanity is transformed and we are made right again in God’s eyes; it’s done, no assembly required.  To fully be who God would have us be though, for the gift to fully be what God intends, our participation is required.  Without our participation, the gift is still good, but we remain unchanged and that’s the point of John’s harsh rhetoric about repentance.  Repentance is about turning and changing and to receive the gift, change is called for.

We do need to hear what John has to say and we can because his words don’t stand alone.  In good Lutheran fashion today’s readings also include gospel that tells us what God has done or what God will do, but this week the gospel isn’t found so much in the gospel reading; instead it’s in the first reading from Isaiah. 

The reading from Isaiah is one of the most beautiful, poetic readings in the entire Bible.  The Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders who were part of John the Baptist’s audience were no doubt familiar with its words of promise, the image of the peaceable kingdom, the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together.  They’re beautiful, comforting and hopeful words, but maybe we, along with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, don’t hear these words as we should without the words of the Baptist ringing in our ears, making this not just a comforting image but also a call to action.

It starts though with words of hope that defy logic.  That’s what poets can do.  Isaiah is not limited by facts on the ground but instead uses inspiration and imagination to offer something new, in this case a shoot out of the stump of Jesse.  Jesse was the father of David, David of course being the king who occupied a central position not just in the history of ancient Israel but also in the imagination of ancient Israel.  In that regard you could liken him to George Washington in this country; Washington was an important historical figure but he’s perhaps even more important as a symbolic figure representing what we believe to be the character of this nation.

In David’s case though, the dynasty ultimately ends in failure.  The royal line of David ends…except in the imagination of prophets like Isaiah who continued to proclaim that there would be a future king from the family tree of David.  At the time of Isaiah though, there was no tree, only a stump, but from the stump, there’s a shoot, a branch that for Isaiah represents the Messiah, the divinely appointed king who would be filled with the spirit of the Lord. 

In the collective mind of the people, the Messiah they hoped for would be a mighty ruler who would restore the house and dynasty of David, it would be a political and military leader who would free them from the rule and influence of other regional powers who had occupied their land.  But that’s not the Messiah imagined by Isaiah.

Instead he imagines one blessed with wisdom and understanding.  Between the lines you can read wisdom as opposed to knowledge.   There are lots of smart people out there, people who possess knowledge, but that doesn’t make them wise.  Between the lines you read understanding as opposed to the mere accumulation of data. It’s easy to gather information, harder to know what it means and what to do with it.  Wisdom and understanding are different. 

Isaiah also gives us a ruler who possesses the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, one whose delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.  The phrase “fear of the Lord” always raises questions.  The “What does this means” in Luther’s catechism always start with “We are to fear and love God” but it seems like fear and love don’t go together.

In this case though, fear is not about being afraid; it’s a recognition of the holy mystery that is at the center of life.  It’s the acknowledgement of a different version of reality, one in which God is the primary player, active and involved in the affairs of the world, but it’s a God whose power is not revealed by flexing economic and military muscles, the traditional means of power, but instead it’s power revealed in compassion and forgiveness.

Isaiah then describes this shoot, this branch as one who will decide with righteousness on behalf of the poor and decide with equity for the meek, the poor and the meek being those often neglected by those who wield power.  Isaiah though, upsets the expected worldly order imagining this ruler not as we might expect but as one clothed in righteousness and faithfulness.  Those are his defining characteristics and righteousness is also all over today’s Psalm in its description of the king.

Isaiah’s vision would be enough, enough to make us pause in wonder as we imagine the possibilities.  But Isaiah isn’t finished as it’s from there that he gives us the peaceable kingdom where the usual assumptions concerning the food chain and survival of the fittest don’t apply, and then, equally dramatic, “and a little child will lead them” further upsetting the expected order of things and of course we hear about the little child and think of the Christmas baby we will celebrate in a few weeks.  It’s all gospel, it’s all good news, a vision of hope in a world in need of hope. 

Isaiah gives us the gospel vision and John the Baptist gives us the call to action, the law, the summons to bear fruit, and we need both.  Hearing Isaiah’s words and seeing what he sees we imagine the possibilities and act accordingly.  Now, as always though, there are false prophets with other visions of a very different reality, far removed from that of Isaiah.  Now as always, there are those ready to act in order to bring those other visions into being.

During Advent we are reminded again that we wait in hope for the vision imagined by Isaiah because it is also the vision of the little child who will again be born among us on Christmas, the little child who leads us.  We wait in hope and we act in hope, bearing the good fruit of repentance as we turn away from death dealing visions and realities and into the life giving reality of the one who is to come.

We wait in hope, with Christ as our light.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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