A Sermon preached on Advent II, December 4th 2016 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
Last week, we were provided with a beautiful vision of peace and harmony in the reading from the prophet Isaiah, while Matthew’s Gospel offered us dire warnings and threats. And this week we were provided with a beautiful vision of peace and harmony in the reading from the prophet Isaiah, while Matthew’s Gospel offers us dire warnings and threats! I was briefly tempted to use last week’s sermon again, but I fear you would have noticed. By coincidence, the Anglican Community News Service reported this week on a speech by the Bishop of Uruguay at his annual convention. He cited the example of a new priest who received complaints that he had used the same sermon three weeks running. “Yes, it´s true,” the priest said. “I have preached the same sermon every week for three weeks now. I know what I'm doing. . . When you begin to live out this sermon, I will go to the next one!”
So, while I will not preach the same sermon, we should perhaps not be surprised that our readings in Advent have a similar theme. God knows, we all need a lot of repetition and reminders to help us both hear and understand the message and act on it, which is the key point John the Baptist is making.
In fact, the whole Bible is really one consistent message, constantly repeated, and rarely acted on. “Again and again, you called us to return” we say in one of our Eucharistic Prayers. Sometimes we struggle with the Old Testament, and now and again I hear people say that they much prefer the New Testament. The Old Testament is too violent. The God of the Old Testament is too angry, too vindictive. It is true that Jesus continually emphasizes the loving nature of God, and the word Gospel, the Old English translation of the Greek word Evangelion, literally means “good news.”
But if we look at today’s readings, I find the Old Testament vision in which “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,” and the world is filled with the knowledge of the Lord to be very good news indeed. (Isaiah 11:6-7, 9) If we look at John the Baptist on the other hand, he does need to work on his interpersonal skills: calling his congregation a brood of vipers is not how I would start. His vision of one coming after him, who is more powerful, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, and who “will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire,” (Matthew 3:11-12) does not sound like good news at all, at least not if I’m worried about being part of the chaff.
It is too simplistic to restrict the good news to the New Testament and it is wrong to set up the Old and New in opposition to one another, and it is especially wrong to set up the people of the Old and New Testaments in opposition to one another. The Hebrew Scriptures, as they are sometimes also called, are the foundation of our faith. They are the earlier part of Jesus’ story, they are part of the story we live in. That’s what our Collect said this morning: “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation.” And that is what St. Paul is telling the Christians in Rome when he says: “For 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.” (Romans 15:4)
As Paul goes on to say, the scriptures, at that time only what we now call the OT, already contain the good news that God is faithful to God’s promises, that God has always wanted to bring all nations into fellowship, and that God has always been a God of justice, mercy and love. This church year our gospel readings will come almost exclusively form Matthew and we will hear a lot of references to the OT, as the idea of fulfillment and continuity is one of Matthew’s big themes.
For Matthew, Paul and for us, the OT points to Jesus. In the reading from Isaiah, the prophet looks forward to the reign of the root of Jesse, who was King David’s Father. “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.” In quoting from Isaiah, Paul is identifying the root of Jesse with Jesus, and at the very beginning of his gospel in a long and intricate genealogy, Matthew goes out his way to trace Joseph’s ancestry back to David, and Jesse, for this very reason.
If we look at the two passages from Isaiah and from Matthew they are actually not as different as they seem. On the one hand, I think we get a little distracted by Isaiah’s vision of life on the God’s holy mountain, and so we miss the warning that comes in the paragraph before. “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.” (Isaiah 11:4) There can be no justice without judgment, and no salvation without true repentance. This is exactly what John the Baptist is saying to, just a little more forcefully. Let us not forget that in Matthew’s description of the beginning of John’s ministry, John starts with good news: “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” (Matthew 3:2) God is coming back! But you must get ready. God will judge between good and evil. So repent, turn back to God, show a change of heart and mind, show your desire to be in relationship with God.
I do not preach exactly the same sermon every week, but I will admit to using similar themes. God is love. God created us out of love. God wants us to be in relationship with God and one another. This is an invitation. If we truly accept it, in our hearts, if we turn to God, we cannot avoid changing and we will bear good fruit, worthy of repentance. There will be something to show for it, it simply must affect the way we live. Repentance is a choice: against the destructive things of this world, and for the beautiful things of the Kingdom of heaven, the holy mountain of Isaiah’s vision. God sent God’s son – 2000 years ago – to extend this invitation and to show us how to accept, by following Jesus. He became like us, so we can become like him. And God sends the Holy Spirit, as the power that surges through us, enabling us to celebrate, live at peace, grow in faith, and abound in hope.
When John announces Jesus as the one who comes after him, as the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, he is not issuing a threat, but proclaiming good news. The Holy Spirit is our comforter, enabler, and empowerer. The fire is a metaphor for our transformation. We are not chaff, but we all have aspects of our lives that need cleansing if our repentance is to bear fruit.
One of my favorite hymns is “How Firm a Foundation” and verse 5 sums up this particular promise beautifully:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.