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Sermon for Dec. 9, 2018 -- Expect a Promise

EXPECT A PROMISE”

-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 12-9-2018 Pardeeville

(Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12)

 

 

           Both of this morning’s scripture readings have some rather intense words in them.  It’s hard to miss some of what Isaiah and John the Baptist are saying and it certainly doesn’t put us in an Advent mood, does it?  The book of Isaiah, particularly in its first section, contains a lot of things we find difficult to read.  One of the jobs of a prophet though, is to announce God’s judgment.  Remember what’s going on at the time this morning’s passage was written.  The Assyrian army seems poised to attack Israel at any moment.  That’s the powerful and massive Assyrian army.  The chosen people will pose no match for such an army.  But the king of Israel thinks he’s got the solution.  “Why don’t we just join with other nations around us who are in the same situation and provide mutual aid whenever one of us is attacked?”  This may have been sound military strategy but it completely ignored the fact that Israel should be relying on God, should be putting their trust in God, instead of depending on another country’s soldiers.  Isaiah wasn’t the least bit bashful about pointing this out to his country’s leaders.  In so doing, he was declaring God’s judgment on Israel.  “Change nothing”, Isaiah warned, “and there will be big problems!”  In the chapter just before the reading we heard this morning, Isaiah speaks about an angry God…a God who will be swinging an axe and cutting down trees.  God will be chopping down everything.  This paints a dismal picture indeed for the chosen people.

           But prophets have another job to do…a more important job.  They proclaim that God’s judgment is never the final answer…that God is merciful…and that God will bring hope to the people.  In the book of Isaiah, we see the prophet constantly going between his job of declaring God’s judgment and his job of offering his people hope.  Throughout the book, it’s judgement, then promise…judgment, then promise.  In our reading this morning, when Isaiah begins to speak about a shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse, he is sharing God’s promise with his people.  Now there is a reason for the chosen people to be hopeful about their future.

          Isaiah uses a stump, and the shoot that comes from it, as a metaphor for change…a culture of fear will become a world at peace.  This is how hope gets its start.  It emerges from the tiniest growth and from an unexpected place.  Out of something that appears lifeless and finished come the signs of hope for the future.  Trying to bring this idea up to date and into a memory that I have, I see the process of hope in God’s future not in a stump but in a vine.  Donna and I moved to Mauston in 1979.  Emily was three years old and Erick celebrated his first birthday two days after we moved in.  That was a long time ago.  We enjoyed our new town, our new jobs, and our new house.  It took us a while to discover everything about the house so we didn’t notice the trumpet vine growing at the southeast corner of the house right away.  My best guess is that someone had planted it there in a failed effort to disguise the electric meter directly above it.  It wasn’t too long after we moved in that we noticed that trumpet vine trying to work its way under the siding on the house.  That didn’t seem right so we cut the plant back.  I’m sure some of you know that trumpet vines grow very well just about anywhere you plant them.  We were about to find out!  After we cut it back, it grew up again and continued to challenge the siding on the house.  So we chopped it way back.  It grew up again.  We dug it up, making sure the shovel and any buried cables did not meet.  It grew back again!  I don’t think we were ever able to keep our beloved trumpet vine from growing back.  It was frustrating at the time but I look at that trumpet vine now as a symbol of hope and as a sign of new life.  Isaiah told his people the same thing.  From only a stump would come a time of hope and peace.

          And in the language that Isaiah uses, with certain expressions, his people would understand that he is describing a king.  In saying that the Spirit of the Lord will rest on this person, Isaiah is saying that this person will be anointed.  Also there is the mention that this person will come from Jesse’s family.  Jesse was the father of King David.  The king that Isaiah speaks of will have nothing short of splendid credentials.  Wisdom, understanding, counsel, power, and knowledge.  This king will know and follow God and will be obedient to God. 

          We hear Isaiah’s prophecy about the manner in which this ruler will provide judgment.  He will not rely solely on what his senses tell him.  He will judge with righteousness and will treat each person fairly.  This king will fight to protect the rights of those who are defenseless or in some way marginalized.  Isaiah is describing a king unlike any before him.  The result of this reign will be a time of peace heretofore unparalleled in the country’s history.  And it is certainly much different that what is happening at the time Isaiah is writing these words.  This time of peace that Isaiah envisions goes far beyond last week’s image of swords becoming plow shares.  This time of peace will reach all nature.  Natural enemies will live in harmony.  There will be no thoughts of one species trying to hurt another.  And a child will be able to play around snakes without injury.  This is an interesting image.  It seems to indicate that everyone and everything will be able to coexist in safety.  The new king will bring about reconciliation and restoration for all.  Again, far from the actual happenings of the day when these words were written but this is Isaiah’s gift.  He can envision these things coming.  In describing all this, Isaiah may have been speaking about the next king of Israel.  It would certainly be the type of person Isaiah would have hoped to see lead his country…someone who has reverence for God…someone wise and understanding…and someone who will judge people fairly.  We come along, about 2700 years later, and we see this as a prophecy of the Messiah.  Isaiah writes these words to give his people hope for the future…hope for a better future.  That’s why this passage shows up in Advent.  In Advent, we are filled with hope as well.      

          John the Baptist was quite a character, both in the way he dressed and in his diet of locusts and wild honey.  Can you believe how such a person would be treated today?  He would not be a believable evangelist!  But he was pretty popular in his day.  The guy was a huge draw!  In John’s time, power was located in the cities.  That was where the kingdoms and the bureaucracies were located.  To receive services or to get just about anything done, you had to go to a city.  John the Baptist turned that idea on its head and set up in the wilderness, baptizing people in the Jordan River.  It should have failed miserably…but it didn’t!  John had a great many people come from Jerusalem and all around Judea.  He asked those who came to prepare themselves for the person who was on the way by confessing their sins and being baptized in the Jordan River.  And when some confusion developed about who the Messiah was, John the Baptist quickly added that he was not the Messiah.  He humbly admitted that the person the people were waiting for was so great that he was not worthy to do even the most menial of jobs for him.

          So we have Isaiah going against the reality and the outlook of his day.  During a time when the threat of attack was very real for the chosen people, Isaiah chooses to look ahead to a time of great leadership and great peace.  In a similar way, John the Baptist goes against many of the customs of his day when he starts in the wilderness, asks people to repent and confess their sin, and announces that someone will be coming after him who is the long awaited Messiah.  Now we are in the season of Advent which, strangely enough, stands in opposition with contemporary culture for this time of the year.  Advent tries to focus on the promises of God that are fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ.  Without this time to prepare, to expect, to anticipate, some of the meaning and the joy of Christmas could very well elude us.  Spending some time taking a look at the prophecies in the Old Testament and realizing that these prophecies have been fulfilled in the New Testament give us hope for the future.  They reinforce our awareness that God is ever-present in our lives.

          In the twenty-first century, a fair question to ask is, “Are we waiting for the kingdom of God or has it already arrived?”  And the correct answer is “Yes!”  We know that many of the references in the Old Testament and particularly in the book of Isaiah refer to the coming of a Messiah.  We know that the one whom Isaiah spoke of and the one that John the Baptist referred to as the one coming after him are both references to Jesus.  In the birth of the Christ child we understand that God’s kingdom has arrived.  We also know that we are called to be God’s partners in spreading this good news.  So we go forth and witness to God’s love in our own lives.  We work for the peaceful kingdom where justice and peace are as natural as can be.  We find ways, both as a community of faith and as individual followers, to let others know what we believe about God.

          During the season of Advent, we wait for God’s gift.  We prepare ourselves as best we can to receive it but, at the same time, we know that God is already with us and will always be with us.  When you find yourself befuddled by this, just repeat an Aramaic word that sums up the whole thing.  The word is “maranatha”.  It can mean “Come, Lord Jesus.”  It can also mean “The Lord has come.”  Same word, two different directions in time.  At the same time petitioning our Lord to come to us and acknowledging that the Lord is already here.  Those are, in fact, the two directions that we look during the Advent season.  Last week, we were encouraged to live our lives in the light of a new day…to live as people who have a vision for the future.  Now we add something to that understanding.  We find it can be helpful to remember the prophecies in the Old Testament that speak of the coming of a Messiah.  We see that some of the chosen people remained faithful during an extended time of exile in Babylon.  We remember the examples of faith they had, faith that was passed from generation to generation.  And, at the same time, we know that Jesus has come into the world.  Jesus was able to reestablish our relationship with God.  We know that God is calling us to share this news with others, to continue to be faithful witnesses as many of those in previous generations have been.  So we remember the past, we celebrate the present, and we look to the future.  God is coming, God is here, and God will be with us wherever we go into the future.  In Pardeeville, and around the world, that’s God’s promise to us…a promise that, like all of God’s promises, we can depend on.  Thanks be to God.

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