Advent 2 / A
December 8, 2019
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
“The lion shall eat straw like the ox.” For centuries, the ancient prophet Isaiah’s description of the peaceable kingdom to come has offered faithful people a hope-filled vision of a future world without conflict or oppression. Now, his prediction is certainly good news – no! make that, great news! - for the ox, but we have to ask: What about the lion? Is it really such good news for him? What sort of lion, created as a wild, carnivorous predator in every molecule of every sinew and tooth and claw, would happily resign itself to grazing meekly alongside the livestock?
The Messiah, we are told, the one whom Isaiah calls the “shoot from the stump of Jesse,” will “decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Now, the meek creatures – lambs and goats, cattle and oxen, kids and fatlings - must surely welcome this new world order in which they need not fear being stalked and devoured by fierce predators. But for the predators, the question is whether the wolves and leopards of the world must lose the very essence of their being and all that they are in order to bring about this idyllic, pastoral society?
Perhaps it would help our understanding if we come to realize that the meeker animals – the sheep, the cow, and the kids – must, in this future world, be changed as much in their own nature as are the lions, and tigers, and bears. For a deer to lose its timidity is just as radical a change as for a cougar to lose its ferocity. So, in order for Isaiah’s vision to become a reality, the entire equation of predator and prey must be broken and re-created. In this new and peaceful world, there are no longer to be victors and victims, but a new society in which all creatures can thrive and live without fear.
In place of a world of competition and scarcity, Isaiah shows us a peaceable kingdom full of astonishing abundance and equality. And for the lion and the bear to become non-aggressive vegetarians, what wondrous and wonderful grass it must be! Grass and straw that is wonderful and wondrous enough to satisfy both a ravenous wolf, as well as enough to embolden the wariest lamb.
“The lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Straw like this can only grow in a landscape “full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” This same divine knowledge rests on the Messiah with and through the Spirit of the Lord. And because of this Holy Spirit of God, he is able to judge not only by appearances, but by the heart and very essence of things. In the end, we will each face a final judgment by the Messiah, it is true, but, we are promised, he will judge us with righteousness and equity.
Through God’s grave and love, we too are invited to drink from the knowledge of the Lord. And to drink from this well-spring is to drink deeply from life-changing water. This water of knowledge we are invited to drink is, in fact, nothing other than baptismal water, water that transforms us and births us into new life and new reality.
In today’s gospel reading, John the Baptist draws crowds to himself at the Jordan River with the call to repentance and baptism, and the promise of the kingdom of heaven. Filled with God’s most Holy Spirit, John, too, judges people by what they carry in their hearts, not merely by their outward appearances. And in judging their hearts, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the respectable and the pious, do not get an especially warm welcome by John. In fact, “You brood of vipers!” is how he greets them.
Yet, along with the lions and oxen, the bears and the lambs, even vipers will have the chance to be transformed in the peaceable kingdom to come. Despite their chilly reception, note that John does not turn them away. He does not deny them baptism or refuse to hear their confessions. Instead, he admonishes and encourages them to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” And good fruit, good wheat, good grass, is the very food by which all will be fed in the kingdom of heaven.
But, fruit worthy of repentance cannot grow from us unless we deeply and radically change our self-perceptions. John would not allow the Pharisees and Sadducees to rest on their worldly status, nor on their past, or through their ancestry. Goodness does not depend upon whom you have been, or where you have come from. Rather, it depends upon whom you are, what you choose to do, and upon whom you are intent on becoming. Humility, and change, and choice, and the continual welcoming of new growth are the essential elements of repentance.
John, like Isaiah, heralds the imminent arrival of the Messiah, as well as the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven into our world. And John promises one who will baptize not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire as well. This fiery baptism will surely be transformative and life-changing. For, while the Spirit might be portrayed like a gentle dove, fire more closely resembles a roaring beast.
But this gentle holy breath and beastly holy fire are, in fact, one and the same substance. John describes how the chaff will be burned with “unquenchable fire,” while Isaiah tells us that the “breath of his lips” shall slay the wicked. As the images from the California wildfires confirm, wind and fire can surely destroy – swiftly and completely; but wind can also be used to stoke the fiery flames of the craftsman’s forge. Just as the Messiah both judges and redeems, the Holy Spirit has both the power and possibility to consume and to create.
The kingdom, the end times, the world perfected, the second coming of the Messiah - these will arrive with holy fire. And whether consuming or creative, fire is always transformative. In the face of God’s holy fire, we have a choice. If we choose not to be transformed by God’s own Spirit, then we will be consumed and destroyed. But those who choose to allow themselves to be reshaped by the baptism of water and the Holy Spirit will not fear the fire, but will greet the fire as warmth, and welcome the fire as light.
This season of Advent reflection and repentance calls us to allow ourselves, like the lion and the ox, to be shaped into new creatures. As we ponder the earthly arrival of Jesus and prepare ourselves for his coming again in glory, we understand that just as fire may both consume and create, our Messiah himself has been both a nursing child and a righteous judge, both crucified victim and resurrected king.
As for us, it really does not matter whether we see ourselves now as lambs, lions, or vipers. The Kingdom of heaven that now draws near in Jesus will not be filled with cowardly lions and oblivious oxen, but with peaceable lions and oxen freed from fear. In the Kingdom of God, we will all feed in abundance, for we will bring forth for one another the best fruits of repentance, and offer one another the very best of ourselves.
Beginning this Advent, while we pray that God’s peaceable and promised Kingdom will come soon, let us, even now, as baptized children of God, live as though the Kingdom has already arrived. For in truth, Isaiah’s peaceable Kingdom has come near in Jesus. And indeed, the Kingdom is already here, for through the baptismal waters and in the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ lives in each of us – and beginning this day, in Colton as well.
Thanks be to God!