December 8, 2019

Living a new way

Passage: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung, of Jesse’s lineage coming, as prophets long have sung. Isaiah ‘twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind; with Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.

The beautiful Christmas hymn that we just sang, takes us back to the days of Isaiah when the prophet penned the words to his prophecy about the coming of Christ: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”

The hymn itself was written by an anonymous author in the sixteenth century. Some stories have the hymn created by a German monk, who, while walking in the snow, found a rose in full bloom. Other legends have a young shepherd girl tending her sheep, who went to the manger, saw the baby Jesus, and wanted to give him a gift. Being poor she had nothing and so she cried. Her tears fell to the ground and a most beautiful white flower whose petals were tipped with pink appeared in the ground. Overjoyed she presented her gift of the Christmas Rose to the baby Jesus.

The Christmas hymn has had many re-writes over the years. We sang four verses today…but over the years, as many as 23 verses have been written. Thankfully it’s been trimmed down to four, sometimes with a fifth and sixth verse added for good measure.

The Christmas hymn, Lo, how a rose e’er blooming, is one of my favourites – as tricky as the timing is at spots. The tune is peaceful with a touch of melancholy. There is a feeling of anticipation for the coming of Christ, foretold by Isaiah, and also the reason for his coming – true flesh, yet very God, from sin and death he saves us and shares our every load. The hymn is a wonderful blending of the message of hope from of old…with the assurance of what is and what will be…to the endless day.

In Advent we take time to both look at the past…and also to prepare for the coming again of the one that was foretold – the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. And as we do that, we are reminded of our need to repent…to be cleansed so we can live a new way…a new way as we follow the one who is the way.

Let’s look for a few moments at the words from the prophet Isaiah.

The words from the prophet Isaiah in chapter 11 are a real gift. The images are so full of peace and hope and life. The words of chapter 11, however, follow some equally descriptive images of war and despair and death. It was around the year 733 BC that Isaiah penned his words. He was in Judah and it was a very tumultuous time. The political climate was very unsettled. They faced the real possibility that the Assyrians would conquer and destroy them. They were under constant threat and danger, and they were discouraged. Their future was bleak indeed. The people had been cut down to nothing. They were like a stump with no branches, no leaves, no life.

And then Isaiah spoke a word of peace and hope and life. Take a look at the stump again. It’s not dead! There is life! A shoot will come up from the stump and the branches will bear fruit. The shoot will be a new leader guided by the spirit of the Lord.

Isaiah names the stump Jesse, because Jesse was the father of David who was hailed as the greatest king of the Hebrew people. By the time Isaiah came onto the scene, about 250 years after King David ruled, the people were worn down by one incompetent ruler after another and the people felt hopeless. They felt as if nothing would ever change. It was into such a time that Isaiah prophesied. He gave the people a much-needed vision. The dynasty that began with Jesse, David’s father, would produce an ideal ruler who would be filled with the spirit of the Lord. The Spirit of wisdom and of understanding. The Spirit of counsel and of might. The Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord. The new leader will lead in faithfulness and righteousness…and everything under his rule will change.

Isaiah then paints a picture of the peaceable kingdom. The Rev. Robin Wilson, in her advent study on this passage, writes: “It is the restoration of innocence. When hearing Isaiah’s words, one can picture Eden, before the fall: “The wolf will live with the lamb,the leopard will lie down with the goat,the calf and the lion and the yearling together and a little child will lead them.The cow will feed with the bear,their young will lie down together,and the lion will eat straw like the ox.The infant will play near the cobra’s den,and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.”

The image is so powerful it is hard for us to really picture it. To see such an image as possible. The American actor and writer Woody Allen once gave his own interpretation of this vision: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep!” Author Stan Mast asks the question: “Biologists may well wonder how the digestive tract of carnivores will be able to stomach a plant-based diet.” Woody Allen’s picture and the biologist question are likely closer to what we too see as being a little more realistic…far more than Isaiah’s picture. The animal kingdom just doesn’t operate that way. It is not possible.

But that’s what Isaiah wants the people to see. Isaiah wants the people to see a world in which little children don’t have to be afraid of anything. Where there will be no more hurt and destruction. A world where peace is possible. Isaiah wants the weary people to picture peace, hope and life.

That picture of peace, hope and life – which we may cynically say is not possible – is one of the most persistent themes of the Bible. The Rev. John Buchanan writes that: “God means for people to live in peace with one another and with the whole creation, God means for the foundations of peace – righteousness and justice – to fill the earth. God has given the creation the means to establish peace. God will not rest until the cause of peace captivates the hearts and minds of everyone – all nations. God will never cease working for peace in the world. God’s own son will be called the Prince of Peace.”

During Advent we await the Prince of Peace.

Isaiah’s picture of peace seems impossible most days, but as Author Stan Mast puts it: “These immortal lines simply present unqualified good news. In a world full of failed leaders and injustice and strife, the prophet declares that one day a leader will come who will bring a kingdom of justice and peace to the world. It seems impossible most days, but in these days of Advent, we are reminded that he came once and will come again to finish his work.”

The message that one day a leader will come who will bring a kingdom of justice and peace to the world, is the message the John the Baptist proclaims…with the added very strong message that we should prepare the way…make straight the paths…repent…and bear fruit worthy of repentance. Yes, Jesus comes as a little baby. Mary bore to us a saviour. But that’s not what John the Baptist focuses on. John the Baptist interrupts the charm of the season with the words repent…wake up…and bear fruit! For John it is about living a new way.

Let’s look for a few moments at the words from John the Baptist.

John was a prophet that didn’t mince his words. He was the first prophet in Israel in four hundred years, and he burst onto the scene with a powerful message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John preached out in the wilderness…away from the city and where people lived. But it didn’t take long for his message…his radical message of repentance…to be spread to the people. And instead of people running away from John and his challenging message…people came to him…confessed their sins…and were baptized. John saw people coming all day long for baptism. Some however – and he singles out the Pharisees and Sadducees – but I expect there were others – some people were not entirely sincere. They spoke the words but their actions didn’t match. To that way of living, John says enough. John didn’t mince words and we have one of his more famous expressions in today’s reading: You brood of vipers! What John saw of their action did not correspond with their talk. John wanted them to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. If they were to be baptized, they had to live a new way. Baptism wasn’t just a religious ceremony they would do…and it wasn’t just about trying to do a little better. John called the people to live a new life…to re-order their lives…to re-set their priorities…to return to God.

Clearly John the Baptist did not preach a message that was comfortable. He told people the truth about their lives and called them to repent, to turn around, to change their course, and to follow God’s way. And yet the people came to hear that message. They went to John out in the wilderness to hear him preach his challenging message. To hear unpleasant things about themselves. And still they came. There was a desire to live a new way. A new way beyond themselves. A new way which John told them about – the way of following Jesus. And that way is still open today. The church mustn’t shy away from the challenge and spread the news that Jesus is the way. As we say during the advent: the way of hope, peace, joy and love. The way of life.

In Advent we take time to both look at the past…and also to prepare for the coming again of the one that was foretold – the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. And as we do that, we are reminded of our need to repent…to be cleansed so we can live a new way…a new way as we follow the one who is the way.

Jesus is the way…and by our following we are living a new way. Jesus is the green shoot of Isaiah’s poem growing out of the old stump. You and I are the branches, meant to bring greening life where there seems to be only despair and dread. We are called to live a new way and Advent invites us to examine our lives…to repent…to turn towards God and God’s ways once again.

The beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah are inspiring…but they are also a call to live a new way knowing that God is with us and that God’s power overcomes the brokenness of a fallen world and offers a new way forward. The words of John the Baptist are challenging…but they are also a call to live a new way of repentance... know that we can do so without fear for Jesus promises forgiveness and new life. Our response then to that promise is to bear fruit worthy of repentance. And we are called to trust that God has the power to work in our personal lives…and in the lives of our church community…to bring the message of hope, peace, joy and love to life. So may it be so as we all strive to be a people living a new way. Amen!