The Gift

Isaiah 11: 1-10 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Matthew 3: 1-12           December 4, 2016

 “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Prayer:  O come, O come Emmanuel.  Please come to us, in our hearts, our minds, that we may have you with us.  Amen.

This past week, Barb and I looked around at our yard and saw all that needs to be done before winter really sets in.  I know… I know… we’re a bit late on some of these things.   At the corner of our home were two canna plants that we planted last spring.  Theybloomed beautifully over the summer and into the fall.  Now, they’re done, and Barb cut off all their stalks and leaves practically down to the roots.  But, she said to me, “Those stumps and bulbs need to be dug out and stored away if we want to have flowers again next spring.”  So, I dug them out, put them away, and cleared out the ground hoping that the gift of life would once again come even though it felt like they would die if I dug them out of the ground.

 I think our Isaiah passage has the same sort of movement to it.  Israel had it so good.  It was planted in the ground, blooming. They were in the land of blessing and promise.  Milk and honey, so to speak. They bloomed and they prospered.

But, Israel and Judah got lost along the way. They were done, so to speak, and went to idols instead. The kings and priests stopped worshiping God, which meant the people did, too.  They stopped following the law designed to bring people closer to God.  They stopped listening to prophets who revealed God’s words and ways and challenged them to grow in faith.  God was none too happy about their faithlessness.

If you read the chapter right before Isaiah 11, Isaiah 10 is all about God sweeping through the land, using the Assyrians to destroy Israel and other nations that had succumbed to the worship of idols.  Feels like death.  But, then after all the “trees” were cut down (a metaphor for the nations), all that would remain would be a stump… a metaphor for a small remnant of King David’s family line… David, whose father was Jesse.

 Then, in the midst of all this political and national devastation, God used Isaiah to speak a word of hope and promise.  God promised to send a king, from Jesse’s lineage, Jesse’s stump, who will rule with wisdom, with justice, and mercy, and righteousness.  And this kingdom, amazingly, would be one that was without stress.  Without killing.  Mortal enemies would eat and drink together.  There would be no hurting, no destruction, and peace.  Everyone would know God!  The advent of that king, whom we believe to be the Christ, the Messiah, Jesus, God’s Chosen One, would be a signal to all people—that the gift of God’s heavenly realm has come near!

Obviously, we’re not there yet.  In fact, our reality is the opposite of Isaiah’s imagery.  John the Baptist proclaims that the kingdom of heaven has come ‘near.’  But, it’s not ‘here’ totally, yet. 

I wonder if when we receive the gift of the kingdom of heaven that it helps to change what is our ‘normal’ perspective on things.  What God calls normal, peaceful, playful, loving, harmonious relationships, where enemies get along and are no longer enemies, clearly, that is NOT normal in our culture.  In fact, we would call that very abnormal.

I know a few divorced couples who work diligently at being mature adults and strive to get along very well with each other.  Many call that abnormal.  But, I think God that might say, “If I live in their hearts, divorced couples working hard to be healthy and good role models for their kids and others—that’s a good, new normal for them, akin to the kingdom of heaven.”

 Or, many might consider it abnormal that Pope Francis turned down his sumptuous apartment at the Vatican in favor of a small room to live in.  And, he decided to travel around in a Ford Focus instead of using the Pope-mobile.  And last month, he ordered that the palace and gardens called Castel Gandolofo, where pontiffs have vacationed for almost 400 years, be turned into a museum.  Pope Francis did those things in order to repent from that which takes him away from living simply, and humbly, especially when he knows there are millions of poor people living in the world who suffer in poverty.  Do you think that kind of solidarity with the poor might be God’s normal?  Might it be that his repentance re-orients him to the way that God wants him to be? (“People’s Palace,” Century Marks, Christian Century, November 23, 2016, p. 8).  I think so.

 Which makes me wonder if repentance is necessary for God’s gift of the kingdom of heaven to be made more real in us.  These words ‘repent’ 

and ‘repentance’ are good words.  But we don’t use them in our language very often.  About the only time we hear them or speak them is in church, and usually we think of them negatively.  Like we’ve been doing something wrong and we need to “repent” in order to get into the kingdom of heaven.

Then there’s always that image of the shaggy-haired, deranged street person standing on the corner with his sign “Repent!  Jesus is coming soon!” yelling at passersby.

I get it thatfor the church over the years ‘repentance’ has been used to scare the you know what out of us into right behavior, but I don’t think that’s what it’s mostly about.  It’s not like the Christmas Song, “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” Santa Claus is coming...he sees you when you’re sleeping...  I think it’s mostly about us re-orienting ourselves to God’s ways instead of our own ways no matter how good we think our ways are.  The good of our ways always tries to undermine the best of God’s ways, says theologian Oswald Chambers.

It’s not that the Pharisees and Sadducees were bad people.  They were the keepers of God’s laws, and that was a good thing.  But, they let that responsibility make them become high and mighty, privileged, entitled, and powerful over others… so much so that it went to their heads, which was a bad thing because the law became their god (with a little “g”).  It was the only thing they were obedient to.  And they made it so difficult for the average person to be obedient to God’s laws that it actually broke the faith of the average person, making them like lost sheep, helping them engage in all kinds of bad behavior.  Is it any wonder that John was not so cordial to the Pharisees and Sadducees who thought that their faith ancestry entitled them to their power?...  Who thought that it was a no-brainer for them to be baptized?  Is it any wonder his message was “Repent!” to the people who were lost?

So, here’s the surprise—for them and us: just because one is an ancestor of Abraham, just because one is a keeper of God’s law, a Pharisee or a Sadducee, it doesn’t give that person a pass on repentance.   Every person, no matter who it is, everyone is in need of re-orienting our lives, our ways, our attitudes and perceptions to the ways of God’s gift of the kingdom of heaven, don’t you think?

We may say “O Come, O Come, O Christ with your gift of the kingdom of heaven.”  That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t give us a pass on repentance—because there’s always more reorientation to God’s ways that is needed in our total lives.  Our every day lives.  Because we’re human.

The good news I think is that repentance mostly takes us to the mystery of the life of the Son of God being born in us.  The mystery of the Spirit of God living in us.

Perhaps Advent and Christmas are more about us staying alive to this mystery of faith.  Alive to faith that Christ is born in us again.  That Christ comes to us, again.  That Christ will rise in us again.  That God is a God of extravagant love and mercy.

 Because someone out there lost without love needs us I think to role model God’s extravagant love.  Someone out there needs us to stand up and reflect God’s justice when something unjust occurs.  Someone out there who feels like death needs us to share the gift of the heavenly kingdom’s life.  Someone out there needs us, and I believe God engineers our circumstances so that we can be the person who shares the kingdom of heaven with that someone in need.  It’s not for us to decide who that person is or when that moment occurs.  But, God uses us.  I believe that the gift of the kingdom, proclaimed by John, brought in by Jesus, and received by us through repentance, is now able to be given by us to the person in need so that they may encounter the living God of grace, love, and mercy.

 The gift of the kingdom of heaven is near—it’s in you.  It’s in me.  The more we show it, the closer it gets. O Come, O Come O Christ—let us receive this gift, we pray.

Now let us bless the God of Israel, who comes in love and power.  Let us stand and give our song of praise to God.  Amen.