Advent 2, A
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.
Isaiah had a way with words.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
In content moments, warm in my house, fuzzy blanket over my knees, children snuggled safely in bed, in those moments these words sound peaceful and joyous. And so they are, but the world into which they were delivered was anything but.
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Montgomery wrote, “These words from Isaiah were not spoken in a moment of reverie when the beauty of the mountain brooks and the serenity of the quiet pasturelands made the prophet aware of where it was all leading. He was not watching a dazzling sunset. He was watching the dazzling swords of the great and overpowering Assyrian army as they sliced their way through his native land of Palestine, leaving nothing but a trail of blood and agony. He was living through what has been called the first holocaust of the Jews. It occurred between 740 and 700 B.C.D. Five times during these 40 years did the Assyrian army, the vast and superior Assyrian army, stampede through the hill country of Israel working terror and destruction wherever it went.
With no regard for anyone’s culture, with no regard for anyone’s religion, with no regard for anyone else’s life, they came like a scorpion plague, devouring everything and everyone in their path. Over and over and over, the people of Isaiah’s Judah had been ravaged. The horrid sounds of war were ever familiar. The cries of pain seldom ceased. Who could plant a field and have any hope that it would survive to the harvest? Who could bear a child with a confidence that it would reach maturity? It was a horrible forty years, those years in which Isaiah lived.”
The people of Israel felt alone, bereft, frightened. Few have not felt echoes of their distress. In loss of loved ones, in the grief of an unwelcome diagnosis, in the waves of anger and cruelty that sweep across our country, in family discord or betrayal by friends, in witness of the poisoning of soil, water and air.
Into that distress Isaiah injects his message of hope, of peace. Effectively he proclaims the truism that God is God. War, power, fear – these things are not God. Anger, violence, greed – these things are not God. God is God and the promise of God is more powerful than the destruction, the fear, the isolation that seem to surround you.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
John the Baptist also has a way with words, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
No matter how warm my home, how fuzzy my blanket, how safely snuggled my sleeping children, I cannot mold these words into the shape of peace or joy. One commentator referred to John the Baptist as “that awkward, smelly Advent cousin.” (Rebecca Kirkpatrick, Bread Not Stones) Each Advent 2, every year, there he is, camel hair clad, smelling faintly of honey with bits of locust leftovers in his unkempt beard, yelling out uncomfortable, unpopular, challenging threats. Yet the people flocked to him – they left their homes, their comfort zones, to brave the wilderness and hear a message of their inadequacy and vulnerability to judgement.
“A preacher put this question to a class of children: “If all the good people in the world were red and all the bad people were green, what color would you be?” Little Linda Jean thought mightily for a moment. Then her face brightened and she replied: “Reverend, I’d be streaky” (The Spirituality of Imperfection)
And so it is. We are streaky. We are lambs: bereft and alone in a dark world – clinging to the promise of the triumph of the love of God. We are wolves: secure in our strength, fed and clothed, snug in our tradition – simultaneously repelled and attracted by John’s strange voice challenging us to risk everything for change.
Isaiah speaks comfortingly, John barks a challenge – they preach the same message – know that the Kingdom of God is coming.
In a few minutes we will pray the confession together. This is a good thing, a recognition of what is not right in ourselves, our families, our communities, but if it changes nothing, it means nothing. Alice Walker wrote, “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”
“Repent!” calls John into the wilderness. “Metanoia” is the Greek. It has nothing to do with groveling or humiliation – It means change of mind. Turn around. Recognize the wrong yes, but do not stop there, mired in guilt or remorse – or possibly worse, smug in outward humility. There is work to be done. That wolf and that lamb are not going to take up housekeeping together until both are well fed and feeling secure.
One story of Martin Luther claims he decided to take Scripture at its word when he read in Luke, “Do not worry about what you are to say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say…”
Instead of working on his up-coming sermon for the Wittenberg Cathedral that Sunday, Luther worked all week on his commentary on the Psalms. On Sunday, he climbed into the high pulpit. He looked out over the sea of upturned faces. The Spirit did indeed speak to him. It whispered in his ear these words: “Martin, you did not prepare.” (Illustration from Alyce McKenzey)
It is Advent. The time of preparation. Emmanuel comes, thanks be to God – it is now for us to become the voice crying into the wilderness, making the paths straight, turning around, living a life in Christ, that Christ may live in us and in the world.