12.08.13 The Gift we Give God Matthew 3:1-12 Sermon Outline
This is kind of a “stumpy” time of year—our lofty ambitions from a year ago have been shown to fall short. Isaiah has a vision for times like this.
- Stumps and the Spirit of hope
- The kingdoms of this world and of heaven
- The two things God says about us and others
- Depending on the Spirit for repentance and the kingdom
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Depending on when this passage from Isaiah was written, Isaiah is either trying to ease the anxiety of people who are witnessing the decay of the Davidic dynasty, or they have already experienced its demise. What matters is that the people are losing hope. Maybe you can relate.
Isaiah’s image of the crest-fallen Israel is that it has been reduced to a “stump.” What once was a tall and powerful tree has been reduced to a remnant. While celebrating Thanksgiving with family last month it occurred to me where we were a year ago, namely London, celebrating with the same family members. I was struck with how little things have changed, and much of those that had, had not changed for the better.
I have the same unrealized goals and the same bad habits. I’m another year older. Another year with my small children is gone forever.
Into a discouraging introspection like this, Isaiah and the Psalm cast a hopeful vision of a new shoot springing from the stump, of a new king. This monarch, in the words of Isaiah, judges not by sight or according to bribes. The concern of this king is righteousness, justice, peace—with particular concern for the poor. Righteousness is an attitude we have—that relationships be fair and honest; justice is this attitude in action—making sure others are cared for as well as we are; and peace is the result of a justice born of righteousness.
Isaiah’s vision is hopeful. It is still unfulfilled. When some argue against a federal minimum wage increase because “the market should determine the value of someone’s work,” this is not the reign of the righteous king. The righteous king pursues justice and peace, and since our world is ruled by unrighteous kings (here I refer to decision makers, not necessarily political characters, though they are included), we still pray with Jesus, “Thy kingdom come.” Our hope is not in earthly kingdoms, but in the Lord (the King) Jesus Christ.
Thus Advent has two references. One is backward looking, to the birth of Jesus which Christians believe inaugurated God’s coming kingdom. The other is forward, to the return of Christ which will bring the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision.
Isaiah taught that this heavenly kingdom depends entirely on God’s Spirit. So do the Gospels. This is why Jesus’ birth narrative includes a virgin mother—it necessitates divine intervention. Isaiah wrote that God’s Spirit is one of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and reverence for God, and one that delights in God’s presence.
John the Baptist of repentance, as revolutionary as he was, still deferred to another baptism in the Spirit, one that would come with Christ, precisely because repentance alone does not bring the kingdom. Only Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit does that. And so at Pentecost, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, that Spirit came to abide in every member of the church.
Isaiah’s vision of the result is idyllic and poetic: wolves and lambs resting together, cows and bears sharing a meal of grass, children playing with snakes without danger. Paul applied the vision more concretely. He wanted Jews and Gentiles in Rome to, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” And this hopeful vision is only possible by the Spirit: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
What might our repentance look like in this stump-season of Advent? One way to think about the nature of repentance is that it simply accepts what God says about us and about others. And what God says is that: first, we are beloved; and second, we are sinners. If we would just meditate on these two truths deeply every day, it would lead to repentance. It would lead to righteousness, justice, and peace. It would lead to the kingdom.
To believe these two truths that God declares about us depends on God’s Spirit. We would never come up with these two on our own because they seem so contradictory to us. As a pastor and theologian, I see this all the time—that we come up with either one or the other, but not both at the same time. Either God love us and we don’t deal with our sin; or we’re sinners and we never experience God’s love. To do both takes the Spirit.
If God loves us, why does he call us sinners? The reason is because God values us enough to hold us accountable. If we are not held accountable, how would we know of God’s love? When this congregation holds me accountable to proclaiming the Gospel, teaching the truth, equipping for ministry, I know it values me. When we’re not held accountable, we doubt whether anyone cares. This is part of God’s gift of repentance.
Then doing it, actually repenting, is our gift back to God. What does actual repentance look like? If we truly believe in God’s love and our being sinners—and not only us, but others also (“I believe in God’s love, but not for that sinner”—yes, that sinner, too)—it will lead to concrete acts of repentance. It will change our attitudes and our actions to reflect God’s love of sinners. It will generate our hope for and collaboration with second chances. We will recognize we are on a spiritual journey, and we will welcome other loved sinners onto the path. We will forgive others.
Following Jesus as Lord and being a child of God will cause conflict with the kingdoms of this world. But it leads to the peace envisioned by Isaiah, empowered by the Spirit, and called for by John through repentance. This Advent, let us live in light of the kingdom of heaven.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Where are the “stumps” in your life, those places where dreams and plans have fallen short? Can you turn these over to God’s Spirit, to see whether a shoot may grow from them in Christ?
- Where are you on the continuum of righteousness—justice—peace in your life? Where is God calling you to attitudes and actions of righteousness and justice?
- Are you looking to both references of Advent this season—back to remember Jesus’ birth and forward to his climactic return? How are you preparing for both advents?
- How does the sacrament of baptism shape your life? It includes repentance and the Spirit. What are you doing to live into your baptismal identity?
- How do you respond to the two things God says about you? How do you respond when God says these about others?