This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th December 2019, the second Sunday in Advent.
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
“The one who is coming will come from Jesse’s family, a return to the righteousness of the Davidic inheritance.” A shoot from the stump and a branch from the roots suggests to me regrowth out of what was cut off. Isaiah tells us that such a man is coming, and that God will be upon this man; this man will live according to God’s model of righteous living, and this man will live in a saving relationship with God by God’s grace. This man is an agent, a leader and a catalyst, a restorer of once-broken relationships between God and nation, between nation and land, and between citizens of the nation. God’s king will rule with righteousness, and stand with faithfulness.
In this picture of the kingship of God, and what life is like inside the Kingdom of God, we’re not actually seeing Heaven. All of this shalom in the air and infant herbivores sleeping beside adult carnivores is a description of what Earth will be like once more, when God’s rule is completely restored. Remember, (make sure you remember), that God’s promises about the end of things are not about dead Christians going up to Heaven; no, the promise is actually that The Trinity Godself and the New Jerusalem come down to complete the New Earth, which is the inheritance of the One whose robe is dipped in blood. (But that’s Christianity and we’re getting ahead of ourselves here). As far as Isaiah is concerned he’s writing about a restored King of Israel, the ruler of a nation that includes the people of all twelve tribes living across the full extent of the land promised by God to Abraham, (a land far larger than the land conquered by Joshua’s armies). Isaiah is writing about history as it was supposed to have been, a life where humankind never left Eden, and Isaiah writes with confidence that God will complete this work promised at the outset of humankind’s written history. Everyone who has been scattered will come home. They will know where home is because they will be able to see the root of Jesse standing on the horizon, and they will know that that place is indeed home because the root of Jesse will be calling them in with welcoming voices.
Isaiah preached this during the reign of Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, (we’ll hear more about Ahaz next week), who was a good king of the kingdom of Judah. It’s possible that Isaiah is preaching at the time of Hezekiah’s coronation, so a time in Jerusalem’s history of “a new hope”. Israel to the north has been defeated and overrun by its enemies, so the Samaritan Israelites are not in Samaria but in Assyria as conquered exiles. Some of the Judahites have been taken away too, but Jerusalem held out and has been delivered from the threat of siege. So, the enemies are gone and the old king is dead (bad king, good news), and the new king is righteous and according to Isaiah 11:11 he will summon home all of those who were taken away: the Tanakh says that God will redeem the other part of His people, and the places named are the places where they were taken away to. So, as the Gospel According to Buble reports (Feeling Good lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley © Universal Music Publishing Group):
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good
(Hey, it’s not really Christmas without Buble.)
Later in history the Patristic scholars connected the attributes of Isaiah 11:2 with Jesus’ reception of the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit: the idea being that Jesus was and is the foretold Davidic king who brings peace to the world. A similar story is told in Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 and similar to our Isaiah passage the Psalm is not so much a prediction that one day Jesus will come, rather it’s about what the people of God’s nation are praying for then and there about their king. Give us someone righteous, they ask, someone who will open the land to prosperity and blessing, someone who will protect the poor and disadvantaged so that their right to participate in national prosperity is protected and promoted. Give us someone who will reign for a long time and whose rule is refreshing to us all, and may God’s name be blessed because God’s reputation is being upheld. Give us a king who is like God in character, and bring on the kingship of God, The Kingdom of Heaven.
In Matthew 3:1 we hear John the Baptiser calling to the Judeans and saying repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Like the psalmist John is calling for social reform, and the fact that he’s preaching in the wilderness and away from the elites and the military is a sign that he knows his message is contentious. When someone is deliberately avoiding the cops and the bosses while he shouts for change you know a revolution is not far away, and that’s exactly what John has in mind. So did the Psalmist. Isaiah was pretty sure it had just happened with Hezekiah newly arrived and ready to take a new broom to old filth. “Change your thinking about the way the world works, begin to think about the way the world was supposed to work, the world of Eden where God is king and Herod and Caesar are not,” screams John, so you can see why the outback was good place for him to be. In Mark 1:15 it’s Jesus himself who says this, in fact it’s Jesus’ first words in that gospel account, the first thing written in red if your Bible does that sort of thing. Jesus has come (in Mark) or is about to come (in Matthew) and the Kingdom stuff from scripture is about to come into being. God has arrived on earth, to be king, and all the shalom is here for the asking. This is why I wonder sometimes whether the comma is in the wrong place in Matthew 3:3, and what it should say is the voice of one crying out: in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, so it’s not so much that John’s cry must come from the back of beyond, but that the cry is that Jesus will come first to the back of beyond and that that is where the way must be prepared for the Lord’s coming. The message of the Lord is scary, Jesus may even end up dead himself if he keeps up with this Kingdom of Heaven chatter, he’d better stay in the wilderness with John and be safe. You can’t live in God’s Kingdom unless you are prepared to follow God’s leading, and God’s instruction for us each is humility before Godself and care for the broken and downcast amongst our sisters and brothers. “Yes you belong to Abraham’s tribe”, says John in Matthew 3:9, “and yes you are saved by grace and not by works or obedience, but if you are not actively working with obedience then has grace really found a home in you”. In other words, Kingdom people live kingdom lives with kingdom values and kingdom actions, not because this sort of thing gets you into the Kingdom but because having entered the Kingdom by grace this is how life should be lived. Leave your muddy sins at the door and use your inside manners: cut out this dirtying the carpets and the squabbling and the name-calling, you’re Israelites, not bogan Gentiles.
So, you pack of bogan Gentiles, how are you feeling now? Well we know that a generation later Paul, alongside Peter and the whole mob of others, came to understand that Jesus called them to include and invite us bogan Gentiles too, showing us how to leave our muddy sins at the door, behind the cross, and to use inside manners. It’s quite plain in Romans 15:7 and Romans 15:5 where we read welcome one another as God welcomed you…and may God grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus. You aren’t saved by obedience, or even by confession, you are saved by grace: but as someone saved by grace you should be living by obedience and confession because that’s what God expects, and the Spirit instructs, of citizens of the Kingdom of God.
The news of Advent, as it points to Christmas and the coming of the king, is that we are each, each one of us, included in the Kingdom of God by God’s own activity. Indeed we are included the same way that every descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is included, by grace. By grace taught in the Torah, and grace taught in the religious and cultural traditions of Judaism. By grace shared and shown by those who extend hospitality for family and strangers; by grace shared and shown by Jesus who died at the hands of broken human people including (but not limited to) the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Romans 15:12 the rabbinical scholar, a Pharisee turned follower of Jesus, deliberately quoted Isaiah and wrote the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles, in his the Gentiles shall hope. This is the hope of Advent, he is coming soon, and when he comes he will point us toward home and the Father and family who are waiting for us there with joy-filled expectation.