Isaiah 11:1- and Matthew 3:1-12. Preached at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ on December 5, 2010 by the Rev. Michael W. Caine.
When I got back to church yesterday from my meetings in North Carolina, Joanna Robinson and Beth Walker had gotten the new members class started for me. And Peter Brigham was alone in the Social Hall, repainting the candelabras. Soon he would be joined by Alice Reyes and the Youth Group and their leaders and parents to decorate the Sanctuary for Christmas for us. And outside, in the cold, Janice Smith and Jo Fine were working in the courtyard. Tree trimming. The holly tree looks great.
Jo suggested recently that the boxwoods in front of the CE Building, now sort of hidden by the manger, but looking sort of mangy, need to be cut back to the ground: they’ll either come back refreshed or not, and if not, then we’ve moved them out of the way.
I told Jo I needed to share her landscaping advice as part of my sermon today– I said, “I’m going to use your suggestion about ‘clear cutting.’”
Have you ever heard an arborist yelp in pain? Our Jo can be an expressive woman (as she’s now raising her fist to the sky!). I can’t say exactly she enjoys my agricultural misconceptions. Oh shoot, lets just call it my flora ignorance. Jo rarely misses the lack of knowledge I enjoy when it comes to the plant kingdom.
She patiently reminded me–sort of like a second grade teacher with her recalcitrant student– that clear cutting is a controversial, no disastrous forestry practice in which all trees in a harvest area are cut down. It leads to deforestation, erosion and climate change.
Turns out gardening suggestions, like the bigger issues of care for our environment, can set off real passion and disagreement– even before we get to those big Blue Spruces out front that some of us want to bring down.
But really, I’m not just trying to get Jo or any of the rest of you going, which I can get a kick out of sometimes. Instead, I’m setting up the prophecy we heard from Isaiah this morning.
At the end of chapter ten, Isaiah foretells that God is coming in like some crazed forester who’s about to to cut down all the trees. With a vengenance, God’s clear cutting to start over. The situation’s that bad; God’s willing to wreak havoc, cause destruction in order to make a clean break and get a fresh start.
Mowing down whole stands of towering trees. Those who first heard the prophecy would have thought of the towering fir trees, the cedars of Lebanon, the tallest in that part of the world. In this prophecy, those magnificent trees represent the mighty rulers, the threatening empires and the powers and principalities of this world that surround and overshadow the vulnerable little land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem. God will take them down, Isaiah says, clear the land.
Because there’s a stump that the prophet goes onto speak about in the 11th chapter. The first hearers of this prophecy would have recognized this stump, and that the stump is a direct result of the towering trees.
But God, through the prophet, promises that even cut back down to the ground, in a clear cutting, God knows, there’s this power of new life, even in the most forlorn stump.
Where we can’t see any possibility of new life.
When we worry that the line of God’s promise is finished, cut off, dead.
What looks like it’s beyond life, beyond hope, even hope deferred?
When things look their worse, even when God seems to have given up and is calling it quits, God still has the power to get us started over again. From the most lifeless stump, a shoot of new life can emerge!
So, trusting in Isaiah, I ask you this Advent, what are your towering trees casting long shadows in your life; standing tall, threatening your abilities at new life? Where do you need God to clear cut, to sweep through your world, your life, and fell whole forests to give you a real break, to expose that what may seem to be no more than a left behind stump, that there might come a new beginning?
Whether you are struggling with illness or addiction, financial setbacks or uncertainty or oppressive debt;
whether you are unhappy in our work or our relationships, alienated from our family or friends, grieving a loss, or feeling broken inside;
whether you are depressed or anxious, worried about our children, our partner or spouse, or our parents;
whether you have suffered from violence or injustice, loneliness or despair…
God can take on all your opposing forces. God has not forgotten you. Even now God has a vision, a dream, a real promise of making all things right for you. And it begins with the most tender, green shoot, a whisper of new life breaking out of what has looked like an old dead stump.
Such a promise is not just astounding; it feels unbelievable! But it stands just the same, throwing into high relief the abnormalities of life that we take for granted. The dog eat dog world that you learned about on the playground and in science class, and see replicated in the world all around us, so much so that you have come to accept it as inevitable, even “natural.”
But our Advent prophecy warns the old order is about to be overturned. The ways things have been, wherein the big ones control, take from, eat the little ones are not God’s intention. Isaiah proclaims: the rules of life will be changed, bent from all the unfairness, harm and hurt… bent towards towards co-existence, peace, shalom.
In the midst of our economic downturn and our endless wars, a different world, a very different world is possible.
It’s become so normal to hear the death toll in Iraq or that we can’t afford to feed all our children or care for all our sick…
It’s become so normal to hear of the obscene salaries of some while others can’t even work to make a livable wage.
It’s become so normal to run the gauntlet of security to board a plane or to hear of death reigning just a neighborhood or two away from us.
It’s all become so normal, that we forget the world that God created us. The life God means for us to live. That God means better, that we were meant for better than this.
But it’s not just scarcity and want, violence and death that have become normal. It’s also become normal, I fear, to blame others. Normal not to take responsibility for our own mess. For our complicity. For how we contribute to the big wrongs in the world and how we do wrong ourselves.
So, let’s start here, now: what do you, what do we need to clear cut?
What are the big towering trees of your life that you need felled?
What do you need to ask God’s help in transforming this Advent that Christmas might see to, be for us a new sense of shalom?
We might still doubt, wonder how such a great transformation, such a miraculous “making all things right” could ever happen?
For Isaiah’s people, our ancestors in faith, this hope rests in a ruler who will be a surprise, “a shoot from the stump of Jesse.” Jesse was the father of David, the great king from the glory days of Israel, when things were right, the people confident, the nation balanced– the moment they most loved to recall, the way they loved to think of themselves, the hope they held onto for their future.
All these former right relations, when the people were in right relations to one another and themselves and when the nation could stand up to its neighbors, had been lost, taken away. Assyria had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and marched right to the gates of Jerusalem. The descendants of David’s kingdom, the nation’s glory days, knew the bitterness of conquest and exile, of constant threat and war.
Life had become violent and unfair, the people were suffering, and they had to wonder if God had left them on their own.
Isaiah responds to his people’s hopelessness and despair, our hopelessness and despair with a promise: “No, God has not forgotten us.
Even in this worst of situations, there is one who is to come, one who will have the Spirit of the Lord upon him, just like David did.
He won’t rely on hearsay or appearances but he use wisdom and understanding to judge and rule in a way that all of creation will be transformed.
That’s how we got to that part about the lion and the lamb. Justice is coming. Deliverance is coming. Peace is coming. Hold on, Isaiah promises, hold on to the dream of peace.
Do you, can you hear, believe that promise? Not of some personal savior. Not some agent of sacramental operations. But one in the line of David. Who will make a difference, a real difference in the whole world. Not just in your heart. But there too. Maybe starting there. But one whose advent is about the embodiment and practice of new social possibilities.
One whose influence will reach to the ends of the earth and recreate a real place so void of wickedness that all the hierarchies, even the survival of the fittest in the animal kingdom will be laid low. One whose humility will prove stronger than the military might of any empire. Whose love will not be lavished on the legions of the powerful, but instead will attend to and lift up the sick, the marginalized, the broken, exerting his will on their behalf. One who will make shalom our new normal.
That’s what Matthew’s talking about when he describes John. Not that John is that leader of Isaiah’s promise. But, instead, John is one who comes on the scene for a brief moment as a forerunner of that ultimate one.
John is the announcer. The warm up act. The stagehand. He’s our help, to get us ready. It’s not easy to see past normal, to see no forest for all the trees, to envision a new normal. It’s not easy to get a fresh start. So John comes first, to get us going.
John calls us to turn around, head in a new way. He calls us out into the wilderness, well beyond the places of our comfort. Then he splashes some cold water in our face. Baptizes us in the river.
John calls you out of your normal. Away from we are established and in charge and sure of ourselves. He says, “Get wet. Go under. Allow yourselves to be overwhelmed. Let an ax at your unfruitfulness. Be cut down. Have your floors swept and your chaff burned.”
To remind us we are not the one. That we, like him, got to recognize that there’s someone else more important who is coming. We need to get out of the way, clear the way for the one whose coming we all need. Step aside that the Kingdom might break in and move ahead.
There is this insight among those of us who long to see the church begin to grow again, that God’s will is clear. It says over and over again in the Bible, most explicitly in the Book of Acts, that God means for the church to be added to day by day. That God’s hand is outstretched and welcoming new people in all the time.
When that isn’t happening, why that isn’t happening? It’s been pointed out, it’s not because something’s wrong with God’s power or plan, but because we’re in the way… we’ve gotten in the way, are standing in the way of God who means to bring new people to church.
That’s John’s warning too. God can do great things. But we need to wake up, watch out, move over, or we’re going to be in the way. Instead of falling into line as God moves across the world, we are blocking the way. A new world is about to be given. Will we allow ourselves to be swept up, moved by and with it, or will we stand firm footed where we have always been, and in the way?
How do you need to get out of the way? Where do you need to let go of your white-knuckle hold? How and where should you be uncomfortable? Thrown off balance? Made unsure. Knocked off your center? Washed clean? Overwhelmed? Cut down? Swept? Burned?
John’s saying if you want to make room for Jesus, moving over’s not always so easy or minor or pleasant.
It’s all sort of counter-intuitive. We think of peace as stillness, constancy, comfort. But the peace of Christ seems to be something that is about movement, being changed, thrown off balance, moved off center, that out of the way, we may find his way into a Kingdom that is better than anything we could imagine, think, believe or effect ourselves.
That’s what we try to do in worship, I think. Get ourselves out of the way. Experience some movement that is not our own. Trust ourselves to be thrown off balance. Ask that we be transformed from the inside out. That we might follow in that Way we have done nothing to create, lead or sustain.
That’s what we’re trying when I say “you all are our best publicity.” Really God’s best publicity! We can’t just open these doors and invite folks in, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey. No. We believe that there is so much to be done in the days ahead, and even now. We believe that the ministry of this church can become increasingly a blessing in this neighborhood and in this city, to God’s world. If we get our selfish purposes and our lesser fears out of the way, and get ourselves in, give ourselves to mission. We proclaim and strive to live, share, show forth the Good News that we preach here. We invite all those who hear to follow in this way with us. To join us marching behind Jesus in our protest for peace and justice.
For we ourselves are messengers, too, prophets, even. Not the answer. But in the way we live our lives, in the peace and justice we share and show others, in caring for one another and the most vulnerable, in caring for God’s good creation, we are preparing the way, or getting out of the way, or walking in the way, and making a way for others. What better news could we hope for, hear and share? Amen.