This is a version of the sermon preached on December 8, 2019 at BBUMC. It’s the Second Lord’s Day of Advent, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary. It draws from worship resources for the Advent series, “Are We There Yet?“
Today’s sermon explores Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12 (CEB)
“Are we there yet?” That’s the question of the season, sort of. Because, really, we know that we’re not there – there, being an eternal world united with God in wholeness under the lordship of Christ. That’s the there we’re looking toward in Advent, even as we also prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas. And so it is, that in Advent, we sing and pray for our “long-expected Jesus” to come again, pleading, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” It’s a season filled with longing and anticipation and waiting, because we’re living in the in between times. We can think of life as a journey between a vision revealed in Jesus two thousand years ago, and a vision Jesus will someday complete. And the question for us is simple: “How do we live today, in the in between times?” Let’s pray that as we explore passages from Matthew and Isaiah, God would continue to inspire us to see, know, and love God.
Holy Spirit, breathe in us again as we ponder scripture. Open our eyes, our ears, our minds, and our hearts, that we might see, hear, know, and love you more this day. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s book, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (2006, Timbuktu Labs, Inc.) tells this story, which includes a line that might help us on our journey as we plead, “Are we there yet?”
“One day, a girl was standing in front of grocery store, when a black man came running past. He was being chased by a white man, who yelled, ‘Stop that man! He’s my slave!’
“She did nothing to stop him. The girl’s name was Harriet, she was twelve years old – and she was also enslaved. Harriet hoped the man would escape. She wanted to help him. […]
“A few years later, the family who owned her put her up for sale, so Harriet decided to escape.
“She hid in the daytime and traveled by night. When she crossed the border to Pennsylvania, she realized for the first time in her life she was free. ‘I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now that I was free. There was such glory over everything and I felt like I was in heaven,’ [she said].
“She thought about the runaway slave, and her family in Maryland who were still enslaved. She knew she had to help them. Over the next eleven years, she went back nineteen times and rescued hundreds of enslaved people.
“She was never captured, and she never lost a single person.” (pg. 64).
Likely, we recognize this Harriet as Harriet Tubman, famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, but I had never heard her quote about how she felt upon first reaching freedom: “There was such glory over everything and I felt like I was in heaven.” As she experienced freedom for the first time, she gained a vision for what life could be for her and for other slaves. At that point, Harriet was stuck with the question, “What do I do now?” Having seen a vision of reality for herself that others still longed for, she chose a journey of hope – a journey of living into a not-yet realized life by leading others into freedom. For that’s always what hope is: living into a vision of reality that we know God will bring to be, but is not yet present.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of such hope and vision when God inspired him to give the following message to the people of Judah in Isaiah 11:1-10.
“A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. 2 The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. 3 He will delight in fearing the Lord. He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. 4 He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land. He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and a lion will eat straw like an ox. 8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole; toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den. 9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, just as the water covers the sea. 10 On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.”
Hearing Isaiah, here’s the question, “Are we there yet?” If we read this passage like Isaiah’s first hearers, then clearly the answer is, “Not even close.” The people of Isaiah’s day were living in fear and uncertainty. Their neighbor to the north, Israel, had either been recently overtaken by Assyria, or would be soon. Their nation was in turmoil. People were picking sides and leaders were trying to seek out alliances. The stump of Jesse, meaning King David’s line, seemed like a dead stump, and they’d suffered many poor leaders. Peace wasn’t a reality. Neither were nations flocking to Jerusalem to be filled with the knowledge and love of God. And yet, they believed God gave Isaiah this message as a promise, a vision of a day that God promised would come to be, eventually. In this message, God gave the people hope of an alternative reality.
Now, in light of Jesus, we Christians can read this passage a little differently, at least at the start. When Isaiah speaks of a shoot sprouting from the dead stump of Jesse, we think of Jesus, who was born in the line of David and Jesse, his father. We hear that this leader will live with righteousness, care, and justice, and we think, “Yes, that’s Jesus too.” And so we might say, “Yes, we are there.” But, the whole peaceable kingdom thing – with bears and cows and lions together, and nations flocking together – is still far from our reality, either globally or personally. Perhaps it even sounds too good to be true, but because we believe the Spirit inspired Isaiah, God challenges us to see this vision, not as a highly unlikely possibility, but a promise that God will create. And then, we have to say, what does it mean to live with this sort of vision, this sort of hope?
The people coming from all areas of Judea and Jerusalem likely wondered this very question as they gathered around John the Baptist. They’d heard about John – perhaps about his rough and tumbled appearance smelling of dust and honey, or about his challenging preaching. And they were longing for someone to help them know how to live, how to experience life as God intended. They knew they weren’t there yet, and they needed direction.
John gives them direction in no uncertain terms: “Repent – turn around! Change your hearts and lives! Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives” (Mt 3:2, 8). Then he calls them to be baptized as a sign of their intention to live a new life shaped by the God-given vision of reality they know to be true. But here’s the thing. What God-given vision of reality was John calling them to live into?
When Matthew introduces John, he does so by quoting the prophet Isaiah saying, “He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said: The voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight’” (Mt. 3:3). Likely this was a message about John that people were already murmuring and questioning as they went out into the desert to meet him. And if they were thinking about Isaiah when they met John – as we certainly are thanks to Matthew – then they would have been thinking about Isaiah’s God-given vision of the peaceable kingdom, of a reign of God on earth that brought peace and hope to all people.
If this is the case, then when John calls people to change their hearts and lives, he’s really calling them to choose hope, to live in ways that enact God’s vision of reality as it will be, even when they are not there yet. God emboldens the people to choose a journey of hope, so that others will see God’s vision of reality in them.
And this brings us back to Harriet and us. Harriet saw a vision – arguably a God-given vision – of what life could be: a life without slavery, a life of freedom, maybe even, someday, a life of equality regardless of nation of origin, skin color, or language. And then Harriet chose a journey of hope, living into God’s not-yet reality so others could see and live into God’s reality too.
Today, Isaiah gives us a start to God’s vision for reality – a peaceable kingdom, in which knowledge of the Lord covers the earth like water covers the oceans – but this is just a start. What vision of reality has God placed upon your hearts? What deep longing brings you out to John’s presence to hear him call for changed hearts and lives? What of our lives doesn’t fit with God’s vision of the future? Are we struggling with giving up something, or doing something healthier for our minds, bodies, or spirits? Are we experiencing brokenness in some area of our lives that we’re pleading with Jesus to come, quickly to fix? Are there people on our hearts who are struggling that need some company, some hope, some vision of God’s promised future?
If so, if we can think of anything in our lives or the world that touches our hearts and causes us to cry out, “We aren’t there yet!” then today, God calls us to live into God’s alternative future. God calls us to make a change, one change to align our lives with God’s alternative future. God emboldens us to choose a journey of hope, shaped by a vision of God’s future, so others will see God and grow in hope too.