1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 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. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 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. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 9 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. 10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' " 4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Reflection: as we continue our journey through Advent, we anticipate not only the birth of a baby, with its accompanying wonder and joy, but the coming to fruition of God’s new creation. In Advent we prepare not only for Christmas, but for the reign of Christ and the fullness of our hopes in God’s kingdom.
Our reading from Isaiah continues our theme from last Sunday. Instead of a vision of all the peoples of the earth, worshipping God together on the holy mountain of Jerusalem, of weapons of war turned into farming tools - our reading from Ch 11 envisages a world in which nature is at peace with itself. From peace spoken in political and national terms last week, to peace experienced in the world of nature.
But also like last week, our reading is preceded by destruction, with Yaweh’s action of lopping off branches in the previous chapter:
Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall (Isaiah 10:33-34).
The prophet cries out against those who make unjust laws and issue oppressive decrees, who deprive the poor of their rights, and withhold justice from the oppressed.
This passage is not about the reign of the Christ and it does not foreshadow Jesus’ birth. Rather it deals with God’s promise that a remnant of Israel will be restored and returned to the promised land after the horrific destruction of the northern nation of Israel by the Assyrians in 722BCE.
The first 5 verses use the metaphor of the shoot coming from the stump of the tree, to speak of the continuance of the royal dynasty of David in Jerusalem. After the disappointments of the rule of King Ahaz, the prophet’s words are put together to stress hope in a just and faithful rule by a descendant of David.
However, that hope will not be fulfilled without an element of judgement upon the present exercise of power and rule. The image of the tree stump carries the idea of removing what is corrupt and getting back to secure beginnings. The future ruler will be guided by the spirit of God.
Their chief responsibility was to judge not only with equity and fairness, but with a concern for what we would call social policy and welfare. In other words, the law was not just there to settle disputes fairly, but to address the social and economic inequities in society.
While this hoped for king possessed power, he is not described here as a battlefield hero or world conqueror. Instead decisions will be made with fear of the Lord. In other words, faith in God is to be at the heart of this king’s actions.
Verses 6-10 vividly describe the impact of reinstating a ruler who is open to the Spirit of YHWH. The whole earth will be covered with knowledge of YHWH. And once creation knows the counsel of YHWH, there is unheard of security in the natural world, resulting in the striking images Isaiah paints for us: babies handling snakes and bears passing up a steak dinner. Peace in the natural world is described by a series of scenes where natural enemies exist side by side, and a young child, powerless and vulnerable, leads them.
Isaiah’s vision is hyperbole – it is a vision that captures our imagination because it is so unlikely. But Isaiah’s vision still points us to our human longings for the world – of a world that is just, a world where the meek are not trampled, the poor are not preyed upon or scapegoated, and the vulnerable neither abused or disadvantaged.
John the Baptiser and Jesus didn’t have to content with climate change, over population and the extinction of species. Like Isaiah, they were responding to the realities of their day: the imposed transition from an agricultural village culture to the imperial system of the Roman Empire.
Caesar’s empire produced a new urbanism, a new economic system, an egregious tax burden, and foreign ownership of the land, with it’s accompanying displacement of people from their ancestral lands. There was widespread poverty, social displacement, and physical disease.
Jesus was contenting with a popular expectation that God would act soon, and decisively, to restore Israel’s independence and rid the land of its imperial intruders. In other words, the focus of Jesus ministry was on alleviating human suffering, not on the plight of the earth itself.
If Jesus was conducting his ministry in today’s world, I strongly suspect that his circle of concern would include the ecological crisis facing our planet. We know that the degradation of the planet results from the same dynamic that causes injustice in the human realm. We are out of relationship with God, self, neighbour, and the planet.
The biblical narrative confirms that we are in bondage to a way of life that is destroying our planet – we are addicted to unsustainable patterns of consumption – most evident as we enter the madness of rampant consumerism of the Christmas season.
And what does John say? Repent! One of the commentaries I read in preparation for this message suggested that this is not an easy text to preach. The difficulty lies not in identifying what is emphasized in this text, but because what is emphasized is to clear! And what is emphasized is so hard to hear for us – for it calls us to change our lives, to be open to the Christ changing our lives.
As John prepares people for the coming of the messiah, he calls the crowd to repent. Not simply to be baptised, but to rethink their lives and bear fruit that showed the sincerity of their repentance. Entry into the baptismal waters is not enough: God issues a prophetic call to live in ways that reveal our loyalties, commitment and faith – to produce fruit that reflects that repentance.
In biblical times, repentance manifested itself in external signs such as fasting, public lamentations, loud cries, in the wearing of sackcloth and ashes and as we hear in our gospel reading this morning, by undergoing baptism. These external signs indicated a change of heart, a radical 180 degree turning about.
What kind of turning is required of humanity in our 21st century?
We are increasingly aware of climate change, or what is more accurately called catastrophic climate disruption. Forests are disappearing, water tables are falling, soils are eroding, fisheries are collapsing, rivers are running dry, glaciers and ice caps are melting, the ocean is becoming more acidic, plant and animal species are going extinct, and the children of all species are increasingly being born sick. It has become the overarching issue of our time because it is nothing short of an existential threat.
This is the context within which all of our future efforts to nurture greater justice and more authentic relationships will become increasingly difficult. By mid-century, our children and grandchildren likely will be living on a severely compromised planet. Later in the century, they will possibly be facing more serious and catastrophic disruptions within Earth's web of life.
For some of us, this reality is too fearsome to face and so we move into denial or paralysis. This fear is understandable because we are the first humans ever called to face such a planetary precipice.
Things, however, are not hopeless. Our hope is to be found in a present-day radical 180-degree turning in our consciousness and actions — a repentance. Never before has such a change of heart has been required of us. It is a change that is difficult to fully imagine but it is the prophetic call of our time.
Our turning will require that we reinvent ourselves. For example, we will have to move out of the illusion of human separateness into the truth that we are integral members of Earth's web of life. We will have to experience ourselves not as being on Earth but as being of Earth. We will have to nurture our awareness that we have a role to play in the sacred drama of Earth's evolutionary unfolding.
The challenge before us is soul-sized. Do we want to repent? Do we have the courage to make that 180-degree turn? What will we humans choose to do?
Our children, grandchildren and their children are awaiting our answer.
And as Isaiah envisioned, a little child is leading us. I want to read to you, the speech given at Germany’s media awards by Greta Thunberg when she urged media celebrities to spread the message on climate change:
We live in a strange world where the united science tells us that we are only 11 years away from setting of an irreversible chain reaction way beyond human control, that will probably be the end of our civilisation as we know it.
We live in a strange world where children must sacrifice their education in order to protest the destruction of their future, where the people who have contributed the least to this crisis are the ones who are going to be affected the most, where politicians say it’s too expensive to save the world while spending trillions of euros to subsidise fossil fuels.
We live in a strange world where no one dares to look beyond our current political systems even though it’s clear that the answers we seek will not be found in the politics of today, where some people seem to be more concerned about the presence in school of some children, than the future of humankind, where everyone can choose their own reality and buy their own truth, where our survival is depending on a small, rapidly disappearing carbon budget and hardly anyone knows it exists, where we think we can buy and build our way out of the crisis, when the crisis has been created by buying and building stuff, where a football game or a film gala gets more media attention than the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced, where celebrities, and film and pop stars who have stood up against all sorts of injustices will not stand up for the environment and for climate justice because that will impinge on their right to fly around the world visiting their favourite restaurants, beaches or yoga retreats.
Avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown is to do the seemingly impossible and yet, that is what we have to do. But here’s the truth – we can’t do it without you. you can use your influence to let those in power know that their house is on fire.
We live in a strange world, but it’s the world that my generation has been handed, it’s the only world we’ve got. We are now standing at a crossroads in history. We are failing but we have not yet failed. There is still time to fix this. It’s up to us.
Will we let this child lead us? will we listen to the call to repentance? Do we have the courage to do the seemingly impossible? Or are we too worried about how repentance might impinge on how we like to live? It’s up to us.