December 4, 2016

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

“A Peaceable Kingdom with Plenty of Good Fruit”

When the prophet Isaiah wrote the now-familiar messianic oracle about the coming of a righteous ruler, and described the peaceable kingdom that would result as a place where wild animals and little children eat and play together in safety, his world was not very peaceful at all.

It was around 733 BCE, and Isaiah was in Judah where King Ahaz was the ruler. When the northern kingdom of Israel and the Arameans of Damascas tried to force Judah and their king to join their rebellion against Assyria, Isaiah advised King Ahaz to refuse, which he did.

But I think Isaiah was hoping for a time of peace for Judah and Jerusalem, and the king’s next political decision didn’t make that too likely. Instead of joining the rebel alliance, Ahaz called Assyria to intervene. This they did with devastating impact, eventually leading to the destruction of Samaria and the end of the northern kingdom in 721.

Isaiah objected to this dangerous move by King Ahaz, but he remained hopeful about the future. Rather than being totally discouraged by the current king, the prophet was thinking about his young son, Hezekiah, who would follow Ahaz as king. Perhaps he might be the righteous Davidic ruler that everyone was longing for.

This morning’s hopeful passage may reflect that rising hope in Hezekiah as God’s righteous king, ushering in the peaceable kingdom that is described like a return to Eden, a thoroughly healed creation, a paradise for all creatures.

Well, Hezekiah did become the king of Judah when he was 25 years old, and he ruled for 29 years. The biblical narrative portrays Hezekiah as a great and good king. He purified and repaired the Temple, purged its idols, and reformed the priesthood.

In an effort to abolish what he considered idolatry from his kingdom, he destroyed the high places – the altars with their bronze serpents and the like, which had become objects of idolatrous worship. In place of these, he centralized the worship of God at the Jerusalem Temple.

Hezekiah also resumed the Passover pilgrimage and the tradition of inviting the scattered tribes of Israel to take part in a Passover festival. And even though many of the tribes refused to come, the Passover was celebrated with great solemnity and such rejoicing as had not been in Jerusalem since the days of Solomon.

But under Hezekiah’s rule, Judah did not become a peaceable kingdom like the one that the prophet had described. An attempt by the king to form an alliance with Egypt and get out from under Assyrian rule was unsuccessful, and Jerusalem suffered the consequences when the stronger power besieged the city.

But as much as Isaiah’s vision of a righteous king and a peaceable kingdom might have been inspired by his hope for Hezekiah doing better than his father, Ahaz, the vision was also much bigger than that. It was about peace for the world, not just peace for the kingdom of Judah. It was about peace for all of creation, not just peace between peoples and nations.

Perhaps today’s passage reflects Isaiah’s growing sense that such a righteous ruler might be in the future, beyond his own lifetime. And the peaceable kingdom represents the final consummation of God’s kingdom, not something Isaiah himself would expect to see.

This kingdom will encompass not simply the future of the people of Israel and Judah, but the Gentiles of all nations as well. This is a very universal and comprehensive vision of hope for the future.

Of course, as Christians, we have come to see Jesus as the fulfillment of this universal hope for a righteous and good king. The way that the New Testament authors tell the story has a lot to do with our making that connection.

For example, in today’s passages, both the Apostle Paul and the author of Matthew’s Gospel quote directly from Isaiah. And they both argue that what Isaiah foresaw, what Isaiah predicted, what Isaiah and so many others hoped for, was coming to be in Jesus of Nazareth.

One commentator on the Isaiah passage, Bruce Birch, makes the helpful observation that it really has two distinct parts: The first part reflects the hope for a righteous ruler in the line of David, and the second part expresses the hope for an age of harmony and peace. And the first of these hopes (the good king who acts justly and cares for the poor) makes the second (the kingdom of peace) possible.

And so, as we read this text in Advent today, we do so as a new generation that lives between two times. One of our hopes has been fulfilled in Jesus, but the fullness of peace that we long for is not yet complete. We celebrate the coming of an anointed son of David in Jesus Christ, and we look forward to the promised final consummation of God’s peaceable kingdom yet to come. It’s the “already – not yet” kingdom of God, the in-between time after God’s coming to us in Jesus, but before he comes again.

So what are we to do in this “in-between” time? Someone might say that we should pray. We should pray for peace. And they would certainly be right. We should pray for peace in our world between nations and peoples. We should pray for peace in our country and in our communities between people of different races, cultures, religions, and perspectives. We should pray for peace in our congregations and in our families, especially when diversity and difference make unity more difficult to grasp.

Like Paul prayed for the Roman Christians, we should also pray that “the God of steadfastness and encouragement will grant us to live in harmony with one another.”

But somehow we all know that just praying for peace is not going to be enough. Unless, of course, our prayers change our hearts, and our hearts change our lives, and we are transformed into peace-makers.

Can we become the kind of people who give others the benefit of the doubt before we get angry about a perceived slight?

Can we become the kind of people who refuse to let an argument or a misunderstanding be the last word, but go the extra mile to reconcile our relationships?

Can we become the kind of people who are respectfully curious about our various neighbours with their different religions, or cultures, or practices – curious enough that we want to know them?

Can we become the kind of people who hear about injustice in our world (whether it’s discrimination, or crippling poverty, or human trafficking, or stolen land, or whatever else)… Can we become the kind of people who hear about these things and desire to do something to change the world? – to write a letter, to send money, to speak out, to vote for a change…

That’s what John the Baptist was calling for in this morning’s Gospel passage – not just that the people long for a good king and a peaceable kingdom – but that they repent! He called them to confess their sins and turn their lives in a new direction – towards justice and righteousness. And John was clear, he wasn’t just asking them to think good thoughts or say good prayers. He was commanding them to bear fruit worthy of that repentance.

All summer, here at St. Andrew’s, we talked about that fruit… the fruit of the Spirit that is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I don’t know about you, but I found the “fruit of the Spirit” theme both very practical and very challenging. I finished every one of those sermons thinking, “Boy, I have a lot of work to do! I need to find the strength to be more patient. I need to let go of my complaining and find the joy of the Lord. I need to work on my self-control in so many areas of my life.”

But every week we were also reminded that we were talking about the fruit “of the Spirit” – not the fruit of our super-human efforts and natural ability to be absolutely wonderful people. These virtues, these peace-building, relationship-mending, justice-seeking qualities are the fruit of the Holy Spirit working within us by God’s grace.

And even as John the Baptist warns the people of his time to repent, he also tells them about the One coming after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. As we hear the story of John the Baptist again, we should remember what happens next: He baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, where Jesus receives the gift of the Holy Spirit coming down on him like a dove. And at the same time, we should remember that we are likewise baptized and blessed with the Spirit’s presence in our lives as well.

And so that is what we must do in this “in-between” time – after the coming of the good and righteous king Jesus, before the final fulfillment of the peaceable kingdom – we must keep on turning back to God, allowing the Spirit to keep on working on us and through us so that our lives will bear good fruit.

In Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, the wild animals and the little children play together in safety and peace. When I imagine what that kingdom will be like, I picture a lot of fruit trees… apples, and peaches, and bananas, and oranges in plentiful supply for everyone… along with joy, and gentleness, and goodness, and love. May God’s kingdom come.