12/08/19 – Peace: A Fruit of Repentance

PEACE: A FRUIT OF REPENTANCE

December 8, 2019
2nd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

In 1980 an earthquake below the state of Washington’s Mount St. Helens triggered the biggest eruption of a volcano in 123 years. Everything within an 8-mile radius was obliterated. The landscape was nothing but ashes. I remember watching a feature story on the nightly news reporting on what the area looked like a year later. Out of the ashen ground, some hardy plants had begun to grow. First insects, then the small animals that could survive on those plants had returned. Now, nearly forty years, the area that was destroyed is now teeming with life. It is not the same, landforms have changed, different species of plants and trees are present. But Mt. St. Helens is, once again, a vibrant forest community. Nature, when spared human intervention, is self-healing. God’s amazing system of creation goes forward with renewal. This is the picture of Isaiah’s beautiful poem paints. Amid the ashes of the once-great nation of Israel, Isaiah saw a shoot, new growth, breaking through the surface of a tree stump felled by the Assyrians’ ax. For Isaiah, this unexpected shoot was a symbol of God’s promise to restore Israel.

Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann has said: “Peace, when it comes, wherever it comes, requires odd action from unexpected sources. Without odd action from unexpected sources, the world will continue to go its uneasy, self-destructive way.” (Walter Brueggemann: Collected Sermons, vol.2, p.262) Isaiah gave his people an odd vision of the future. Yes, there would be the peace and justice for which the people hoped, but it would not come in the expected ways – no powerful king with a mighty army to subdue Israel’s enemies. The new king would not engage in battles but achieve reconciliation with words rather than weapons. Even predatory animals would live in harmony with their former prey, carnivores would become herbivores. Remember, this is a poem, some poetic license is allowed. The new king God would send to restore Israel was still a child, his rule still in the future. But God’s promise was sure. Israel would not return to its former glory; she would be a totally different kind of kingdom, even better than what the people could imagine.

Many centuries later, early Christians looked back at this scripture and saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of a different kind of king restoring Israel in an unimaginable way – a poor Palestinian carpenter who preached a message of peace and love, a message of justice for the oppressed, a message of hope for a hopeless humanity. This new king did not wear a golden crown, but one made of thorns. This new king was crucified, a most cruel and humiliating death, but would be resurrected to the glory of God.

The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, had already provided a pattern of God using unlikely people to do unexpected things to bring salvation to a wayward humanity. A wild-eyed man dressed in animal skins, eating a diet of honey and locusts coming out of the wilderness to announce the coming of the long-awaited Messiah – sure. The Son of God born to a young peasant girl who was a virgin – no problem! A little child, born in a stable, forced to become an immigrant in a foreign land would bring peace between God and humanity, between neighbors – that’s just God being God. God’s ways are not our ways!

For Mark, the first gospel writer from whom the writers of Matthew and Luke took much of their material, John the Baptist was a great prophet in the mold of Elijah, the prophet the Jews believed would return to earth to announce the Coming of the Messiah and the end of time. Mark described John the Baptist’s appearance in the same way his Jewish audience had read about Elijah in 2 Kings. The description the Hebrew Scriptures gave of the great prophet Elijah was that when he came out of exile in the wilderness he was ‘hairy and dressed in animal skins with a leather belt around his waist.’

Many Biblical scholars believe John was an Essene, a sect of Judaism that believed in order to live a more Godly life, they needed to separate themselves from society’s evils by removing themselves from society, much like the Amish today. To those of Roman culture, both gentiles and Jews, the Essenes were suspiciously non-conforming. People don’t tend to respond positively with people who they see as “not like me.” If an Essene walked into a nice traditional Jewish neighborhood there might be fear. “Those Essenes live in communes; suppose he wants us to share like they do? He doesn’t dress like us. He probably doesn’t have a job. What if he wants to move into the neighborhood? What about our property values?”

‘The world just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be’ John the Baptist cried. Sometimes those unexpected people, who are different from us, have the perspective needed to set things right. John the Baptist told the people they weren’t following God, they needed to change and if they didn’t, things would get worse for everybody.

John the Baptist told all who would listen that being reconciled with God begins with repentance. It is as true for us as it was the children of Israel. Repentance is necessary to prepare for Christ’s coming into our lives. The Greek word translated as “repentance” is “metanoia.” The options for translation from Greek are: “turn, a fresh start, reorientation, metamorphosis, change, or renewal.” Repentance is all of these. But we resist change, don’t we? The winnowing fork that separates the chaff that needs to be destroyed for repentance to occur is often painful, seeming more like a sacrifice than a gift. We prefer to wrap ourselves in comfortable routines and unexamined lives. Maybe we’re afraid of all the things that might change if our assumptions and prejudices about “others,” were challenged. Advent is a time for re-examining those things that you thought to be true, but when the light of Christ shines you see they were a false image of our own self-deception.

In this time of great division in our country, our Christian faith challenges us about our assumptions that have bred fear of the “other.” The Apostle Paul encouraged Christians to “Welcome one another… just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” We are called to be peacemakers. We are called to be healers. We are called to seek justice for those that are denied justice. We are called to help the poor and welcome the foreigner. We are called to be what Brueggemann called the “unexpected sources” who take “odd actions,” which bring the kingdom of God to earth.

The kingdom of God began when Christ came into the world, but like Isaiah’s war-ravaged Israel, it is in the process of becoming fully realized in the world. Like the renewal process after a volcanic eruption or wildfire, Christ initiated a great change in the world and the effects continue. We see glimpses of God’s kingdom whenever and wherever we accept and treat one another as God’s beloved children. When we build bridges instead of walls. When we nurture and tend the earth rather than exploit and destroy.

John the Baptist’s cry for repentance is a cry for peace – peace with each other, peace within ourselves, and peace with God. Peace is a fruit of repentance. May the peace of Christ be with you.

Amen.

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2019, All Rights Reserved
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