Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
2nd Sun of Advent
St Barbara’s 8.12.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
If you are anything like me, most of the time we tend to take the roads we drive along for granted. Unless we hit major traffic jams, like the horrific 10 mile traffic jam on the M25 on Friday afternoon or the holdups in the M6 roadworks which seem almost inevitable at the moment, most of the time we can just sail along, not really thinking about the road we drive along. It is simply a means of getting from A to B.
In the ancient world roads stood for an awful lot more than that. They were the source and symbol of great power. Those for whom they were made were quite literally the Lord of all they surveyed.
In the 5th century BC, close to the time of Isaiah, the Persian Empire was at its zenith, an empire of incomparable size and cultural riches. As a mark of the greatness of the empire and the emperor who ruled it, when it was decided to invade Greece, the army of half a million soldiers marched right across the sea crossing on a three-mile long bridge of boats, especially constructed for the occasion. Why? To prove that no person or thing, even nature itself, stood in the way of the Persian emperor.
500 years on, in the time of John the Baptist, and another great empire performed staggering engineering feats, building bridges spanning vast ravines and chiselling through solid rock to reduce the gradients of the hills. Why? So that the Roman armies could march without breaking stride from one end of the empire to the other, crushing rebellion and enforcing peace. When people said that “all roads lead to Rome”, this was not merely a statement about cartography. It was a statement about the power of the city from which all roads came. Roads in the ancient world were built so that the rule of the emperor could be maintained and extended.
So when Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him”, he doesn’t have in mind the filling in of a pot-hole on a minor B road, he has in mind the building of a brand new 6-lane super highway that ushers in the coming of a new kingdom, a kingdom that is to rival these great empires, indeed, far out-shine them. But this is not a military kingdom, a kingdom that subdues by power and might.
Our reading this morning from another part of Isaiah paints a picture of a quite different kind of kingdom.
During the 1970s and the spread of dutch elm disease and in the aftermath of the great storms of 1987, our landscape was littered with tree stumps. One felt a sense of bereavement at losing so many great trees. The people Isaiah spoke to looked back on the kingdom of David and Solomon, the son and grandson of Jesse, and must have despaired that this line of great kings had now been reduced to nothing more than a stump, a dynasty wiped out, the last king of David’s line a far and distant memory. But as can occasionally happen with nature, so with God’s promise to the people of Israel, from seeming death life can come, a new shoot growing up from the stump. Here was the promise of a reborn kingdom, but one where the Spirit rested on the king permanently, not just occaionally, giving him wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and love of God, a king who would govern with true righteousness and justice, a king who would usher in a kingdom of harmony and peace. The prophet paints that wonderful picture of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the goat, the calf and the lion together. A place where suffering and conflict are removed. Its a vision that hums with rest and recreation, joy and trust, harmony and contentment.
This is the kingdom that John calls his listeners to prepare for, to make straight the way for, so that nothing can hinder the coming of God among us. When times are difficult, when we despair at the conflict in our world, or in our own lives and relationships, it is good to step back and remind ourselves that it will not always be like this. A time will come when conflict will end, and peace and life will reign. When Christ comes again, one of the great themes of Advent, justice and peace will reign. It is a kingdom worth preparing the way for.
But how do we prepare? What are we to do to get ready? John’s answer is simple: Live lives of repentance and fruitfulness.
John urged his listeners to confess their sins and be baptised. That was a message of hope and challenge. It was a message of hope because of the symbolism of the place where he made that call from, on the banks of the Jordan river. A thousand years earlier, the people of Israel had crossed through this very same river to enter the promised land. After years of wandering in the wilderness, they had entering into their home and inheritance through these very waters. The significance would not have been lost on John’s listeners. Here they were, being given the opportunity to confess their sins and go into the very same river to emerge into the promise of a new life. Confessing our sins offers us that opportunity to start again and to experience new life afresh.
But the call to baptism was also a great challenge, something that would have caused shock, horror, outrage and anger amongst many of John’s listeners. For baptism was a rite for Gentiles. It was how they converted to the Jewish faith, how they became “Jews”. Those who were already within the Jewish family did not need it. It was only an act required of non-Jews. So to ask this act of John’s Jewish audience was to in effect declare that their Jewishness was not enough to make them right with God. They did not have special status.
For us too, preparing the way for the kingdom of God, being ready for Christ, involves us recognising that we do not have special status either. That we approach God in humility, recognising that our years of being a church member or attending church, do not count before God nearly as much as a genuine and sincere heart of repentance and faith.
I don’t know about you but claiming special status feels easier than having to be open and honest with God about my failings and sins. That is awkward, embarrassing, and forces me to confront the parts of myself I would rather not see. And yet, if the way is to be made ready, I need that honesty before God. Maybe take time this morning, maybe during communion, to be fully honest with God.
So part of our preparation for the coming king is repentance. Another part is living lives of fruitfulness. John is particularly critical of the religious leaders – the Pharisees and Sadducees. It seems that in their respected and esteemed position within the community, they could go through the motions of religious piety, and confess their sins, but that there was no consequent change of behaviour. They continued on in their bad ways.
It is a challenge for us all. To not only acknowledge our failings but to turn around and live a different way. That requires a desire to live differently and it requires discipline and courage to consistently choose a better path. Can you think of an area of your own life where you consistently fall short, an area where you know you regularly feel like you are failing God? Maybe its in the way you relate to a particular individual. They press all your wrong buttons and you find yourself reacting to them consistently in a way that falls short of God’s standards. Maybe its in a tendency to always find fault with things, to look for what is bad rather than good in people and situations. Maybe its in a capacity to continually worry and stress over things that you know are minor or insignificant.
We are called to live differently. If that feels too hard, then let us take hope in the fact that we are not left on our own. Isaiah spoke of the Spirit of the Lord “resting” on the coming King. Well that King has come with a baptism of more than just water, but with a baptism of the Holy Spirit. He has made it possible for the Spirit of God, to rest, indeed to dwell within, each one of us. If the task ahead feels too great, invite him once again to fill you with his Holy Spirit.
This Advent, as we look to the coming of Jesus among us 2,000 years ago and as we look to his coming again among us in glory, may we prepare the way for him in our lives. May we repent of our sins and live a new life empowered by His Spirit.