“So here’s my lifelong wish,” goes the popular song, “my grown up Christmas list, not for myself but for a world in need. No more lives torn apart, that wars would never start, and time would heal all hearts, and everyone would have a friend, and right would always win, and love would never end. This is my grown up Christmas list.” If the writers of our passages today from Isaiah and Matthew could have a favorite modern Christmas song, this just might be it. For both were calling for people to turn around, for the world to turn towards God and towards peaceful living.
In Isaiah’s time, the people were under the rule of the Assyrians. Many had submitted to their rule, and changed their ways to those of the Assyrians, essentially abandoning the right worship of the God of Israel. Isaiah saw this as a rejection of God, and saw that rejection as the cause of the trouble the people of God were having. The people were in exile, their city in ruins. It was a dark time, and in other passages near this one, Isaiah reflected the judgment of God.
But in the passage we read this morning, Isaiah spoke of restoration, of recovery, of renewal. That renewal would come from a seemingly dead stump. A shoot would grow. A wise leader would emerge who would follow God closely, who would judge with righteousness, and who would have regard for the poor and meek. The whole earth could be redeemed. Creation could be transformed, with enemies in nature, like wolves and lions, leopards and sheep, cows and bears, not stalking or fearing one another, but laying down together in peace and harmony.
Human beings seem to be even more at enmity with one another than creatures of the earth, both at the time of Isaiah and now. According to Isaiah, the peacefulness has to start with human beings, with a wise leader and the people who follow. The imagery here of a peaceful kingdom is so rich and full, so appealing – and so unlike the world in which they lived, and in which we live.
This text in Isaiah was not explicitly about Jesus. The Christian church interprets all the Bible through the lens of Jesus, and so we see in this text a beautiful description of the Christ, the Messiah. Isaiah’s listeners too looked for a Messiah, a Savior.
The text from Matthew points us towards a grown-up Jesus even as we prepare to celebrate the Christ child. The text cites Isaiah, from 40:3, “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Matthew changes the text a bit, so that it describes this preacher who lived in the wilderness. John was eccentric in dress and behavior, and many thought he was Elijah. Tradition held that Elijah would return to announce the coming of the Messiah, so the resemblance of John to Elijah was significant. There were many travelling preachers in that time. But John differed because he baptized people in the river Jordan to signify a change from ways of sin to faithful living. This immersion in water was not unknown at that time. Members of the Essene and Qumran communities were known to use immersion for cleansing and renewal and initiation into their communities. John, who had quite a following, made this so well known that it became a part of his name, John the Baptist.
And John the Baptist is an important part of the Advent/Christmas story because he points us towards Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior. Says Professor Steven Bridge:
“Popular opinion considers John to be Jesus’ forerunner or herald. He is (if you will!) Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Knobe to Luke Skywalker, The Matrix’s Morpheus to Neo, The Tonight Show’s Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson. Once he has warmed up the crowd, he presents the headliner – the one everyone really came to see. His work accomplished, he fades into the limelight unnoticed, content to let the hero take center stage.” (Bridge, p. 32)
We could see indeed John the Baptist that way. But Bridge insists that we should not. John was popular in his own right. Even Jesus came to him in the wilderness to be baptized (though Jesus, who was without sin, did not need to be baptized). John’s message was not that different than Jesus’ message. Yet we tend to see Jesus’ message as not as harsh as John’s message. Jesus, though, also called down the fanatics of his time, the ones who put rules above compassion. He associated with those that the people in power found despicable – the tax collectors, the lepers, the sinners. John, like Isaiah, and like Jesus, pronounced both judgment and restoration. They all called for a turning around that involves more than just a few words of confession. This turning involves a whole lifestyle, a new way of looking at the world around. It calls for turning towards God first, and living in a way that bears fruit for God. It is not enough to be a part of the faith because of birth, said John. One has to be a part of the faith by heart, soul, and mind in order to truly get the message of the Gospel and to live it out day to day. John knew the Messiah would be so much greater than him, and his baptism of others would be better and stronger than his. A baptism by fire would not be a destructive thing, but symbolizes a purifying cleansing, in the way that a refiner might mold silver or a glassblower might use fire to form beautiful vases. Both Isaiah and Matthew show us a new life that is full of compassion and action on behalf of all of God’s creation. The “good fruit,” Jesus tells us in the coming chapters, in his Sermon on the mountain, comes to the poor in spirit, to those who mourn, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful and pure in heart and who are peacemakers, to those who will suffer for being different, for living differently because of their beliefs. The call of Isaiah, of John the Baptist, and especially of Jesus, beckons us to a different life.
The divide between the kingdom of God and the ways of our world seems to be getting deeper and wider in our world today. The Gospel points us towards a radical life of compassion, of seeking justice for those who cannot seek it for themselves, of striving to follow God first in a world that offers so many other things that entice us away from God. “The old life is gone, a new life has begun” we pastors sometimes say for our Assurance of Pardon. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” said John. And the kingdom comes near in the birth and life, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who not only shows us a new way to live, but who makes that way possible by taking away the lure of sin and the fear of death.
This communion table is a sign and seal of the promises that Christ makes real for us, of God’s presence and care. When we take the bread and cup, the symbols of the body and blood, we take on the new reality of Christ’s view of the world, of the peaceable kingdom that harms no one and works for the betterment of everyone and of all creation. When we take this little yet substantial meal, we promise to repent, to turn away from all that is evil and towards all that is good. And if we do not make it happen, we will suffer, says John, says Isaiah, says Jesus, not because God is a punitive God, but because we have turned away from the possibilities that God makes real if we just believe and follow. When we believe, we live as people of the light, and not of the darkness. And we become a part of the light that show others what is possible – the peaceable kingdom, the kingdom of God and not of the world. This is our grown-up Christmas wish!
The Message Bible, written by Eugene Peterson, is a not a translation but a paraphrase of the Bible, so its language is different from what we read in most translations. Maybe these can be our mantra for this Advent season, and after. The Message Bible says this about John: “His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: ‘Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.’” May it be so. In Christ, Amen.
Bridge, Steven L., Getting the Gospels: Understanding the New Testament Accounts of Jesus’ Life (Hendrickson Publishers, Mass., 2004)
Long, Thomas G., Matthew (Westminster/John Knox Press, Ky, 1997)