120819 Advent 2 A
Isaiah 11:1-11; Matthew 3:1-12
Two images of tree roots. First from the prophet John the Baptist, who issues a warning to the roots of the tree of Jesse, or Israel. The religious leaders had come out to the desert to see what this crazy guy was up to. John asked them, Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Then he warned them: Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. The prophet Isaiah speaks of the same tree, and says that the tree stump and its roots will live again: A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
John reveals the consequences of a lack of repentance. Isaiah imagines what God will bring to pass in spite of human sin. Advent, like life, invites us to hold these two parts of life together – judgment and grace. In John’s view, judgment does separate wheat from chaff. But John never identifies either the tree, the wheat or the chaff as a human being, and never says that judgment is the last word. The tree refers to the whole endeavor of God working through a particular people to save the world. Then Isaiah shows us that salvation is assured by God, and that God’s deepest desire and eternal commitment is to save all of creation.
Today, many people are trigger-happy with revenge. It is important to clarify what God is truly about, and what sin really is.
- In the criminal justice system, after decades of harsh punishments for alleged criminal behavior, many are finally seeing and naming the results of those policies. Many victims and their families thought revenge would bring some satisfaction or relief for their grief. It doesn’t. What it does bring is a very sick society.
- In international relations revenge comes as retaliation. The Middle East is the clearest picture of retaliation as a foreign policy, but we see it the world around. As a result hoards of money is spent on security we are less secure.
- And in the world of politics, people can only imagine revenge as the motive for accusing a political opponent. Truth has become a casualty as revenge has taken center stage.
Back in the days when theology was the queen of the sciences, people wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the problem is theological. Part of our view of revenge comes from our theology. Of course, much of it comes from the mistaken notion that taking revenge will make me feel better about having been hurt. But false theology gives moral justification for that view. It’s time to take an ax to the root of our understanding of sin and repentance. A long-held, erroneous view, has done damage for too long.
We have been duped into thinking that sin is primarily a moral failure against God’s laws, and that the word we translate repent is primarily a moral conversion. The truth is, sin is the natural, human instinct to seek comfort, safety and pleasure at the expense of being blind to the New Heaven and New Earth taking place all around us. To be human is to be perpetually tempted when we are hungry to trade our inheritance for a bowl of porridge. No one should ask us to repent for simply being human, though many churches continue to ask people to do just that. The truth is that confessing sin is part of the biblical proclamation we heard in today’s Gospel: “metanoite, for the Kingdom of God is at hand”. The error arose in the 3rd century when the Greek word metanoite was translated as “repent” by a scholar named St. Jerome as he was translating the Greek into Latin, creating what became the standard sacred text until the 16th century. For centuries we’ve heard John say, Repent, the Kingdom of God is near. The church has struggled to find its way out of that misguided emphasis on moral depravity ever since. Metanoiate is best understood by breaking it into its parts: meta: going beyond, and nois: mind. In other words, let go of your worldview, the mind-set that has established your frame of reference on what truth is; go beyond your mindset to see God’s kingdom taking place here and now.
When we read John and Isaiah with this understanding, we discover a new worldview, and a new life energy that gives us the desire to participate in the fullness of life. Rather than wallow in guilt about the past this religion energizes us with newness. The new is God’s promised future; it goes beyond our mind’s ability to even imagine. Paul described it as the inconceivable wisdom of God: What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love God. (I Cor. 3:11) When we translate metanoite accurately, we hear John say, Go beyond what your mind tells you; the reign of God has come near. Even if you can’t fully imagine it, God’s future is invading the present. When we hear Isaiah, we find that he doesn’t leave it at the level of inconceivable; he does imagine it. He imagines a ruler who shall judge the poor with righteousness, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. He imagines a world in which the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; where the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
But metanoiate doesn’t just call us to a new worldview; it fills us with a new life energy with which to embrace that new worldview. We’re not able to engage the new world that God promises on our own. We need energy from God, and ways to access that energy. Isaiah calls the energy the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. John calls it the Holy Spirit: The Promised One will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Spirit is a gift to us from God.
But the gift isn’t under our control. We can only access it as a gift of God. That is why, in addition to the energy itself, God has gifted us with a way to access it. The church calls it the means of grace. The primary means of grace is the Eucharist. A friend of mine, who studied to become a Lutheran pastor, recently became a Roman Catholic. He was very thoughtful about the process, and he did us a favor in writing about the experience. I want to share what he wrote about the Eucharist, because I found it very powerful, and relevant to this morning’s message:
The word EUCHARIST comes from a Greek word meaning thanksgiving. The offering which sets the sacrament in motion is the congregational act of giving thanks; it is an offering to God of money, bread, wine, water—gifts symbolizing the material world. The concrete sweat and tears of our work, our activity, our lives, given from the people of God to God. In some ways, it is the offering of our very selves. The gifts of the Eucharist itself, bread, water and wine, are brought up by two people from the congregation. This sets the stage for a dialogue where we, the people say to God, “Hey THEO, thanks for life! All of it! It is the ultimate thing of value you have given us, so we offer it back to you!” Christ replies through the priest, “Oh my goodness! How thoughtful, such self-giving on your part, I freely return the favor; here I AM; take and eat, take and drink, this is my human/divine self offered to you as a means of being in loving relationship with you, now and for all eternity!”
My friend concludes, Communion makes what is invisible visible; through faith the spiritual dimension permeating reality which is normally hidden, is now experienced and seen in the simplest of all things: bread and wine, you and I. The Eucharist opens our eyes to see what Paul said our eyes don’t see. My friend’s final witness puts the whole picture together: It was not until a moment of grace within the Mass that the invisible became visible and I literally saw the diversity of humanity, each individual person become the One body of Christ. Hundreds of separate individuals, forming a line, moving forward with hands held out and mouths open, receiving; all regardless of social status or cultural categories of value, all being in the same conversation, taking in the same divine presence, becoming the one Mystical Body. Right in front of my eyes which in this point of the liturgy are generally filling with tears I visually feel and inexplicably witness God as All in All.
Perhaps the ax lying at the root of the tree is not
such a bad thing. Maybe we need a radical new look at our faith this Advent. I pray that we can all allow the gift of newness to overcome us, giving us the energy and the vision of God’s promised new world that we await during Advent.