Dec. 4, 2022

Prayer of the Day

Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming nurture our growth as people of repentance and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Amen.

Isaiah 11:1-10

1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
  and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
  the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
  the spirit of counsel and might,
  the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

 He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
  or decide by what his ears hear;
4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
  and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
 he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
  and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
  and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

6The wolf shall live with the lamb,
  the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
 the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
  and a little child shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall graze,
  their young shall lie down together;
  and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
  and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9They will not hurt or destroy
  on all my holy mountain;
 for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
  as the waters cover the sea.

10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

1Give the king your jus- | tice, O God,
  and your righteousness to | the king’s son;
2that he may rule your | people righteously
  and the | poor with justice;
3that the mountains may bring prosperity | to the people,
  and the | hills, in righteousness.
4Let him defend the needy a- | mong the people,
  rescue the poor, and crush | the oppressor. R
5May he live as long as the sun and | moon endure,
  from one generation | to another.
6Let him come down like rain upon | the mown field,
  like showers that wa- | ter the earth.
7In his time may the | righteous flourish;
  and let there be an abundance of peace till the moon shall | be no more.
18Blessed are you, Lord God, the | God of Israel;
  you alone do | wondrous deeds!
19And blessed be your glorious | name forever,
  and may all the earth be filled with your glory. A- | men. Amen.

Romans 15:4-13

4Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

7Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, 
 “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
  and sing praises to your name”;
10and again he says, 
 “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
11and again, 
 “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
  and let all the peoples praise him”;
12and again Isaiah says, 
 “The root of Jesse shall come,
  the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
 in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:1-12

1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, 
 “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
 ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
  make his paths straight.’ ”
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John the Baptist Preaching to the Masses  –  Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove

What I love about this morning’s texts is the repeated reference to trees, specifically to roots and stumps. Isaiah prophecies, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  The Apostle Paul quotes Isaiah, “the root of Jesse shall come.” Then John the Baptist comes along and says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Cutting, chopping, sprouting; we witness both destruction and growth, death and life.

Let’s start with Isaiah. The prophets fill many pages of our bibles. They were sent to both the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Passages contain stories, scolding, and words of hope recorded in the Old Testament. In today’s passage, Isaiah is presenting his audience with a mixed message. God will use the mighty Assyrians to reduce Israel to a stump.  Then God will turn on the Assyrians.  The promise made to Israel’s greatest king, David, of a family tree will not be broken after all.  The stump will produce a new shoot. This time, it will go well. Wisdom, understanding, fear of the Lord, righteousness, faithfulness will be the characteristics of the new king.  

Isaiah says what will be. John the Baptist’s speech is more open ended. The ax is lying at the root of the tree and the tree had better bear fruit. It soon becomes clear that trees and fruit have something to do with repentance.

What does repentance mean? Does it simply mean feeling sorry for our mistakes?  Is it about being a better person? Is repentance even something that we do, if our lives are now hidden with Christ? Repentance is a tricky thing to talk about as I look out on our family. For some of you, it dredges up feelings of guilt and unworthiness. It may even evoke a deathly fear of a day of judgment when God will separate good people from bad people. Didn’t we do away with repentance during Advent when we moved from purple paraments to royal blue ones?

On this Second Sunday in Advent, John reminds us that repentance is not primarily about our standards of moral worthiness. To repent is to take a clear-minded look at the ways in which one’s life colludes with the assumptions and behaviors of the old age, to turn away from such complicity, and to turn towards God and the attitudes and actions of the realm of heaven. Repentance is about God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not about our guilt feelings.  It’s about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.  

Some of my favorite biblical scholars remind us that it is God who gets to determine the character of repentance. John the Baptist was not offering a better way to live, although a better way to live was entailed by the kingdom that he proclaimed was near. But it is the proclamation of “the kingdom of heaven” that creates the urgency of John’s ministry. 

Such a kingdom does not come through out trying to be better people. Instead, the kingdom comes. It’s coming makes imperative our repentance. John’s call for Israel to repent is not a prophetic call for those who repent to change the world. Rather, he calls for repentance because the world is being and will be changed by the one whom Johns knows is to come. To live differently, then, means that the status quo can be challenged because now a people are the difference.

To return to the tree image; we are grafted onto Christ. What is grafting precisely? Grafting is what happens when a section of a stem with leaf buds is inserted into the stock of a tree. The upper part of the graft becomes the top of the plant and the lower portion becomes the root system or part of the trunk. That makes it a pretty powerful image then—to be grated onto Christ.

What then, do we make of John’s harshness? I think that it can, at its best, shake us up, and remind us that God becoming human flesh is shattering everything old.  Christmas is quite beautiful but let us not forget that this new thing is changing the entire universe.  The world is about to turn.

The difference between John and Jesus is not their message, but the role they play in relation to that message. Today we overhear John addressing the spiritual leaders of his day, the Pharisees and Sadducees. John announces the coming judgment. John baptizes with water. His baptism is like the cleaning I had to do in my vehicle after friends tried to walk up a very muddied Table Rock trail. Jesus, on the other hand, does not announce judgment. He is the judgment. Jesus baptizes with fire. Jesus’ baptism is like purification in the form of refining or smelting metal to remove those unwanted elements. 

Every tree must bear good fruit, according to John, or it will be thrown into the fire. Drawing on prophetic condemnation of Israel’s refusal to trust God, John says the ax now threatens the very root of the tree. Israel has often been pruned by God, and the pruning has even meant exile. Yet God has never abandoned his love for Israel, creating it anew through suffering. John’s prophetic condemnation of Israel is but the form that God’s care of Israel takes—from stones, God will raise up God’s people again. Some of those stones, we will discover, are Gentiles who are grafted, according to the Apostle Paul, into the very life of Israel.

We are called to prepare, even as God is already preparing us, usually when we are unaware. This happens in radical trust that Christ himself is working to purify us and the world around us.  Christ is equipping us to become a dwelling place fit for himself.  When we remember God’s promises, we nurture this trust and God grows us into faithful servants.

Another helpful image in this story about John is “wilderness,” which can conjure up any number of memories or pictures or feelings. Jerusalem, with its magnificent temple, served well in this capacity both for Judeans and for those living in the Roman diaspora. For many, the pilgrimage to the temple was the definitive statement of their identity and allegiance. John, however, calls them away from the holy city and the temple toward the wilderness, a place of danger and testing, but also the place where Israel was formed, where God’s provision and care was demonstrated, and the people grew ready for God’s promises. In the wilderness, away from the trappings of human traditions and powers, we may see and hear God’s call more clearly. John’s ministry in the wilderness thus calls the people to remember who they were before their kings started building cities and temples, even before they had kings at all. 

Likewise, we are called in the wilderness of the season of Advent to remember and affirm that Christ has brought each of us out of bondage. Christ has completely reoriented our lives. Our own wanderings in the Christian life surely do and will include wilderness wanderings—hesitancy, resistance, doubt.  Still God promises to keep pointing the way ahead.

At our baptism we are joined with Christ to bring God’s will into the world.  Baptism does not so much welcome the baptized into an institution (as we might think of the church) but into an alternative (or countercultural) community empowered by the Spirit for life and witness.  Isaiah’s prophecy from today is read at baptisms.  “Pour your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”  

The Holy Spirit is poured in and we are washed into a baptismal life in Christ–life in a wilderness with deprivations and hard lessons, but also everlasting joy in the kingdom.  We are promised forgiveness and eternal life and we are called to imagine a new community now, in this life.  

Newly prepared to meet God-With-Us this season, we can pray with Paul that “the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  We will be changed, transformed, renewed by the gift of grace.  Anne Lammot wrote, “I do not understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”  My prayer for you this Advent that God’s grace will not leave you where it found you.

Prayers of Intercession

As we prepare for the fullness of Christ’s presence, let us pray for a world that yearns for new hope.

A brief silence.

God, you renew the church in every age. We give thanks for hymn writers and theologians (especially John of Damascus, whom we commemorate today). Inspire teachers, writers, and musicians to delight and instruct your people. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

You give us a vision of creation in harmony, when hurting and destruction will be no more. Teach us to be stewards of the earth and companions to its creatures. Restore to balance and wholeness what human greed has harmed. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

You defend the cause of all who are poor and oppressed. Raise up leaders who will govern with equity and serve the common good. Guide judges, lawmakers, and public officials to protect the rights of those who cannot advocate for themselves. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

You deliver those in need from suffering and fear. Come to the aid of any who are exploited or abused, especially children, elders, and victims of human trafficking. Provide safety and help to our neighbors without shelter, refugees, and those fleeing violence. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

You urge your people to welcome one another as you have welcomed us. Nurture ministries of hospitality and care in this and every congregation (local examples may be named). We pray for people who are homebound, hospitalized, or separated from loved ones (especially). God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

Here other intercessions may be offered.

You embrace all who have died trusting in your promises, and we give thanks for their faithful witness. Sustain us in hope until we are united with them in the joy of your eternal presence. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

God of our longing, you know our deepest needs. By your Spirit, gather our prayers and join them with the prayers of all your children. In Jesus’ name we pray.

Amen.

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