I saw a quote the other day that a friend had posted on the internet and it spoke to me. It’s from Anais Nin. “There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment; on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.” This idea of truth and how it is received made me think of today’s readings and how they successively unfold the truth about the Messiah and our hope to live in a world that in truth IS God’s kingdom.
HOPE. Isaiah was making a promise to the people of Israel. The line of Davidic kings had fallen and he was making a promise of a future and ideal king. This king would make judgments not on outer appearances and not through hearsay but would judge through God’s righteousness. In The Message it says, “Each morning he’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” I can see him in his Carhartts now. “The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide…Jesse’s Root will be raised high, posted as a rallying banner for the peoples.” All people will be able to see this working king and follow him. All people and nations will have the hope of living life well. There will be no special status or chosen people. In the Psalm [from The Message], “May he judge your people rightly, be honorable to your meek and lowly. … Please stand up for the poor, help the children of the needy, come down hard on cruel tyrants. … Let righteousness burst into blossom and peace abound until the moon fades to nothing. … May all godless people enter his circle of blessing and bless the One who blessed them.”
This image of a workingman with calloused hands and weathered skin makes me think of John but, also of Jesus. Isaiah gave us this image of a king who gets in there and gets dirty so people can live in justice, but also so they can know God.
HOPE. Paul’s letter to the Roman church reinforces the idea that Isaiah’s words are important to us today. “Even if it was written in scripture long ago, you can be sure it’s written for us.” That is the Pharisee in Paul. The Pharisees wanted to make their ancient faith relevant to their lives--that is why they developed all the rules for living. Paul told the Roman church that those old scriptures could instruct them how to live, that the people of the church could become the scriptures. Once this had happened they could live in harmony with one another. “Then we’ll be a choir-not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus.” Today’s epistle finishes with, “Oh, May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!”
HOPE. We come to Matthew’s story of John the Baptist. Matthew’s overarching belief was that history is controlled by God’s plan. He expected that his readers believed the same. Matthew wrote his Gospel within ten years after the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. There was strife between the Christians and the Jews. The Jews felt betrayed because most of the Christians had fled Jerusalem before its fall. This sense of betrayal might explain Matthew’s poke at the leaders of the Jews when he writes about John.
HOPE. John the Baptist is the voice of Elijah calling from the wilderness. “Change your life, God’s kingdom is here.” This message was simple and austere, like John, like the wilderness. What is more simple and austere than a good, worn pair of Carhartts? John was willing to dress for the job at hand, to get his hands dirty so he could draw the people to God. The presence of the kingdom of God was a good thing--but there was a need to prepare. There were all kinds of sins and misdemeanors to set aside. The baptism John performed was so the people could acknowledge their hope that God would send someone to rescue them--that God would establish a righteous kingdom on earth. They were promising to live better lives. John’s baptism wasn’t about forgiveness of sin; it was a baptism of hope for those who confessed they were sinful. “There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.”
HOPE. In Matthew’s account we have this: “When John realized that Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: ‘Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river?...What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.’” Here is Matthew separating his church at Antioch from the defeated Jews of Jerusalem.
But there is HOPE. John points away from himself and speaks of the baptism of fire that he, John, cannot provide. “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama…will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out….He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
HOPE. Hope for the working king who pulls on his Carhartts to live and work among the masses. Who sets things right from the inside out. The king who can forgive those sins confessed to John-or in private. The king who cleans out our falsehoods and sets our true selves in their proper place before God. The king who looks for the deadwood to be burned so the green wood that is left can thrive. And when it thrives, there will be justice for the poor, public power will be used for the common good.
HOPE. We are a people of hope. We are Easter people. We are Christmas people. Frederick Buechner states that believing in an empty tomb is just as silly as believing that a child born in a stable could change the world. But, from what better place for a Carhartt-wearing king to begin? Isaiah’s promised king who would bring hope to Israel for generations would “Each morning …pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” He would call people out about their deadwood and see if they responded by letting it go. He would be the green tree growing out of Jesse’s dead stump. He would change us from the inside out, purify us with fire, and ignite the Holy Spirit within us. So we wait and watch trying to live into the scriptures.
HOPE. Some day we will assemble our fragments of the truth if we help one another, if we listen to one another then we can labor together to make the truth mosaic. “Oh, May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!”