What is it that we most deeply hope for, long for, or expect in our lives for the present or for the future? If we were to fill in the dots and draw the picture-
if our deepest longings were to be fulfilled-what would the picture look like, of ourselves, of our world, and of ourselves in relation to those around us and to the world in which we live?
At the heart of the lesson from Matthew for Advent 2, and perhaps its overall theme, is the matter of hope. As usual, on this traditional John the Baptist Sunday, John appears as the one who prepares the way with talk of the nearness of the kingdom and a call for repentance (3:2). There is one who is coming, he says, and this expectancy shapes the narrative. In the same way it addresses our own expectations as it questions what dreams shape our images of the future, or even whether we imagine a future at all. Is there any hope left in us?
One of the key tasks of the preacher is the passing on of hope. “Open our eyes,” we pray. Hope-filled dreams have a way of shaping what it is we are enabled to see. They are like lenses that train us to interpret and to act in the present. Each generation learns to dream the visions that are taught by those who have dreamed before and by those who are able to keep dreaming in the present. To borrow a metaphor, every Christian needs to have a “hope chest.” “In those days” the lesson says, and so begins a dream not just about what is, but about what might be if God’s reign might indeed be drawing near. Such dreaming has already been there earlier in the story, when Joseph, the first character in Matthew’s story, is called to imagine what righteousness will look like in the light of God’s promise (see Advent 3, 1:18-25). To know that promises will be kept is a way that hope is shaped. In John we see just such a preacher who seeks to fill or even to create anew for us that “hope chest.”
If the overall theme is one of hope, that theme is focused in two major sections of the lesson. The first part (1-6) is captured in the summary of John’s preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The second part, beginning with “But when he saw.” (7) might be characterized under the themes of righteousness or judgment.
“The kingdom of heaven has come near.” “This is it!” John says. But just what is it? If this is a way of talking about what God is doing in this world, what will that reign of God look like? On this question Christians have disagreed-even the existence of the four canonical gospels witnesses to that disagreement. It is a matter of imagination or vision. Matthew is claiming that it has something to do with the coming of Jesus. But what does that have to do with the here and now? What does it have to do with those hopes that will shape our future? Isaiah’s prophecy (11:1-10) offers at least some proposals. We note the images of righteousness, of equity, of peace, the cessation of harm, the unity of all nations under the rule of God. How will we hear and expect the promises of God to be fulfilled yet today?
Then there is this matter of repentance. The kingdom is near, yet repentance has something to do with preparing the way for God’s entry into our lives. The call for repentance signals that there is something wrong and there is a need for change. Repentance and its seal in baptism signal a theme to be sounded repeatedly in Matthew: God’s power is present but it is not unrelated to what we do. There will be plenty of time in Matthew to wrestle with issues of law and righteousness, of grace and works, of faith and responsibility. One thing is clear, for Matthew God’s power calls for and enables a transformed new life of discipleship. Repentance then directs our vision not so much to sorrow for the past, but to the promise of a new beginning. The promise of this lesson is that because God’s reign is so near it has the power to bring about this new orientation of life.
Talk of such a new orientation of life leads directly to a theme especially present in the second half of the lesson-righteousness and judgment. John calls for his hearers to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (8). The issue is that of response to the promise of God. What shape does the kingdom and repentance take in our lives? If the promises of God are a matter of grace and gift, then do I have any responsibility? Matthew’s answer is a clear “Yes.” Repentance and fruit belong together, but it is important to hear their connection in context. Such bearing of fruit means above all not to be enslaved to the past, to be open to the future of what God is doing and will do.
Repentance means to assume responsibility for the future and not to be tied to the past and to personal prerogatives. “Do not presume” upon your status as children of Abraham, John says. God is able to raise up new children (9). The key focus is on God’s ability and the promise of God’s power. Repentance and judgment are serious business, but one does not force fruit. Fruit springs forth out of a new orientation, out of knowing one’s place as a child of God’s promise. In baptism’s call to such response as God’s children, we experience the transforming power that links “being” (children of God) and “doing” (bearing fruit), between “faith” and “action.” Matthew will hold this wholeness before us throughout the gospel. “You are the salt of the earth.You are the light of the world” (5:13-14). “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them.” (7:24).
Hope for such wholeness is finally secured in the promise of the one who is coming. When John claims that God is able to raise up children, this is clearly a promissory announcement of the power of God that will indeed “raise up” a child whose resurrection will be life and salvation for us.
So we return to the preacher and the preacher’s imagination and dreams. What is your vision? What is your hope? Do you dwell in the past and in recrimination or despair about what might be? Or do you live into that future where all that is named by the name of God and God’s kingdom is located. Will you move into this Advent season in hope and in the sure confidence that fruit is yet to come, that God will yet do a new thing among us? Promises are always a matter of hope. And to hear God’s promise again in this “one who is coming” is to be called to repentance and so empowered to rethink, to re-imagine, and to reorder our lives by the power of God’s presence.
It’s a “dog eat dog” world, we say: “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” It’s survival of the fittest, and it’s not pretty. All true in its way. But is it all that’s true?
“Nature, red in tooth and claw” comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s lengthy nineteenth-century poem “In Memoriam” (canto 56), in which the poet wrestles with the incongruity between a good and loving God and the terrors of an uncaring Nature.1 Tennyson describes the person of faith,
Who trusted God was love indeed And love Creation’s final law- Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw With ravine,2 shriek’d against his creed-
It’s appropriate to rehearse Tennyson’s incongruity here-a tension that still plagues us and our hearers-because we find in today’s reading one of Isaiah’s many “environmental impact statements.” These are not unique to Isaiah in the Bible, but they are found often in this book-statements that make clear that the work of God affects not only human life and humanity’s future, but the whole creation. Nature may be uncaring, but God is not. When God acts to rescue, creation, too, rejoices in its own deliverance (Isaiah 35:1).
But what of the vision of this text? Cows and bears grazing together? Wolves and lambs, leopards and kids, children and snakes? Can this be more than a fairy tale? There are, to be sure, fairy-tale motifs here, but if that’s all there is to it, we might as well preach on Hans Christian Anderson (perhaps a bit less grim than the brothers of similar name).
The Bible is not naïve; it knows full well the pain inherent in the created order-even when that order is working as it should: “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (Psalm 104:21). So how do we get to Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom-and when?
The text is one of the positive messianic promises that are rather unexpectedly interspersed throughout First Isaiah, a book that is otherwise marked by perhaps the most shocking word of judgment found anywhere in the Bible: “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:10). That terrible word is working itself out throughout these chapters, but it is not the only word included there. The prophet knows that God will finally take God’s people in another direction, and Isaiah is given words of promise that live in their own tension with the words of judgment more typical for this eighth-century prophet (like Amos, Micah, and Hosea). The preacher and her hearers need to understand that these words of promise (several of which provide the Old Testament readings for this Advent season) are not merely “somewhere over the rainbow” images of another time and another place; they are included for the eighth-century hearers and for us because they tell us who God is and where God is taking God’s people-a vision that will make possible full life in the present, then and now, not only “once upon a time.”
David’s family tree looked bleak in the eighth century-a mere stump of its former glory-under attack by the Assyrian hordes that would take captive much of the northern kingdom and turn the southern kingdom into a vassal state. But stumps can grow even in nature, and the more so in a creation guided by the active word of God. God will not renege on God’s everlasting promise to David (2 Samuel 7:12-17): a new “David” will arise, anointed with God’s spirit (see 1 Samuel 16:13), who will restrain the wicked with the power of a word (Isaiah 11:4b), in order to provide for the poor and meek (v. 4a), those who stand particularly in need of God’s care.
And where will anyone see such a kingdom? Well, Israel saw a form of it in its own day as Hezekiah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:1-3) and relied on the word of promise that came from God through Isaiah rather than taking up arms in response to the threat of the Assyrian ambassador (Isaiah 37:1-38). And we have seen another form of it in a latter-day Prophet-he, too, anointed by the Spirit (Luke 4:16-21; cf. Isaiah 61:1-3)-who also confounded the expectations of onlookers by devoting his attention to the poor and the meek and insisting that God’s kingdom welcomes all (Luke 4:25-27; cf. today’s Psalm 72:4, 12-14).
And that peaceable kingdom where all God’s creatures live together in perfect harmony? Not yet, to be sure, for this kingdom promises nothing less than a reversal of the curse of Eden’s fall, putting an end even to the enmity between the human and the serpent (Genesis 3:15; cf. Isaiah 11:8). Such a possibility will come only beyond history as we know it, but we anticipate it now in faith because it is God’s own promise. Though looking to the future, it had a present effect in the eighth century and can have one today as well. What if we chose to live now in the freedom of the promise, in accord with its pictures of God’s future kingdom? God keeps showing us a world of peace where rulers and people care for one another, for the poor and the needy, for the creation and all its creatures. What if we moved into that world even now? True, our world remains compromised and dangerous, and we will have to deal with that in appropriate ways. But, to the degree we are given the courage, we can invite God’s future into the present and practice it even now. And then the world of nature, red in tooth and claw-though it remains real-can be tempered by a new vision of a creation that sings God’s praise because all are fed and all are loved.
1 The entire poem is available online at www.online-literature.com/tennyson/718/ (accessed 14 August 2007). 2 Using “ravine” in the obsolete sense of “impetus, violence, force” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Several years ago my pastoral duties included leading a short mid-week worship service at a local nursing home. One week almost all the patients present had some form of dementia. As I stumbled through the liturgy,
one woman quietly repeated over and over, while staring into space, “I love you and you love me. I love you and you love me.” I thought this was a lovely and appropriate refrain for our worship.
But suddenly we were interrupted by another resident, who stood up and said loudly and angrily, “I have a lot of questions.” I stopped mid-sentence and said, “I have a lot of questions too. What are your questions?” She shot right back, “What about the Jews?” Paul would have appreciated that moment. In Romans, he interrupts his own praise of the love of God in Christ to ask also, “What about the Jews?” (Romans 8:39-9:5).
Afterwards I talked further with my questioner. She was not Jewish herself, but she said, “God made all these promises to the Jews. What happened?” Furthermore, she told me that she was dying of cancer. She needed to know whether God could be trusted in the face of a terrible present and an uncertain future. She needed hope. So do we all – not sentimental optimism about the future, but a strong confidence in the sovereignty and goodness of God, even and especially in the midst of tragedy.
Today’s passage, arguably the climax of Paul’s letter to the Romans, begins and ends with hope, and it gives the character of God as the basis for that hope. In v. 4, “steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures” is the source of hope. In v. 5, “the God of steadfastness and encouragement,” to whom scripture witnesses, gives hope. In v. 12 the Gentiles hope in the Messiah from the line of David, and in v. 13, the final and familiar blessing sums up the passage, and indeed, the letter as a whole: “May the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
In fact, hope threads throughout the letter to the Romans:
So by the time we get to the grand finale of Romans in today’s lesson, we have learned that hope and steadfastness go together, and that God is the source of both. We learn also that Paul finds reason for hope in the way he sees God working through his own ministry, by bringing Gentiles to faith in Christ the Messiah of Israel. Such Gentile worship of God shows that God is keeping the promises made in scripture.
How do we now experience and proclaim the hope that Paul proclaims? How do we as pastors answer the question posed with such intensity by the woman with terminal cancer: “What about the Jews?” How do we speak to the doubts voiced by members of our congregations as they face tragedy and mystery?
In Romans, Paul neither minimizes his own anguish and questioning of God (9:1-3) nor solves the mystery of God’s ways of dealing with humanity (11:33-36). But he does give grounds for hope, in two ways. First, he reminds his hearers of the scripture’s witness to the truthfulness and faithfulness of God. Second, he turns their attention to God’s presence in their midst, precisely and especially in the experience of mutual love and service between people who previously were enemies. “Welcome one another,” he says, “as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (v. 7).
This is the gospel in a nutshell. Christ has welcomed us, all of us, and brought us home to God and to each other. Let us not be sentimental about this welcome; to open our arms to those who otherwise are strangers and even enemies is nothing short of a miracle of grace. The experience of that welcome is the way we learn that “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).