Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
There was a teacher who held a lemon and asked a student, “If I squeeze this lemon, what will come out?”
“Lemon juice,” she replied.
“Will orange juice come out?” he asked again.
“No,” she said.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because it is a lemon.”
“Would apple juice come out if I squeezed this lemon?”
“No,” she said.
“Why not?” he asked again.
“Because it is a lemon,” she finished.
“Why is it,” he said, “that when you squeeze a lemon, that lemon juice comes out?”
“Because that is what’s inside,” she said.
“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.” If you, someone, anyone, (spiritually) squeezed us, if that were possible, what would come out? What kind of fruit are we, in the kingdom of God, and what kind of fruit are we producing or are we called to produce? That is truly what the prophetic vision, which Isaiah and John the Baptist proclaim today, is: what are we being called to be? What are we now, in our context, and where is God trying to move us to? John proclaimed powerfully that his people needed to repent, that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. And he was more than some weird guy with wild hair, a scratchy camel’s hair outfit, and an eater of grasshoppers dipped in honey. He was a man plugged into the local Israeli scene of the first century and he saw people being oppressed by their government, abused by an occupying force, and pushed away and out of life’s blessings by the corrupt religious leaders who only promoted their own interests. That is where the people of Jesus’ day were. John told them that God – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Israel, Eden, heaven, earth – God was calling them to reorient their lives in a profoundly radical way. They were chasing after darkness, courting it with a fundamental lack of faith in and attention toward God. They were about to get a radical “signal” as Isaiah called it, in the Son of God, the one who John says, “I am not fit to untie his sandals.” God was sending an agent of repentance upon whom we could set our seal: Jesus, the Christ, Son of God.
God desires us to “welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ Jesus has welcomed you.” The reality of Isaiah’s vision has actually come, Christ is here. He came into the world not to condemn the world but to save it; to save us. Jesus has come. Jesus has died and risen. We are saved. Jesus has claimed for us the reality of God’s unconditional, non-removable love and salvation. We are called, where we are, to live that reality by forgiving, reorienting our lives to God’s reality, and learning that we are, ourselves, children of the One who comes again and again into our lives, our world, our context – no matter what. Jesus came into the reality, in those days of John, not into a world where God was absent – God has always been here – but to call us into faithfulness to the reality that God was and is ever-present. God has come and we are a part of the world that is God’s world. Our real, present-day challenge, as it was for John’s people, is to reorient our lives – to repent – toward a God-focused, neighbor-welcoming, prayerful reality where lambs and lions truly can lay down in peace together.
There is a famous story that happened during WWI in 1914, a story you may have heard. It was Christmas Eve on the western front. Germans faced Englishmen and Frenchmen across a terrifying no man’s land in Flanders. The war had just begun and hundreds of thousands of lives had already been claimed and millions more would be lost in the ensuing four years before it was over. Late in the evening, behind the German lines, wafted the strains, in German, of course, of Silent Night. Soon, the British and French troops joined in. Before long, both sides began climbing out of their trenches, and began to exchange little makeshift gifts, things from home, food, and communicating in that shy way that people who cannot speak the same language often do. On Christmas Day, spontaneous games of football sprang up and shouts of joy could be heard in a place where only death, darkness, and hopelessness had held sway. Within a few days, the higher ups were not too happy about this congenial mood and began ordering the men to fire at each other from their trenches. At first, they just fired into the air, in defiance, trying to keep peace alive. But soon, they had once again taken up the task of killing each other again and would for many more years.
But, for a moment, the lion did eat straw like the ox; and the leopard did lay down with the baby goat, and the wolf did live with the lamb. No one ordered the soldiers to do it; they did it because they were tired of dying, exhausted from killing, despairing, and, in the Spirit of the coming of God in Jesus Christ they reoriented their lives toward the love of God and of neighbor, in their own day and time; in their context. Hard to do in the midst of war; impossible it would seem, as it quickly went back to the way it was before.
Our discipline, during this time of coming, waiting, and longing is to understand that we are called by a loving God to reorient, reorder our lives toward the Redeemer of all things: Jesus Christ, the One who loved us enough to be one of us, to know who we are and how we hurt – to die in sacrifice for us. We cannot truly love or reorient our lives toward God purposefully until that time we allow ourselves to let go of our fear, anger, and disappointment and give our lives completely to God.
So, if you read my Feed My Sheep reflection this week you know that I recently crashed the women’s night out as they went to see the new Fred Rogers movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The movie, however, is not about Mr. Rogers but writer Matthew Vogel. It is a film about the nature of forgiveness and, though it does not state it explicitly, it is about what happens when we let our guard down, let go of anger and fear, and reorder our lives in the way of love and peace. What might this film have to do with the prophetic vision, you might ask? What is repentance again? It is about us reorienting and turning our lives to God. One element of repentance is forgiveness which Tom Hanks, as Mr. Rogers, defines as “releasing another person from the feelings of anger that we have toward them.” Matthew Vogel, our journalist in the film, has been holding onto anger for a very, very long time. Toward his father. And without spoiling the film, Mr. Rogers acts as God’s instrument that might make it possible for the Matthew to release his father from his justifiable anger but what does it actually do? It will free Matthew to love fully, to be available to the people in this life, and to reorder a life of fear and anger to one of joy … the captives are set free.
I will leave you with the words we sing often during Advent; the words of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel that asks the Christ to “ransom captive Israel. That mourns in lonely exile here. Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, will come to thee, o Israel.” Advent is a cry for Christ to come but, as importantly, it acknowledges that we are captives in our own day, prisoners to so many hurts and pains; to the busyness of our daily lives. Advent is the prophetic call for you and me, in our own day, to turn toward the One whose love sets us free. After all, we are not lemons; we are children of God. When God squeezes us in His mighty and loving arms, His desire is that love, freedom, and joy flow out of us because we have, at long last, let the anger go and allowed God to come into the vacuum left behind.