St Luke's, Springfield--Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13
None us who are at least 20 years old or so, and had access to a television on the morning of September 11, 2001, will ever forget the image of the massive twin towers of the World Trade Center, still standing, with smoke and flames billowing from their upper stories. They had not yet collapsed, and I don’t think it had even crossed our minds that they might. Yet, as we look back, we know that such damage had already been done that, even as they remained 110 stories tall, they were as good as destroyed. The process was irreversible. We could call them “collapsed skyscrapers standing” the way a condemned prisoner on the way to execution is called a “dead man walking.”
If we were to pause and reflect, we could probably come up with several more instances in our experience when appearance is one thing, and known reality is another, and it’s only a matter of time before the appearance catches up with the reality. Only a matter of time. Time. That’s the catch. In some cases, there is virtually no time at all between reality and appearance. When a tornado hits a trailer park, it’s all over in a matter of seconds. Appearance matches reality. In other cases, there is more of a lag time, and the result can be excruciating. I’ve looked at more than one person in a hospital bed who is warm and breathing and apparently just taking a nap, but whose brain is injured beyond repair and is therefore effectively dead. There is a jarring disconnect between appearance and reality, but at least we know the reality, even if we can’t reconcile it with what we’re seeing.
And sometimes the delay between the reality and the appearance is so long—not days or hours or months, or even years, but centuries—sometimes the delay between reality and appearance is so long that we lose track of any connection between the two. People are born, live, and die—generations come and go—all during the lag time between reality and appearance. And if we live during that lag time, we can be forgiven, perhaps, for failing to make the connection, failing to put the pieces together. We could be forgiven, perhaps, except that we are warned. We are warned continually. We are warned by the season of Advent. We are warned by the prophets of the Old Covenant. We are warned by John the Baptist.
“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” So begins the third chapter of the gospel according to St Matthew. John, as we know, did not mince words. He was never known for being subtle, or refined, or even polite, for that matter, let alone sensitive to anyone’s feelings. When the Pharisees and Saducees came out to meet him on the banks of the Jordan River where he was baptizing, his response was, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? … Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. That tree may still be standing. It may have the appearance of a healthy tree, with the prospect of a long future. But in reality, it’s as good as chopped down. You may as well call it “living lumber.” You Pharisees and Saducees may have the appearance of power and prestige. It looks like you are distinguished and influential leaders of the religious establishment. But you are as good as judged. You are as good as cast into the fire. We may as well call you “hamburger on the hoof.”
You see, the God we worship is a God who acts, a God who gets things done. He’s not god the concept; He’s God the Father. He’s not god the theory; He’s God the Son. He’s not God the abstraction; He’s God the Holy Spirit. He is alive and on the loose and He’s always up to something, so He can sometimes be kind of nuisance if we turn our back on him and a little dangerous if we’re not careful. God has big plans for the universe. God has big plans for us—for you and for me. We don’t know everything about the details of God’s plan, and even less about the timing, but we do have several hints as to its broad outline. The prophet Isaiah, writing almost 600 years before Christ, gives us one of the more compelling visions of what God is up to:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. … They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
This is nothing less than the Peaceable Kingdom. This is nothing less than Eden restored. This is everything as we might wish it, but dared not even ask for. It is a state of affairs so appealing that we go nearly delirious just thinking about it. All the sources of human suffering are eliminated. The world is bathed in peace and love and unspeakable joy. How amazing would it be to live in a world like that?
My friends, this is the reality. The Peaceable Kingdom is reality. Appearance, as we know all too well, has not caught up with reality. Much of the time, in fact, the reality and appearance are so far apart that we don’t make the connection. We assume that what we see and feel is reality. We live as though depression and anxiety and fear are normal. We live as though violence and injustice and oppression and exploitation were permanent features of the human experience. That’s certainly the way things appear. But the good news of the Second Sunday of Advent is that the reality is something else entirely. The structures of evil and sin and death are doomed as surely as were the World Trade Center towers the second they were hit by airplanes. It’s a long lag time, to be sure, and we can, as I have said, be forgiven for missing the connection. That’s why we have Advent. That’s why we have John the Baptist. We need to be reminded.
God’s future is continually breaking into our present. Ever since the forbidden fruit was eaten in the Garden of Eden, God has been on the loose, up to something big. The plan was kept secret for long ages, but, in the fullness of time, it was revealed. It was revealed in the person of Jesus—the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God. It was established on the cross and secured in the empty tomb. That’s the reality. When we come together in celebration of the Eucharist, we get a brief glimpse of reality. This glimpse of the reality stirs us to prepare. When the appearance fully catches up with the reality, we want to be ready. John the Baptist tells us how to prepare: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. …. Bear fruit that is worthy of repentance.” Repentance is not mere breast-beating sorrow or contrition for what we’ve done wrong; it’s a profound change of heart and change of mind leading to change in behavior. Repentance is the work of a lifetime, but it’s particularly the work of Advent.
But repentance is only the first part of preparing—preparing for the appearance of what God is doing to catch up with the reality of what he has done. Repentance leads to the experience of forgiveness and forgiveness strengthens faith, and faith gives birth to hope—abundant and inexpressible hope. The selection from St Paul’s letter to the Romans that forms our second reading at this liturgy begins and ends on a note of hope: “For whatever was written in former days…”—meaning, in Paul’s case, the scriptures of the Old Testament, but we can extend that meaning to cover the New Testament as well—
Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. … May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
To that blessing I can add nothing but, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”