Sunday, December 5, 2010

"Hope, Repentance, Fire"

Isaiah 11:1-10
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The 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.
His 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;
but 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.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The 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.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They 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.
On 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.

Romans 15:4-13
For whatever 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. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For 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, and 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";
and again he says,
"Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";
and again,
"Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him";
and again Isaiah says,
"The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope."

May 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
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This 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.'"

Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But 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? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do 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. 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.

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. His 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."

A Message from the Pastor
You brood of vipers, who told you that you could flee from the wrath to come. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. The axe is lying at the root of the tree. Those trees that do not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. One more powerful than I is coming. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear the threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Merry Christmas everyone! Aren’t those just wonderful comments? It makes you wonder about the season of Advent, doesn’t it? Well, there is significance about what John the Baptist had to say. He was talking about the kingdom of heaven drawing near and that it is a time for repentance. It is one of the three thoughts we will discuss today as we prepare for the coming of Christ: hope, repentance, and fire.

When I read the first lesson, I began to think about an experience I had soon after Frankie and I moved to Jonesborough. We had a red bud tree on our property. I was growing close to a rather large white pine tree, the latter beginning to crowd it out. The redbud was not in good shape. A couple years afterward we had to cut down another white pine because it was infested with beetles. I suggested to the one with the chainsaw to cut down the redbud also. After all, I believed we would have to do so sooner or later. The next year, as I was mowing the yard, I saw a small shoot coming out of the stump of the redbud tree. I was tempted to ride right over it. However, something told me not to. I watched that shoot grow a little each year. Finally, a year or so later, it began to bloom. Tiny red flowers appeared that spring that represented the hope that comes with the spring of every year. The next year, the other white pine was diseased and we had to cut it down. That year the redbud had grown some more. This past spring, with the absence of the white pine, the redbud began to shape itself into a beautiful young tree and bloomed beautifully. Now every year I will think of the Isaiah text and remember not only the hope of spring time but the hope that the shoot of the Jesse tree represents, the coming of Jesus.

When we read the whole Isaiah text we wonder if what Isaiah said could really occur. Personally, it’s easy for me to be cynical. However, when we believe that anything is possible with God, then it brings hope into our hearts, that possibly the kingdom of heaven will continue to draw near.

Paul also talked about hope. His comments related to the situation with the church in Rome. It represented both Jewish and Gentile Christians. There were differences over perspectives on how one acted as Christians. Yet, in the hope that comes from Jesus, we have the hope that our relationship with one another will be in love, with understanding and acceptance of one another.

When we speak of repentance, many times we understand that word to mean our need to be remorseful about how we act and think. In our remorsefulness, we say, “Oh God, I can change. Oh God, be patient with me. I know I can do better.” However, the Greek word for repentance means that we change our way of thinking, we change our perspective of life, and we change our value system. We recognize that the first personal singular is not the subject. God is. What we do say is, Oh God, no matter how hard I try, I can’t. God, you can. God, empower me with the Spirit so that I will be willing to let you. After all, life is about God, not about us.

In the gospel reading for today, there are three references to fire. John says that the tree that does not bear fruit will be thrown into the fire. John also said that Jesus would come and provide a baptism of the Spirit and fire. At the end of the reading, John says that Jesus will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Fire can purify. Fire can make clean.

There is a story I heard, which is supposed to be true, of a team of engineers that went to a South American country to attempt to extract minerals or other materials for their company. They were constantly thwarted by epidemics of malaria. Finally, they thought the only solution was to burn the land to its roots in order to rid it of the lethal mosquitoes. They did so. A couple of years later they returned. They found the land had a ground cover that they had never seen before. The ground cover produced an exquisite blue flower. They cut specimens and took them back with them and showed them to the people at the Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C. The botanists confirmed what they thought. They had never seen that species before. It appeared to be something entirely new. The fire had purified the ground and created something new and beautiful.

So it is with us that began with our baptism. It is the fire of purification from the Spirit that enters us. As the Spirit opens us to the presence of God, through Jesus, the purification process continues each day as we remember our baptism. We are created new and beautiful, made in the image of God to serve God’s desire to have the kingdom of heaven come near.
As we continue our Advent journey, we have the opportunity to embrace our relationship with God through repentance, which is strengthened by the purification of the Spirit’s fire, and produces the joy of hope as we await the coming of Jesus.

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