God is Coming!
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2013
by The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, CT
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Well who invited that guy? It happens every year. Just as we’re starting to get into the holiday spirit—just as we’re trimming our trees and decking our halls and actually enjoying those Christmas carols that have been playing since Halloween…John the Baptist shows up.
Every Advent, he comes and sounds a deeply discordant note against the cheerful din of our cultural Christmas. A wild-eyed prophet clad in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, shouting about Wrath! Judgment! Repentance! And John’s description of the coming Christ is no better. I defy you to find a Christmas card that depicts the Lord Jesus with his winnowing fork in his hand, approaching his threshing-floor, ready to separate the wheat from the chaff.
But this morning we have, it would seem, an alternative. If John’s proclamation chafes against our expectations for the holiday season, perhaps we can simply turn to the passage from the Prophet Isaiah, instead. As John the Baptist rants and raves against the people who have come out to him in the wilderness, Isaiah sketches a vision of a beautiful time of peace and gentleness: “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.”
Now that’s something we could stick on a greeting card! I’m sure many of you are familiar with the famous painting inspired by this scene: “The Peaceable Kingdom,” by the American Quaker Edward Hicks. It is a beautiful example of folk-art from the early days of the American Republic. Exotic animals—lions, tigers, and bears, all rather fancifully rendered, as well as the more mundane oxen and sheep—lounge about, keeping company with chubby, adult-faced babies. It’s a warm and fuzzy scene, perfectly matched with our holiday celebrations. It’s the stuff we want this time of year. Peace on earth, goodwill to all people. “And a little child shall lead them…”
Of course, Isaiah was not speaking literally. He’s using richly metaphorical language to describe the Kingdom of God as a time of peace, a time when even the natural order will be filled with gentleness and harmony. But what happens, beloved, when we look up from that beautiful vision and look out at the world around us?
Could it be that the reason Isaiah’s vision is so beautiful, so captivating, is because we know, deep down, just how far it is from the world we live in? I hesitate even to ask you to imagine what the so-called “Peaceable Kingdom” would look like in real life. Young children and baby animals lying down with vicious predators, playing with poisonous snakes, leading lions along with lambs? In the world that you and I inhabit, that would be a scene of unspeakable horror.
In the world as we know it, nature has two sides. On the one hand, the natural world declares God’s grace and bounty, God’s creative might, God’s generous sustenance. But on the other hand, nature is brutal. Nature is red in tooth and claw. Nature’s ruling law is “survival of the fittest.” Nature’s power to maim and destroy and kill matches its capacity to inspire.
Barely a month ago, we were faced with a steady stream of blood-chilling stories and images from the Philippines, where we know that at least five thousand people were killed by Typhoon Haiyan—and where some sources estimate that the final death toll will be as high as ten thousand. The thousands more who lost homes and livelihoods and loved ones surely do not look on the natural world as a “Peaceable Kingdom.”
Or consider the power, not of natural devastation but of human depravity. The death of Nelson Mandela this week has brought forth a flood of news stories recounting his eventful life. It is a paradoxical tribute to the father of modern South Africa, that his death should inspire a detailed retelling of the darkest days of Apartheid. Furthermore, as tributes to Mandela rise around the world, so too do the stories of people inspired by his example but not yet gratified by his triumph: men and women who are still oppressed, still marginalized, still silenced, still murdered by the governments ostensibly charged with their protection. Those stories—coming in tandem this Saturday with the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting—remind us of how very far the human race is from the time when “they will neither hurt nor destroy on all my holy mountain.”
Or consider at last, my brothers and sisters, the state of your own heart this December. How authentic is the joy and peace you promise in your greeting cards? How satisfied are you with the gifts that you bustle from mall to mall and store to store to buy, and wrap, and ship? The lights shine in the windows, and on our parish Christmas tree; how brightly do they shine in you?
We yearn in our depths for the vision of Isaiah. But each year, each season, each day, and each hour brings new reason to doubt our hoped-for “Peaceable Kingdom.” Looking out upon the raw power of nature, the unfathomable cruelty of humanity, the deep darkness that threatens to claim our very hearts—how can we dare to hope for the day when “the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea”?
Hear now, once again, the words of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Dear people of God, there can be no fulfillment of the vision of Isaiah—no “Peaceable Kingdom”—without the startling announcement of John the Baptist: God is coming. That is the Good News of this season. And it is news that we resist, because, as John the Baptist fearlessly reminds us, God’s coming is in wrath.
It is in wrath because the God of justice is coming to a world marred by injustice. It is in wrath because the God of holiness is coming to a world stained by sin. It is in wrath because the God of righteousness is coming to a world warped by wickedness. It is in wrath because the God of faithfulness is coming to a faithless, faltering, fallen humanity. It is in wrath because the God of life is coming to a world held captive by Death. God is coming, and his coming is in wrath.
But hear now the great Good News this Advent: the God who is coming to judge this world is the very God who came into this world as a helpless child. The God who is coming to set this cosmos to rights is the very God who has already known and felt the wrongs of this creation in human form, in a human life. The God who is coming with a purifying wrath to drive out every evil from our world and every evil from our hearts— behold! That God has, himself, borne that wrath with his own flesh and blood. Isaiah’s promise and John’s pronouncement meet on the Cross of Christ. God’s wrath and our great need are both satisfied in the Body of Jesus, God’s Son.
God is coming, beloved, and he is coming not as a stranger but as our friend. God is coming, and our eyes shall see him—not in confusion, not in fear, not in sorrow, not in hate—but in joy, in gratitude, in triumph, in love. God is coming, and on his hands and feet, and in his side, and on his brow, he bears the signs of his victory over the sin and disobedience and darkness of this world—and the sin and disobedience and darkness of my life, and your life. God is coming, and though his body carries still the marks of this world’s redemption and the wrath our race called forth, it is a resurrected body, free forever from Death’s dominion.
God is coming, and he will bring to fulfillment the work he accomplished on Calvary’s tree. God is coming, and he will complete the work he began at my baptism, and yours. God is coming, and he will consummate the work that he carries out even now in the life of his Church. God is coming, and behold: he shall make all things new!