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A More Perfect Union

Broadly speaking, we human beings turn to two solutions to try to make things better. Whether it is an organization, a family, a church, or a nation, there is always room for improvement, always some yearning for things to be even better than they are. And we generally seek those improvements by trying to find either the right system or the right person.

Revolutions are usually about trying to find the right system. Elections are about trying to find the right person. And human beings seem to have an endless reservoir of optimism when it comes to new systems and new leaders.

That said, every human experiment thus far has failed. No doubt some systems are night-and-day better than others. Likewise with different human leaders. But we haven’t come up with a perfect system yet. And neither have we found a perfect leader.

Well, early December is not election season for those of us serving churches in the United States, but it is a season when we are prompted to think about “a more perfect union.” The season of Advent puts us in touch with scriptures and themes that point to a new and better day. And, specifically, they prompt us to anticipate the perfect leader, whom we have always sought but never really found.

Interestingly, when the prophets and apostles paint their pictures of the perfect someday, the “system” is not the key. The answer does not lie, it seems, in tweaking a constitution, or in some helpful modification of a democracy, a republic, a parliament, or some such. Indeed, much to our modern dismay, if there is a system implicit in the Bible’s perfect picture, it is a monarchy. But I don’t think the underlying thesis is that a monarchy is a perfect system. No, the answer is in the perfect monarch.

The season of Advent is about the promise of a person — a certain leader, a shoot and branch from Jesse, a perfect king — whose leadership will give rise to the most perfect union!

Isaiah 11:1-10
Isaiah of Jerusalem lived during the turbulent times of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were headquartered several hundred miles northeast of Jerusalem, but their power and influence was spreading across the entire Fertile Crescent. Judah’s neighboring and kindred kingdom to the north, Israel, fell to the Assyrians. And Jerusalem herself would be surrounded by the fearful empire’s troops.

In the midst of that frightening context, the Lord speaks through Isaiah about a “shoot” and “branch” from Jesse. That name might mean little or nothing to the people in our pews. To the people of Isaiah’s day, however, that name recalled golden days gone by. For several hundred years earlier, Jesse had been the father of David and grandfather of Solomon.

Interestingly, though, the allusion to Jesse is not about looking back, but looking forward. In the providence of God, there will be a genealogical continuity with the golden age of the past, but the Lord is not rewinding the tape. Isaiah’s prophecy is not about one who has come and gone, but one who is yet to come. And the golden age that that promised leader brings will effectively eclipse even the best that the people had known before.

In our contemporary politics, candidates — or their acolytes — might tout a variety of claims to prove their rightness for office. Perhaps there is a resume of past accomplishments. Perhaps there is a compelling vision for the future. Perhaps there is some great plan that he or she will enact. But see where the rightness of this promised leader begins: “the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.” Surely every other claim takes a back seat to that!

The prophecy goes on to flesh out the implications. If “the spirit of the Lord” is upon him, then that means “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Reminiscent of Paul’s teachings in the New Testament about the gifts of the Spirt and the fruit of the Spirit, Isaiah articulates a beautiful and profound explication of what “the spirit of the Lord” brings.

Next come the themes of righteousness and justice, along with the strength and wisdom to implement both. Justice and righteousness are twin themes that percolate throughout the Old Testament prophets. These are attributes of God, ought to be the attributes of a godly leader, and are meant to characterize the people of God as a nation. It is the chronic absence of these qualities — indeed, the prevalence of their opposites — that brings divine judgment on Israel and Judah.

This ode to the someday king also includes a provocative suggestion about his jurisdiction. Isaiah, after all, is speaking to a people whose boundaries have always been rather limited. In the heyday of the united monarchy under David and Solomon, the nation of Israel extended beyond that narrow north-south strip of land that we think of as Canaan, and included the subjugation of some of the trans-Jordan region, Syria to the northeast, and south into the Negev and toward Sinai. Still, that was a small thing compared to the growing Assyrian empire of Isaiah’s day. And in that contemporary setting, Jerusalem was now the capital of just a fraction of the region that Solomon had ruled.

Yet this promised ruler will “decide with equity for the meek of the earth” and “shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth.” That sounds like a much more global jurisdiction than tiny Judah. Likewise, at the end of the passage, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” and “the nations shall inquire of him.” Clearly this coming king will exceed anything that Jerusalem has seen before. Indeed, his effectiveness and his scope seem almost superhuman.

Which brings us to the well-known “peaceable kingdom” section. Here we see clear evidence of the truly supernatural quality of the promised leader’s rule. Certain commendable human leaders, after all, may be able to achieve the subjugation of enemies without and guarantee justice within, but who can convert the wildlife? Who can make predator and prey snuggle up together? Yet this is included in the promise, this is part of the picture. And so we recognize that Isaiah is not merely painting a portrait of the next person in the royal line. No, this one will mark the end of the line, as it were — for he is the divine leader who will not merely rule the kingdom of Judah but will bring the kingdom of God in its beautiful fullness.

Romans 15:4-13
Too often, Christians have mistaken the beginning of the New Testament for the end of the Old Testament. For some, this is merely a vague impression. For others, it is a deliberate and entrenched doctrine. But taken all together, there are far too many Christians — and often have been through the centuries of church history — who take the New Testament to be a replacement of the Old.

By way of analogy, consider the difference between a basement, on the one hand and an old, former house, on the other. The basement in our house — and very probably in yours, as well — is a foundation. It is the first part of the house that was built in the construction process. The fact that the “real house” was built on top of it does not render the basement superfluous, however. It remains the vital foundation. So it is that the New Testament — that the gospel of Christ — is built upon the Old Testament. But the common misunderstanding among so many church folks is that the Old Testament is less like the foundation of our current house and more like an old house, a former house, the house that our great grandparents used to call home. 

The Apostle Paul makes clear in passages like this one that the Old Testament is the foundation upon which the gospel is built. At the beginning of our selected passage, he refers to “whatever was written in former days” as being essential to our instruction and our hope. At the end, he buttresses his proclamation with four different quotes from the Old Testament. And in between, he declares that Christ has confirmed God’s promises to the patriarchs.

We are early in this year’s Advent season, and Advent invites us not merely to think about Christ’s coming, but about waiting for Christ’s coming. That waiting — indeed, that anticipating — was guided and encouraged by the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament.

Meanwhile, there is another, narrower theme woven through this passage from late in Paul’s letter to the Romans. For this is not merely a treatise on the coming of Christ against the backdrop of the old covenant. It is, specifically, a letter to a very particular group of Christians in first-century Rome. And that group of believers was evidently made up of both Jews and Gentiles.

The distance and animosity between Jews and Gentiles is reflected in some of the familiar teachings of Jesus (not that Jesus was encouraging such animosity, but the context of animosity is assumed by his words). In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he chides his audience for being no better than the Gentiles (e.g., Matthew 5:7, 6:7, 6:32). And, later, when teaching his followers how to respond to a recalcitrant and unrepentant brother, Jesus’s final verdict is to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer” (Matthew 18:17 NASB).

The book of Acts, meanwhile, gives repeated evidence of the division between Jews and Gentiles. The Lord uses a vision to lay the groundwork for Peter to proclaim the gospel in the home of the Gentile Cornelius, and Peter’s choice to associate with Cornelius and his household later comes under scrutiny by believers in Jerusalem (see Acts 11:1-3). The so-called “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15 was also motivated primarily by the struggle to accept Gentiles. And the ultimate arrest of Paul was brought about by a commotion in the Temple because of Jews there who were incensed by his contact with Gentiles.

In the midst of that context, then, Paul encourages the congregation in Rome to “live in harmony with one another” and to “welcome one another.” And then he goes on to affirm Christ’s role among both Jews and Gentiles — “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” — followed by a series of quotes from the Old Testament to illustrate that Gentile inclusion has been God’s expressed intent and perfect picture all along.

Matthew 3:1-12
At first blush, the Gospel lection for this week may seem anachronistic to some of the people in our pews. The season of Advent, after all, anticipates and leads up to Christmas. But this episode about the ministry of John the Baptist comes well after Christmas. Indeed, we presume that this excerpt may have come thirty years, give or take, after the Christmas event. Why, then, are we reading about John now?

Even though John’s ministry comes after Christmas rather than before, his ministry is still very much in the spirit of Advent. For the ministry and message of John the Baptist, you see, anticipates the coming of Christ. John is the one called upon to “prepare the way of the Lord.”

I suspect that John’s significance is overlooked in many of our churches. He does not have the sentimental appeal of Mary and Joseph, nor the relatable familiarity of Peter, James, and John. Rather, he is this odd-duck outlier — not part of any group, not quite like anyone else. And, we suspect, not at all like us.

Yet John’s importance is undeniable. All four Gospel writers tell us about John, after all, while only two of the four tell us about Christmas! Furthermore, Jesus himself indicates that John was the most important human born to date (see Luke 7:28)! He should not be overlooked, therefore, as though he were an appendix or tonsils — something that could be removed without our missing it very much.

We might observe for starters that not many people can claim to be the fulfillment of prophecy. It’s a heady business to say that this person or that was anticipated and predicted by God centuries before they were born. Yet that is part of our affirmation about John. That is what Matthew has in mind when he quotes Isaiah with reference to John. And, furthermore, the description of John’s apparel is reminiscent of Elijah (see 2 Kings 1:6-8), which also suggests that John is the fulfillment of prophecy (see Malachi 4:5; Matthew 11:13-14).

We also see that John stands on some epochal border in salvation history. “The kingdom of heaven has come near,” he declares. Thus is inaugurated a theme that carries through the rest of the New Testament. God has stepped into enemy territory and begun to establish his holy beachhead here, and John is the one who announces that divine invasion.

Meanwhile, we cannot help but be impressed by John’s independence. Long before Peter and John had the courage to be the leaders of the land “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (Acts 4:19 NIV), John was already embodying the boldness of a person who would obey God regardless of whom he offended in the process. Our instinct is to welcome and cater to the folks who come out to hear us. We are eager for their approval and want them to return. But what preacher sees the crowds coming to hear him and calls them a “brood of vipers”?

John’s message does not sound to us like the sort of thing that we associate with Christmas. Our cultural connotations of Christmas are increasingly commercial and sentimental, but less and less theological. John’s strong tone of warning and language of judgment, therefore, seem out of place on a Sunday in December. We’ll consider in more detail below the judgment message of John. For now, though, let us give some thought to John’s place in Advent.

As we noted above, strictly speaking, the ministry and message of John the Baptist is not about Christ’s coming at Christmas. But it is about Christ’s coming, for in his context John is anticipating the public work of Jesus — “the one who is more powerful than I (who) is coming after me.” John is serving here, not as forerunner to Jesus’s birth, but as forerunner to Jesus’s ministry. And it is in this sense that John is the perfect spokesman for our Advent season.

The fact is that a celebration of Advent that focuses only on Christmas is anachronistic for us. John’s ministry isn’t the only thing that comes after rather than before Jesus’s birth. We come after it, too. All of the carols we are singing and the decorations we are hanging come after it. It is artificial to pretend that we are looking forward to Christ’s coming at Bethlehem, for we actually look back on it.

Yet we are meant to be a people who are still very much looking forward to Christ’s coming. That is, of course, his second coming, his coming again. Indeed, according to Jesus’s own teachings, we are meant to live our lives in a state of readiness for our master to return. And it is in that sense, then, that we may hear John’s words to the people of his day as a message to us in our day, as well: for there is one who is still to come, whose sandals we are all unworthy to carry. And this next coming, far more than his first, will be the time when 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.”

“Repent,” John declared, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” If ever there was “a more perfect union,” surely this is it. What could be more perfect than the kingdom of heaven? Is this not, therefore, what we human beings have been waiting for — working for — all along? John’s declaration is long-awaited and marvelously good news. If we fully heard and understood it, all sensible humanity would rejoice at the prospect!

Generations before John, Isaiah painted a picture of that perfect prospect. Isaiah painted it with words, though subsequent artists have produced actual pictures based on those words — pictures of predator and prey lying down together in peace. This is the perfect union that Isaiah anticipates. It is a world marked by righteousness, justice, harmony, and peace.

The Apostle Paul is less poetic than Isaiah, but our excerpt from Romans 15 echoes similar motifs. But rather than the wolf and the lamb lying down together, Paul envisions Jew and Gentile fellowshipping together. It doesn’t make for the same kind of painting as Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom, but it is a picture that must be very pleasing to God, nonetheless.

And what is the key to this most desirable perfection? John refers to the kingdom of heaven. Do we take it, then, that we should return to a monarchy in order to make this dream come true? Is having a king the way to realize the kind of world we all want?

Yes and no. History has proven again and again that monarchies are not perfect. Indeed, they have often ranked as the most corrupt, violent, and oppressive of governmental systems. Yet it seems that it is not so much the monarchies that are imperfect as the monarchs themselves. Therein lies the key to Scripture’s most perfect union: the perfect monarch.

When Isaiah paints his picture of the peaceable kingdom, therefore, it begins with a person. In human terms, he comes from Jesse’s line. In divine terms, he is endowed with the Spirit of the Lord and all that comes with that. He is wise, righteous, faithful, and strong. He, it seems, is the key to the perfect picture that follows.

John, too, declares not just the coming of the kingdom, but the coming of a person. “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” John proclaimed. And we need only turn the page in John’s story to be introduced to that anticipated one.

And in Romans 15, Paul is explicit about naming that “root of Jesse.” He writes of the promises of God that are fulfilled in Christ Jesus and the will of God that is accomplished in him. Jesus is that anointed one anticipated by Isaiah. Jesus is that more powerful one predicted by John. Jesus is that perfect king whose reign is the very kingdom of heaven.

In every generation, we human beings have demonstrated our longing for a more perfect union. It reads like the stuff of ordinary history — wars, elections, revolutions, reforms, on and on. When we peek below the surface, however, perhaps we will recognize that, beneath all our human machinations, there is a fundamental longing for Christ. It is mostly undiagnosed, of course, but that is what’s really at stake. The world we want is the kingdom he brings. And so we sing with the familiar carol, “O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind!”

Alternative Application(s)
Matthew 3:1-12 — “Of Fruit Trees and Judgment”
When you watch a movie for the second or third time, you see things that you may have missed the first time. Likewise with a sophisticated piece of music. The director, the composer, the author, the artist behind any fine work has woven into the work details that become more and more appreciated with time. 

So it is that, the more we read the whole of Scripture, the more we will appreciate and understand any individual part. And surely that is the case here in our Gospel lection. John the Baptist includes in his preaching some significant reference to fruit trees, and we may hear that reference echoing throughout the larger Bible.

Fruitfulness is revealed as part of God’s design and creation from the very beginning. Fruit trees play a prominent part in the creation story. “Be fruitful” is arguably the first commandment. And Eden was characterized, above all, by fruit trees.

We get to the Book of Psalms, and we see that the hallmark of the righteous person is fruitfulness (see Psalm 1:3). Jesus advises that one can judge a tree by its fruit (see Luke 6:44). He pronounces judgment on a tree that does not have fruit when he comes looking for it (Mark 11:12-14). He teaches his disciples that God is glorified by their fruitfulness (see John 15:8). And Paul characterizes the influence of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life in terms of fruit (see Galatians 5:22-23).

So it is, then, that both John’s encouragement and his warning reverberate with truths we have heard throughout the pages of Scripture. To bear good fruit is to please and glorify God. It is to live according to his will and design. It is righteousness. But failing to be fruitful, on the other hand, is failing to live the life that God designed and desired. He looks for fruit in our lives, and he passes judgment on the fruitless ones.

John is skeptical of some in his audience, and so he challenges them, saying, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” If a person is truly repentant, you see, it will not be lip-service only: their life will produce certain kinds of results that please God. Conversely, however, if a person’s life is not producing the fruit God desires, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees...”

John is not being overly harsh; he is being pragmatic. We remember the brief parable Jesus told about the fruitless tree that the master was ready to cut down (Luke 13:6-9). Why hold onto the thing that is obviously broken? Why keep investing in the thing that is not producing. And we recall that, in the midst of his cherished teaching about the vine and the branches, Jesus warned that the fruitless branches are cut off and thrown away (John 15:1-6).

Fruit trees and judgment messages go together, you see. John is simply adding one note to a larger, recurring motif. But behind the grim image of the ax at the root of the tree there is a lovely affirmation: God wants fruitful lives, and that’s exactly what he created and designed us to live!
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Proper 12 | OT 17
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Proper 13 | OT 18
23 – Sermons
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