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Second Sunday in Advent, 12/09/2007

Sermon on Isaiah 11:1-10, by Frederick Niedner Jr.

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.



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."







For as long as anyone can remember, Isaiah's vision of the "peaceable kingdom" has captivated the imagination of children and adults alike, what with all its many animals, including the long-toothed carnivores and furry, little grass-nibblers living compatibly, and children making friends with adders and asps. Who wouldn't long for such a world?  I don't remember when I learned of Isaiah's oracle, but very early in life I learned the need of it, and eventually a functional version of it as well. I learned these things because my life began in a remote village in west, central Wyoming, where seventeen people lived at an intersection in half a dozen households, with a little store, one gas pump, a blacksmith, a tiny church, and a single phone for the whole community. Behind my family's cabin a vast expanse of sagebrush stretched as far as my little eyes could see.


My dad told my sister and me that around the bottom of every sagebrush bush a rattlesnake lay curled up and waiting for someone to bite. Only coyotes could survive out there among all those rattlers, he said. As you may imagine, we didn't venture far from the house. That, of course, was my father's point in telling us about the snakes. One of our parents' nightmares was that we children would wander off into the vast wild of that open range country and become lost. Hence, we lived very close to home, somewhat like prisoners, with rattlesnakes for guards. Even without being told Isaiah's vision, we longed for a day when children and serpents could play together and no one got hurt.


The way that Isaiah's vision eventually took shape in our young minds came from the hymns we heard the adults singing in the tiny, frame church next to our home. Back then, all our theology came through hymns, and one in particular gave us an image of hope and salvation we learned to love. This song always came at the end of a service, which may have been another reason we loved it. It began. . .

Lord dismiss us with your blessing,

Fill our hearts with joy and peace;

Let us each, your love possessing,

Triumph in redeeming grace.

 Then came the line we so cherished,

Holy fishes, holy fishes,

Trav'ling through this wilderness!


Ah, such a wonder! We didn't know for sure what a wilderness was, but we pictured it as miles and miles of sagebrush. By means of that hymn, my sister and I knew that some day we would glide through the world full of snakes as easily and safely as fish swim in the sea.


A few years later we left the sagebrush behind and moved to Nebraska. Sadly, we also learned to read, and we discovered that our precious hymn was number 50 in the old Lutheran Hymnal, and it didn't say "Holy fishes, holy fishes." Instead it read, "O refresh us, O refresh us, trav'ling through this wilderness." How dull! How utterly, irretrievably unimaginative and adult!  My sister and I made a secret pact to continue singing it our way, as, I confess, I do to this day, every chance I get.


I sing it that way partly because I've never escaped the sagebrush, where the rattlesnakes stand guard and coyotes wait for the weak and unsuspecting. Now, however, I fear for my own children. Slithering serpents and predators with sharp teeth lurk everywhere in the world into which I send my children every day. In the world of white shirts and ties where my oldest finds his vocation, ruthless connivers prey upon each other and on the weak, the naïve, and anyone who still has a functioning conscience. In the high school where my younger two spend their days, things simply disappear, and sometimes without even knowing it, peers chew each other up with disapproval and mocking. Not long ago, all the world heard the frightening story of a student who brought a weapon to that school, and how in the blink of an eye, a child who's a mystery even to himself became a dangerous, almost deadly avenging agent of an imaginary, hostile god.


We haven't yet mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan, or terrorists and contractors, or all the coyotes, asps, and adders who run the political campaigns heating up these days. Nor have we looked closely at ourselves, honestly assessing our own ways of cutting each other down to size, taking advantage of each other, hating each other, lusting after each other, using each other, neglecting each other, ignoring each other, and living much of the time as though little outside our own skins matters all that much.


We hear a voice today, one crying in the wilderness where all us rattlesnakes are wrapped around our own, private sagebrush bushes. It's the voice we hear every year at this time in the darkness of Advent. It's that loud, raucous, eccentric Baptizer, John. And he's got our number.

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  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." 


In the academic world where I work, Advent and its stern warnings coincide with final exams. They aren't really all that final, but they will expose the sorts of fruits we've borne this semester-or not-at least in the classrooms and study places on this campus, if not the bedrooms, cafeterias, and more private places. Yes, John, you're right. We're a bunch of snakes fleeing a grass fire, heading for water fast as we can to escape the flames.


In Isaiah's day, judgment had come upon the people in the form of Babylonians who'd put siege to Jerusalem and waited outside for three years, ‘til finally the people who saw themselves as God's own could hold out no longer. Isaiah promised a shoot from the chopped-down dynasty of David who would come to start life anew for Israel. That one would rule justly, not selfishly, and by his breath alone he'd smite the wicked, beginning with the Babylonians. Then would come the peaceable kingdom.


In John the Baptist's day, Romans dominated everything and everyone. John, too, promised one who would commence a mighty threshing on God's granary floor, and the wicked, especially the Romans, would be blown away like chaff in the wind, and the good guys would be vindicated.


"Let the threshing begin!" we cry today. However, we're a peculiar bunch of snakes and coyotes who believe and confess that when this shoot from the stump of David finally came and all that smiting and threshing could commence, he didn't dish it out. Instead, he took it. He stood in the midst of the city when the enemies pounced. He endured the fangs of all the serpents and the teeth of all the coyotes, including us. When the threshing began it happened in the courtyard of Caiaphas, the high priest, and it was Jesus' own life that got tossed in the air with a pitchfork. Posted on the cross where he hung was a summary of what had become of his life. "King of the Jews," it said. He was leader of the broken-down, reduced-to-nothing people whom God had brought through the wilderness, given a home, and now they were lost once more.


Precisely there, on the cross, this King established his peaceable kingdom. By means of crucifixion he makes triumphal entry into our world, the world of wilderness, sagebrush, adders, asps, long-toothed predators, and confused travelers like ourselves.


John promised that God could make children from stones, and so God did when that snake-bit king of the Jews ended up dead as a rock amidst the sagebrush. And we live by the promise that God will do the same for us, whether we die by each other's hands, or whether we submit finally to the killing judgment of God's threshing floor in true repentance for our complicity in how dark this world is. Daily the chaff of our lives gets burned up, daily we are crucified with that nailed shoot from the stump of Jesse, and daily God gives us life anew. We are baptized not only in the drowning water, but in the life-giving Spirit of the one whom John promised out there in the wilderness.


Isaiah draws a marvelous picture of our new life as the drowned but still living:

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.

Let that last line wash over you for a moment. If the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, then we'll swim in the knowledge of the Lord the way fish swim in the ocean! It's a complicated picture, but remember this, that "knowledge" of the Lord is intimacy with the Lord, which means that just as lovers share everything, so we'll get precisely the kind of life our Lord got. Moreover, we just reminded ourselves how he found his vocation, by taking on the world's vicious blows and hits, and by turning the other cheek, not by striking back in vengeance and retribution. That's how the peaceable kingdom comes among us. It's a cross-bearing journey upon which we set out each day.


And we do keep on going, day after day, night after night, here in the wilderness, breathing knowledge of God the way fish breathe water.


So you see, my childhood version of that old dismissal hymn, and the vision of God's peaceable kingdom it taught me, turns out to be the truest way to sing it after all. "O refresh us?"  Sure, we'll receive marvelous refreshment-the bread and cup-in just a few moments. But then we'll go our way, heading out in the manner I always knew we would, as


       Holy Fishes, traveling through this wilderness.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Niedner Jr.
Valparaiso Univeristy
Valparaiso, Indiana
E-Mail: fred.niedner@valpo.edu