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St. Helens, Advent 2: 8 December 2019

Advent 2: 8 December 2019
Isaiah 11.1-10; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12

When was the last time you got really excited about a promise someone had made to you? This is, after all, a time of year when people − especially young people − get excited about promises: mostly promises about what they’ll find under the tree on Christmas morning.

What we heard this morning from the prophet Isaiah is a promise worth getting very excited about indeed. Isaiah was speaking to a people under God’s judgment, offering them God’s promise that although there would be a time of disruption and exile, there would also come a time when they would return to their own land and enjoy a future of peace and prosperity. More than that, this is a promise that God will restore the Kingdom of David, which had been weakened when Israel split into two kingdoms, and its kings had become corrupt. The promise is that the restored kingdom shall be a reflection of God’s own kingdom: a kingdom with a ruler who is not corrupt and is not swayed by prejudice or propaganda; one who does not consider the poor and the weak less valuable than the rich and mighty. This is a kingdom in which all are treated equally and all receive justice. In the restoration of God’s people we see the inauguration of God’s just and gentle rule among them, as represented in the vision of the peaceable kingdom.

Christians, of course, have always understood this prophecy to be about more than just the restoration of the ancient kingdom of Judah. Christians read this prophecy as also being a promise about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. And the coming of the Messiah is more than just the return of one nation to its homeland or the reestablishment of a human royal dynasty. This is God’s just and gentle rule coming to the whole earth. Just as Isaiah’s first hearers would have understood the vision of the wolf lying down with the lamb and the leopard lying down with the kid as a promise that God’s peace will flow out from his people to embrace all creation, we should see in this vision the fact that the mission of Jesus isn’t just about humanity. It impacts on all life; He is Christ for all creation. God’s kingdom coming on earth starts with the redemption of the entire created order from sin, death and destruction, and comes to fruition in the whole of creation existing in peace and harmony with one another and with God.

Paul also makes this point about the expansiveness and inclusiveness of the redemption and restoration offered by Jesus when he encourages Jewish and Gentile Christians to live together in harmony because Jesus came for the Gentile as well as the Jew. Jesus lived and died and rose again for us, for those who are like us and for those who are unlike us. That is the promise of God’s love: it extends to all that he has made.

Knowing what Jesus gave for us, and knowing that what he did was not only for us, should, I hope, stir in us some desire to respond. Usually, when someone has done something significant and meaningful and kind for us, we want to show our gratitude. But how can we possible show our gratitude for having been forgiven our sins and saved from death? We get the answer to that question in John the Baptist’s call for people to repent. Through repentance, we are able to enter the kingdom of God, that peaceable kingdom described for us by Isaiah, and take part in its life. Repentance isn’t just about saying ‘sorry’ for things we have done wrong, though that is an important starting point. Repentance is about a change of direction. It’s about turning around the things in our lives that aren’t aligned with God’s kingdom. When we think of repentance, we tend to think in very personal, individualistic terms. But we also need to think in societal terms.

As both Christians and members of our wider society and culture, we need to do what we can to turn around those things in society that aren’t aligned with God’s Kingdom. Sadly, there are a great many things that need turning around.

We are probably all aware of issues like human trafficking and modern slavery. We know that the poor in our society, and in many societies, are easily overlooked and forgotten. We should regularly and frequently be asking ourselves if the things that we do and the choices that we make are colluding with these realities, or are helping to forge a new reality in line with God’s kingdom.

Recently there has been much in the news about just how serious the damage humanity is doing to the planet and our fellow creatures is. Scientists are warning that we are reaching a climate change tipping point – the point of no return. The effects of climate change will be felt by all of us, but it will be the poorest societies and the poorest in society who will feel those effects the most. And it isn’t just ourselves that we are putting at risk. Species are already becoming extinct at an alarming rate, and climate change is only going to make things worse. Our demand for cheap food, especially cheap meat in abundance, is driving many farmers to move to intensive systems of farming that inflict cruelty and terrible suffering on billions of our fellow creatures. How can we be a part of God’s peaceable kingdom if this is how we choose to live? How can we worship God and yet carry on with business as usual?

True repentance leads to change. As Christians, we are called to live the life of God’s Peaceable Kingdom now, not waiting for it to be laid on for us in some unspecified future. We know what that kingdom life looks like. Isaiah showed us. It is a kingdom of peace, where the way that we live promotes the flourishing of all creation; where we treat one another and our fellow creatures with love, care and kindness.

That may seem a lot to draw out of just one prophetic passage. But we find this idea elsewhere in scripture, too. In fact, it’s there in the first creation narrative in Genesis. I don’t read the Genesis creation narratives as scientific fact or as exact historical accounts of creation. I don’t think that our faith requires that.

What I see in the first chapter of Genesis is a prophetic vision of God’s intention for the created order. God desired that the universe bring forth life. He desires that life to flourish. And just as Isaiah’s vision of what creation will be like under the rule of God’s kingdom has the lion eating straw like the ox, so too the opening chapter of Genesis tells us that God does not desire life on earth to be based on predatory relationships, but rather God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” Then, when God looks on what he has made, all of it functioning together in harmony as he intended from the beginning, God declares it to be very good indeed.

When we hear these things, it is easy to despair. We look around us and we can see all the ways in which the world today is not functioning in the way that scripture tells us God desires. We can look at our own lives and feel guilty for our part in it. But I don’t want you to feel guilty. Yes, there are things that we can all do differently or maybe better. Of course there are. We’re human and by definition that means we aren’t perfect. And we are the products of our society. But we are also the products of our baptism into Christ, and so we have hope. We have hope for ourselves − not just that we are saved and assured of a place in heaven, but also that we can do things in our own lives that, little by little, reveal the kingdom of God on earth.

We have hope for our world − that through the Holy Spirit working in us and all people of faith, the world will be embraced by God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

Our passage from the letter to the Romans this morning finishes with these words of encouragement: “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.” May that hope be yours, so that you may abound in hope and bring hope to the world. And we have good reason to hope. The kingdom of heaven has come near. All we have to do is turn, and choose to enter it.