Sunday, December 04, 2016

God’s Harmony is at Hand

Last week we talked about God’s peace. Today we consider harmony”—a word similar to peace, but bigger. Harmony, as we see it in the passage from Isaiah 11, includes justice and righteousness, peaceful co-existence, the whole of creation living the way that God wants it to be. In its biblical form, Shalom carries a similar fullness, so that harmony may be a better word than peace to translate the idea of Shalom. This morning we want to explore this idea of harmony and hear God’s invitation to enter into a world that leads to complete righteousness and peace. We begin by hearing the text from Isaiah.

Isaiah 11:1-10
11 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.

The form of Isaiah 11 is prophecy—someone from David’s line who will bring in the fullness of God’s will. Isaiah probably had in mind someone who was a king on David’s throne in the same way as the kings of Judah who reigned while he was alive. From our perspective today we see that these words, “a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse [David’s father]”, apply to Jesus, the “Son of David”. This is a Messianic passage. As we said last week, such passages have a double fulfillment—one that takes place in Jesus’ earthly ministry, and one that takes place at the end of time.

Isaiah tells us that this “fruit of the Davidic Branch” will be filled with God’s Spirit, which brings wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, through the knowledge and fear of God. God’s Spirit brings a constellation of joy and power:
  •          Righteousness for the needy;
  •         Justice for the poor of the earth;
  •         Judgment for the wicked.
This note of judgment is one we do not hear comfortably. Are we the needy, the poor of the earth, or the wicked. These are not comfortable choices. Further, the truth that God is love has persuaded us that God therefore will not act in anger to judge the wicked. But people who live in contexts of oppression hear these passages as words of hope: The wicked who oppress them will no longer have power to do so, and they will receive instead righteousness and justice.

The further fruit of God’s Spirit through the Messiah is a radical picture of harmony: Animals that normally live as hunter and prey become friends; children do not need to fear poisonous snakes. Of course this picture is a metaphor. I have heard the question, “How will the hunters survive if they can’t eat prey?” Of course this passage is not meant to say anything about eating meat or vegetables. We don’t need to break out the Arrogant Worms singing “The Scream of the Vegetable” to argue for eating a good steak. (“All we are saying is ‘Give peas a chance.’”)

Rather, Isaiah paints a dramatic picture to make clear the fullness of peace in which the whole of creation has turned to God. So perfect harmony—peace, justice, and righteousness—is promised to God’s people as we live in the presence of Jesus in our world, and as we look forward to the return of Christ bringing in God’s Reign in power and great glory, when the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of God “as the waters cover the sea.”

A hymn (number 638) in our blue hymnal pictures this well:
God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year:
God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

All we can do is nothing worth unless God blessed the deed;
Vainly we hope for the harvest-tide till God gives life to the seed;
Yet nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

We turn, then, to Matthew 3, in which John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ’s first coming.

Matthew 3:1-12
3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John came preaching the kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repenting meant to act in ways that reflect the kingdom. No one could claim exemption based on their family or on their record within the established religious structures. The only acceptable step to be ready for God’s Reign was to turn around and walk towards God. Repentance is more than “I’m sorry I did that.” John says: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” To repent is turn towards God and live the way God calls us to live. The Sermon on the Mount gives a clear picture of what this fruit looks like. In Luke 3, Luke records specific teachings by John, which echo the Sermon on the Mount. To repent is to begin to follow the ways of God’s Reign.

You have heard this sort of thing before. The Hebrew word for “repent” is shuv: To turn around. The Greek word used here in Matthew 3 is metanoias: According to my Greek-English dictionary, “A change of mode in thought and feeling.” The common thread of change, of movement in a new direction, is much more than a simple, “Sorry.” If “sorry” were enough, Canadians would have done all the repenting John asked for and more, but “sorry” is not enough. Real change, leading to the real fruit of God’s Reign in our lives, is necessary.

Of course we are not able to produce such fruit on our own. We cannot live the way that God wants us to in our own strength. So we confess our failures (here’s where saying “sorry” comes in) and open our lives to the presence of God’s Spirit, as described for the shoot of Jesse in Isaiah 11, because it takes God living in us to produce the fruit of repentance.

Have You Ever Seen a Real Conversion?
We call this process “conversion”—the change from death to life, the change from living for the rulers of this world to living for the Ruler of all Creation. Have you ever seen a truly converted person? I think of someone like C.S. Lewis. Near the end of his life an American named Walter Hooper came to help him sort out his papers. Hooper described Lewis as the “most thoroughly converted man I ever met.” We know Lewis through the Narnia Series and his other writings, but Hooper was referring to his general conversation and lifestyle. Lewis had many small charities he had started: people he supported through various uncertainties in their lives. He was unfailingly generous in life and in his conversation. He produced “fruit in keeping with repentance”. This is what it means to enter into God’s harmony with all of creation.
(A brief quote to illustrate Lewis’ charities: “As book royalties mounted during the later 1940s, and continued to spiral upward thereafter, C.S. Lewis refused to upgrade his standard of living. Partly out of disdain for conspicuous living, but mostly out of commitment to Jesus Chris, he established a charitable fund for his royalty earnings. Neither the extent nor the recipients of C.S. Lewis’s charity are fully known. Indeed, he made valiant efforts to conceal this information. It is known that he supported numerous impoverished families, and underwrote education fees for orphans and poor seminarians, and put monies into scores of charities and church ministries.” From

I think of a quite different organization, A Rocha. A Rocha (which means “The Rock” in Portuguese) began in 1983 in Portugal, started by Peter and Miranda Harris. Harris has described their story in Under the Bright Wings and in Kingfisher’s Fire. He tells how they began their conservation efforts in Portugal as an expression of their worship for the Creator of the earth. Today their efforts have spread around the world, including to A Rocha Pembina, which began in 2000. In a real sense they are making visible Isaiah’s vision of a truly restored creation. They are producing “fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Last week I spoke about the movement of God’s Spirit within“the house of Islam”. David Garrison tells the story of Rafiq, a North African immigrant living in Paris in 2001, where he pursued his career as a musician. Garrison intereviewed Rafiq and tells his story in A Wind in the House of Islam (81-84, 96-97). This again is the story of a truly converted couple, whose lives are producing “fruit in keeping with repentance”.
(I do not tell the story here, but refer the reader to Garrison’s book. The story is of Rafiq and his wife Nora, and how Rafiq fell in love with Jesus through a crucifix in a cathedral in Paris, and a picture of the Good Shepherd; then wrote a musical of the life of Jesus. He returned to his home in North Africa, where he lives with his wife and children, writing music in French, Arabic, and the Berber language. The story is well worth reading.)

What About Us?

What then should we do during Advent? God invites us to turn from our lives of conflict and discord and embrace the harmony and peace of God’s Reign. When we do so, we find that God’s Spirit moves in us to bring about the kind of peace that Isaiah describes. We may still live in difficult situations, but at the centre of our lives God gives a wholeness and joy that lives in harmony with God. We become pictures of peace in times of storm, people in whom God’s goodness shines. God’s wholeness and harmony is at hand; come, walk in the way of God’s peace.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
4 December 2016

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