Every time these particular readings come up in our lectionary, I find myself stuck; not in a bad way, but in a way where I wish preaching was optional. All of these readings are so incredibly powerful.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans we hear “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” The gentiles shall hope. In Jesus, the gentiles are grafted into the people of God; there is new life and a new covenant marked by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and in him, all creation is made new; and that includes us, here and now, today.
What does a new creation look like? The prophecy from Isaiah has much to say about that; wolves lying down with lambs, children playing over the snake’s den… all of which means a new heaven, a new earth, peace on earth like we have never known before… it means as we say in the Lord’s prayer, God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven… Beloved, God’s kingdom is not some place that is far off; some place that we have to wait to experience until our death; as important as that is, it’s not the whole message. God’s dream for humanity is to realize the kingdom here, on earth, right now. The kingdom of God arrived in the life of Jesus; it’s “upkeep” if you will, its continuing unfolding is done through the Holy Spirit. How does the Spirit do its work? Well beloved, that’s where we come in.
John the Baptist, herald of the kingdom, spells it out, and the message isn’t well received by some. There are those who are relying on their connections to their history without thought about what they are doing in the here and now. John has come to tell them that what they do now matters; the messiah, the one to save them is coming, and they need to be ready. He calls them to repent; to take a good look at their lives and the lives of others, and to see where they are missing the mark. They have a hard time with the message; calling them a brood of vipers probably isn’t helping, but John is calling them to task; he is asking them to act as if they are God’s chosen who love God and love their neighbor. He is asking them to turn back toward God. Repentance is not a “one and done” kind of thing. We are constantly called to repent, to turn back to God, to leave the distractions of the world so that we might be the people God has created us and asked us to be. Repentance is constant; it is one of the ways that we prepare ourselves for Jesus’ return. As we might tidy up the house for the visit of a friend, we “tidy up” our spiritual house so that we can hear the Holy Spirit when it speaks to us, and so that we can be ready for Jesus’ return.
It’s the call to us that we hear in our baptism. We turn away from the calls of the world, in order to respond to the call of Jesus. And it’s not because things of the world, or being human are bad. For the most part, they are not. This is the world that Jesus gave his life for. We are the people that God loves just as we are, but always being called to be more than we think we can be. In baptism we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever”. Forever means forever. Because of Jesus, we are also children of God, heirs of God’s kingdom. And in baptism, we are given everything we need to be heirs.
While that place in God’s kingdom is ours and we are his forever, we are still asked to prepare, to repent, and to wait. While this season of the church year calls us into contemplation and repentance, we are not idle. Rather, we are to be focused in ways that are difficult for us, especially now. Being singularly focused on Jesus helps us to feel and hear the stirrings within us, stirrings of the Holy Spirit that hopefully will compel us to prepare for Jesus’ return.
When I was in seminary, I had a button on my backpack that said, “Jesus is coming, look busy”. I pray that we might not just look busy, but that we might actually BE busy helping to make God’s dream for us and for all God’s children a reality. A reality where the cow and the bear graze together; a reality where the poor are raised up, where war is no more.
Lord Jesus, help us to prepare your way. Help us to make the paths of our hearts straight so that we might make a difference in the world that you created. May we be honest stewards of your creation, making it ready for your return.