What Happened to the Snakes?

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Sermon preached on December 5, 2010 at Temple Lutheran Church. Based on Advent 2a readings (Isaiah 11:1-10 & Matt 3:1-12).

The season of Advent continues to unfold today, this season of waiting and preparation.  A season that draws us into the waiting that led up to the birth of Jesus, but also the waiting that continues today as we place our hope in God’s promised new creation.  During this season—this holy time—we gather to celebrate what God has promised.  We celebrate God’s new creation which points the way to peace, justice and restoration—all happening as God arrives in our world in human flesh in the promised incarnation of Jesus Christ, God with us.

Guiding us through this season is the prophet Isaiah’s vision of peace.  The vision of a world defined by peace.  Last week it was the image of swords reimagined into plowshares.  This week we are invited to envision the image of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together.  It’s an image that was recently captured creatively in a commercial for insurance:

Of course, Isaiah was promising to “take the scary out of life” in a way that goes beyond what even the best financial product can provide.  Isaiah wasn’t seeking to manage our risk, he was promising peace—something far more profound.  As we gathered around that promise of peace last week and began the season of Advent, we did so in such a way that recognized the simple truth that the world that Isaiah has promised isn’t here yet.   It has not become reality yet.  We recognized that such peace is still on the other side of a lot of work and a lot of dramatic change, and that God is calling us to participate in the unfolding promise by working for peace—by waging peace—and by allowing ourselves to be changed.

Last we were sent out to pray for peace, and to pray that we could be agents and creators of peace.  This week, we turn to an indispensible part of that peace becoming reality.  We turn our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to the main ingredient of God’s peace.  Peace will forever remain an impossible fantasy if it doesn’t include justice.  There is no such thing as a peace that allows for the presence of injustice.

If there is any amount of inequity or discrimination, peace doesn’t become fulfilled.  The work that God invites us into is work defined by justice.

And that work begins with understanding what God’s justice looks like because, sadly, when the word “justice” is used, all too often it is used to describe penalties and acts of punishment and retribution:  to “bring criminals to justice” or to “provide justice for victims”.  Now, it would be a tragic mistake to abandon the notion that consequences aren’t necessary, or to deny the value of laws and penalties that protect us and protect human societies.  But it would be equally tragic to believe that God’s justice works like our justice works.

God’s justice is a justice that creates peace.  It’s a justice that depends not upon punishment or retribution, but upon restoration.  It seeks to bring about that new creation that God promises in scripture.  Isaiah describes this justice arriving through a new righteous king that’s coming:   “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.”  This work of justice is the needed preparation for the peace that God promises is coming.

Now, there’s some hard realities to deal with in there.  What about the wicked?  Isaiah says the new king “shall kill the wicked”.  But remember:  God’s justice is not shaped by retribution or punishment.

God’s justice is shaped by transforming things, restoring the world as God created it.  Which means there is room in there for good to defeat evil—for good to kill evil—not with violence, and not with a cycle of punishment, but by transforming evil into good and creating that world where even the wolf can live with the lamb.

But something has to occur to make that possible, doesn’t it?  In our gospel lesson, we hear John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness.  He’s got his camel hair on and he’s eating his locusts and honey, and he talks about what needs to happen, and he call it “repentance”.  “Repentance” being this act of “turning around”, of changing course, of being changed, of being transformed.  John the Baptist calls us to repentance, and then he points to Jesus, the one who make the change possible.  John says that he baptized with water for the purpose of repentance, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Jesus comes with fire to introduce God’s justice.  But again, not a justice that’s defined by punishment, but a just that’s about transformation.  The fire that comes is not a fire of punishment, it’s a fire that purifies.  It takes away the chaff from the wheat is what John the Baptist describes.  The chaff being the seed coverings, stems and leaves that are not harvested.  It’s part of the wheat, but not a part of the harvest, which means that God transforms us by removing the part of us that is not needed for the harvest.  The part of us that is not moving in the direction of God’s peace.  And as God works in our lives, it turns us around—it transforms us into people who do the work of peace, people who do the work of justice.

In order to participate in God’s new world, this new reality, we must allow God’s unrelenting love for us to change us.  God meets us right where we’re at, but dares not leave us there.  As John the Baptist puts it: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

So what must we repent of?  What must we turn away from and turn toward?  What must be removed from us in order to be a part of that new reality?  Maybe we can find some answers as we consider what thay world shaped by God’s justice & peace will look like.  It’s clearly NOT a world where 20 percent of the population controls 80 percent of what’s available.  We all know that.  And knowing that we’re in that 20 percent today:  what must change?  What must be transformed in us?  What is God turning us toward?  God’s new reality will be a world where even those who are very different from each other will live together as one—a unity that’s made possible by a justice that ends all prejudice.  What must be removed from us in order to be a part of that new reality?

As we dare to imagine the world as God wants it to be, we cannot deny the reality that it’s going to require some change in us.  We would be foolish to deny the absolute need to repent:  to turn around, to turn toward peace, to turn toward justice, to turn toward God.  Each one of us can identify the changes that we believe need to happen in the world to make that new reality possible.  As we repent, we re-orient ourselves towards God and towards making that change possible.  We trust in God’s help, and we become that change we want to see in the world.

But it’s that trust that makes it possible.  Because in the end, we find that the heart of repentance is realizing that it’s  God that’s doing the work.  Even though we are drawn into living differently and creating peace and creating justice, repentance reminds us every single day—because we need it every single day—that it’s God’s work and not our own.  We simply participate in the work and rejoice in God’s promises.

To wrap up, I’ll simply invite you to look at that picture that scripture painted for us today and I’ll ask you a simple question:  What happened to the snakes?  John the Baptist called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers”, and he demands that their lives reflect repentance or they’re going to face wrath and the fire.  But, then,  in Isaiah’s vision of where the world is headed,  there are still snakes there:  asps and adders are all described.  But then Isaiah says that even infants & small children will play around their den and place their hands in the den.

So what happened to the snakes?  They weren’t destroyed—they’re still there, but they’ve been changed somehow.  The very way they live and exist has been dramatically changed, allowing them to be a part of the new reality—to experience God’s promise.

And if God’s grace has the final word, then the same thing might just be true for every one of us, and for all people.  There’s a temptation to continue to think about God’s justice as punishment, which means it will bother us to think that someone we think does not deserve God’s grace might be included.

Someone asked me recently if God would even include someone like Hitler (still the perfect example of incredible evil in the world).  As we talked about, I came to two conclusions. The first one was whether or not God includes Hitler or not doesn’t really change anything for me or you.  But the more important thing, the second conclusion, was that if Hitler were to be a part of God’s promised new reality, like those snakes, it will have to come with quite a bit of change—quite a bit of transformation.  There would have to be change so that Adolf could even tolerate being in the same new world as the Jews and the gypsies and the black people and the gay people and the disabled people and every other group of God’s children that didn’t fit his mold.  Now, we never saw any evidence of that for that individual.  We never saw any evidence of repentance.  But nonetheless, the change—the transformation—is still God’s action, which means it’s God call.

God’s grace can be a really scandalous thing—even offensive to us—when we remain convinced that God’s justice is about punishment.  God’s justice, however, is a justice that leads to peace.  It’s a justice that depends not upon punishment, but upon change and restoration.  It’s a justice that is seeking to bring about something new:  God’s promised new reality.  It can even change our lives as we repent and turn toward God.  God’s justice is the kind of justice that is at the heart of the good news of the gospel.


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