A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 5, 2010.
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of an idyllic time in the future that seems like paradise. 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 (Is. 11:6-9).
Earlier in the chapter where this passage is found the prophet associates this idyllic time with a Messiah. 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. 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 (Is. 11:1-5).
We don’t live in a peaceful world. Wolves and lambs don’t share the same meadows, and leopards don’t sleep with goats. Calves and lions don’t travel together. Children aren’t safe around people, not to mention snakes.
We live in a world where children are surrounded by violence, suffering, and anxiety. We live in a world where poor people struggle to feed, clothe, house, and sustain themselves and their families. We live in a world where immigrants struggle to find work, and then struggle to avoid becoming victims of fearful and prejudiced people , opportunistic politicians, and greedy employers. God’s creation needs peace but is threatened by global warming and climate change. We’re so out of fellowship with each other, the earth, water, air, and other creatures that we’ve turned God’s world into hell for everyone and everything.
Is Isaiah’s hopeful prediction about a Messiah whose wisdom, understanding, knowledge, reverence for God, and sense of power will produce righteous judgment too good to be true? Do we really think peace can exist like the prophet described? Do we even want it?
The lessons from Isaiah, Psalms, Romans, and Matthew present us with a challenging truth. The peace God promises will be characterized by socially just leadership, fellowship built on genuine harmony, and the humbling and liberating work of repentance.
Make no mistake: the peace God promises our world will be characterized by righteous leadership concerned about social justice. God’s Messiah will define justice based on the needs of the poor and vulnerable, not the wealthy and comfortable.
At Psalm 72, we read that the poor and needy are the key population to watch in assessing the king’s justice and righteousness. Jesus focused his ministry efforts on poor, needy, sick, and vulnerable people. Jesus declared at Matthew 25 that the final exam of life will be graded based on how we treat people who are hungry, thirsty, sick, oppressed, and strangers. According to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, justice and righteousness in a society is not defined by the comfort level of the wealthy and powerful, but by how that society treats its most vulnerable inhabitants.
And the responsibility for seeing that justice is done—that vulnerable people are protected and provided for—belongs to those who lead.
• A society that doesn’t protect its most vulnerable people from hunger, sickness, abuse, discrimination, and oppression is unjust and unrighteous.
• A society whose leaders would rather provide tax breaks to people making more than $250,000 a year than provide unemployment benefits to millions of unemployed workers is unjust and unrighteous.
• A society whose leaders would rather protect insurance and pharmaceutical companies than ensure that health care is available and affordable for everyone, beginning with its most vulnerable people, is unjust and unrighteous.
This means we are out of step with God when we refuse to hold leaders to God’s righteous definition of justice based on how well vulnerable people live. We are out of step with God when we define justice by the comfort of the wealthy and powerful.
• Politicians in Arkansas and Washington, DC—including both Senators from Arkansas—are refusing to pass legislation that will help children of undocumented immigrants obtain a pathway to U.S. citizenship by attending college. That’s unjust.
• Politicians—again including both Senators from Arkansas—and bigoted military personnel are refusing to support repeal of current law that requires military personnel who are homosexual to deny or hide their sexual orientation. Under current law, heterosexual people can flaunt their sexual orientation as much as they please. If a person who is homosexual does the same thing he or she is banished from the service. That’s unjust.
• People care more their holiday decorations than whether workers who’ve been unemployed more than a year continue receiving unemployment benefits. That’s unjust.
If we are to be the Messiah’s people we must embrace the Messiah’s passion for social justice for the poor, sick, weak, and outcast people of our time and place. For the saying is true: where there is no justice, there is no peace.
The passages we read from Isaiah 11 and Psalm 72 are about just and righteous leadership. Paul’s writing in the 15th chapter of Romans shows that justice and righteousness are related to fellowship. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God. Romans 15:5-6
God presents us with the clearest example of fellowship in Jesus Christ. Jesus embraced people from every walk of life. He didn’t erect barriers to fellowship. Jesus refused to hide behind traditions and customs to avoid interacting with women, sick people, children, poor people, and outcasts. We can’t be the salt of the earth and the light of the world if we won’t stand with God on behalf of people who are different from us. If we want to prepare ourselves and the world for the kind of leadership God’s Christ will deliver, we must follow the example of Jesus.
Romans 15 and Isaiah 11 sound the fellowship theme in remarkable ways. In Romans, Paul proclaims that the fellowship of Jesus includes ancestral Hebrews and Gentiles. In Isaiah, the prophet says the peace of God will be marked by harmony that even extends to creatures in nature that we consider predators and prey—wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, calves and lions, cattle and bears, children and serpents—as well as people in starkly different social stations (the king and the poor and vulnerable). These passages tell us that peace and fellowship go hand in hand.
Fellowship was the great challenge for the followers of Jesus during the first century after his resurrection. It remains our great challenge as followers of Jesus. Twenty centuries after the resurrection of Jesus his followers still consider certain “Gentiles” unfit for our fellowship unless they take on our notion of “circumcision.” Today’s “Gentiles” are people who don’t fit our income bracket, nationality, notion of religion, political philosophy, ethnic group, immigration status, sexual orientation, and other experiences.
We should remember the admonition of Paul at Romans 15:7: Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. If we are more comfortable maintaining our distance from other persons as “them” than in welcoming others as Christ has welcomed us, we won’t be comfortable the age Christ will lead where all are welcome. Where will we live?
John the Baptist came preaching about repentance because repentance is necessary preparation for the messianic leadership that produces the peace of God. We can’t prepare for messianic peace by remaining as we are.
And that’s the rub. We say we want the kind of peace where wolves and lambs co-exist. Meanwhile Democrats and Republicans don’t want to work together. Jews don’t want to live near Palestinians. People don’t want to welcome immigrants. Christians and Moslems don’t want to respect each other. People who are straight treat people who are gay as wicked. Men think they’re better than women. Young people don’t care about their elders and elders don’t affirm young people. People who are financially comfortable are unconcerned about poor people. White people and everyone else can’t live, work, learn, love, and grow together. We need repentance.
We say we long for a time when the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them, but we don’t care about what happens beyond the borders of our enclaves and neighborhoods. We need repentance.
We say we want the kind of peaceful world where children will not be afraid to play over the den of a snake. Why won’t we repent from the spirit that allows us to celebrate being comfortable while others are vulnerable and threatened? We can’t prepare the way of peace God’s Messiah will lead while maintaining systems and practices that keep people vulnerable and afraid. We can’t prepare for lion cubs and calves to play together without confronting and changing systems and practices that deny people in some communities the grocery stores, banks, and decent places to obtain goods and services at fair prices they need and deserve.
Like the religious people John the Baptist criticized, too many people today are stuck on singing hymns and reciting scriptures while ignoring the messianic justice, fellowship, and peace of God. We define godliness by religious traditions, habits, and customs rather than God’s justice and peace. We’re so stuck on our notions of exclusivity and privilege—be they racial, gender, income, nationality, sexual orientation, influence, or otherwise—that we can’t imagine the wonderful world of harmony and diversity God promises. Perhaps we can’t imagine it because we don’t really want it. John’s message to religious people of his day applies to us: Even now the ax is lying at the foot of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire [Matthew 3:10].
That’s not just a warning. John’s call to repentance is an invitation and promise that God will forgive, renew, re-direct, and widen and deepen our understanding about justice, righteousness, and fellowship. Repentance prepares us to become instruments of God’s promised peace.
In the last book of the New Testament another John recorded a vision where angels and human, wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, calves and lions, cattle and bears, children and serpents, rulers and vulnerable people, Jews and Gentiles, capitalists and socialists, Democrats and Republicans, gays and straights, people of every color, and yes, all creation celebrate God’s love and live in righteous fellowship to God’s glory. At Revelation 5, we read:
6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9They sing a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll ¨ and to open its seals, ¨for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God ¨ saints from* every tribe and language and people and nation; ¨10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving* our God, ¨ and they will reign on earth.’
11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing with full voice, ¨‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered ¨to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might ¨and honour and glory and blessing!’ ¨13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb ¨be blessing and honour and glory and might ¨for ever and ever!’ ¨14And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.
This is the leadership, this is the fellowship, and this is the peace God promises. Is this what we want?
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.