"Walking the Walk"
Isaiah 11:1-10 Matthew 3:1-12
The Israelites were going through some tough times back when Isaiah was speaking on behalf of God. They were being treated cruelly by the Assyrians and thus lived in constant fear of violence. The dynasty of King David, the son of Jesse, was but a mere stump compared to what it once was. Isaiah believed God was going to send a leader who was going to turn things upside down or rightside up if you will. It was going to be a really radical shift - so radical that even the natural instincts of animals would be effected. We read about Isaiah's vision of it in the 11th chapter of the book that shares Isaiah’s name.
Several years ago I read an account about a zoo that created a special exhibit of a lion and a lamb during the Christmas season. Supposedly, they were put in the same cage and thousands of people went to see the unusual pair. A reporter asked the zoo director one day about the unusual arrangement and whether there’d been any problems with it. The zoo keeper didn’t even flinch as he responded, “Not really, except we have to put a new lamb in the cage every couple of days.”
I’m pretty sure it’s not a true story. I’m pretty sure that we’d have heard an outpouring of objections from all sorts of groups if it was. The point is, we laugh because despite the hopefulness this optimistic picture Isaiah described is, we know it’s not our reality. At times we even give in to doubting whether it will ever happen. The utopian world it portrays is so different from anything we’ve ever seen. We understand the pessimism one preacher started a sermon of his on this text with: “The wolf and the lamb? I don’t think so. The Palestinian and Israeli? No way. The Serb and the Muslim? Nope. Peace? Ain’t going to happen.” And then in another part of his sermon he mused, “A wolf and a lamb will lie together in peace - when they’re both dead.” (1)
In the workforce magazine, Personnel Journal, an incredible statistic is noted: “Since the beginning of recorded history, the entire world has been at peace less than 8% of the time!” The magazine discovered in its study that of 3,540 years of recorded history, only 286 years of them were peaceful - 8,000 peace treaties were made and broken. (2)
Call me an idealist - a naive peace-nik - if you want, but despite all the evidence against it, I still believe in, hope for, long for Isaiah’s vision. How and when will it happen? I don’t know. My understanding of that day is that we human beings are not going to bring it to pass by our own efforts. It’s going to happen when Jesus returns. Until then we’re going to experience war after war after war. Our reality is that until Jesus comes again there are always going to be the Osama Bin Laden types who want to prevent peace except by their rules and ideologies. Nations will always disagree with one another because of the reality of sin - greed, power, jealousy will always be present until Christ returns and establishes his reign on earth. While we are somewhat comforted by the blow terrorism has been dealt in recent years and by the nations sitting around the peace table committed to drawing up a new government, peace, eternal peace won’t happen until the Prince of Peace returns.
So, what should we do in the meantime? Nothing? Ignore the world situation? Bury our heads in the sand? Assume a fatalist attitude and stop trying to make a difference? No. We need to be about helping prepare the soil for Christ’s coming. Or, as Robert Beringer put it in his sermon “God’s Christmas Greeting”: “We are to establish beachheads for God’s coming kingdom. Even if we can’t win a final victory over evil, we can at least accomplish a spiritual D-day.” And then he went on to claim that we do that by reconciling the wolf and the lamb within ourselves. He described their presence inside us in this way: “There is a tiger within you and me that wants to snarl at people on the other side of the political or ideological fence.” “There is a wolf within us that reopens old wounds and past failures even within our own households, just to make sure that even those nearest to us know we haven’t forgotten their failures; maybe forgiven, but not forgotten.” “There is a cobra within us that lies in wait for people who are different from us, so that we can catch them fulfilling our prejudices about them.” “There is a bear within us that gives other people only one chance to disappoint us; and if they do, we reject them forever.” (3)
What should we do about this reality within us, this battle going on inside us so like the seemingly senseless wars between the nations of the world? If we’re to be about the task of preparing both the soil of nations and the soil of our own lives for Christ’s coming, what is it we should be doing? According to Matthew’s account of John the Baptist’s preaching he said that we should repent and produce fruit as a result of our repentance - that is, that we should face ourselves, name the conflict going on inside us, turn toward Jesus, let the Holy Spirit work inside us to control the beast, the battle, and get on with sharing the good news with others by living it - by walking the walk of faith. What we should be doing is getting to know the reality of Jesus Christ in our hearts as well as our minds, growing in our relationship with Jesus Christ, and then being about the task of sowing on his behalf - serving him with all that we have and are - walking the walk and talking the talk. We should prepare for Christ’s coming by repenting and bearing fruit consistent with our repentance.
For many of us, repentance is a word we’d rather not hear. For some of us it’s an unfamiliar word - it’s a word that was used in another period of history - when mourner’s benches and sawdust trails and tent meetings and confessionals were in vogue. For others of us, repentance is only something we have to do when we get caught - like when we get caught with our hand in the cookie jar after we’ve been told not to eat any cookies or if we’ve been caught having an affair or illegally recruiting or cheating on our taxes.
But, biblically, repentance is much more than saying “I’m sorry” when we’ve been caught doing something society says we shouldn’t. John the Baptist put a whole new twist on what is involved when repentance is put to use in one’s life when he said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Later, he further said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Basically, he was saying that repentance is about preparing one’s self for the coming One - the Savior. Repentance isn’t only about changing one’s mind or feeling sorry for doing something wrong. It’s not only about resolving never to do such and such wrong act again. Repentance, according to the trail mix of locusts and wild honey eating John the Baptist, means turning ourselves toward the One, toward Jesus Christ, who has come and is coming again. Repentance is not about getting all loaded down with guilt but rather it’s about turning ourselves in Christ’s direction - it’s about turning our eyes toward him and walking/following in His steps.
And the signs of repentance are the bearing of fruits - the doing things that exemplify Christ’s living in us and through us. A woman went to the prayer chapel of her church every day. About the same time every morning she could be seen kneeling and praying. After a period of prayer she would leave the church and go to a nearby food pantry and load up her car with boxes of food for people she knew were in need. No big deal as far as she was concerned. Bearing fruit for her was as natural as eating. Repentance that turns toward Jesus Christ doesn’t lead to self-centeredness, it leads to love and service. (4)
In the book of Luke’s version of John the Baptist’s river appearance, tax collectors and soldiers went to Jesus to be baptized and asked what they should do. And he told the tax collectors that they shouldn’t collect any taxes other than those rightfully theirs and he told the soldiers that they shouldn’t level false accusations or rob others. What he was basically saying was that we should do whatever it is ours to do in life to the best of our ability, ethically and honestly. Bearing fruit is done by walking the walk as well as talking the talk - it’s about serving with all we are and all that we have.
A lay person in a church once said, “If we’re not careful, John the Baptizer will take all of the fun out of Christmas.” I think he’s wrong. I think if we turn our lives toward Jesus Christ, if we repent, and become fruit producers consistent with our repentance, then we will experience even greater joy in our hearts and in the community of faith. Repentance is the real way to prepare for Christmas. Walking the walk toward Jesus and with Jesus is the way to true joy and peace and hope during this season and throughout the year. (5)
Peace be with you all as you journey through Advent toward Christmas!
1 Homiletics, December 2001, pg. 52-53.
2 God’s Christmas Greeting, Robert A. Beringer, esermons.com.
4 2001 Christian Globe Network, Repentance, esermons.com.
5 Repent Your Way to a Merry Christmas, Brett Blair, esermons.com.