Sermon begins at the 1:34 mark after the music
Lay Reader = Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This is the second Sunday of Advent. To prepare our souls for Christmas, we are looking at the gifts we are given from God’s heart and we’ll ask how we can give those same gifts from our hearts. Last week Pastor Carol talked about the gift of God’s teaching and wisdom. We get to learn from the Word of God, and that helps us.
This week we are looking at God’s character – who God is. Different religions see their gods differently. The Greeks saw many of their gods as arbitrary and capricious. The Norse saw Thor as a god of power and justice, but Loki was a trickster and mischievous. These gods had different characters, different natures.
So what is the nature of our God? How do we know who God is? Advent is the perfect season to try to figure that out, because Jesus is the most complete revelation of who God is. We look forward to Christmas, to the coming of the King, to the coming of God in person. But we aren’t looking forward to a mischievous god like Loki. We aren’t look forward to a lustful and manipulative god like Zeus. Hear what Isaiah says about what we have to look forward to. This is a prophecy about the character of Christ. This is the kind of person Jesus actually turned out to be.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The 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. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but 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. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The 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. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They 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.
10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
For our December 20 movie night here at the church, we’re showing a Christmas classic – The Polar Express. In the story, a train picks up several boys and girls and takes them to the North Pole. There, one little boy gets the opportunity to ask Santa for anything he wants – it will be the first gift of Christmas!
Out of every possible wish, every possible request, he asks for something unexpected: one little bell from Santa’s sleigh. It serves as a reminder for the rest of his life. That memory, that experience, that faith can never be taken from him.
If that were you up at the North Pole with the chance to ask for anything, what would you want? Maybe all you want for Christmas are your two front teeth? Maybe you’re hankering for a Red Rider Beebe Gun? Maybe you want to win neighborhood bragging rights by exceeding Clark Griswald’s Christmas decorations? If you could ask for anything, what would you want?
In our text from Isaiah, the people don’t need a new camel. They don’t need a new toga. They need to know they haven’t been abandoned by God. Isaiah says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” That’s an interesting choice of words.
Do you have any trees in your yard or nearby? If not, think about the trees around the church. Trees are nice, right? They look good, they make the neighborhood feel more established. They provide shade. So tell me this, have you ever looked at those trees and thought to yourself, “You know what would be even better? To chop these trees down to their stumps and leave the stumps there!”
Probably not too many votes on that one. You only take a tree down to the stump if there’s something wrong. So for a shoot to come out of the stump of Jesse, things are very bad. And the name “Jesse” isn’t a good sign, either. Jesse was King David’s father. So the stump of Jesse means the tree of Israel has been cut back all the way to before David. Nothing is left!
Well…almost nothing. There’s still a seemingly dead stump. Most of us would want to hire a company to come and grind that stump out so it’s not ruining our yards. Most of us would want to discard this useless stump. But that’s not who God is.
From this seemingly dead stump, a shoot emerges with new life. From this place where it looks like nothing is left, the Spirit of the Lord emerges – the breath of God appears. From the darkness of despair, the light of hope shines. That is the best gift God could give the hopeless Israelites. Maybe you can relate. Do you need to see that shoot of new life emerging from the dead stump of your life? Do you need to see the light of the Lord in the darkness of your soul? God is ready to give it. Everywhere else you turn will say you’re hopeless. They’ll say you’re a lost cause. But that’s not who God is.
And God’s not done. In addition to the incredible gift of hope that outshines despair, Isaiah keeps going with more gifts from the very heart of God. These are aspects of Jesus’ character. More gifts that are greater than any 8K HDTV on Black Friday. More gifts that are greater than anything that can be wrapped in a package.
The first is the spirit of wisdom and understanding. That’s the ability to see the whole situation clearly. Jesus was so good at seeing through the fluff to the core of an issue that the religious leaders gave up on asking him trick questions. Could you use God’ perspective on a problem or a decision? Would clarity and understanding be good gifts right now?
One woman I know took a job, and she was very excited about it. It was a difficult time in her life – a time of a lot of transition, so this job was a blessing. So she showed up to day one with verve and vitality. And like scales falling from her eyes, she realized this was a terrible mistake. With that immense clarity, she decided to quit on her first day.
Bill Belichick, the current head coach for the Patriots, did the same thing with the Jets. He quit the job at the news conference where he was supposed to be introduced as head coach. He says he suddenly realized he couldn’t be a part of the Jets organization. And just like the person I know who quit on day one, no regrets. Just thankfulness for clarity and the will to follow through.
Do you need that kind of clarity? Jesus has it. Ask him in prayer. Listen to him. See what he has to say.
Isaiah also says he will have a spirit of counsel. This is the willingness to listen and also to advise others. I love what Jesus says to his disciples when they tell Jesus he needs to send the crowds home because the people are getting hungry. He says, “You feed them.” And when they do their best and gather some meager resources, he says, “They are enough.”
He doesn’t do everything himself – he works through his followers. He doesn’t chastise them for failing to produce enough food for everyone, he notices their efforts and blesses it to the extent needed. Could Jesus have done it all himself without seeing what his followers could do? Of course! But he didn’t want to. He wanted their input. He wanted their engagement. He wanted their counsel.
I saw a cartoon many years ago that depicted the office suggestion box. And the cartoon showed a cutout so you could see inside the cabinet on which the box was placed. This suggestion box had a unique feature – it had a chute that took the suggestions directly to the trash can!
But Jesus isn’t like that. He actually wants your suggestions! Frankly, knowing some of you and knowing myself, that’s kind of scary. Whether it’s big or small, Jesus wants to hear your suggestions in prayer. He listens to your counsel. And he encourages us to listen to his counsel in prayer as well. How are you providing Jesus with your counsel? And how are you listening to Jesus’ counsel?
Isaiah also says that Christ will be mighty. He will have power. And Isaiah says that Christ will have knowledge – he will know how best to use that power.
Philippians 2 puts it this way: “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So Jesus is mighty, his name is above every other name. But what does that mean? Well think about Jesus’ deeds. He walked on water. He told a fig tree it would bear fruit no more and it withered in an afternoon. He cured the uncurable. He quieted a storm. He convinced a bloodthirsty crowd to drop their stones and walk away. He silenced the scholars. He cast out the money changers who were preying upon the faithful. He called people by name when he had never met them. He rose from the dead.
So what in your life, what in this world is more powerful than Jesus? What name is above his name? What situation, what event, what on this earth could make Jesus bow down? Nothing!
Jesus is full of power and the knowledge of how best to use that power. He might change your circumstances. He might leave the circumstances in place but change you from the inside out. He might move with power and might, but it’s not on your schedule. But to say that Jesus is mighty and full of knowledge is to recognize, as Paul says in Philippians 2, that “[God] gave Him the name above all names.” His name has the last word. His name is the ultimate reality. His name defines the situation, the situation doesn’t define him.
That means Jesus’ name is above the name “depression.”
Jesus’ name is above the loneliness.
Jesus’ name is above disease.
Jesus’ name is above cancer.
Jesus’ name is above unemployment.
Jesus’ name is above evicted.
Jesus’ name is above widow and widower.
Jesus’ name is above orphan.
Jesus’ name is above bipolar.
What name have you been treating like it’s above Jesus’ name? What word has been defining your life and your faith instead of letting Jesus’ name define that situation?
My family is going to Stanford University this week. Our son was accepted into the Undiagnosed Disease Network. A team of doctors from multiple disciplines will try to work together to generate a more specific diagnosis for Charlie. They have about a 25% success rate, which is pretty good considering these are all cases like Charlie who have stumped every other doctor and taken every standard test.
We might get a key insight into our son’s seizures and developmental delays. If we do, praise Jesus.
But there’s a 75% chance that we won’t. And in that case, I will still praise Jesus. Because Charlie may always have seizures. He may never be “normal.” That’s by far the most likely future for him and for us.
But epilepsy is a name. And as a name it is not above Jesus. His name is above every other name. His name defines the situation. So I will praise Jesus for the times when he is at work.
I will praise Jesus for the times when Charlie is being silly. I will praise Jesus for the times when Charlie is building pillow forts. I will praise Jesus for Charlie’s love of the trampoline, and for room big enough to have it inside so he can jump no matter the weather or time of day. I will praise Jesus for the kids at Charlie’s school who spend some of their free time making Charlie pictures, who know to say hi to Charlie multiple times to let him respond instead of giving up on him. I will praise Jesus that Charlie has so many therapists and teachers and people in his life who love him.
Even if Jesus does not change Charlie’s epilepsy, I can see in all of those ways that Jesus is defining the situation. His name is above all names. His name is above whatever word is haunting your life, too.
Sisters and brothers, there are lots of gifts that are nice on Christmas. But if I could stand at the North Pole after a ride on the Polar Express and ask for any one thing, I wouldn’t ask for anything that can be purchased at a store. I would ask for someone with insight and clarity. I would ask for someone who listens to and provides counsel. I would ask for someone who is filled with power and the knowledge of how best to use it.
I’ll skip the 8K HDTV. I’ll take Jesus. I need him far, far more. How about you? Amen.