Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent 2 of Series A (Romans 15:4-13)

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ. The text for our sermon this second Sunday of Advent comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of Romans. Dear friends in Christ, Jesse’s tree stood tall upon Mount Zion, enjoying God’s blessings, for Jesse was the father of David, God’s chosen king. But the tree became corrupted and evil, it rotted from the inside out, and so God sent axes, which cut it down, and it fell with a mighty crash. Now, all that was left was a barren, dead, withered stump, standing as a testimony to what John the Baptist said: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” But that wasn’t the end of the story; God didn’t forget His promises. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” The dead, barren stump of Jesse sent forth a solitary shoot, the Messiah, the fulfillment of all the promises. And this Messiah would be far different from all who came before. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

This Shoot from the stump of Jesse stands in great contrast to the rotten, corrupted tree that it replaced, the tree that was cut down by God’s just judgment. He will judge righteously, not by appearances, but by grace. He will not exalt Himself over others, but will act in humility. He will love even His enemies, and extend forgiveness to the worst sinner. This righteous Shoot will act on behalf of the poor and meek, serving and saving them in the midst of their poverty. He will not judge by what His eyes see, or decide disputes by what He hears with His ears, but He will look to the heart and show love to all men, He will judge the world with righteousness.

We judge the world with unrighteousness; we judge by what our eyes see and our ears hear. Christian congregations are divided by fault lines based on appearances, upon gossip, upon differences that mattered little to the Shoot from the stump of Jesse. He didn’t look at appearances; we judge others based on the clothing they wear or how well they clean up. He didn’t judge based on what His ears heard; we form our opinions of others based on town gossip and the opinions of our friends. He refused to exalt himself over others; we divide one from another based on social standing, income, or family relationships. The same divisions that exist in the world we drag into the Church. We walk not in humility but in pride; we cause division as we seek to get our own way. He had forgiveness even for His enemies; we hold grudges and refuse to be reconciled. Our family conflicts and estrangements with our brothers and sisters in Christ powerfully affect our life together as a congregation. He acted on behalf of the poor and meek; we show favor to those who are high and exalted in the eyes of the world.

The Shoot from the stump of Jesse came to bring unity and harmony among all people, of every social or economic class, from every nation under the Sun; we work to bring division and disharmony, fracturing the Church through our own pride and judging by appearances. Throughout history, Christian congregations have exhibited the same prejudices and divisions that are seen in our world. Congregations have been divided, or separate congregations created, along racial, ethnic, social, or economic lines. Division has come from the pride of sinful humans, each wanting to get their own way and refusing to forgive the one who sinned against them. Welcome comes only to those who are deemed ‘acceptable’ to join the assembly. Is an alcoholic welcome here? What about a person struggling with homosexuality? Is a homeless person welcome in our midst?

John the Baptist has some fiery Law to speak to those who bring disunity, who divide and fracture the Church, who exclude people from the fellowship of their congregation: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” That was the fate of Jesse’s tree, the kingly line of David. Those kings, and their people, acted not in humility before the Lord, but in pride. They didn’t seek to serve the poor and lowly, but oppressed them. Their hearts were not open in welcome to the sufferer, but they turned him away. The barren stump of Jesse is a warning to us, a warning that God is serious when He speaks such strong words through John the Baptist. Every tree that does not bear good fruit, the fruit of humility, the fruit of love for the enemy, the fruit of not judging by appearances, will be cut down and burned.

The axe was destined for us, the fire was kindled for us, but we were not the tree cut down and burned. Instead, it was the righteous Shoot. The great tree of Jesse was cut off in God’s righteous judgment, and the barren stump sent out a new green shoot, growing great and tall before God in the space of thirty years. But when the hour came, that new tree was cut down, it was cast to the ground and burned in God’s judgment. Not because it had transgressed like the tree that came before it. No, this mighty tree was righteous, perfect, and holy, but yet it was still cut down. Why? God cut down this tree because it stood in your place and mine. The righteous Shoot from the stump of Jesse bore the punishment that you and I justly deserved. It was cut down when Jesus was hung upon the cross; it was burned in God’s judgment when Jesus faced the naked wrath of God over our sin. The axe was for you, as was the fire, but Jesus bore them in your place.

So you are not cut off, you do not have to fear the fire that fell upon Jesus, the righteous Shoot from the stump of Jesse. You are spared from the punishment you deserved for the sake of Christ, for He put Himself in your place on that Good Friday. He won forgiveness for you, forgiveness that covers over your pride, your holding a grudge, your refusal to welcome the one who is different than you. Therefore, Christ welcomes you into the Father’s arms, to the sure and certain hope of eternal victory, life forever far from the sin of this world and its judgment. Saint Paul prays for us, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” This hope does not disappoint, for it is founded on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We are unified in that hope. Only that common salvation that we all have as Christians can bring harmony to a congregation filled with people who are different in so many ways. We can live in harmony because we are all forgiven sinners, the righteous Shoot stood in the place of each and every one of us. That is what we have in common, no matter what sin it is that we struggle with, how much money we make, where we live, or what family we belong to. You have that in common with your brother or sister in Christ who has sinned against you, and on the basis of that common salvation you can humbly seek reconciliation even with those who have wronged you, dealing with them as a fellow redeemed sinner. There is no repentant sinner that is worse than another, and there is no forgiven saint that is better than another. Christ has welcomed us all. And so Paul encourages us, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” In the congregation in Rome, the division was between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians; the fault lines for us are quite different, but the solution is the same: a focus on the common hope that we all share, proclaimed to us by the Scriptures. “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

The hope of eternal life, the hope of the resurrection, made sure and certain by the shed blood of Jesus, is our common treasure. That is where our unity is founded. Our unity is expressed in worship. “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Where else but on a Sunday morning can you gather together a group of people far different from one another in almost every way, and together they receive the same gifts, sing the same songs, and rejoice in their common treasure? At the communion rail, at the baptismal font, before the pulpit there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither rich nor poor, neither white nor black nor Hispanic. Here there exist none of the divisions that we find in our world. Even our disagreements matter little when we stand before the great gifts of God. Harmony doesn’t mean that we are all singing the same note—we’re much different from each other, after all—but it does mean that we’re singing the same song. And that song is the eternal song of praise to our saving God.

Harmony is a gift, a gift found only through that salvation, only through Jesus. The righteous Shoot from the stump of Jesse came to bring unity and harmony, not just between people, but between all things. The axe is laid to His roots in order to reconcile all of creatures to each other and to their God. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf 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 cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” No more conflict, no more war, but peace and unity, an eternity filled with voices raised in harmony, singing joyous praises to the One who brought eternal reconciliation; Jesus, the righteous Shoot from the stump of Jesse, who stood in our place. In His Name, Amen.

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