Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, September 20, 2020
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Good News or Bad?

Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

Both our texts today, Matthew 3 and Isaiah 11, are about the coming of Messiah and the Kingdom of God. But the tone is very different between the two. One might wonder, “What is the Kingdom of God?” Is it salvation or judgment? Peace or divine punishment?

I think to understand all of this, we need to start separately and then work together. We’ll begin with Isaiah 11.

The prophecy of Isaiah 11 was given shortly before or during the year 701 BC. That was the year of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, which was the central historical event in Isaiah’s book. Two decades earlier, the Assyrians had attacked and defeated the ten northern tribes, those that continued to be called Israel, or to make it easier, Samaria. They took most of the people of the northern tribes away as captives, and many of them just disappeared from history. And they threatened to do the same to Judah and Jerusalem, but they didn’t at that time. For two decades, Judah lived in fear. What would happen when the war-mongering Assyrians returned to finish the job? Isaiah spoke to people who lived in fear.

In 701, they returned under their king, Sennacherib, working their way down the coast of the Mediterranean. They conquered the Philistines. They began working their way in toward the highlands of Judea and Jerusalem. Their crowning achievement in that campaign was the siege of Lachish, a fortified city that protected Jerusalem from attack along the road to the coast. From Lachish they sent a delegation to Jerusalem, demanding the surrender of the nation, boasting that no other nation’s gods had been able to save them, so neither would the God of Judah.

God’s message for the nation of Judah here in chapters 10 and 11 is that he would cut down Assyria like a mighty tree, like a cedar of Lebanon, the tallest tree they knew. The events of that Assyrian invasion are recorded in chapters 36 to 39 of Isaiah, as well as the books of Kings and Chronicles. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only miracle recorded three times in the Old Testament, which is a witness to the importance of that event.

Now, Judah felt like a stump, like they too had been cut down and were near death. The nation was in ruins. Half their territory was captured. Their armies were

decimated. They barely escaped. But God’s promise is that he will raise up a shoot, a new branch out of that stump, and it would bear new fruit.

No doubt, most understood this to be a reference to the revival of the nation after the Assyrian threat passed. But we read it, and we know that it also looked forward to the coming of Messiah. The things that are prophesied about this new branch are things no other king ever accomplished: The Spirit of the Lord rests on him. The Spirit rested on Jesus at his baptism. God’s Spirit gives a person great authority because he speaks for God through the Spirit. He will delight in obedience. Jesus said, “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” He will judge rightly. Only God can give a person the ability to judge and discern correctly in difficult cases. Think of Solomon who asked God for wisdom and the case of the two women who both claimed the same child. He will defend the poor and exploited but will judge against the wicked. He will be clothed with fairness and truth. He will even bring peace in the created order. The book of Genesis tells us that there was peace in the Garden of Eden, and in Romans 8, we are reminded that Jesus will once again restore peace in creation. He will be a banner of salvation to all the world.

Isaiah’s message was a message of comfort for a troubled nation. But it’s also a glimpse into what the Messiah would do.

In Matthew 3, we read about Jesus’ herald, the one to announce his coming, John the Baptist. John lived in the wilderness. The very word wilderness is a reminder of the Exodus, the time when Israel was in the wilderness for forty years between Egypt and the Promised Land. And people’s expectation of Messiah is that he would bring about a new exodus, a deliverance from foreign oppression. The quote from Isaiah 40, “A voice shouting in the wilderness,” also had the tone of a new exodus. In the first century, they probably felt like a stump again. After centuries of living under foreign powers, they had finally regained independence 150 years earlier, only to lose it again to Rome.

But there’s another meaning to wilderness: For a prophet to live in the wilderness was also a condemnation of the sins of society, a way of saying society was corrupt and in need of reformation. Elijah, John’s fashion icon, also fled society and lived in the wilderness in the time of King Ahab, one of the worst kings of the Old Testament.

John’s message was, “Repent of your sin and turn back to God; for the Kingdom of God is near!” And people flocked to hear him. He was the first prophet in centuries. Whatever else was going on in society, there was a spiritual hunger. People wanted to connect with God again.

Many responded and were baptized. Baptism was used as a rite of Gentile conversion to Judaism. The message was clear: You can’t just trust in your birth. You must make a personal decision for God.

But some who came didn’t receive a very warm welcome. John’s message to the spiritual elites, the Pharisees and Sadducees and such, was, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? You must bear fruit worthy of repentance. You can’t be complacent in your identity, your birth. God has his axe in hand. He’s ready to cut down the nation just like he did to Assyria. The one who is coming will baptize the righteous with the Holy Spirit, but he will baptize the wicked with fire. He will separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Which is the Kingdom of God? Is it the comfort and peace Isaiah spoke of? Or is it the judgment and wrath John did? The answer is both. The Kingdom of God is both. It depends on the heart of the listener. The Kingdom of God is good news, peace and comfort, for the poor in spirit, the humble, and the penitent. But it is a message of judgment for the rich, the proud, and the self-sufficient.

Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of Messiah. Not just for Christmas, not just for a remembrance of his first coming. More than anything, it’s a time to prepare ourselves for his return. Will his return be good news or judgment? The answer depends on the condition of our hearts.

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