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As the World Turns
Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
by Rev. Richard Gehring

            December 7, 1941: a day that will live in infamy.    November 22, 1963:  “Where where you when you heard?”  September 11, 2001.  It seems that every generation or so, there is an event so powerful that it changes the world.  Or at least it changes the way that many of us perceive the world.

            After the Japanese bombing of  Pearl Harbor the nation, which had been divided over possible American involvement in World War II, was suddenly united.  Literally overnight, public opinion was so strong in favor of going to war that only one member of Congress dared to cast a vote against the official war declaration.  She didn't even bother to run for re-election the following year.  Over the next four-and-a-half years, more than sixteen million Americans would serve in the military.  And over 400,000 of them would die in the war.  The experience of the Second World War and the Cold War aftermath continue to shape not only the United States but the world in general to this day.

            The assassination of President Kennedy, along with the ensuing confusion and controversy surrounding who killed him and why, led to a sharp decline in the faith of the American people in their government.  The decade of the 1960's had begun with such hope as JFK became the youngest person ever elected President.  He and his family seemed to represent a hopeful and vigorous vision of the future.  But that dream of a new “Camelot” was wiped out by the flurry of bullets in Dallas.  It turned out to be only the first in a series of high-profile assassinations that would eventually claim the lives of such dignitaries as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the late President's own brother, Bobby.  By the end of the decade, the earlier hope had turned to cynicism in a nation that was deeply divided over the War in Vietnam. 

            Then there's 9/11—a day so terrible that the mere mention of those numbers brings to mind images of horror and destruction.  I doubt that any of us here will ever forget the haunting pictures of the airliner flying into the South Tower or of the the Twin Towers burning and collapsing.  In the days immediately following the terrorist attacks, normal life was suspended.  All flights in the United States were grounded.  Sports contests and other such events were canceled.  Regular television programming was replaced with continual updates on the situation.  Even today, long after most things returned to normal, we live in a different society.  There is greater security at airports and other venues.  We are more likely to have our email and our phone calls monitored.  And all of us probably know someone who has been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq as a result of the ensuing “War on Terror.”

            It's amazing how much can change in just one day.  Interestingly, it almost always seems to be disasters that lead to these sudden changes.  Rarely do we see drastic changes for the better taking place overnight.  Major wars can start with a single act of unexpected violence.  But you almost never hear  about peace breaking out suddenly because someone committed a surprising and overwhelming act of kindness or mercy.

            That's not to say that nothing good happened on any of the days that I mentioned.  Immediately following September 11, for example, there was a huge outpouring of support for those who had been directly affected by the terrorist attacks.   The nation was united in its efforts to tend to the needs of the victims and their families.  Worshipers flocked to churches and synagogues to offer prayers.  Organizations like the American Red Cross were overwhelmed with donations.  And the international community rallied together to condemn the brutal violence.  But all these gestures of goodwill seem not to have lasted nearly as long as the suspicion and the mistrust of outsiders that appears to be the real legacy of that day.

            Lasting change for the better often takes a lot longer.  When things improve dramatically overnight, it seems that they don't really endure.  Real transformation towards the good is quite often a slow, steady process.  Such genuine progress is a lot more difficult to see and harder to measure than a dramatic attack or a headline-grabbing assassination which alters our perceptions of the world in an instant.  As the old adage reminds us, “Rome was not built in a day.”  And neither is the Kingdom of God.

            It is this sort of measured, even change that John the Baptist is a part of in our New Testament reading for today.  John was one who knew that change was happening.  He saw when few others did that the world was about to turn.  And he worked hard to help everyone else see that turning and to prepare them for what was about to come. 

            At first glance, John's words in today's reading sound like a dire prediction of some great cataclysmic event—a terrible disaster like Pearl Harbor or 9/11.   He lashes out at the religious leaders, saying. “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?(verse 7) . . . Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” warns John.  “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.   I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; . . .  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor . . . the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”(verses 11-12)

            This doesn't exactly sound like things are getting better.  It doesn't sound like good news.  Indeed, to those who are comfortable with the way things are, it is not good news.  For John is announcing a great change that is about to take place.  And those who are perfectly happy with the status quo are always threatened by change—the bigger the change, the greater the threat.  And the change that John is looking forward to is a truly world-altering one.

            You see, John's ministry marks a whole new beginning for God's plan.  After more than 400 years of silence—four centuries in which there are no prophets who bring the word of the Lord to God's people—John suddenly shows up on the scene in his camel's hair cloak and leather belt, eating locusts and honey and proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”(verse 2) 

            The Kingdom of Heaven:  now that's a big change.  From the world as it is to the world that God will create is a major transformation.  It will not happen overnight.  Indeed, by the time John comes along, the transformation has already been underway for centuries.  His job, then, is to point out that transforming work to the people.  He is to remind them of what God has promised and to say to them,  “God is still at work.  Can you see it?  The world is turning.”

            John's ministry is rooted deeply in the ministry of all the prophets who had preceded him, especially the prophet Isaiah.  All four gospels tell us about John the Baptist.  And in an unusually uniform manner, each gospel writer introduces John by referring to him as “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”(verse 2)  This is nearly a direct quotation from the book of Isaiah. (40:3)  Indeed, much of what John has to say is an echo of what Isaiah himself said roughly 700 years earlier.  He knows that there is about to be a major step toward the fulfillment of Isaiah's vision.  The world is indeed about to turn.

            That world that Isaiah had foreseen is described beautifully in our Old Testament reading today.  It is a familiar, yet still all too distant, description of the “Peaceable Kingdom.”  The prophet looked forward to a time when the branch, the one whom God promised, would deliver his people.  It would shoot forth out of the stump of King David's father, Jesse.  At that time, Isaiah envisions a world at peace, a world in which creation would fulfill the role that God had originally intended, a world in which all creatures would live in harmony.  When that world comes about, “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.” (verses 6-7)

            Isaiah affirms that God has a plan—a big plan.  God not only has a plan for your life, but also a  a plan that includes all of creation.  It is a plan that will restore all things to the way in which they were intended.  It is a plan that will require world-changing events.  And God has been working to fulfill that plan for a very long time.  Or at least it's long from our perspective.  But while it may be hard for us to say a lot of the time, God's plan for peace and harmony is still moving forward.  It is a plan that will not—indeed cannot—be stopped.

            The world turned a bit towards that Peaceable Kingdom when Isaiah described it so eloquently some 2700 years ago.  It turned even further when John invoked Isaiah's words and applied them to the Kingdom of Heaven announced by Jesus two millennia ago.  For the coming of Jesus was without a doubt a world-changing event.  The birth of Jesus which we recall in this season had a profound impact that reverberates down to this very day.  Yet most people of the time never realized that the world was turning, at least not in the way that we can see it today.

            The people of Palestine in the first century had their own markers, their own days when everything seemed to change overnight.  In the year 6, Rome officially annexed the province of Judea, thus doing away with any semblance of Jewish self-rule.  In 40, the Emperor Caligula ordered that a statue of himself be erected in the temple in Jerusalem.  And in the year 70, the city of Jerusalem—including the temple—was completely destroyed in response to a Jewish revolt.  These were the incidents that captured the headlines of the day.  These were the “days of infamy,” the days when people would ask, “Where were you when you heard” back in the first century.  These were considered the events that changed the world. 

            Yet today all those things that had such a great impact at the time are all but forgotten by most of us.  Instead, what we remember most about that era of history was the birth of an ordinary baby to an unwed mother in a stable in Bethlehem.  What we remember is the man that this baby grew up to be—a man who went around Palestine teaching and healing and proclaiming the good news of God.  What we remember is the death of this man on the cross, and his inexplicably empty tomb a couple of days later.  Those were the really important days—the days when the world truly did turn.  Yet almost no one who lived through them recognized their importance.  For Isaiah's vision was not immediately realized the day that Jesus was born.  Nor did it come to pass in a great flourish on the day of his crucifixion or the day of his resurrection.

            When Mary gave birth to the “root of Jesse” and laid him in a manger, his dwelling place could hardly have been described as “glorious.”  When the shepherds went to see the baby in the manger as the angel had directed them to do, they did not then return to their flocks and find them lying down peacefully with wolves.  When the magi came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they did not encounter a nursing child playing near the hole of a cobra.  It simply was not obvious to most people that Isaiah's vision was coming to pass.  It was not at all clear that  the world was indeed turning.  But it was.

            For when the visitors arrived from the East to worship the King of the Jews—the branch from the stump of Jesse—the nations were coming to inquire of him.  When the shepherds left their sheep to travel into town, it was a little child who was leading them there.  And when Mary and Joseph gazed down on their infant son, they did see the One on whom the Spirit of the Lord was resting, “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.”(Isaiah 11:2)  The birth of Jesus was not the final step in the process, but it was an absolutely necessary one.

            Yes, the world did turn that night—not with a great jolt that grabbed everyone's attention, but with the slow and steady movement that was all but imperceptible to anyone other than those who knew what to look for.  The world turned when Isaiah gave voice to the vision.  It turned when the child of promise was born.  It turned when John announced that the ministry of the Anointed One was about to begin.  It turned when Jesus rose from the dead.  It turned when Saul the persecutor became Paul the apostle.  It turned when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door at Wittenburg.  It turned when the Emancipation Proclamation gave freedom to enslaved people across the American South.  It turned when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the memorial dedicated to the Great Emancipator and declared, “I have a dream.”  From the dreams of Isaiah to the dreams of Dr. King and beyond, the world continues to turn.

            While the wait is long and the time of change is difficult, we are assured that God will continue to turn the world around.  Take heart.  For one day the wolf will lie down with the lamb.  One day the lion will eat with the calf.  One day Israeli and Arab will live in peace.  One day citizens and aliens will dwell together in harmony.  One day humans will care for the environment rather than see it as a resource to be exploited.  One day the poor will have enough to eat and a place to live.  One day no one will live in fear.  One day no one will fall victim to their addictions.  One day no one will made to be ashamed for being who they truly are.   One day “All of God's children - black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics - will be able to join hands and sing.”   Though it's often hard to see, the world is still turning toward that day.

            We may live today in a post-9/11 world.  But one day we are assured that we shall live in an Isaiah 11:9 world:  “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.”  The world is turning.  Do you see it?  Do you see it?  Are you ready?