The Judge Who Leads into Hope

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”  This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him.'”                                                            Matthew 3:1-3 [1-12]

Whoa!  Everybody duck!  Here comes John the Baptist! – What would you do if John came into here today?  You certainly know His style of preaching.  Yet you also know that he was God’s prophet, chosen and used by God, a spokesman for God.  Would you listen to him?

Would you listen to him, as he pointed to you and demanded, “DEMONSTRATE YOUR REPENTANCE,  DEMONSTRATE YOUR CONNECTION TO JEHOVAH ALMIGHTY!”?  Would you squirm as he looked you in the eye and challenged, “How is YOUR life changing because of your relationship to the Lord?  Do you act and speak differently, giving evidence that that God is personally involved in every part of your life, that you have submitted yourself to God’s will?”

Would you listen to him as he told you of the reality of hell and the wrath of God – a reality that even now is knocking at the door of our world?  Would you listen to him as he strips away all things that you take pride in, the things that you build your security on, the things that you expect should make God obligated to you – like, how often you go to church or study the Bible, or how you have not done any real big sins, or how you have dedicated so much of your time and life to the church?

What if he strode in here this morning and knocked aside your every excuse in regard to your faith?  What would you do if he merely laughed at your gripes and complaints and offenses taken, and then turned and demanded, “where are you really in regard to what God commands of your life, because THAT is Whom you must please, and not your desires and your sensitivities!”?

That is exactly what John did back two thousand years ago by the River Jordan.  He even walked into King Herod’s throneroom and nailed him on adultery.  There was no concern about offending church members, fearing that “they just might not come back again.”  He made no concessions to being politically correct.  He didn’t care about whether you went away boiling mad about his lack of sympathy and tact.

Would you have listened to John?  After all, he was God’s spokesman – he was exactly what God designed and called him for.  We know all this.  But would you have listened to him?  After all, he just seemed to be so negative: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?…Do not presume to say to yourselves we have Abraham as our Father….Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire….His winnowing fork is in His Hand….the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire!” [Matthew 3:7-10,12].

As a preacher, how am I supposed to make people go home, feeling good about that!?  Boy would some complain, “Well, he may be right, but he sure could have said it more nicely!”  Others would huff, “Why does he have to be so negative!  If the Messiah is coming, why can’t he accent more of that joy?!”  I wonder how long the skid-mark would be from being tossed out on his ear, if he were to preach in a “health, happiness, and wealth” church. If John the Baptist were pastor here, would YOU come back next week?  Yet he was God’s messenger!

With such an apparently negative message, could it be even remotely possible to still go home with hope – a real, solid, sure hope; not a vague “I hope I can improve my life enough to please God”, but rather with a hope that can barely contain its eagerness and anticipation, a hope that has on-the-edge-of-the-seat excitement?

The answer is a very resounding “YES!”  The people had every reason to go home with a strong and resounding hope.

The hope was not in what he was preaching, rather in what John WAS.  For four hundred years there had been no prophet on the order of Elijah and Isaiah to be found in Israel.  Now one showed up!  God’s plan was on the move!  Here was the forerunner so long ago prophesied – it could only mean one thing, the Messiah, the Christ, was on the doorstep.

This is when the prophecies such as the Old Testament for this morning [Isaiah 11:1-10] would surface.  What a hope is to be found in Isaiah’s prophecy, a hope even the more increased when we know Jesus.
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Yes, John was right: Jesus would come to judge, but how?  At first the prophecy sounds very much – too much – like John’s “negative” preaching, until you spend some time thinking about it.  In verse 3, Jesus would not judge by appearance nor by outward deeds that can be faked – the only thing left was that the Judge would look into the heart.  And He would judge the poor and the meek in righteousness and equal fairness.

Often in the Bible, the “poor” are not those without money, but rather as Jesus put it in the Beatitudes, they are the “poor in spirit.”  These are the people who had listened to John and had discovered themselves indeed spiritually bankrupt before God.  They realized their genuine need for a Savior, their need for mercy and grace from God, their hope lay totally outside them.  They are the ones who could not do anything more than what Israel so often had to do: stand back and watch the salvation of our God.

They are then also the “meek,” whom Jesus said would inherit the earth – no, not Casper Milquetoasts, basically weak persons, but rather people like David.  David was bold, tough, determined, both king and warrior, yet he would not lay a hand on his enemy, King Saul, even when Saul set out to kill him – because Saul had been anointed by God.  David would absorb abuse and threat to his life because he was determined to wait for the Lord’s solutions, he would wait for the defense and deliverance of the God Who had anointed him to be the next king.

Rather than on his own petty desires, his own image of pride and prestige, rather than protecting himself from even imagined insults, instead the “meek” has his eye unwaveringly on the Lord.  Everything else is ignored – those things have no power, no influence – not even the sins of the past, which for David had included murder; not even the threat of death could compare against the displeasure of the One Whom the “meek” loves.  As Luther pointed out, “Take they goods, fame, child, or wife; let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won – the Kingdom, ours, remaineth.”

Notice that the “poor” and the “meek” are not deeds nor speeches, but rather a state of the heart.  In righteousness the Messiah, the Christ, would judge the poor and meek.  The word “judge” is the same as that used to describe the leaders of Israel in the Bible book called “Judges”.  Those judges led Israel into conquering their enemies – their focus was not on condemnation, although like John the Baptist, they did have to bring the People back to God through their repentance.  In like manner, Isaiah’s “Judge” would not bring condemnation but would lead God’s People into salvation through righteousness.

“Righteousness” – that term grated hard on Martin Luther’s ears in his early years, because all he could see was an impossibly perfect standard against which all mankind was judged.  Finally, in studying the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Psalms, the windows of heaven opened to him, and he discovered that the “righteousness of God” was not what we were judged against, but what God gave to us through Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection.  This realization culminated in the Reformation.

So the hope found in Isaiah was not one of judgment into condemnation, but rather that God’s Messiah, the Christ, would lead the poor and the meek into righteousness – a righteousness given to rather than demanded from them.  It would be such a revolutionary occurrence that nature itself would be turned inside out.  Under such leadership of bestowed righteousness, wolves, lambs, leopards, goats, calves, and lions and all the rest of nature will experience an amazing peacefulness – meekness.

Even our own nature would be turned inside out.  We Christians have what the Jews never had: understanding Isaiah’s prophecy from the perspective of the Cross and the Resurrection.  This awareness is from the groundwork which John the Baptist challenges us: to discover that we are the “poor” and “meek” in severe need, who come before the Judge in repentance and in determination to submit to His way and will.

And then Isaiah’s Judge, in verse 2, responds with bestowing the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and godly fear.  Just the same as with the “righteousness” of this Judge, the Holy Spirit is not content with staying home in heaven but comes to give us His nature as well, because all of God is intensely serious in bringing us into His Kingdom, that we might live encompassed by the wealth of the Love and the Glory of God.

Paul describes how “we received not a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control!” [II Timothy,1:7]; to the Ephesians, “God grant you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Jesus Christ” [1:17-18]  To the Romans, he insists, “we have received the Spirit of sonship, through Whom we are able to cry, ‘Abba! Father!'” [8:14-15].  To the Galatians, He reminds us that we are fully equipped for our newness of life, because this is the Spirit of God’s own Son [4:6].

So the lessons declare that there indeed is great hope for us, a hope filled with joy and peace in believing, because as we are driven to the “poverty of spirit” and “meekness of soul” by John the Baptist, we discover that the Judge of Isaiah is at the doorstep, already at hand.  He has come to lead us into the salvation of HIS righteousness, not holding back the Holy Spirit, but rather richly bestowing a wonderful power and encouragement found in this very personal Gift to us.  Let us then as we go back into our usual lives, having John the Baptist’s call to repentance ringing in our ears, and also having an abundance of concrete hope – because this Advent season reminds us not of the Judge Who has come to condemn, but rather Who has come to lead us into an eternity of the Kingdom of the God Who bestows His righteousness and His Holy Spirit upon us.

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