Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The 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.
His 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;
but 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.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

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.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
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.

On 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.

We’ve already heard from Isaiah this morning, which describes the ‘peaceful kingdom’ that Jesus’ return will someday bring. But in a moment, we’re going to turn to the gospel according to Matthew and hear a very different proclamation. We’re going from warm fuzzies to biblical insults – but I encourage you to listen closely for what’s similar in both stories, and what’s different.

Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This 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.” ’

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But 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? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do 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. Even now the axe 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.

‘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. His 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.’

Isaiah and John have slightly different ideas about what will happen when the Messiah appears – but they both proclaim a particular truth about who the Christ will be.

Isaiah focuses on the Messiah as an anointed king from the line of King David, who will judge all people with righteousness and equity. His vision is a vision of the world transformed – a creation where all has been redeemed and every creature lives in harmony with the rest. This is one of my favorite pieces of Scripture, because I really want to live in that world.

John, on the other hand, focuses on the Messiah as the righteous judge, who will destroy everything that’s unjust, unfaithful, and evil. He baptizes as a symbol of repentance – an outward sign of an inward reality – and he calls out the religious leaders who come to him for baptism because he knew they had no intention of actually changing. They thought they were fine, because they were part of God’s chosen people, even while they participated in corrupt worship practices and actively worked with the Roman governors to oppress the people even further.

The hard truth for us is that Isaiah and John are both right – but we can’t get to Isaiah’s vision without going through John’s refining fire. There is no true peace without justice – and there is no justice without change.

For example: if you were to go to the Columbus Zoo this afternoon, and somehow smuggled a lamb in – and then you threw it into the lion enclosure – they’re not going to wind up cuddling. Because nothing in that relationship between predator and prey has changed. Nothing has been transformed. No matter how nice and cute and adorable the lamb is, the lion is still going to make it a snack.

In the same way, we cannot demand peace and forgiveness from those who’ve been victims of violence, abuse, oppression or injustice without also demanding change from the other side.

This is one of the moments that our anger – like John’s – can be a healthy and helpful response. It can motivate us to do the right thing, and give us the energy to act for the well-being of others. This is mama bear anger, that protects the vulnerable.

There’s also a bit of a paradox here, in that sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone is to tell them “this is not okay, and it has to stop.”

Here’s the problem: we are, by and large, a conflict-averse culture. I know this sounds odd, given that all we seem to hear about these days is political bickering, but think about it this way: when was the last time you had a calm, rational, face-to-face conversation about something that’s important to you with someone who completely disagrees with you on that question?

On the other hand, how many times have we smiled and nodded our way through a conversation, only to then go and vent to the people who already agree with us?

So many of us were never taught how to work out our differences without shutting down or blowing up. Some of us grew up with families who yelled – who let their anger out in explosive ways. Some of us grew up with the opposite – families who never acknowledged a feeling and kept it all in.

As it turns out, neither going full hulk-smash nor turning yourself into a human pressure cooker is going to help us learn to navigate conflict.

Everyone gets angry – that’s not the question – the question is how we deal with that anger.

But even here, John gives us a clue: at its deepest core, underneath most anger is love. It might take some digging to get through the fear, the hurt, and the circumstances that got you there in the first place, but if you can figure out what it is you love, what value that you’re trying to protect, then you have a foundation for a much healthier conversation.

As an example, I’m going to take a moment to pick apart a moment of conflict a friend had with someone in her church.

I know, it’s hard to imagine having conflict in a church. But one of my dear friends started a new call this year as an associate pastor for a large congregation in St. Louis, Missouri. Their sound setup for worship is basically the same as ours, in that she wears a microphone pack that she leaves on all the time, and the person at the sound board turns it on and off at the appropriate times.

Well, one sound person decided to go rogue and turn her microphone on during the hymns one Sunday, because he decided that she sounded good and the congregation needed some help.

She casually asked this person not to do it again. But the next week, he turned her mic on again without warning during the hymns. The week after, another person did the same.

She was upset, but realized that her anger was rooted in hurt – and beneath that was a feeling of broken trust. She values having a trusting relationship with these folks, and she needed to know that she was being heard and taken seriously when she said she was uncomfortable with having her mic on during the hymns.

All of this wound up becoming a rather formal conversation, where she got to express all of that to the person running sound and he promised it wouldn’t happen again – and it hasn’t. Her values and her frustrations were heard, and rather than shutting down or becoming defensive, the person on the other side of that table simply made it right.

This is a small thing, but it’s also kind of a best-case scenario. A conflict appears, and rather than reacting with rage and yelling at the sound guy, or passive-aggressively deciding to distrust him by just turning her microphone off herself during the hymns, this pastor speaks calmly and clearly to the person she’s in conflict with.

When that doesn’t solve things, she looks inward: why is being mic’ed during hymns this upsetting to me? What values have been broken, or what boundaries have been crossed? She digs down under the anger to find hurt, and she digs even further to find the feeling that her trust has been broken – which is a lot bigger deal than being heard singing.

But again, rather than exploding or even accusing these folks of deliberately breaking her trust, she gets vulnerable – she says what she feels and how their actions contributed to that.

And because they’d had a good relationship, they were able to hear that and repair their relationship by promising not to do it again, and then keeping their word.

This is, in many ways, an oversimplified example. But it’s a good and necessary reminder that if we’re going to live and love and work together as the family of God, for the good of the whole world, then we have to be able to talk through our disagreements like the adult humans we are – without calling each other names and pointing fingers and lobbing insults.

That takes practice and self-awareness and a deep sense of empathy – and not all of us have a lot of experience with those things. Maybe yelling or denial or blowing up later are the only tools in your toolbox. But I hope you also know that they’re not the only tools out there, and it’s never too late to grab a few new ones.

Conflict, whether it’s about where to eat on date night or a question of the gravest injustice, is part of being human. It’s inevitable, and it’s woven into the fabric of every human family. When we do it well, it’s good for us, and it can make the world a better place – even when it’s scary.

And as both Isaiah and John remind us: at the end of the day, we can all look forward to the coming kingdom of God, where justice and peace shall reign every day, and forevermore.

Amen.