Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-11
Malcolm Gladwell has a book called Outliers. Success, he says, is more a product of circumstances, even luck. But in the Bible there’s a different sense of time: God’s time. Gladwell deals with CHRONOS – chronological time. God deals in KAIROS – the opportune time, the exact right time. Advent is KAIROS time. It means that God has given us all the time in the world that we need to bring about his kingdom on earth. At the exact right time Jesus was born.
KAIROS is filled with possibility and opportunity; CHRONOS can be monotonous. The average American, for example, watches 8 hours of television, otherwise known as the “plug-in” drug, per day. The Christian calendar is a collection of KAIROTIC moments or “holy days.” There are all these opportunities for holiness packed into the rhythms of the Christian year. During Advent you have the opportunity to be amazingly generous and thoughtful and filled with ideas for gift-giving. It’s built into your DNA. In the world of CHRONOS there’s hard knocks, luck, fate, and dog eat dog and life is tough and unrelenting where only the strong survive. Here we get Scrooge and the Grinch. CHRONOS people think in terms of coincidences, but in the words of Jethro Leroy Gibbs of NCIS, “I don’t believe in coincidences.” The Advent world sees life as opportunity and newness. Advent is our opportunity to collect our senses and take stock of how we are living and prepare once again for the Christ child to dominate our lives. Our hearts and minds are more open this time of the year to the possibilities of miracles, excess generosity, and the message of outliers. If we don’t get it during Advent, chances are we will be closed for the rest of the year.
In the introduction to Outliers, Gladwell tells the story of Roseto, Pennsylvania. The men in this town didn’t suffer from heart disease up to the age of 55. And for men over 65 the death rate was half that of the USA. The researchers discovered that it wasn’t diet. Neither was it exercise. These men didn’t get up at dawn to run six miles or do yoga. It wasn’t in the water. Here’s the secret: The Rosetans visited one another. They had extended family clans with three generations living under one roof and they showed great respect to elders. They went to mass together at Mt. Carmel Catholic Church. They had an egalitarian ethos that kept the wealthy from flaunting their money. They had created a powerful social structure that protected them from the pressures of the modern world. They were healthy because of the type of community they had produced. They are a perfect example of outliers because this is not the norm in America. I found myself wondering if we would be willing to live in a place like Roseto because we would have to give up so much of what passes for success in America. For example, how many of you have children scattered all over the country? Did they leave Peoria just to get away from you? I doubt that. They left for a better, higher paying job. Doesn’t economics drive almost all our major family decisions? And what if we have been wrong to give in to that pressure?
Then I remembered that Paul said that if we put on the whole armor of Jesus we will be protected. I believe this protective armor is the Church. It is the church that can protect us from the pressures of the world. Here we can be blessed; in the world we may be cussed at, demeaned, and harassed. Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden, Jesus invites. It is the church that reduce our stress as we pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens, meet one another’s deepest needs, learn to love and care for one another. It is the church that God intends to be the outlier of our society.
We read of two outliers this morning: Isaiah and John the baptizer.
Isaiah says there’s a new regime. Isaiah offers a regime change from above – the throne of God. Isaiah is an outlier who envisions a biblical version of Roseto on a cosmic scale. And I’m saying that our Roseto is the Church. We don’t need a church that meets our superficial needs, but a church that teaches us how to love one another in spirit and in deed.
“Look,” says Isaiah, “A shoot from the stump of Jesse will sprout in the wilderness.” Between verse 1 and verse 2 the shoot turns into a person and the fruit that is produced becomes wisdom and understanding. With his word he shall transform the world from violence into peace. Wolves, leopards, lions, and bears will become vegans. Asp, adders, and snakes, Eve’s ancient enemy, will no longer strike with poison but will crawl harmlessly in the nursery. The taming of snakes – now that’s an agenda I love. I’m with Indiana Jones: “Why did it have to be snakes?” “They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” That’s the vision of Isaiah the outlier. That ought to be the mission of the church.
We can give our lives to ending hurt and destruction as loyal servants of Jesus. After all, the regime of Jesus is not a democracy. This is what makes being Christian so hard in America. KAIROS time is a monarchy, not something tacked on onto our American democracy. Nothing causes more trouble in churches that our incessant need to vote on everything. One church voted on whether to sing “Happy Birthday” in worship. The vote was a tie. One church couldn’t decide what color shingles to put on the roof, so they put blue on one side and green on the other side. One church split and the new church wouldn’t give up the old name: Occupy Baptist Church. So they named it Occupy Baptist Church #2. See what a mess we can make. Look, Jesus is king of kings. Jesus doesn’t make suggestions; he issues commands. In Jesus Christ we are not free. Remember how Paul puts it. “We are not our own we are bought with a price.”
In Exodus 21, there’s a slave who has served six years and now he is offered his freedom. This slave has married during the six years of his enslavement and his wife has given him sons. By law, the slave will be free but the wife and sons will be the property of his former master. So the slave declines his freedom with these words: “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person.” Can you imagine this scene? What happens next is even more remarkable. The master takes the slave before God. He is brought to the door and his master pierces his ear with an awl. He shall now remain a slave and servant of his master for life. This is something of what it means to serve Jesus. Christianity is not a spectator sport. We are not free to do as we please; we are called to obey Jesus. We are not isolated individuals; we are members of the body of Christ. We are not to be dominated by a world shaped by lies, but controlled by the Spirit of Jesus made flesh and blood at the end of Advent. When we receive these gifts of the body and blood of Christ we belong to him.
This is about us and how we fit in God’s new creation. The new creation can’t come until we are the new creation. In Jesus Christ we are the new creation, and become tenderness, cooperation, helpfulness, and gentleness. I give you Isaiah, outlier of the new regime of wisdom and peace, visionary of the kingdom. In this world, we all, including the animals, get new natures controlled by the Holy Spirit. What a vision for our time.
Centuries later, another outlier of the new regime, appears in the region of the Jordan River. His name: John the Baptist. John was rough, rough as a corncob. He wouldn’t last three weeks in one of our churches. After all, churches walk around on egg shells and talk in whispers for fear we might hurt someone’s feelings. John thunders fear and trembling. What have we done to the church that is has become a withered old Jesse stump of fear? John wastes no time but goes right to work: “Repent for the New Regime has come near.” Repent means to change your mind, direction, your basic nature. The New Regime was coming all right, John said, but if you thought it was going to be a [Tea Party], you’d better think again. If you didn’t shape up, God would give you the ax like an elm with the blight. Your only hope, he said, was to clean up your life as if your life depended on it, which it did, and get baptized in a hurry as a sign that you had. “I’m the one yelling himself blue in the face in the wilderness,” he said, quoting Isaiah. “I’m the one trying to knock some sense into your heads” (Frederick Buechner). Are we participants in the New Regime? To be clear, it is not communism or socialism or liberalism. The New Regime is the sprig from the Jesse Tree, the one coming after John who will save us. In the new regime, there will be more than enough for everyone and greed will be illegal, immoral, and inappropriate. In the new regime, there will be no insiders, outsiders, or outliers. Instead of GITMO and the growth industry of prisons, the prisoners will be set free. Instead of the death penalty, there will be eternal life. Instead of scarcity there will be plenty. I urge you to be part of the New Regime. Day by day, encounter by encounter, opportunity by opportunity, and crisis by crisis, bring your life in line with the new regime of Jesus Christ. There is still hope that we will form communities that will be whole, healthy, happy, and holy and will protect us and keep us and be there for us. Lift the bread to your mouth in a few moments; drink from the cup of salvation and know that you are part of the New Regime.