December 11, 2013
Text: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
In the name of Jesus, Amen!
Nicky Cruz was the leader of a toughest gang “Mau-Maus” on the streets of New York City in early 1960s. He grew up in Puerto Rico, where his parents brutally abused him. He was often put into a room full of pigeons. His mother would beat him and even knocked him unconscious so many times that he couldn’t feel the pain anymore. It’s not just that his parents were cruel, they were possessed. Séances, satanic worship, animal sacrifices were all a normal part of their lives. His mother would call him “Son of Satan.” When he hit the streets of New York City, Nicky was a harden man void of love and full of hate. He would do to others what his mother did to him. He was ferocious and cruel. Violence was in his blood. Simply put, Nicky was a beast. But he didn’t feel good when he was alone. He was tormented by horrible dreams. His heart was dark and empty. His soul was as dead as a stump until he met a pastor named David Wilkerson. He risked his life to tell Nicky that there was a hope and that Jesus loved him and would never stop loving him. A shocked Nicky responded by slapping him and threatening to kill him. Pr. Wilkerson looked Nicky in the face and said that he could cut him into a thousand pieces, but every piece would still say, ‘Jesus loves you.’ Two weeks later, Pr. Wilkerson had an evangelistic meeting in the neighborhood. When Nicky heard about it, he decided to go and teach the preacher a “lesson.” But instead, Nicky became a Christian after the meeting. It was the message of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection that won Nicky’s heart. Since then Nicky became a changed man. He surrendered himself to the police and led many gang members to Christ. He studied the Bible, went to a Bible college and started Nicky Cruz Outreach, a Christian ministry. What happened to Nicky Cruz was just one of many stories of Christians, whose lives are renewed and transformed by Jesus.
In today’s Old testament reading, Isaiah chapter 11 verse 6, the prophet describes the order of new creation where “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.” Many people would ask, ‘How can this be?’ ‘How can beasts like wolves, leopards and lions change their ferocious nature? How can you let the wolf not eat the lamb, leopard not devour the young goat, and the lion not tear the fattened calf into pieces?’ ‘How can this happen?’ Well, the same question was asked about Nicky. How could a ferocious and cruel gang leader become a meek and loving Christian minister? Regarding things in new heaven and new earth, people not only think they are impossible, but also have hard time understanding them. You may have heard some weird questions. For example, some people may ask, “In new heaven and new earth, if someone falls from a cliff, will he be injured and die?” Or someone may say, “I am near-sighted. I won’t be able to enjoy the beauty of a city with gold, jewels, and pearls described in Revelation. What good is it to live in new heaven and new earth?” Well, I can only say that too often we approach this kind of questions with wrong assumptions. In new heaven and new earth, things will be different. Rules and orders will change. Maybe you won’t be near-sighted anymore. You will be so alert and able that dangers won’t happen to you and there won’t be any dangerous things at all. You will enjoy all the wonderful things that God has promised us in the new world. All things are possible.
Then the next question is how. How can they become possible? All these can happen and will happen by the power of Jesus, the renewing power of a shoot from the stump of Jesse. Not only individual lives but the whole world of creation will be renewed and transformed into a new form with a new nature that you have never seen before in the old order of creation tainted with sins. Today’s Old Testament reading was bookended or bracketed by verse 1 and verse 10 of Isaiah 11. Verse 1 says, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Verse 10 declares, “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples–of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” What is the stump of Jesse? What, or rather, who is this shoot from the stump? The stump was the people of Israel, from which descendents of David, a son of Jesse came to be. And Jesus was a descendent of David. At the time of Isaiah, Israel would be destroyed and the temple in Jerusalem would be burned down by ferocious and cruel Babylonians. The remnant of Israel was just as dry and dead as a stump. Is there any hope for people of Israel? Is there any hope for this sinful and lost world? In the midst of all this, Isaiah saw a light breaking in on the dark night. He went beyond Israel’s return from exile and painted a renewed world. With the root of Jesse being His human nature and the Son of God being His divine nature, Jesus died and resurrected to bring forth a new creation. The order of creation messed up by sin of Adam and Eve is now reversed. New life for people becomes possible on a worldwide scale and even the rule of nature itself is transformed.
What about you? What does your life look like? We may be as greedy as a hungry wolf going after money, lust, fame and power. Our life may be as fast as a leopard always busy and always in a run. Our temperament may be as ferocious as a prideful lion arguing, not being patient and looking down upon others. Our heart may be as dark and empty as the night. And our soul may be as dead and dry as a stump. In today’s Gospel lesson, John the Baptist saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Our appearance may look as good as Pharisees and Sadducees. But our old nature is just as poisonous as brood of vipers. This old life passes on from one generation to the next. Like Nicky Cruz, we may be affected by our family history and culture as well. As we confess in our liturgy, we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition. People in all cultures have been trying to change it by legalism and moralism. For thousands of years, China has been under severe laws and moralism like Confucianism and communism, but struggles and wars plagued Chinese people from generation to generation in a seemingly endless cycle. There is an old Chinese saying, “It’s easy to change a dynasty. But it is hard to change one’s essential nature.” The equivalent biblical saying would be Jeremiah 13:23 “Can the leopard change his spots?” We would like to change others, but not ourselves. Thanks be to God, by the power of Jesus, His death and resurrection, all this can happen. vHis forgiveness and love transformed Nicky. So will the Gospel transform and renew your life. Though we won’t be perfect now, in this present age with our old self still living inside of us while we are still living in the old order of creation; when Jesus’ second coming, He will bring forth a worldwide transformation of creation. And you will be changed too with glorious body.
Thanks be to God, in Christ you are forgiven. Even now you’re already freed from the guilt and punishment and are given a renewed life. Recognizing this reality, trust God that He will transform you as Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Let the “love of Christ compel you.” Though our old nature is as dry and dead as a stump, and eventually our body will die and return to dust, we insist we have hope because this hope is from us, but from a shoot from the stump of Jesse. Jesus is our hope in present darkness and in the life to come.
December 11, 2013