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.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Please don’t hate me for this, but I live in the same town as my grandchildren. Not only that, but I work four blocks from home, where my wife watches them on weekdays, and where I am often able to slip away for lunch and a quick visit. But I think it’s a good thing for me as a preacher to have some children in my life. They help me see the world through their eyes: to appreciate all over again how wonderful it is, how full of beauty, and to remember what is most important.
Last Wednesday I went home and found that Leo (who is two-and-a-half years old today!) had conked out on his way home from preschool. He was asleep on his nap mat in the living room. I ate lunch quietly in the kitchen with Christy and Vivi, but when it was time to go back to work Christy mentioned that it was also time for Leo to wake up from his nap. So, I went to the living room, and sat on the floor beside him, and began to rub his back and tell him a story, and the one I told him was the story of the first Christmas. I talked about Joseph and Mary making the long journey from Nazareth, and about how, when they got to Bethlehem, they couldn’t find any room in the inn. I talked about how they ended up in that stable with donkeys, cows, sheep, and chickens (making all the animal noises in an effort to rouse Leo from a very deep sleep). I talked about how worried Joseph was and how hard Mary worked and how, eventually, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. While I was telling that part of the story I was looking on Leo’s face, and thinking what a beautiful boy he is, and wondering how long people have been doing this: telling stories to their children.
As I read through the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah last week I could imagine the people of ancient Israel telling that story to their children, partly because it has so many animals in it: wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, lions and bears, and a little child who leads them all (notice I didn’t say anything about snakes). But before all that it has a king, and not just any king. Isaiah predicted: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” and anyone who knew anything about Israel’s history would know that he was talking about Jesse, the father of King David, the greatest king who had ever lived in Israel. He was saying that another king would spring up from the stump of Jesse’s family tree.
Isaiah wrote: “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 (fear in this case meaning profound respect). 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 [God’s kind of ] righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth (meaning the people of Israel); he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,” Isaiah continued, “and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (meaning their enemies).[i]
Isaiah tells the story of a perfect king, one who is descended from the family of King David, one who will be full of the wisdom and power of God, one who will decide with equity for the meek of the earth, and one who will smite the wicked with the breath of his lips. “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,” Isaiah promises, “and faithfulness the belt around his loins!”[ii] And for centuries afterward, when parents were putting their children to bed at night, or trying to wake them from their midday naps, they would tell the story of that king. “One day he’s coming,” they would say, “and when he does 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. In those days “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” says the Lord; “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
It’s the story of a perfect king and a peaceable kingdom. It’s the kind of story parents would tell their children whenever things got bad and through the centuries they had been given plenty of reasons to tell that story. The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. The Babylonians conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 587. The Greeks took over what was left of Israel in 333 and the Romans did the same in 63. In between Syria to the North and Egypt to the South fought over the tiny nation of Israel like two dogs fighting over a piece of meat. But even when the sounds of battle could be heard in the streets, or maybe especially then, grandfathers would rub their grandsons’ backs and tell them the story of the king who would someday come, and how, when he did, the wolf would live with the lamb, the leopard would lie down with the kid, and a little child would lead them.
But before that day—before God rendered his terrible judgment on all of Israel’s enemies, before he placed his Chosen One on the throne of his ancestor David—God would send the prophet Elijah to call his people to repentance, “to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.” It said so in the very last sentence of the very last book of the Old Testament.[iii] And so, when John the Baptist stepped onto the stage of history looking very much like the Prophet Elijah—making his home in the wilderness, wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a wide leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey—the people of Israel got very excited. All those grandchildren who had been told the story in their youth must have thought, “This is it! This is what Grandpa was talking about! This is the beginning of the great and terrible day of the Lord!” And so when John began to suggest that people needed to repent and get baptized they came, they repented, they were baptized in the Jordan River. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees came.
But when John saw them he said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (See? There are snakes in both of these stories). 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 ax 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” (And see? There are also stumps in both of these stories). What John is saying is what I’ve heard some of the old preachers say: that God doesn’t have any grandchildren. You don’t get to heaven because your parents were good Christians and you don’t get a seat in God’s banquet hall because you’re a descendant of Abraham. Every tree bears its own fruit, and the kind of fruit John is looking for is the fruit of a changed life.
He says, “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.” That, too, sounds like something I’ve heard the old preachers talk about—“unquenchable fire”—but as I looked at this passage again it occurred to me that fire could be a very positive thing, and maybe just what we need.
Some of you have been reading through the Bible with me this year. I don’t know where you are in your daily reading, but last week I was making my way through Paul’s letter to the Romans, and I came to chapter 7, where Paul laments the state of his soul. He writes: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”[iv] Eugene Peterson paraphrases it like this: “The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?”[v] The real answer, as Paul writes in the very next verse, is Jesus Christ. And in his own way that may be what John the Baptist is saying.
“Look,” he says, “I baptize with water,” which means, “I can get you cleaned up on the outside. I can get you looking pretty good externally. But I can’t do anything for you internally. Jesus is going to have to do that. He’s the One who’s coming after me. He’s the One who is far more powerful than I am. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. I baptize with water for repentance, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And fire is what it will take.
I know you don’t hear me talk a lot about sin. I’m not one of those preachers who dwells on that. I talk a whole lot more about working with Jesus to bring in the Kingdom of God. But sin can get in the way of that, and sin can trip you up. When I talk about the Lord’s Prayer I say that Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. That’s what he really wanted. But he also taught them to pray that God would forgive their sins, because sin can be a stumbling block: it can keep you from fulfilling the mission. I think about Paul, wrapped up in a wet wool blanket by the side of the road somewhere on one of his mission trips, unable to sleep and thinking about the sin in his own life. There couldn’t have been much, could there? He spent all his time working for the Lord! And yet in a moment like that he may have thought, “Wretched man that I am; who will deliver me from this body of death?” And that’s when it hit him: Jesus. The one John was preaching about. The one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. “That’s what I need,” Paul may have thought. “And especially on a night like this one, when I’m cold and miserable and unable to sleep because of worrying about my sin. I need some refiner’s fire.”
You may remember that Paul was a saint. He was precious to God, just as you are. But even precious metal needs to be refined. Gold, for instance, is heated in a crucible to as much as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the experts, “When the gold reaches this temperature it melts. The metals in the alloy separate and the gold sinks to the bottom of the crucible. The other metals and impurities are left behind.”[vi] When John says that the One who comes will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire he doesn’t say how hot the fire will be. Maybe it depends on how many impurities there are and how much dross needs to be burned away. Maybe it’s different for each person. But the good news is the same: when the refiner’s work is done, “the…impurities are left behind.”
I don’t know how you feel about that but I would love it. I would love it if every impurity in my life, anything that might offend God, could be purged. And I think I would be willing to go through it even if the process itself were painful, which is what being baptized with fire sounds like. John says that the One who is to come will have the power to do that, and not only that, but also to baptize with the Holy Spirit. I picture it like this: I picture Jesus baptizing me with refiner’s fire, purging away every impurity from my life, but then baptizing me with Holy Spirit, filling up all those places where the sin used to be. Can you imagine that? If your life could be flushed of every impurity and then filled with the Holy Spirit? Can you imagine how different things might be? In your own life at least that internal conflict could come to an end; that “war” Paul talks about, between what he knows is right and what he actually does, would be over. The wolf would live with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid, and a little child would lead them. This little child; the one whose birth we will celebrate three weeks from today. The perfect king of a peaceable kingdom. The one who has the power to make us perfect.
Thanks be to God.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Isaiah 11:2-4 (all Scripture references are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted).
[ii] Isaiah 11:5
[iii] Malachi 4:5-6
[iv] Romans 7:21-23,
[v] Romans 7:21-24, The Message
[vi] “How Gold is Refined,” a step-by-step guide from Pease and Curren (https://peaseandcurren.com/how-gold-is-refined-a-step-by-step-guide/).