When still a Catholic boy I would go to church on Saturday morning to make my confession. It was dark and musty inside even before entering the confessional which was darker and mustier. Freshly absolved, emerging into the outside brightness and attractiveness of the day a boy was confronted with the problem of the coming twenty-four hours. The challenge of keeping sin free until the eleven o’clock mass the next day was considerable. In my defence I did have a little brother – who of course was very irritating. Nonetheless, the confession on Saturday was to prepare for Sunday.
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
John the Baptist cries that we should repent with urgency for the axe is lying at the foot of the tree, the winnowing fork is to hand and one more powerful than he is coming. John’ heartfelt purpose is to prepare us to be in the presence of God, to be ready to receive him.
Isaiah foretells who we are waiting for he reminds us of the greatness of God. He does not shirk the humbleness of Jesus’ coming. A shoot, just a shot, a small tender and delicate product, from a stump a humble beginning the idea reinforced by Isaiah saying that this branch will come out of Jesse, not referring to King David, but Jesse who lived and died in meanness and obscurity, whose family was of little account.
But very quickly we hear of his greatness: The spirit of the Lord shall be upon him, Wisdom, Counsel, Might, and Knowledge. There will also be fear of the Lord for this fear comes from an appreciation and acknowledgement of his power. We need to imagine how we would feel if Jesus came in through the church door, that he walked down our aisle and is now standing there next to the front pews.
It is one thing to think about God, to believe in God, to hold onto an idea of God in our heart and mind but quite another to be in his presence. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see or his ears hear,” he will know us, each one of us perfectly, he will know our inmost selves. He will judge with righteousness and equity.
Isaiah then continues with extraordinary imagery to tell us what the result of all this will be: the Prince of Peace when he comes will usher in a new world, where men of the fiercest disposition who used to bite and devour all around them, making easy prey of the meek, will be transformed. They will live in love with all as if the wolf were lying with the lamb, the lion eating straw and the snakes rendered peaceable. If we are in doubt about the greatness of God, here is a wonderful description of his power, to rid the world of wickedness, evil, war, dissent, even the tiniest most venial sin.
“Repent for the
is near” kingdom
This is why when we come to church, the great cathedrals, the minsters, the parish churches, the mission huts we begin our services with the confession; for we have come to meet with God, to come into his presence and so we start by acknowledging that we have erred and strayed like lost sheep, that we have followed the devices and desires of our own hearts, we receive absolution and open ourselves up, prepared to receive – to receive the word of God in scripture and teaching, to receive Christ in the sacrament of bread and wine and then to depart in the peace of the Holy Spirit.