The reign of heaven is near
Isa. 11: 1 – 10
Matt. 3: 1 – 11
Rev. Dr. Jo Ella Holman
Regional Liaison for the Caribbean
Presbyterian Church, USA
When I have visitors from the U.S. to the Dominican Republic, on the island of Hispanola where I live, I always take them to see a statue that is on the sea walk of the capital city of Santo Domingo. It is a statue of a Dominican Friar, Antonio de Montesinos.
It is a tremendously large statue of a man dressed in the clothing of a priest who looks out to the distance and with his left hand raised to his mouth, giving the impression that he is calling out over a long distance. When you visit the statue, you can read the text that is written at its base, words that Friar Montesinos preached in Santo Domingo in the year 1511. It is a sermon that is very well-known in the history of the Church, a sermon that was important for the Spaniards who colonized that land and important also for us, 500 years later. It was a day like today, a Sunday morning when the text for the day was the one we read today about John the Baptist.
On that Sunday morning in Santo Domingo, the gathered congregation heard the story of John, the cousin of Jesus, preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sin. John called the people of Israel to repent “because the reign of heaven is near.” He follows with words from the prophet Isaiah (40): “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight.” By citing Isaiah, John puts himself in the role of prophet, denouncing the actions that separate human beings from God and announcing the reign of God that had already been proclaimed in Israel for centuries.
Our text today from the prophet Isaiah (11, 1-10) gives us a fuller picture of this “reign of heaven” that John proclaimed. The messiah will judge the poor with righteousness and will decide justly for the poor of the earth (v. 4). And in this reign of heaven Isaiah tells us that “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the kid goat” (v. 6). No one will hurt or destroy on this holy mountain, because the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord (v. 9).
When John proclaimed the nearness of the reign of heaven, he used the words from Isaiah to evoke this vision that the people knew of old: a vision of peaceful and just relationships among people and between humanity and the natural world that God had created. God, announces Isaiah, plans to restore all that has become deformed, distorted, destroyed by sin and to transform it. And miracle of miracles, God calls each one of us to share this divine vision and to live it out in our individual and communal lives.
But, there is this problem…this problem of sin. And John reminds us that we need to repent, to change our behavior, to go in the opposite direction. If we are honest with ourselves, each one of us can think of multiple ways that we have failed and stand in need of confession and repentance.
But, this vision of God’s reign deals with more than our individual sins. The vision that John calls “the reign of heaven” shows a transformation of the injustices that we commit as societies, as communities, as nations. It is a vision of a different world.
Our brother Montesinos, whom we left on the sea walk in Santo Domingo, understood this reign of heaven. He understood the abuse of power, the injustices that his fellow Spaniards were inflicting on the indigenous of the island of Hispaniola. And, reading these words from John the Baptist in the year 1511—only 19 years after Columbus first landed on this island—Montesinos preached these words that you can read today at the base of his statue in the harbor of Santo Domingo:
With what right and with what justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves? How can you be so profoundly asleep?
With these and more strong words to the Spanish colonists of Hispaniola, Montesinos spoke the truth in light of the reign of heaven, injustices perpetuated by individuals, but also by the whole structure of that society. The system was corrupt, even evil. Within 50 years of Columbus´ landing, not one indigenous survived. It was a genocide.
You can well imagine the effect of these words on his hearers that Sunday morning. They were incensed! They did not want to hear these words that denounced their actions. They were benefiting from the way of life they were creating on the island. So Montesinos paid a price for his truth-telling. He soon found himself on a ship headed back to Spain from whence he had come.
But—and this is a really important part of the story–in that congregation on that Sunday morning there was a person who was so convicted by Montesinos´ words that he gave up the land—and the people who were living on it—that had been given him by the king of Spain. And he spent the rest of his life defending the rights of the indigenous of this hemisphere—in Hispaniola, in Cuba, in Mexico, Venezuela and Guatemala. His name was Bartolomé de las Casas and he is one of the heroes of our faith. It is through his book, The History of the Indies that we have recorded this sermon by Montesinos that testified to God’s vision, the “reign of heaven” on earth, the “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven¨ vision. De las Casas is known widely today as the “father” of human rights.
Without the truth-telling to power that Montesinos proclaimed in that far-off year of 1511, perhaps there would have been no testimony by las Casas and, perhaps, many others who heard his message and who have spoken out since his time.
Without truth-telling to power, the world continues as though it is a law unto itself, where the powerful destroy the lives and livelihood of the weak and the vulnerable. Where the powerful bring war for their own gain. Where God’s good creation is destroyed.
“Not so,” says John the Baptist; ”not so,” says Jesus, says Montesinos, says las Casas, says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, say the countless others who have had the courage to speak the truth about this world and this life: we are not our own; this world is not ours to do with as we wish, without regard for the well-being, the “shalom” of others or the well-being of God’s good earth.
Friends, we live in perilous times, in a moment in history when the vulnerable of the world—in our own country and in lands beyond—suffer under the weight of powers that are beyond their control. Sometimes we can feel despairing, hopeless in these circumstances that are so complicated, so entrenched, so difficult. Where do we even start? The dominant narrative of our times is one of Empire and it is not so different from the world that Montesinos and las Casas inhabited. Nor so different from the one Jesus inhabited. Mighty empires rule the world. Powerful interests rule the day. We live in a time that seeks to put us against each other. We are fed a line that separates humanity into “us” and “them,” just as the Spaniards of Montesinos’ day dehumanized the indigenous peoples and, in making them less-than-human, were able to justify their cruel treatment. It was the racism of their day.
But, I take heart from the scriptures that repeatedly attest that GOD will have the final word, that our God has a different vision of our world, for our relationships to each other and for all of creation. And I take hope from the example of those who have come before us, those who have understood God’s vision and have announced it, have denounced ways which are contrary to it, and held firmly, faithfully to the truth of God’s vision. And I take courage from all those who have attempted to “prepare the way of the Lord, of making his paths straight.”
Our own theologian Mr. Rogers told us, “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers when bad things are happening.” In our moment in history, who is speaking of God´s vision as proclaimed by John, by Jesus? These saints are always standing with the poor, the vulnerable, the meek of the earth. I take hope and courage from the stories of modern-day saints who are even now speaking out against injustice, who are calling people to come together around the vision of justice, well-being and peace, God´s shalom to which the scriptures attest.
Among those who have come before us are many who proclaimed God’s counter-narrative against whatever the dominant narrative of their day. Listen for their voices! Join their voices and act together with all others who seek first the kingdom of God and divine righteousness.
In the face of Spanish colonial empire, Montesinos proclaimed “love your neighbor as yourself”. In the face of Nazi nationalism and the horrendous deaths of all “others,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaimed the cost of discipleship. In the face of the religious and imperial power of his day, Jesus proclaimed, as John before him, the “Reign of God is at hand.” Do you not see it? Do you not see it?
Today is Communion Sunday. We present ourselves before the Table that Jesus himself established for his disciples. It is sometimes called a “justice table”: a space where we recognize the Risen Lord through the breaking of bread and the sharing of one cup and we remember the cost to Jesus for proclaiming the nearness of the reign of God. To this table we are invited, with all the saints who have come before us— to taste and see the goodness of our God and to glimpse God’s reconciling love for all of humanity and all creation. “The reign of God is at hand.” Do you not see it?
CHARGE and BENEDICTION
We have partaken of the meal of heaven and gathered around this justice table.
Go, then, out into the world with the vision of God’s reign firmly fixed in your minds and hearts, knowing that the God who always goes before us, is with us.
May the grace of Christ uphold you, even when you are fearful.
May the love of God surround you, even as you speak the truth in love.
May the Holy Spirit guide you, as you discern where God is calling you to proclaim God’s love for all
Now and forever more, Amen.