December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
“It’s Not About You”
One would think that as we approach the birth of Jesus, scriptures would become sweet like a birth announcement. I’m curious that baby cards often have pictures of angelic babies cooing. We don’t see the picture of the baby freshly emerged from the womb and screaming to make sense of what has just happened to their secure environment. We see the cleaned up picture as if there was no pain involved and no mess. Advent is kind of like a reality season. Each year Advent gives us texts that are apocalyptic, a bit scary, and a lot cryptic. No matter which year we are in, John the Baptist shows up on the second Sunday of Advent to scream that we should repent. For some who came out of evangelical traditions, this may bring up difficult memories and may make you want to flee the sanctuary. John the Baptist is a rather embarrassing guy, kind of like the relative that you don’t want to claim, but he shows up at every family gathering. He’s not the one we would choose to be the face of Christianity, yet here he is paving the way while wearing strange clothes and eating locusts and honey.
Advent is a season of preparation. Our purpose this time of year is to get ready for Christ to be born among us. It is a time to go inward and reflect. While Christ was likely not born this time of year, it is appropriate that we are preparing for his birth in a season that has little light. This is a time to ask ourselves hard questions. John comes out telling us to repent and we immediately think about how we snapped at someone we love or thought mean things about someone we don’t love. We start to feel guilty.
WAIT! That isn’t what is called for in this text. John isn’t saying, “You worm. You have no value. Feel terrible about yourself.” In some ways, he is telling us this isn’t even about us. There are ways that our lives are not aligned with Jesus and we are being given the opportunity to realign ourselves. But more than that, he wants us to glimpse the new world God is creating and to understand God can transform us into the likeness of Christ. That’s a powerful promise.
Lest you be tempted to blow this strange guy off, here is an interesting piece of trivia: Jesus’ birth occurs in two gospels while John the Baptist shows up in all four of them. We should probably pay attention…no matter what kind of baggage we may have with the word repentence. This guy keeps showing up and he keeps telling us to repent which literally means to turn around. But John wants us to understand that God will raise up a just world whether we are on board or not.
Both texts tell us about what God is doing instead of giving us a to do list. I think our agenda is to get on board and align our vision with God’s. Isaiah gives us a powerful portrait of God’s vision and it begins with a stump. Of all the inspiring images possible, a stump is a bit of a disappointment. This remnant of a dead tree has a tiny piece of new growth. The new growth will be a leader unlike any other. This is a leader who will bring justice into the most needed places and care for the most vulnerable. Isaiah follows that prophecy with a picture of predators lying with their prey.
We have been talking about peace in recent weeks. We are praying for peace every Sunday. We are reflecting on where peace is needed and in Isaiah, we are given the image of the peaceable kingdom.
Edward Hicks was a Quaker who painted over 100 images of this scripture from Isaiah from 1820 until his death in 1849. In some of those he included a vignette of William Penn’s treaty with the Indians. We wonder if a peaceable kingdom is really possible. It does seem naïve to think of wolves and lambs, leopards and goats just sweetly chomping on clover while a toddler is nearby playing with a bunch of rattlesnakes. Before we write this off as unrealistic, we should ask why Isaiah used this image. Is there something it can offer us? What if it is telling us that we aren’t to live our lives realistically, but to pattern our actions in something that seems impossible because it isn’t about us? It is about a God for whom NOTHING is impossible. I think we need to hear that. I think we need this image to remember that everywhere it looks hopeless; God is nurturing a tiny shoot to bring hope.
It does require us to train our eyes to see these tiny glimpses of hope in places that seem to be hopeless. When we wonder how much more we can take, look again and there is God creating life in lifeless situations. That is what hope looks like.
Just this week in our church a home was robbed, young loved one died suddenly, someone was hospitalized with mental illness, a parent died, and a few are recovering from pneumonia. Then there are the things happening in the community and the world: fires in Tennessee, Oakland, and Cambridge, a plane crash in Columbia, a car ramming and stabbing attack at Ohio State University, World Aids Day reminding us that this horrific disease still wreaks havoc, Standing Rock continues, and in this cold weather homeless people are struggling more than ever. There is so much. What do we do about all of these?
I’m thinking that shoot of hope from Isaiah is what we need. Rather than feeling it is all up to us, we begin with a vision of the impossible. The God we worship is a God of the impossible and we need to move beyond our limited vision of the reality we know and begin to trust a vision that we can’t fully see. That is what hope looks like. We can’t know how we will get there or when, but when this congregation took the designation Peace with Justice church, we were saying, “We believe in peace and justice and we believe that they coexist. Even more, we believe that God is bringing peace and justice into our world and we want to be part of it.”
I keep thinking about the violence all around us. I keep thinking about the incredible poverty that makes people resort to desperate measures. I keep thinking about climate change and the ways we have destroyed our planet. I read a sermon this week that talked about storms and harsh conditions and the role they play in the ecosystem:
“Back in the ’90s you may recall there was a project called Biodome, an effort to create a totally self-contained biological environment, a mini-Earth sealed away from the outside world. Some of it was successful, but one of the most baffling disappointments was the trees. They had the sunlight and water and nutrients they needed, but as they grew, they couldn’t stand up straight. They flopped over on the ground, weak and limp.”
“The scientists finally realized one vital ingredient of the outside world they had forgotten: wind. In nature, the wind blows and causes tiny microcracks in the trunk and branches of trees. Trees rely on this trauma for their growth. Standing straight to the wind, breaking a little but rebuilding at the same time, is what helps them grow stronger.” (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/11/21/2-advent-a-2013-2/)
I have to be honest and tell you that I would much prefer the easy way. I’m not into the “no pain, no gain” way of thinking. But it is real. Edward Hays called Advent “a winter training camp for those who desire peace.” So, look around and see where peace and justice are coming together. Where are the shoots of hope and peace appearing? How can we be part of those? Remember the words of Psalm 121:
“From where does my help come?
My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.”
If you are trying to figure out what hope looks like in our world, remember it’s not about us. If you are wondering how there can ever possibly be peace on earth, remember, it’s not about us. If you are wondering how a tiny shoot can possibly bring justice, remember it’s not about us. If you are wondering how this path will create a path for Christ’s birth, remember it’s not about us. Both Isaiah and John tell us that it is God who will do this. I want to be there when it happens.