For those of us who like to preach, opening the scriptures and reading the lectionary texts is like a knitter let loose in a yarn store. Searching for the strands that will look most beautiful together, that compliment each other and anticipating the work and creativity of knitting them together. Or like a craftsmen entering HomeDepot with a plan in mind – picking the best pieces and tools to build a strong foundation, create space for others to be welcomed in.
And as I entered these texts I was struck by the appearance of a tree in both Isaiah and the gospel reading. This small shoot and the hope it represents for the people. And then we hear John thousands of years later worried that the strong tree the shoot has become is in danger.
Isaiah speaks to the diminished dynasty of David
Now surrounded by many enemies
In the forest of an Assyrian army, facing threats from the Babylonians, the remnant of Israel appears to be only a stump
But God gives hope. God’s spirit will be with the king – wisdom, understanding
Knowledge, might, fear of the Lord
Wolf shall lie with the lamb
Cow and bear shall graze
Child will play safely by the snake – a reversal of the original curse in Genesis
Nothing will be hurt or destroyed on all my holy mountain
The people of God will be united and the world will know God’s power
Comfort for those who have suffered oppression under one ruler and then another
Instills pride that one of their own shall rise and stand strong
And a new vision beyond war and vengeance – peace, hospitality, end to hurt
3000 years later – as we read in the gospel – faithful Jews are still reading these texts and longing for this peace.
They have had periods of peace, great rulers and mighty kings
But they still watch this shoot of Jesse growing and twining its way down through history – Solomon… Hezekiah… Joseph…
Waiting for a unified people, for peace and redemption
Because they live again under oppression – this time under the Romans
As the people gather to hear John the Baptist, they can look back over their history to see glimpses of this vision almost fulfilled – armies defeated, the temple rebuilt. But it is still not fulfilled.
We hear clearly the Jewish longing for Messiah in the words of John the Baptist in the gospel reading,
“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”.
And we hear the promises of valleys filled in, mountains made low, crooked paths made straight and rough ways made smooth.
This is the vision we all long for – whether under living under the violent rule of the Roman empire, struggling in a depressed economy in America, perpetual violence in the Middle East, women and girls risking life and safety to attain access to education, those with mental illness and HIV fighting stigma around the world. Isaiah and John thousands of years later proclaim a vision that attracts us and gives us hope. It’s a vision that we can share with our children and tell to our friends. It’s a vision that gives Christianity a good name. It looks good on brochures and it’s easy to preach. We all want to hear this vision. We come back to it every Advent, the new year of our Christian faith, even 2000 years after the birth of Christ. So this grand vision of valleys filled in, peace in creation, crooked paths made straight is a good place for John the Baptizer to begin his plea for repentance.
Can you imagine the scene? This wild-eyed, barely dressed, insect eating prophet proclaiming that the salvation of God is near. He’s quoting the scriptures and describing this beautiful vision. If you close your eyes, can you imagine this passionate man down by the river, preaching and calling out to the people? Imagine the poor, the hungry, the lame hearing this vision of a new world where they will eat until they are filled, walk with strength, see their prayers answered. And the people begin to come. They gather around, listening, anxious to hear, straining to hear every word John says.
And then… as the crowd surges. Even the religious leaders come to hear him and John’s message changes. He becomes incensed, “You brood of vipers!” He begins to insult the leaders and institution of the faith.
Remember that small shoot growing out of the stump of Jesse? That fragile tendril growing in the midst of war and calamity? It has grown to a massive redwood, its branches reach high and spread wide. This small shoot is a strong tree that holds the promise of an established nation. It bears the scars of sacrifices and has become strong with rings and rings of experience and growth.
But this crazy man in the wildnerness, down by the river is worried – angry – that it is not bearing fruit. We might imagine him, in the presence of the Pharisees, standing at the base of the tree calling them lazy, accusing them of relying too heavily on their family history and tradition for their salvation.
John’s message of hope and vision has become a message of fear and threats.
Is our church – catholic, United Methodist, local, global – guilty of the same type of preaching? One day preaching with kind words and beautiful stories and just as quickly turning to judgment and name calling. People are told of the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness only go come to church and be reminded of their unfaithfulness. People are told of rest and peace available through Christ only to show up at worship and be asked or guilted into doing more. Too often we, like John, replace the hopeful vision with judgment and religious measuring sticks.
It’s almost as if John – and we – begin to doubt that a positive vision can really convert people. As the crowd swells, John sees the potential and the opportunity but inexplicable shifts from the word of hope and promise of the shoot of Jesse to the threat of an axe at the base of tree. John’s move from promise to fear is not different than we each experience in our personal lives and in our communities. As soon as we become fearful, we begin to lash out, to judge ourselves and one another.
It seems crazy that just moments before Jesus appears on the scene, John becomes angry. That his careful preparation for one greater than he, should collapse into rants and curses. That the beautiful metaphor of the Jewish tradition of this new growth should be twisted and used to threaten violence. From the hope of a shoot out of the stump of Jesse to an ax at the base of the tree.
And it’s easy to judge John. To gasp and berate him from our enlightened 20/20 view of history. We also quickly forget our hopes and dreams in the face of doubt. We fall back on cultural expectations rather than our claims of faith. Didn’t we just celebrate how thankful we are for all that we have by spending thousands of dollars on more stuff? Didn’t the United Methodist Church – the church of open hearts, open minds, open doors – just demonstrate its belief that all people are of sacred worth by prosecuting a bishop and a pastor in church trials? Haven’t I been sneering at the lies that surround elf on the shelf while neglecting the advent calendar and scripture reading in my home?
A profound example of one who overcame these doubts and lived faithfully into the vision is Nelson Mandela. I finished the memoir of Chinua Achebe this week and he ended with a tribute to Mandela… READ
After 27 years of waiting in prison, writing and building and believing in a vision, Mandela did not give in to fear but strode confidently into the future when released from prison.
We are in the second week of Advent, waiting for Jesus, God with us. Waiting for the Prince of Peace. Waiting for the mighty counselor. Waiting for the king of kings. Waiting for Messiah.
And now, just before his arrival, is when we often demonstrate our most base and greedy and anxiety ridden and panicked selves.
I read this week that “we look forward to Advent with Hope but we have to ask if we are contributing to that coming hope. Does our Sunday candle lighting stick with our children or the frantic parties and shopping? Do the prayers of our worship calm us and sustain us through the week or do our to do lists and family stress quickly drown out our profession of faith?
We are challenged to see that we can choose – choose to be on the side of what God is doing in the world or to go along with the way things are. When we are at our best, we are like John proclaiming the vision of… When we are faithful we choose to name our fears and choose faith. When we are an Advent people we choose to wait with expectation instead of fear. When we are sons and daughters of God we choose to be on the side that knows something better is coming.
And for all his blustering, John knows that means repentance.
It means saying the words, praying for forgiveness.
It means confessing to others when we have screwed up.
It means making amends.
It means changing our direction, turning away from judgment and name calling.
Repentance means we have to stop pointing at the chasms between political parties and start building a bridge.
Repentance means we quit driving around the neighborhoods that make us nervous or make us feel guilty and drive right into the middle of them as brothers and sisters to address the inequality there.
Repentance means recognizing the warn ruts of family patterns and starting to blaze a new trail.
What does repentance mean for you this Advent?
Less gifts and more charity?
Less family guilt and more grace?
Fewer cookies and more walks at Radnor Lake?
Less internet and more Advent devotions?
Less work and more time volunteering?
Advent is when we remember Jesus is coming. Always coming to us. In each situation.
As the Advent story continues, we will see Zechariah, Mary and the shepherds, branches of our family faith tree. They must choose to believe in God’s hope and vision or succumb to the fear that the ax is about to fall. They fear for their futures, reputations and worthiness. And in each case, we will hear from God, “Do not be afraid.” As each player of the Advent story encounters God he or she must choose if they believe in the vision of new life and possibilities or if they will succumb to fear.
Again, I see Mandela, hands in the air – surely fear crept in to his heart. Could he live up to the nation’s expectations? Would the constitution hold? Should he get rid of just a couple enemies? But he chose the vision, hope, hospitality instead of fear.
Advent is the time we remind ourselves. Yes! God is with us – not to bring fear but to bring peace.
Fear is real. And it has a strange power over many of us. Like the crowds who gathered around this crazy John the Baptist, insulting them and warning of their impending damnation, we are drawn to fear. Sometimes it’s exciting. Sometimes we have lived with fear for so long that it’s more comfortable than the risk it would take to live in peace.
But as the Advent story unfolds, as the birth of Jesus comes to pass, we see a new way. We see a world changed, not through fear and intimidation, but through comfort and patience and affirmation.
God does not act randomly or arbitrarily. God comes to each of us in all God’s glory and wonder for specific reasons. It can be terrifying and confusing and dazzling. It’s the presence of God after all. Scriptures tell us that we come before the Lord in fear and trembling. But the amazing thing about the God we worship is that God does not want us to respond out of that fear. God does not want a relationship with us based on fear. God desires that we take a deep breath, hear God’s voice of comfort and blessing, listen carefully to God’s invitations, and then to respond with peace and understanding.
Can we do that this Advent season? Can we look at specific situations of our lies and choose to be on God’s side? Choose to believe the wolf shall like with the lamb? The warring siblings will eat next to each other this Chrsitmas? The child will play over the adder’s nest? The politicians will do what is best for the poor and the hungry? The crooked paths will be made straight? That we can repent, release our shame and find peace?
Let us affirm our faith…