Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
Let us Pray
May we hear and respond to your word O God, that in this time of Advent waiting, we can be born anew in hope and peace. In Jesus name. Amen
With the exception of the white dove, it would be difficult to come up with a more iconic image of future peace than that of the lion lying down with the lamb. It has been depicted so often by artists throughout time and in many different styles that it is kind of embedded in our consciousness really. And isn’t it interesting too that, in this age of posting your life on the internet, we are seeing a number of photos or youtube clips doing the rounds showing just such unlikely animal partners – you know the rat who rides on the back of the cat or a dog best mates with a bird or a stoat and a terrier sharing food together. It’s seems we continue to be fascinated by the fact that animals in certain circumstances can over ride natural predatorial or territorial instincts and get on together. You can see where I am going with this I suspect. If animals can do it why can’t we – human beings are supposedly more intelligent, less tied to survival patterns of living, communicators on multiple levels etc etc. Maybe too that is why there are no adults in this image we have painted for us by Isaiah – there are children – but no grown ups. What is that saying to us I wonder?
The other picture Isaiah paints for us is that of Jesus as righteous judge – neither of those words sit easily with us at first hearing – we have been subject to too much unloving righteous Christian judgement in the church to not squirm a bit at then – but let us put that to one side and try to see the God that Isaiah knows – picture this: a young person, standing tall, exuding vitality and strength, a face in which shines both a kind of severity but also is brilliant with joy – there is deep wisdom in the eyes and compassion there too. Behind, on the hill, lies the death of cruelty and violence – before, in front, there is a gathering of the poor and the vulnerable and their faces are lifted up and radiant. And when we place this picture of God as judge alongside the one of the new creation, where the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, the two together – a God of justice and a God of peace- then we find new meaning and powerful challenge.
And probably the core message is that no transformation to this picture of unimagined peace is possible without a new righteousness in human affairs – and it is in this gift of the Messiah – the shoot that shall come out of the stump of Jesse, that this new creation will be realised.
People are not, by themselves, going to be able to reach and live into this vision and even in the leadership of people like Mandela and Ghandi and Wilberforce and the women of Ireland we cannot effectively break through that world of predators, violence, destroyers that are our world. Neither can we embolden the poor, the weak, the vulnerable to be able to speak out with strength and surety and confidence of being heard and having a place in the new kingdom alone. The peace of the lion and the lamb lying down together is not going to happen without a transformative presence – and for us that transformation comes in the life and teachings of Jesus – the tendril that comes from the stump that all thought was dead.
So John was preparing the people for this coming – and in none too delicate a way either. How would you like a preacher like that each Sunday? ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 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 axe 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.”
They say that there was a preacher at Free St George’s Church in Edinburgh, Alexander Whyte by name, who could be so direct and penetrating that to hear him preach was to take your life in into your hands.
And people would have known that of John – he was not going to beat around the bush – he was there to challenge your very comfort and thinking – transformational in-your-face preaching one could say.
The message from John is unmistakeable though, whatever language it is couched in. Jesus coming is not just about God saying to the world ‘I love you! I forgive you and we are now reconciled through Christ!’ It is also about our being aware that we are responsible for our part in the creating of that kingdom, that vision of peace where there is justice for all and there will be an end of violence and aggression.
And this is good Advent news is it not. Which of us would say to the ones we love – we love you but we don’t care what you do? And would those who receive that love be justified in thinking it was a somewhat lukewarm, slightly detached or even just words. If God loves us enough to welcome us into Christ’s family, then God loves us enough to expect something of us, surely. Justice and peace need each other and, if we embrace the vision of the lion and the lamb, then we are responsible for also living it!
What can we take from this advent time then about how to live responsibly in the kingdom of peace and justice that is the kingdom of Christ?
Well look at those who gather at the manger – magi and shepherd, animal and angels, ordinary people. Christ welcomes all people, we welcome all people whatever their status, their appearance, their history, their wealth or their poverty. That is straight talking, no excuses, no rules that exclude, no judgements based on our preconceptions alone – now that is an unequivocal message - worthy of John!
And look at the lifting up of vulnerability – not in the halls of power was the Christ child born but in a manky stable, to parents well down the social change who had to flee in the end from powers that would destroy them. Take care of the poor, cherish the week, feed the hungry and lift up the downtrodden. No mistaking the clarity of that message either, says preacher John!
Go where you have to, the ends of the earth if need be, to welcome the Christ. The magi travelled distance, the shepherds traversed angels and an unknown welcome at the stable, Mary and Joseph walked in faith with their God despite an unexpected baby, an unknown future, a flight into Egypt. We travel outside of our comfort, beyond our social experiences, into dark places where our only light is Christ Jesus, put ourselves into uncertain circumstances and risk of failure to welcome the Christ in each other and in our community.
There is a verse from a hymn by Shirley Murray that we will learn sometime – but for now – the words:
Bring in your new world, child of all time,
peace without border, peace the new order,
lion with lamb;
come in the healing, sharing of bread,
justice and freedom, signs of the kingdom,
May we all choose to live in the way of peace and justice, for Christ’s sake. Amen.