St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church
Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11: 1- 10
Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19
Matthew 3: 1-12
Kiss of the Viper
There’s a game that we discover in childhood that never seems to lose interest for us, no matter our age. It’s the animal game. The game asks, “What animal do you think you would be if you were transformed in this very moment?” You are not given days to ponder this, you must respond with your very first thought. Then having produced the name of the animal that immediately materialized from deep with your subconscious, the next question arrives….why?
If ever there were a game that introduced self-awareness and knowledge of one’s true characteristics and attributes, this is it. If you are a lion, you must answer why…..do you like to be a predator, or are you just proud? Are you strong and kingly, gentle of heart but dedicated to providing for your family and their very survival in a world that makes surviving hard? Or are you a lamb, seemingly innocent and pretty to the eye, unassuming and cautious? Or smart enough to know your own in a flock and to understand the commands that come to the sheepdog almost as quickly as the dog himself. Who are you and how do you relate to all other living things? How do you elicit harmony and hope in your relationships and how do you find harmony and hope in your own life?
These are the questions we are asked to ponder today, on this second Sunday of Advent. To move from the darkness into the light, requires trust and no small measure of faith. To continue moving toward the light…..requires a determination to hope and a dedicated quest for harmony.
Isaiah points to predators and prey with an ability to overcome their violent instincts when they recognize the presence of a greater spirit…..a spirit of wisdom, of justice and fairness with no tolerance for those who would disturb their newfound peaceable kingdom. We naturally gravitate toward the images he presents of wolf and lamb, of leopard and goat, of calf and lion, of cow and bear.
On the surface we can visualize a picture that is almost cute, and yet to allow this cheapens the experience of envisioning the hope that the images hold. And deep in our souls we ask ourselves, if the animals can find their way to the peaceable kingdom, can we?
We are fascinated by the prospect because we know in our hearts it seems impossible and a rarity indeed to see predator and prey lie down together. Every now and then we receive photographs via the internet of seemingly impossible harmony between known animal enemies. We are intrigued and pleased by them because we understand that such possibilities are so very rare and they evoke insights into the way things could be for all of us. Yet we know that there is little possibility for such phenomena. Leopard with kid, calf and lion, little children playing happily with snakes that do not bite and the rest….really?
Isaiah’s images seem filled with absurdity in our understanding.
Nevertheless, we love the possibilities and the hope carried within the images knowing full well that they summon up our deepest hopes and desires for our world to find that harmony, living as we do, in a world that is anything but harmonious….filled with terrible predators to prey on our hope for peace.
We use every ounce of our energy to offset the constant delivery of bad news every day….terrorism, climate change, natural disasters and accidents. For some of us, the predators strike closer to home….we know how the snake strikes and how the lions can tear us apart. No matter the size of our own personal battleground, our hearts are not immune to pain and have learned to make room for anxiety. Most of us have become experienced in coping with all manner of powerful predators upon our longed-for peace and tranquility.
Isaiah promises that we will one day find the peaceable kingdom, but it isn’t easy for we humans to put the past far enough behind us in order to find it….it isn’t easy to heal from our losses, our hurts and our regrets. So we look to Isaiah to bring his message not from the past into the future, but to deliver his message to us today…now. Perhaps that will make more sense for us. For out of what is left of our own circumstances, be they on the world stage, or in our homes or in our hearts, out of the stump of all we have encountered and have brought to this moment, comes Advent …..carrying its small glimmer of green ……its tiny sprig….with its roots buried deep within us, deep with our human condition, carrying with it its shoot of life that has found its way through what seemed to be desolate….extremely obscure….or even dead to us before.
We are always a little surprised by the appearance of the shoot, even though we should know full well about its consistency and determination on living….. and that we should trust in its unfailing existence. For most of the year, we forget the quiet power of its appearance on this day …..and in a way, this Advent Sunday bids us take notice of it again, lest we miss it in our hurry to get to the wider, attention-getting story that is easier for the world to understand at Christmas.
For much of the world will not notice the little shoot. It comes when least expected….when not expected at all. It comes from a glimmer that is determined to overcome all that has conspired to conquer it…it comes from a divine protection and nurture of something new and possible and hope-filled….. out of what we thought was long since gone to long-forgotten dreams. It cannot be ignored by those who would stop to notice it, because it is there for us to see…..to wonder at….to be awed by. It is powerful in its invitation to us to dare to believe again….to believe in the shoot….to believe in hope.
As God’s faithful children, we are reminded again by the shoot we call Hope. As Christians reading the ancient words of Isaiah, we cannot help but understand the words to reveal the coming of Christ to make all things new in the world…to reinterpret the meaning of power. How will we live into the coming of Christ’s light by reinterpreting our own lives? How will the wolf and the lamb that we know so well, come to be reconciled within us? How do we create our own peaceable kingdom within so that with Christ, we can begin to transform the world?
As we move further into Advent, we are asked to examine the areas in our lives that look like Isaiah’s old stump. We must each ask ourselves what is the nature of our weakness and what is the nature of our aggression. What are our old perceptions of our circumstances and our situation, personally and in the world? How do we describe our own brand of power? How do we use it and against whom do we bare its ferocious teeth.
Last week we heard the word to ready ourselves to work together with Christ for the transformation of the world from darkness into light.
Yet there can be no transformation in creation, no harmony out of chaos, no peaceful companionship between predator and prey without human intention to change….. without faith and hope in the coming of Christ.
Surely we must have learned by now that our earthly leaders will never reach the heights of wisdom, justice, reverence and righteousness necessary to create peace. We cannot produce such a one, because we are all human. So we are called to place our hope and prepare the way for a new kind of leader, one in whom we can trust because he is coming into the world….not from the trial and error of our human condition,….but from the mystery of the Divine.
We cannot read these words from Isaiah without longing for the coming of this new kind of leadership….this new King…this world made new. This is a King who invites us to join with him in the work that must be done to create a different kind of existence for us and for all creation. Is it too much for us, we ask? Are we the faithful David in a Goliath world?
And yet, it is God’s desire and God’s intent that the new creation will be accomplished and we are called to assist, noticing as we do, that human kind is not always at center stage, as are the animals and a few little children in today’s lessons. Perhaps that is because we have more dying to do than they…. before we can create ourselves anew. Perhaps that is because we cannot seem to stop circling our enemies, fangs bared, ready to bring the other down. The animals are not cute, yet they appear today as more evolved than we. . We are not a pretty sight and still delude ourselves into thinking we are already too evolved to learn more.
And just when we thought we had mastered our own art of living, here comes John the Baptist, calling us out on our self-absorption and self-gratification……scaring the heck out of everyone who had ears to listen 2,000 years ago and again today! Even then, some people were confessing their sins, making themselves right with God, preparing to walk in the way of the one who would lead them to the light and John was baptizing them. But when the Pharisees and the Sadducees showed up, full of religious piety and plenty of hypocrisy, John let them have it. And just when we were feeling warmly comfortable knowing that the coming of Christ into the world had to do with a baby in a manger and the divine power of all that, here comes a passage with Cousin John at his most cantankerous. We’d so much rather do without John’s rhetoric throwing cold water on our warm feelings as we edge toward the Christmas card scene. We’re such a brood of vipers!
Our religious piety and hypocrisy will get us every time……ready to sting when we have to in order to stay on the course we consider to be ours by right.
John doesn’t pull any punches about our sense of entitlement, our upper hand as humans, our piety as Church. And just as he was then, John is very annoying, disturbing our personal agendas and our complacency. John wants to judge us just when we were about to start singing Silent Night at Walgreens. What’s more, he wants to make sure we understand that the coming of Christ isn’t all hearts and flowers either….and we quake a little at that judgment still to come. We can’t help asking ourselves….as we view ourselves from these different perspectives…….are we wheat or are we chaff? Are we predator or are we prey?
Whether the words come to us as the softly veiled warnings of an ancient prophet or from the words that are delivered with a two by four from a crazy preacher in the desert who wants to get our attention…..now is the time for us to get real about our faith in the promise now appearing in our lives……the promise of One who is coming…..the One who will bring both acceptance and forgiveness for our sins and will admonish us for them at the same time. It is the message for us at this Second Sunday of Advent. God loves us as God always has and always will, but the responsibility to prepare ourselves to walk with God is ours and ours alone.
Advent is about looking back, looking at the present and looking to the future. It is about taking the memories of the past with us as we step toward the promise of the light now making its appearance. The marking of this Advent time is important for us to sort out what is important to remember and carry with us and what is best left behind. It is a time to assess those aspects of ourselves that are no longer relevant or useful for the building of all things new. It is a time for us to make the paths straight for the coming of the Lord, by straightening our own. We look behind us to see what still lurks in the darkness before we move forward with trust into the light of the future.
Maybe Dickens had it right. The Spirits that visited Ebenezer Scrooge had him look at his past and his present before he could fully embrace the future. Scrooge learned that life isn’t a game and that it is never too late to allow oneself to be led with trust and faith into one’s own transformation.
All the voices we have heard from the past today call out to us that the time is now. Advent is our time of reckoning, for purifying our hearts and souls……a time for delighting again in the appearance of one small glimmer of hope coming into our lives…..a time for remembering and considering again the meaning of the coming of Christ. We give thanks to God for this gift for which we wait. We give thanks to God for the opportunity to straighten our paths and to prepare the way for the Lord.
Most importantly, Advent provides a time for us to practice for living our lives as they flow out of Advent, into Christmas and beyond, with faith and trust that the Light of Christ coming into the world, will make all things new.
So step out of the darkness of all you wish to leave behind…out of your past transgressions and your regrets and breathe in the fresh possibilities that surround a small shoot coming out of the stump of the old you. Name your animal, confront your inner predator and decide with whom you must make your peace so that you are made free to prepare the way for the coming of Christ into your heart. Are you the bear? The calf? The lion or the lamb? Or are you the viper and if so, how will you make your kiss sweet?
Written to the Glory of God
- J. R.Culver+
December 3, 2016