Monday, December 10, 2007

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Preached on Sunday, 9 December, 2007, at Grace Church, Ilderton and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre

“The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” (Isaiah 11:8)

This Friday I watched a toddler taking those first steps that bring a thrill of pride to every parent. One of his shoes had gone missing, and he had a runny nose, but those confident steps across the hall and that little turn in the middle had all the beauty of Wayne Gretzky on a breakaway. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I baptized this little guy, I thought? Now he’s upright and moving and that Christmas tree in the church hall may be safe from his explorations. And so it begins, one of those moments when we let our children take their first steps into the world of risk and danger. Those first steps will lead to independence and maturity, with a few bumps and scars along the way.

A few hours earlier on that same day, another family, also connected to this parish, learned that their son had just been killed in a traffic accident. A young man with his life ahead of him, all that potential, taken away from us in a few seconds. While others will enjoy the festive times and reunions ahead, those who knew and loved him will know dark and bitter days this Christmas. At some point they will be thinking, wasn’t it just yesterday that he took his first steps, said his first words, took his first driving lesson? And, as we would in their shoes, they will likely ask, how can God allow such a world of risk and danger?

This Sunday, the second week of Advent, we hear in the powerful words of Isaiah a vision of how God wants to change the world. “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” (Isaiah 11: 8). This morning, in the midst of the shock and grief of parents, families, and parish friends, scripture speaks of a world where we need no longer fear for our children. We hear of a world freed of menace and danger, where death or injury can’t strike at the deepest and most vulnerable places of our hearts.

These are words of hope, but what sort of hope do they represent? Is this peaceable kingdom that Isaiah talks about merely “over the rainbow” talk, a sweet vision of paradise in the sweet by and by, but with only the faintest comfort for our hope and fear? But is it just possible that this a robust hope worth hoisting aboard, a real promise from a real God who means what he says?

If you watch the Discovery channel or animal documentaries on TVO, you know that the wild kingdom can be shockingly wild. A cute little penguin can be swimming in the water and can be seized by a seal, which is in turn torn apart by a killer whale or polar bear. This is nature “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson once described it. Nature shows constantly remind us not to be naïve about nature, but we find in the Bible a similar clear-eyed realism (I owe this insight to some online exegesis by Frederick Geiser). The Psalmist describes how "The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God" (Psalm 104:21). How do we get from hear to the idyllic kingdom that Isaiah describes?

When Isaiah wrote his vision of a peaceful kingdom, it was a time of violence and fear. Israel in the eighth century BC was besieged by the Assyrian empire. The great kingdom that King David had built was in danger of being destroyed completely, which explains Isaiah’s reference to David’s father, Jesse, as the “stump of Jesse”. Like that old tree that until this winter stood outside Grace Church, Israel was in danger of becoming nothing more than a remnant and a memory. And so Isaiah looked not to a human rescuer, because he knew how fragile and how fallible humans were, but rather Isaiah looked to God and the one who God would send, the Messiah.

One of the great themes of Advent is hope – like Isaiah, we express the hope that God will be the Messiah, the one who comes to save and deliver his people. If you remember how a Carols and Lessons service works, one of the first stories we hear is the story of Genesis and the consequences of humanity’s decision to walk apart from God. In Genesis 3, God says that Adam can no longer eat from the fruit of paradise. Instead, ’ “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field (Gen 3:17-18). That same story from Genesis is picked up in one of our favourite Christmas carols, “Joy to the World”, in the third verse:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessing flow
Far as the curse (or “our sin”) is found. (Common Praise #154).

Another hymn that we sang last week expresses the same Advent hope that God will come to rescue his people:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel;
that mourns in lonely exile here,
until the son of God appear.

Who is the one who will come and save us? Isaiah seems to speak of a great king and hero, who will strike the earth and blow away the wicked . But when that hero’s work is done, and when the wolf and the lamb are lying down together, who do we see in the midst of this seen of peace but “a little child”? Who is it we wait for in a few weeks but a “little child” lying in a manger in the midst of animals, adored by kings and shepherds? It’s a deceptively peaceful image, because that child is born into a world of great danger. Again we remember the wisdom of the old carols, for as the Coventry Carol reminds us,

Herod, the king,
In his raging,
Charged he hath, this day,
His men of might
In his owne sight
All yonge children to slay.

The Holy Family will flee in the night as countless refugees have done since then, Herod’s soldiers commit an atrocity, leaving families to weep and mourn their children. This incident is part of Matthew’s nativity story too: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18). Mary herself, years later, would also weep mother’s tears as they lowered her son down from the cross and gave him to her for burial.

The wisdom and the realism of Christmas is that Emmanuel, God with us, comes to share our life and our world with us as it is. It is a world of beauty but also a world of pain and sorrow, still the world of the curse that Adam and Eve were sent into, still the world of nature red in tooth and claw. But giving his son to be born into the world is God’s first step to say to us, “I am with you, you are not alone”. The coming of Emmanuel, our Christmas ransom, begins with the news that God comes to be with us. That same message is picked up in today’s gospel, in the words of John the Baptist. John calls us to come back to repent and come back to God, but when Jesus comes down to the Jordan he will not come as a terrifying judge but he will come to share a common baptism with us. Once again we see Emmanuel, God with us.

How and when will the world finally be changed? How will the ground be freed, finally, of thorns and weeds? When will the lion and the lamb lie down in peace? When will our children be able to walk without fear, their safety and our hearts no longer vulnerable? These things are ultimately for God to grant, and they start to come into focus at Easter and the resurrection, but they begin, I think, with us. In Isaiah’s vision there is work for God’s people to do. Isaiah reminds us of the poor in our midst, he reminds us to deal with one another in equity and compassion and righteousness. Isaiah calls us to live in peace, to live in the knowledge of God and of his word. Likewise John the Baptist calls us to turn away from our old lives and live as God’s people and bear good fruit. This is the work that Advent calls us to, this is the work and the way of life that God calls his church to do. May we always remember as we wait, no matter how dark and how painful it may get, that God is truly with us. Amen.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007


styler said...

Isaiah is so amazing. He speaks of past, present, and future. God packed a lot into that one prophet's words.

I wanted to name my second son Isaiah, but Elijah outscored him.


styler said...

John is not often enough considered in today's church. I'm not sure of the historical reasons for that. From the use of his name it would seem that his place in the Kingdom is more often considered more in French Catholicism than in other traditions, but I may be mistaken.

John came preaching repentance. Jesus did no less. John baptised and promised someone more who would come. Jesus also baptised and now we have the Holy Spirit. But the core is repentance.

We try but often fail to remember repentance during Advent. We remember to give, but do we give the ultimate gift? John 3:16 comes to mind. But, I think the Church Fathers knew something about human nature as we observe Lent in the following months.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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