“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.”
Wolves with lambs? Lions with calves? Children playing with poisonous snakes? You can’t be serious! Comedian Woody Allen, commenting on this passage, said, “The lion and the calf may lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep!” Reading this passage, I thought of renowned entertainers Siegfried and Roy, who made a living at the Mirage in Las Vegas play-acting some kind of fantasy with lions and tigers. Everything seemed magical until one of the tigers decided to drag Roy around by the neck. Apparently it was all just a mirage. I think they’re retired now.
Isaiah’s great vision of integration and harmony has the ring of someone dreaming the impossible dream, and yet it’s amazing what power such poetic and intuitive visions have.
Sitting in the doctor’s office last week I found myself glancing through Canadian Business magazine (Nov. 10 issue), which featured an article on Apple Computers CEO Steve Jobs and the advent of the iPad. This company has been amazing since Day One, and this device has vastly exceeded everything the experts predicted. The amazing thing was the way in which Apple introduced the device to the market – without the usual testing of the waters through focus groups and market surveys. Apple didn’t have a lot of fanfare and advertizing media build-up – they just said, here it is. They were convinced this radical new device would appeal to people and took a big risk in putting it out there. As the article suggests, Steve Jobs operates with his own agenda and “only after the ipad appeared the public realized they did indeed want such a device”. Andrew Brown of Strategy Analytics said “To create a brand new product category, it takes a pretty ballsy company” The New York Times’ David Carr went much further in saying, “There hasn’t been this much hype about a tablet since Moses came down from the mountain.”
By the way, some bright person has since thought of a church application for the ipad and so we now have the “i-pulpit” – a church pulpit with ipad designed right into it. It retails for about $750 – what a great Christmas gift that would be for some cutting-edge pastor! LOL
“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.” As John the Baptist reminds us, every now and then the axe needs to be laid to the tree, because things become too staid, people become too cynical to be moved or motivated by anything, and we get mired in mediocrity – frustrated and unhappy partly because we know somewhere within ourselves that there must be a better way.
It was to a nation deep in the grip of acedia (a profound spiritual apathy much deeper than depression) that Isaiah offered his great and inspired vision of the possibility of a new kind of world – a world in which the shalom of God would emerge. And roughly 700 years later, it was to a world characterized by violence and oppression that the Christ of God showed up in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Only a few people, like John the Baptist, saw it coming. Advent wakes us up to the fact that these breakthrough moments can and do happen – that there are times when the sun comes shining through the darkest storm clouds.
We live in an age of technological wonders and miracles – things our grandparents would have said were impossible have now become commonplace. In this world you do not see companies and individuals clinging to the past. You don’t see anyone promoting rotary phones and Commodore computers. Companies are future oriented and if they’re not they’re history almost as fast as you can Google the word “obsolete.”
To the Pharisees and Sadducees, John said, Stop clinging to history – stop trusting in yesterday. A new day is dawning and you’re not ready for it – a new day you can barely begin to imagine. At times, our history counts for nothing – it’s all about how we relate to the future. John the Baptist speaks to us of that revolutionary, radical dimension of faith. John was the son of a Temple priest, but he abandoned the conventional ways of his father, dressed like a 1st Century hippie, lived in the desert, and embraced the future whole-heartedly. And when the future arrived, in all its amazing glory, he didn’t stand in its way.
Christians are largely known as purveyors of tradition, and while it’s good to be rooted and grounded, a tree needs to have more than roots to be viable. We are typically not seen as heralds of the future or of a new way of being.
The quote about Apple’s daring move is appropriate: “only after the ipad appeared the public realized they did indeed want such a device.” I believe the church is meant to be a signpost, a place where we explore the possibilities that people like Isaiah and John and Jesus himself articulated. Maybe only when this kind of community appears, will people realize that Yes, that is what they truly want and need. Too often we point to the past instead of embodying the new way of being.
Isaiah’s vision, and John’s intensity, point us toward the God-factor in life. The shalom of God is not an invention; the coming of the kingdom is not something we create; Eden is not a complete fantasy. We just need to be open to the possibility. This dream is beyond us, because it is impossible, but I think that’s partly the point – that we need another dimension in our lives, we need the Spirit of God, and when we connect with that Spirit, new possibilities spring into being – as Isaiah says, water flows in the desert and life springs up in the wilderness. If we go around trying to duplicate the past, or copying someone else, we end up with unfortunate social experiments that really miss the point. If we push visions aside as frivolous, we end up wedded to the mundane. Some things are more about inspiration than perspiration. As Jesus said, “I have overcome the mundane.”
It’s like every year Advent opens a door in the wall of the cosmos and invites us to step over the threshold into a new life. Isaiah and John give us a glimpse into what this new life of the kingdom of God might be like. But there couldn’t be a better symbol of the nature of this spiritual transformation than the birth of the Christ Child. Birth is the epitome of renewal and change, and everyone who has had one knows that a child changes everything.
The scriptures remind us that at times of deep gloom and darkness, great visions and movements have emerged which have changed the way we see things and given new hope and purpose. We have not collectively arrived at the shalom of God yet, where the wolves of the world stop preying on the sheep, the vulnerable are no longer cowed by the roaring of lions, and the violent learn from the gentle, but through history some people (like Francis of Assisi, Brother Roger of Taize, Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier) have demonstrated that it can happen. As the image of the child and the serpent suggests, sometimes a new generation will reach out and touch what the old generation was afraid of.
This morning I was up about 5 (as usual) to work on my sermon, and at one point, trying not to disturb Sue, who was still sleeping, I found myself stumbling around in the dark because my eyes had become used to the bright light of my study. Stumbling around in the dark, trying not to wake anyone – now there’s an Advent image for you! Stumbling in the dark, though, I realized something else – Isaiah and John were people of the light who knew how to see in the darkness. Advent reminds us that we are indeed people of the light, but we need to learn to let that light shine so that others can perceive something of the glory of God.
We need visions and visionaries – we need prophets, mystics, poets, and artists. We need people like Steve Jobs who will push the envelope and point to the future. We need people – like Martin Luther King — who will dare to articulate the dreams within them – but we also need people – like Rosa Parks — who will dare to embody the dream with faithful and courageous decisions and actions in the here and now. Creating the new community, the place of healing and reconciliation and shalom, and becoming an oasis of support and understanding and peace, a place where integration and unity happens, is what the Church is all about. I believe we are that community in which dream and action meet at the altar of God.
So as St Paul said: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify God . . . and may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The Rev. Grant Rodgers
RCL-appointed readings: Isaiah 11:1-10: Psalm 72: 1—7; Romans 15: 4—13; Matthew 3: 1–12