Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Lions and lambs lying down together make a nice Christmas card, but we know what would happen—not a pretty ending for the poor little lamb. A shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, who was King David’s father, provides inspiration for the Advent custom of the Jesse trees like the raw wooden branches we have decorating our chancel. But what actually comes from a stump? Nothing! You cut down the tree. The roots die. Eventually the stump rots, is eaten by insects, and turns into mulch.
From beginning to end Isaiah’s poetic prophecy describes impossible possibilities. Lions and lambs cannot lie down together. Stumps do not produce shoots. Death cannot produce life. It’s impossible—right?
Aggression and domination fuel the process of natural selection. It’s what makes the great wheel of evolution go ‘round. But Isaiah doubles down. The day will come when little children will play with poisonous snakes—what! Maybe in Disney movies, otherwise any child playing with poisonous snakes isn’t long for this world.
But then, Isaiah isn’t talking about this world. Isaiah is talking to this world, about a very different world. Could the impossible become a possibility? In many ways Isaiah lived in the same world we do. It was a world of corruption, violence, and injustice. Powerful nations conquered weaker ones. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the invading Assyrians. The rulers of God’s people trusted in military might more than they trusted God. Those in power saved themselves. Those who needed protection most received the least.
We know this world. It is a world where everyday people are killed in drive-by shootings and by suicide bombers. It is a world where walls are erected between people and hatred is on the rise. Poisonous snakes take many forms. It is a world in which the richest nation, today more wealthy than it has ever been in its entire history, has billions for bombs but less and less to offer the hungry and the homeless.
Into this violent fallen world Isaiah paints a picture of peace—an impossible possibility. It is a picture of creation—restored. A world God once again deems fit to call “very good.” It is a picture of life—transformed. Dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest gives way to the world as God intended it to be. It is a world of people who rely solely upon grace. “God will wipe every tear from their eyes:” and “death will be no more.” (Revelation 21:4)
Actually, we have not one but two Advent prophets in today’s scriptures. We have Dreamy Isaiah, and Fiery John the Baptist. In this season of warm-fuzzies, John makes us a little uncomfortable. You won’t find any Christmas cards with him on the cover. He’s another one who is hard to figure out.
“John planted himself in the middle of nowhere. He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there…” and not just trouble, but plenty of danger too. (Barbara Brown Taylor)
To hear John preach about repentance and baptism, a pilgrim from Jerusalem had to take that treacherous Jericho road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan. They had to trek through blazing desert, carrying all their own food and water, traversing hills and lonely canyons infested with bandits to Jericho and then beyond—to the wilderness beside the Jordan far away from everything.
Ask yourself. Who would have made such a journey? Who would risk it? Who would be so desperate? I bet you know. They were people hungry and thirsting for justice. People fed up and impatient with the world as it is, eager to be part of the world as it should be—the world as even now it struggles to be. They are people who know God fills the world to overflowing with promise and grace. They went to the desert to become midwives of a new creation of impossible possibilities. In other words, they were people like you and me.
Many had nothing left to lose. Their lives counted for very little. They had lost hope of building a life for themselves. Often God’s little ones are the first to hear the angels or to follow the leading star. They were people like we hear so much about in scripture—people on the margins, outcasts, thieves, and sinners who flocked to hear John the Baptist—and right behind them came a second group of people—those sent out to keep tabs on the people who live on the margins, to be sure things didn’t get out of hand.
That sets the scene of our gospel today. John announces the Lord’s coming. He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He speaks of fiery judgment, and of wrath to come. Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo on having a very merry Christmas.
John’s Baptism of fire is bad news to those in authority and anyone peddling Christmas like a commodity, but good news to the poor, the grieving, the victims of violence, those who suffer injustice, and anyone longing for the kingdom of God.
Isaiah’s dream and John’s baptism is impossibly good news for everyone. Isaiah and John boldly declare God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize –even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. The old ways are passing away. Even now, God is bringing something new out of the old, making what was impossible possible. A branch now grows from the dead stump of Jesse. See there is something that sparkles now among these dead branches. Lions may lay down with lambs. Death has given way to life.
In his little book, called Peace, bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about Isaiah, “…the effect of the poem is to expose the real abnormalities of life, which we have taken for granted. We have lived with things abnormal so long that we have gotten used to them and we think they are normal.” John and Isaiah reveal the nearness of God’s reign –and expose the upside-down dreams our so-called common sense is built on. Isaiah and John awaken us instead to be a part of God’s dream for this world.
In a time when we can’t seem to agree anymore even about the facts, John and Isaiah have clearly set out the goals: strive for justice and peace. We can find the truth among our wildly different social and political policies by measuring how effective each is in helping us make progress toward realizing the peaceable kingdom—end of story. But they also warn, “The peaceable kingdom for which we long may require that we put an ax to resentments and biases that are rooted in our hearts. We may have to winnow our greed and overindulgence; we may have to let God burn away the chaff of our impatience. Only then will the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the child and the cobra find rest under widespread branches of a sheltering tree in the peaceable kingdom” (Dianne Bergant). Only then will we find a new way of life between the already and the not yet—find the opening, by God’s grace, to what is possible hidden within the impossible.