“A New Normal”
I didn’t want to preach about John the Baptist this morning. As you may have noticed, John the Baptist shows up every year during Advent. And he can be a little scary, as he scolds and chides and warns the people to repent and to flee from the wrath to come.
Instead of preaching about repentance, I wanted to focus on the beautiful, peaceful images from the earlier prophet, Isaiah. I didn’t want to get stuck with the image of the axe lying at the root of the trees. I wanted to talk about the new shoot growing out of the tree stump instead.
But as I explored the text in Isaiah, it kept leading me right back to John the Baptist and the one coming after him. And so, you will have a sermon today that is inspired by two prophets… Isaiah and John.
The prophet Isaiah wrote about a vision of peace. He predicted that peace would be achieved through the leadership of a righteous ruler in the line of King David. Poetically, Isaiah wrote: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
And Isaiah described the perfect leader who would surpass even the beloved King David: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord… [and] with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…”
As Christians reading this text, our minds quickly leap to think of Jesus. He is the one coming in the line of Jesse and David. He is the one with God’s Spirit on him. He is the one coming with wisdom and understanding, coming both to judge and to bring good news to the poor, the outcast, and the troubled ones of the world.
The author of the letter to the Romans certainly comes to that conclusion. He points to Christ specifically as the one who fulfills the vision of Isaiah. Jesus is the root, or the offshoot, of Jesse, David’s father. And Jesus’ resurrection fulfills the hope not only of those people of God already waiting for a righteous leader, but also of Gentiles (“outsider” nations) who also need hope.
But Isaiah first proclaimed his vision of peace many hundreds of years before the time of Jesus. And I think his words were intended to bring hope for the near future when a new ruler would help the people out of their current troubles and conflicts with their neighbours.
We aren’t sure whether the text dates from the time of the threat of the Assyrians (8th century BCE) or from that of the Babylonians (6th century BCE). But either way, the political situation of the people of Israel was in total disarray, and they desperately needed some leadership to help them through.
Into this setting, however, just when things appear hopeless and the future looks very bleak, the prophet promises that God will send a leader who will rule with justice towards all, and with mercy towards the most vulnerable in society.
The promises are astounding and perhaps unbelievable. The “order of nature” that we learn about in biology class, the violence of predators that we accept as natural, will be overturned. The rules of life will be changed, bent in the direction of gentleness and peace. And the new leader will create an environment so void of wickedness that even the animal kingdom is transformed. “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.”
Though the Gospels never speak of the animals being affected by Jesus’ coming, it is still difficult for us to keep Jesus out of our minds as we read this passage. We can’t imagine any human leader accomplishing these things. And both Matthew and Luke tell us stories about the birth of Christ, emphasizing the fact that Jesus was born in poverty, simplicity, and in extreme vulnerability. The little child leading the wild animals to live in peace and harmony sounds a lot like the humble Christ coming into our world to bring reconciliation and peace.
Isaiah’s vision does seem a bit much though, doesn’t it? In the Advent Book Study we are doing this year, Walter Brueggemann calls the vision “outrageous!” It’s absurd to think of these animals living peacefully together. After all, as much as I used to hate it when my cat managed to catch a bird or a mouse in the back yard, it’s natural for some animals to attack and eat others.
Walter Brueggemann, in his book, “Peace,” considers this aspect of Isaiah’s vision: “Unheard of and unimaginable! All these images of unity sound to me so abnormal that they are not worth reflecting on. But then I look again and notice something else. The poet means to say that in the new age, these are the normal things. And the effect of the poem is to expose the real abnormalities of life, which we have taken for granted. We have lived with things so abnormal so long that we have gotten used to them and we think they are normal.”
Some people have suggested that God didn’t create a world in which animals and humans would kill and eat each other. They notice in Genesis that God gives “every green plant for food” to “every beast of the earth,” and they wonder whether the normal we know so well (of animals eating other animals) is actually abnormal – something that has gone wrong in the order of things. Perhaps some vegetarians would agree with this.
And perhaps all of us would agree if we took a look at the meat industry today… at the poor treatment of so many animals, at the hormones used, at the processing, at all the abnormal things that have become normal parts of our diet. And it’s not just WHAT we eat or HOW MUCH we eat that has become abnormal. Just think of all the negative things that we just accept as normal parts of our lives and try not to worry too much about.
How about the fact that many of us work way too much? We spend way too much time working and earning money so that we can buy more and more things that we think we need to make us happy. But what we miss is time with our families and friends, time to volunteer in the community, time to be a part of a community, and time to do what brings meaning and purpose to our lives.
Just one example is a nurse I heard about recently who was not earning enough at her full-time hospital job to pay her expensive rent in Toronto. So she picked up an extra job so she’s now working 6 days a week, 12 hour shifts. She’s got three children at home that she hardly gets to see!
Is it possible that we’ve started to think of this schedule as normal when it’s not? Is it possible that God is calling us to give some things up, to set some priorities, and to be good stewards of our time?
And then there’s the relatively normal situation of having a friend or relative from whom we’ve become estranged. We just don’t talk to each other anymore. We just can’t get along. I couldn’t forgive her for what she said. He refused to give me another chance after I let him down again.
Is it possible that we’ve become too accustomed to living with brokenness in our lives and relationships? Is it possible that God is calling us to the hard work of making peace?
Of course, there’s the work of making peace in our own relationships, which is difficult enough. And then there’s the larger task of making peace in the world. So many of the trappings of war and violence have become so pervasive that they may seem normal to us.
Gang violence on our streets and racism in our schools are simply the reality. Conflicts between cultures, religions, and races seem to be inevitable. And everywhere you go, leaders and nations are squabbling over land and power and wealth.
Is it possible that we have seen so much evidence of the human inability to get along that we no longer even hope or pray for peace? Is it possible that God is telling us not to give up? Is it possible that God is calling us to keep on working for peace with justice for the whole world?
An important word that is featured in today’s Gospel reading is “repentance.” John the Baptist is out in the wilderness proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Simply put, “repent” means “turn around.” It means “go in a new direction.” It’s like the GPS in your car is talking at you incessantly, telling you to turn around, because you’re going the wrong way!
Actually… there’s an interesting image for us to consider. More and more, over the last few years, I’ve been using Google Maps to find my way around when I’m travelling. It works really well when I’m driving around cities or neighbourhoods that I don’t know because it figures out the best routes, predicts pretty accurately what time I will arrive, and it gives me nice clear instructions on when and where to turn.
But sometimes, if I make a wrong turn, or if I choose to go a different way, it can get totally mixed up. It keeps trying to send me back to my starting point so I can begin again and get it right, and that can mean going in circles.
What I discovered after a while, was that when I get off course and the system gets confused, the best way to fix it is to begin again. I don’t mean driving back to the starting point. But I mean cancelling the trip on my phone, and starting again from where I’m at now. Same destination. Different starting point. All the twists and turns of the trip so far… erased.
Could that be a good, contemporary image for repentance? It’s not that we have been such terrible awful people. Maybe we’ve made a few wrong turns. Maybe we’ve chosen the wrong route. Or perhaps some of the negative things like conflict and broken relationships and mixed up priorities have started to feel normal for us. We’re just living with all those problems as if they are inevitable, and we’ve going around in circles a little bit.
John the Baptist talked about the axe lying at the root of the trees, ready to chop them down to their stumps. And I suppose that is one way to begin again. Start fresh. Re-set the GPS. Let go of the past, and make some new decisions and set some new directions for the future.
But we must not be discouraged when we are called to begin again in a new direction, even if it feels like we’ve been cut down to a stump again. We must remember that hopeful vision of Isaiah… the one that we, as Christians, see fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Even when the tree is but a stump… even when it seems dead and gone and impossible to save… “A shoot shall come out from the [tree stump], and a branch shall grow out of [its] roots.”
And in Jesus Christ, life will triumph over death, goodness over evil, and light over darkness. The abnormal things of the world to which we have become accustomed will be revealed. And when they are removed, a new normal full of peace and harmony and justice and love will have the opportunity to grow and flourish. Thanks be to God.