Grace Presbyterian Church
December 4, 2016, Advent 2A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
Weirdoes, Little Children, and Other Advent Saints
There are a lot of reasons I, and other people as well, find it necessary to resist the urge to plunge too soon into Christmas when Advent is still in progress. For one, this is not an area in which I think it’s a good idea for the church to follow the larger society, which has already extended “Christmas” to well before Thanksgiving and has got Halloween in its sights next (and after that look out Labor Day). For another, without the preparation and self-examination of Advent, Christmas too easily becomes a sentimental, even gooey exercise of cute decorations and rituals performed without meaning or substance, leaving us singing with Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”
Another reason, perhaps not quite as important as the above but still one I appreciate, is that if you rush too quickly through or pass over Advent, you miss out on the weirdos and crazy stuff.
Take the Old Testament readings we tend to get during the Advent season. While there is some of the talk of judgment we expect from these old Hebrew prophets, Advent is the time when we get to delve into the opposite vein of this literature. And if prophets like Jeremiah or, here, Isaiah could be incredibly harsh and stern when speaking of God’s judgment, they are also capable of getting positively trippy when they turn to the fulfillment of God’s promises in a more, shall we say, optimistic vein.
Our reading from Isaiah starts off sounding a bit like last week’s reading, using the imagery of trees and stumps and branches to suggest a forthcoming new king out of the line of David, who was, you’ll remember, the son of Jesse. It’s again a prophetic utterance that sounds a bit like a wish-list for the Ideal King – “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” it begins, and goes onto add righteousness and equity for the meek and faithfulness – along with a bit of old-fashioned enemy-smiting in verse 4.
But then verse 6 arrives, and we seem to be off on something completely different. After all, no matter how good a king might be, turning predatory animals into grass-feeders is not likely to be one of his accomplishments. And yet here is where we get these long-beloved images of wolf living with lamb, leopard with baby goat, and cow with bear, as well as lions that feed on straw rather than prey.
But don’t miss the little children – the one who will lead them in verse 6, and the infants doing all sorts of dangerous things around snakes in verse 8 without being struck. While Isaiah’s readers and hearers would not have had the highly sentimentalized image of children that we do today, they would have recognized in Isaiah’s language that these children represent vulnerability. We don’t have to be told that the smallest children, the ones young enough not to understand the dangers of the world around them, are inherently and frighteningly vulnerable. The smallest toddlers don’t quite understand that playing with snakes will get you hurt or worse. But here, these children, these most vulnerable of all, are not at all vulnerable on God’s “holy mountain.”
Clearly this is a “not yet” prophecy. And yet it is a part of what we await in Advent, that coming reunion with our Lord when no one will hurt or destroy. We know all too much of hurt and destruction. We need to hear the crazy stuff. That’s where the hope is.
Still, though, wild and trippy hopeful story that this might be, I’m not quite sure it matches up with the straight-out weirdo that shows up in our reading from Matthew.
John, sometimes called the Baptizer, looked the part of the crazy man, and his diet also fit the bill. His sermons were a bit one-note – all about “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” and the like. He wasn’t very deferential to the respectable religious authorities; they were the ones who caught the most flack from John, and calling them “brood of vipers” wasn’t likely to gain John their approval. And this is the one who was “preparing the way” for Jesus. Maybe it takes someone a little bit crazy to get us humans to wake up to the coming Messiah.
If you do much social media you may have seen a photo that recently went “viral,” as they say, of a man with a sign. The man bore a full beard and had on his cowboy hat and flannel shirt – he was, by appearance, as clearly a Texan as John the Baptizer was, well, himself. He was standing in front of a mosque in a Dallas suburb, holding that sign, and at first glance it was easy to think “oh, no, not again,” expecting a story of one of the now more than 800 incidents of racial or ethnic or religious harassment since Election Day.
But it turns out the sign he was holding up, in front of the mosque, said, “You belong. Stay strong. Be blessed. We are one America.”
After about a week of anonymous fame (the kind of thing only the internet can do), the man stepped out to tell his story and what motivated him to make this striking show of support for his neighbors. He said, “This was about binding up the wounded. About showing compassion and empathy for the hurting and fearful among us. Or, in some Christian traditions, this was about washing my brother’s feet.” He then added Matthew 25:35-36 (it starts “I was hungry and you gave me food…”, you might remember) and the poem found on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor…”).
And God bless him, he’s a Presbyterian.
We need the prophets telling crazy stories and the people doing crazy things, because sometimes they’re the ones through whom God is speaking to us, maybe even yelling at us, trying to get our attention.
Even the table we’re about to come to is a little bit crazy. We are all over the map in terms of social status, family status, economic status, place of birth, political beliefs, theological beliefs, you name it. And yet Jesus expects us all to gather at the same table, be fed from the same bread and cup, to be united in him? In a world with as much division as ever and in which churches split over any- and everything, that really is a bit crazy.
And maybe it’s just the crazy we need.
For the crazy stories and weirdoes who point us and pull us and call us back to Jesus, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#87 Comfort, Comfort Now My People
#96 On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry
#378 We Wait the Peaceful Kingdom
#383 Dream On, Dream On