Advent 2A, December 8, 2013

The Danger of Advent Dreaming

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The 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. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax 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. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
When I was a child, my brother and I spent the weeks leading up to Christmas spending every blessed free moment reading and re-reading the gospel according to Sears and Roebuck.  Do all of you remember the “Wish Book” that Sears published every year back in the day?  The Sears Wish Book was a veritable treasure trove of kiddie delights and the stuff Christmas dreams were made of in the 1960’s.  Not only did my we read it over and over again, we circled the items we wanted Santa Claus to bring us for Christmas. I am embarrassed to admit that those big circles were around pretty much everything in the catalog.  By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, the Sears Wish Book was dog-eared and falling apart. To tell the truth, I don’t remember too many of the items Santa brought to us for Christmas, but I remember dreaming over the pages of that toy catalog.
The Sear’s “Wish Book” is long gone, but countless toy catalogs continue to be delivered to my house, the first of which usually arrive in the held mail we pick up at the end of vacation in August.  Over the years, each child has staked out a favorite.  Rachel loved the “American Girl” catalogs – remember those?  And this year, David has finally reached the tipping point where he will allow me to recycle pretty much every catalog that hits the mailbox with the exception of the “Lego” catalog.  
We’ve come to the end of the Santa Claus years at my house.  Which makes me a little sad.  I will not miss the Christmas morning tradition of cutting myself on the plastic Barbie boxes at 5 a.m. or rifling through laundry room drawers in the dark looking for that one critical battery to make a toy work (Just one AAA battery!  Didn’t I tell Santa to stock up on batteries?  Really, is that so much to ask?). I do mourn losing the excitement and breathless anticipation of these days before Christmas.
And yet – and yet – there’s something about our Advent texts that remind me a little of the “Wish Book” of my youth.  Looking at these two texts from Isaiah and Matthew, I recapture a sense of anticipation and longing that really does resemble the hyperactive breathlessness of childhood Christmases.  These words of Isaiah and John the Baptist are among the most worn out, dog-eared texts in our Bible, because these are the texts we hear year after year during Advent.  But I wonder if we come to them with breathless anticipation or really any kind of expectation.  I wonder if we still believe that these prophets might give us some idea what it is all this preparation for Christmas is about.  Do they still have the power to fuel our creative imagination?
First, we have this familiar and lilting text from Isaiah in which we hear of his dream of a small green shoot improbably emerging from a dead tree stump, eventually becoming a branch that blossoms into a peaceable kingdom where righteousness is the order of every day, and even natural enemies like wolves and lambs can live together without the lamb being fearful that he may become the wolf’s supper, and the wolf treats the lamb as friend not food.  It’s a crazy, foolish dream that Isaiah paints for us, but it is rooted in Isaiah’s deep longing for a different reality than that he can see around him.  Isaiah is hoping, despite all evidence, for God’s reality to break through.  Although we traditionally hear these texts in Advent as foreshadowing the arrival of Jesus as Messiah, many scholars think that Isaiah is hopeful that a righteous ruler may be close at hand, within Isaiah’s own lifetime.  Others think that Isaiah has a growing sense in this text that such a king may be in the far off future. 
But one thing we do know is that Isaiah is dreaming about a kingdom that just hasn’t shown up. This peaceful perfect reign of justice and righteousness hasn’t appeared.  Didn’t happen in Isaiah’s lifetime.  Didn’t happen in Jesus’ lifetime.  And Isaiah’s dream hasn’t come to pass in my lifetime and I don’t see too many signs of a peaceable kingdom coming anytime soon.  Every once in a while, I catch a glimpse, I think, but most days the kingdom of God seems about as illusory as sugar plums dancing through my head.
And yet these prophetic images of peace are our favorites during Advent.  We sing about wolves living peacefully with lambs.  We even print them on our Christmas cards, and we hang them from our Christmas trees.  But I wonder if we actually believe that a different world, a better world is possible.  I wonder if we think of this vision of Isaiah as a charming idea at Christmas time, but too outrageous to ever come true.  Somewhere along the line, we grew up and out of our hope for the peaceful world envisioned by Isaiah.
And then there’s John the Baptist who also comes roaring into Advent to proclaim the in breaking of God in a more challenging and, frankly, scary way.  Unlike Isaiah who imagines that something good might yet emerge from a stump of a dying tree, John wants pull up those stumps by the roots and burn the whole forest down if that’s what it takes to make space for this new thing God is doing.  John tells us that something is coming.  And it must be something big because there is absolutely nothing small or contained in John’s preaching. 
But, just like Isaiah, this prophet bursting onto the scene in Matthew isn’t real clear about the details of who or what he is preparing the way for.  John doesn’t have a name or a description or a timeline.  All either of these prophets want us to know is that the old ways of life are ending.  They want us to prepare without a guaranteed delivery date, but with the certainty that something powerful, beautiful and kind of terrifying is on the horizon and we better get ready.  

The time for repentance is now.  The kingdom of heaven has come near.  And all of us sitting here are nearer than we’ve ever been to the truth of their prophecies. As Paul said in the Roman’s text from last Sunday:  Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11).   Without any detailed descriptions or glossy color photos to let us know exactly what we’re getting into, Isaiah, John and Paul insist that NOW is the time to wake up and get ready for what – a new life?  A better life? 

That’s the strange and difficult thing about Advent.  We are preparing for something, but we’re not sure who or what it is we’re preparing for.  We preserve traditions –we prepare the cookie recipe we learned from our grandmothers, we hear the familiar music, we haul out the decorations carefully packed away from year to year.  We drag all those traditions out  of our attic, dust them off, hang them up, light the candles, and slip on our special sweaters with bells and holly.  Those traditions are all good and lovely things.  But our traditions can quickly become idols if we think those are things that are our source of life.  As long as our hearts and souls are full of what we are certain will sustain us, we have lost our ability to receive the surprising things that God has in store for us.  We have lost our creative imagination that allows the Spirit of God to reveal the living Christ among us, and the kingdom that is waiting for us.[1] 
This is what has been bothering me about John the Baptist this year.  I see John standing out there up to his waist in the wild swirling water of the Jordon, but I feel as if I’m stuck on shore with Pharisees and the Sadducees where the earth beneath my feet is dry and safe and reasonable.  And let’s face it — there’s nothing remotely reasonable about John the Baptist.  He has forsaken every safe and familiar thing in the world.  John has given up the comforts of home and culture, tradition and family; John has dumped all of it to become a lone man in the wilderness with a single purpose — to call out to us still standing up there on dry land that there is nothing that is packed away in our attic that can save us in the way we really need to be saved.  Nothing can save us that is familiar or easy. Our ancestors can’t save us.  Our feasts and our carols and our candles and our covenants cannot prepare us for what is to come. 
The only thing that can save us is to turn around and reclaim the radical dream of Isaiah and proclaim the peaceable kingdom NOW.  We have to climb down off the safety of shore and wade into the dangerous, churning waters of Advent with John the Baptist and be transformed so that we may bear the fruits of peace.  The fruits of joy.  The fruits of righteousness.  We are to proclaim nothing more or less than the coming of God into the world.  As crazy as it seems, as crazy as John may appear, he was God’s prophet who knew that the way of the Lord leads us away from the comfort of the familiar and into the wilderness.  And when we finally reach the Jordon River, we have to take a deep breath and take the plunge into the chilly depths.  Just like Jesus will do when he finally finds John and claims his destiny as God’s beloved son. 
I have been trying to explain the significance of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy to David this week and it has been a real struggle.  It is almost impossible for a 12 year old kid to conceive of such a brutal regime as apartheid – the systematic segregation and marginalization of a majority race of people at the hands of a minority race.  It is also nearly impossible for me to believe that the indefensible evil of apartheid was ever controversial in my own country.  I remember the controversies swirling especially around college campuses when I was a student in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Mandela had been and will be regaled as one of the greatest moral leaders of the 20thcentury and will be remembered for generations to come. 
But there was a time when Mandela wasn’t so beloved. We are wise to remember that it wasn’t so very long ago that the white government of South Africa – and many people in the United States – considered Nelson Mandela a dangerous agitator, an unwanted voice and a crazy prophet. 
A British poet and author Musa Okwonga wrote this week about how even now we try to smooth the rough edges of prophets like Nelson Mandela:

“You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens…until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us…You will say that Mandela stood above all for forgiveness whilst scuttling swiftly over the details of the perversity that he had the grace to forgive…You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance…Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mandela’s life isn’t that he spent almost thirty years jailed by well-heeled racists who tried to shatter millions of spirits through breaking his soul, but that there weren’t or aren’t nearly enough people like him.”[2]
Advent is a beautiful dream.  A crazy dream.  A dangerous dream.  It is a dream of righteousness and justice that could land you in jail.  Advent is a dream that proclaims the nearness of God and the passing of the old ways, and such a dream could cost you your head, put you on a cross or maybe even change your life.  But it is the only dream worth having for the people of God.  It is the dream that wakes us up in the middle of the night and the dream that carries us through our lives.  It is a dream that points us to the second Advent for which we prepare — not just in these few weeks before December 25th —  but every day we find ourselves dreaming about a world without war or violence.  A world without disease.   A world without poverty or hunger.  A world in which every child is safe.  If we can dream it, we can trust that God will do it.
Let us prepare our hearts and our imaginations to make a glorious dwelling for Jesse’s root.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor.  “Saving Space” in Mixed Blessings.  43.