“An Antidote for Nostalgia”
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
We move into the readings for the second Sunday of Advent. We light the candle of peace. Then we hear another reading from the prophet Isaiah, and catch our first glimpse of the prophet John the Baptist. If the hope is to gentle us towards the warm and fuzzy Christmas feeling, we are heading in the wrong direction. These readings have sharp edges. Handle them with care or they will bite you. We want to get to the place of peace and serenity, but to get there this week we need to pass through some harsh biblical territory.
Background on this weeks readings:
Here we have the biblical basis for what the Quakers called “the peaceable kingdom”- a vision of a world in which natural enemies would be friends, wolves and lambs, lions and fatlings, children and snakes. The prophet envisions a day when we are not in the grip of our least redeemable instincts, but rather can rise above our impulses and live in harmony, peace, compassion. And for Christians it has been easy to imagine the child in this passage as a reference to the child of Bethlehem. Read Jesus into this passage and it is a short jump from Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom to Jesus’ Kingdom of God, and the motley community that gathers around the table of grace.
This harmonious community is hard to achieve and the early church was no closer to the it than we are today. Wherever there are differences in ability, gift, power, intellect, interest, political convictions, religious beliefs and inclination, there will be differences of opinion and conflict. Paul, in an attempt to call people to draw on their deeper character, and rise above these differences between the Jews and gentiles of the church in Rome, sees Christ as the image of this beloved community way of being.
And then there is John the Baptizer- the wild man of the wild land, living on locusts and wild honey, preaching that you can’t get to beloved community, to a peaceable kingdom unless you let go of a few things. “Repent!” Change your ways. And those who expect that whatever beloved community God is creating has a place for them in it by heredity and not by heart have another thing coming.
Matthew believes that the one to usher in the new realm of peace had someone ahead of him “preparing the way.” The seeds of this new way needed fertile ground, and John was the tiller of the ground. There is great debate about the relationship between John and Jesus, and whether or not they actually had the same vision, but clearly, as Matthew and others looked back on it, John’s stirring call for “metanoia” (turning around), repentance, having a thorough change of heart and mind tilled the ground for Jesus’ arrival.
John’s was not a gentle approach. He was not a diplomat. He was the disruptive presence at the dinner party, the one nobody wants to sit beside because he is likely to say things that are embarrassingly true, and say them in a way that makes everyone uncomfortable. He comes across like a sour tonic, good for you but hard to swallow. As I think about what the peaceable kingdom requires in the real world, I am beginning to question the value of my gentle approach and my good liberal upbringing. Some churches are dying of this very way of being. I think they call it terminal niceness. Maybe there is a time when the only way to the peaceable kingdom is through a rough and tumble turning around.
I am also thinking about metanoia, the greek word used here for repentance, turning around. In what ways do we as individuals, as churches, as communities, and as a global community, need to turn around, do an about face, change our ways?
1. What is your response to the vision of Isaiah? Do you believe that we can rise above our more predatory impulses and find the way of peace? Where have you seen it happen? What does it take?
2. What do you think of John’s approach? Have you known any disruptive people who have brought a prophetic word of truth that was uncomfortable? How do you respond? Have you ever done that yourself?
3. What needs to “turn around” in your life in order to make the peaceable kingdom a reality?