This is the Sunday during Advent when the gate crasher arrives. Here we are preparing for the birth of the baby Jesus, the sweetest time of the year when we sing our favorite carols and listen to the mystical tales of angels, shepherds, kings, and a star. We imagine donkeys and cows and baby lambs. And on the second Sunday, without fail, every year John the Baptist intrudes on our celebration. Suddenly we’re out in the scorching light of the desert sun being threatened with hell fire and brimstone—okay, John never mentions brimstone, but he does paint a pretty vivid picture of hell fire. “You brood of vipers!” he shrieks at the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Merry Christmas. . .from John the Baptist. You don’t see him on Christmas cards. But we do see the image from the other prophet we heard this morning, Isaiah—the lion and the lamb lying side by side smiling for the camera in perfect peace—actually, that’s one of my favorite Christmas cards.
John the Baptizer preaches and baptizes for repentance. Isaiah yearns for the peaceable kingdom in which the new king (whose coronation this was most likely written for) will rule with wisdom and righteousness. In this kingdom “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. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They 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.” You can’t have one prophet without the other. I’ll tell you why. One cynic has said that for the wolf to lie down with the lamb, one would need a practically inexhaustible supply of lambs. The hope for reconciliation in Isaiah demands that the wolf has to stop eating lamb. That’s a drastic behavioral change for a wolf. And the lamb would have to overcome its instinct to run and hide—again, a 180° turnaround in behavior.
That’s what John the Baptist meant by repentance—a 180° turnaround, doing the opposite thing. People, ordinary people, were coming out to the wilderness where he was baptizing in the river
They confessed their sins and sought to have those sins washed away by the
ritual cleansing John offered. He yelled at the Pharisees and Sadducees because
he took issue with their spiritual arrogance and lack of remorse for behaviors
about which we can only speculate. While not everything that he says is helpful,
John’s genius was in offering a ritual for repentance and a challenge to change behaviors so there was evidence of true
repentance. It’s one thing to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s another thing to
change my behavior so that I do not injure again in the same way. Remember that
a sin is not some arbitrary restriction or taboo, but something that hurts
either myself or someone else. Jordan
We often describe a fool as “one who does the same thing over and over expecting different results.” That’s what John is addressing—our very human tendency to do the same thing over and over, while hoping for different results. Apply that unrealistic hope to Isaiah’s yearning for the peaceable kingdom. We want there to be peace, the kind of peace where there are no predators, where the wolf can dwell with the lamb, where the rich do not prey upon the poor to enhance their wealth; where armies do not kill, loot, and conquer; where children are safe. We want a world free from pollution, free from violence, free from terrorism, free from hunger, poverty, disease, and addictions. Are we willing to change our behaviors to get that kind of world, or are we fools continuing to live the same way today, hoping for a different outcome tomorrow?
I’ll be the first to admit that I am a fool. I am astonished at my ability to hope for a different outcome without changing my behaviors. I am always asking God for forgiveness and a new start without taking advantage of the new start to try a new approach. It’s like the wolf asking forgiveness for eating the lamb every night, saying, “Bring on another lamb tomorrow, God. You’ll see, I’ll be different.”
Eric H. F. Law is an Episcopal priest of Chinese descent whose book The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb applies Isaiah’s dream to cultures learning to reside together and work side by side. He insists that in order to work with another person, you first have to understand yourself. Before there is any dialogue between cultures, individuals are required to assess the messages that they have learned through their own families and cultures. No one else is like me. No one else is like you. We heard different messages growing up. We learned how to cope differently. We have very unique personalities. If we are going to live peacefully, we have to find out who we are and how we live and be open to changing behaviors that hurt, devour, or destroy ourselves or others. How carefully we need to listen to one another to really understand. How damaging it is to make assumptions, especially the assumption that we think, perceive, feel, or act as another does.
None of us likes change. Change is hard, but it is possible. If there is something that you would like to change in your life, concerning your health, your finances, your marriage, a friendship, the way you discipline your children, your school work, consider John’s words, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” That means that wholeness is ours to live into. Peace is already ours to live into. The power to change, to turn around, is already ours through the presence of the Holy Spirit because the
is ours right now, right here, for the living—for “the earth will be full of
the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” kingdom of God
In God's Peace, power and vulnerability lie together. This peace does not ignore conflict or difference; rather, in this peace the vulnerability in power and the power of vulnerability become companions. Neither threatens the other; instead, the friendship of power and vulnerability transforms expected hostilities into deep, deep peace. When we read these ancient words, we can feel it: This peace is what God means for our lives.
Nelson Mandela, who died this week, was living proof that it can be done. The work is hard; the sacrifice is great; the peace is fragile. But it is possible. The vision and the promise endure. So we await Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the final coming of Christ to transform human history—and [the lion and the lamb; vulnerability and power] are met as Christ is born in our own hearts. The world we envision is already within us. Pray for peace in the world. Pray for the healing of your own fear, and the removal of all your enmity, prejudice and division. Pray for the courage to extend grace and reconciliation to the lambs to whom you are a wolf, and the wolves to whom you are a lamb. Give thanks for the people like Nelson Mandela who shine the light of peace and justice on our path, and pray to be one of them. Welcome into your heart the little child who will lead us to the new world.