Isaiah 11: 1-10, Psalm 72, Matthew 3: 1-12
In the Advent season we open our hearts again to the prophets both ancient and modern who will help us find our way on the path toward life, toward the vision that God has planned for our world, our societies and even for every heart that longs for change and renewal. Last week we met the prophet Isaiah who was a prophet that worked within the system to both critique it and to offer fresh images from Yahweh that might give them hope for a less violent world. Today we meet the one known as John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, cousin of Jesus, who emerges out of the wilderness, his mouth dripping with honey, clothed in camel hair with a urgent message from the Divine to repent, to turn away from our former paths and to find a better way.
John would know the visions that were shared by Isaiah and his followers centuries before and he finds power and hope in their words. He would know of the utopia vision given by Isaiah of a world which was radically changed, where even nature itself could be different, where the wolf would lie with the lamb, the leopard with the kid goat the calf with the lion etc., a renewed world that would be raised up by a leader that did not lead with superficial knowledge but would lead with integrity, honesty and faithfulness to the vision of God.
John believes that Jesus is the sign from God that this renewed world is possible, about to begin in fact, and that God will provide the passion and capacity to make these changes possible. John presents Jesus as the one who will bring the fire from God, his image for the Holy Spirit which will transform the world and the lives of those who allow themselves to be touched by Jesus, the Christ, the coming one.
It does not take much imagination on our part to name the more dystopian aspects of our world today, to pick up on the feelings of despair and hopelessness that pervade our lives, especially with renewed messages of urgency from the United Nations regarding climate change which is affecting both land and oceans. As we have remembered again the massacre of 14 young women who were studying to become engineers at the école Polytechnic in Montreal 30 years ago, we know that gender violence in the home and in our communities is still an ongoing reality for many.
Artists have portrayed these concerns in every generation, and I offer to you here the images of both destruction and possibility through the mind of Symeon Shimin, a Russian born immigrant to Brooklyn, New York. In 1938, Shimin was hired to paint a mural, and “Contemporary Justice and The Child” was born. It took four years to complete the mural, which can still be seen on the third floor of the Department of Justice building in Washington D.C. today.
On the left-hand side, Shimin depicts the brokenness of the nation. Looming factories billowing smoke into the sky. The haunting eye contact from a mass of poor people in shades of gray. A pair of men asleep, contorted, in the shadows. All of these situations, and the systems that are designed to support them, are in the eyes of the artist where justice is absent.
On the right-hand side are images of the activities that lead to the construction of a just land. Note the brown hands holding the tools for reconstruction in the America of the late 1930s, decades before African Americans even had the right to vote. And see women alongside men, laying blueprints out for a just land foreseeing a time when women would also be the engineers and architects. See the scientists, male and female, white and brown, innovating a just future. And enjoy the playfulness in the top right corner in a green land with clean air.
Finally, in the center, a mother and her child, remembering again how Isaiah prophesied that a child would lead them.
As we anticipate the Prince of Peace what are the messages that the children and youth are bringing to us in our day.
- Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.
- Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who is speaking out about climate change and its impact on generations to come that has now become a household name.
- Muzoon Almellehan, a Syrian activist and refugee working out of the United Kingdom to keep Syrian girls in school.
- Emma Gonzalez, survivor of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School and activist and advocate for gun control in the United States.
- Autumn Peltier who is the 2019 Chatelaine Woman of the Year for being a clean water warrior. Earlier this year, Autumn Peltier, a 15-year-old clean-water activist from the Wikwemikong First Nation in Northern Ontario, was named chief water commissioner by the Anishinabek Nation—a position previously held by her great-aunt Josephine Mandamin, whom she cites as her inspiration. In 2015, Peltier attended the Children’s Climate Conference in Sweden. The following year, she met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and insisted he do more to bring clean water to all Canadian communities where come 100 First Nations are under water advisories. Earlier this year, she delivered a speech to the Global Landscapes Forum and the United Nations General Assembly, one day after the nation-wide march against inaction on climate change. “We need to protect the habitants around all waters across the world,” she said during her address. “One day I will be an ancestor, and I want my descendants to know I used my voice so they can have a future.”
So who are the young voices in your own your own circles that you hear are leading the way towards change, who are voicing their concerns about a world that does not seem fair or just or sustainable? How will you be lending your support for the messages of challenge they are bringing, encouraging the hope that is within their hearts, whether they are taking on the larger challenges facing our world, or some personal challenge that they are overcoming? Of course, right now our students are just facing the challenge of completing final exams and need lots of encouragement to stay focused on the tasks ahead of them for the next few weeks so that their dreams can find fulfillment.
So let us go back to hearing from the prophet John who announces the coming of the One true leader who will bring both a word of judgement but also the fire of the Holy Spirit, the passion that will be needed to make changes for the better possible. These words from John can sound both harsh and terrifying, as do the words from some of our contemporary prophets, whether they be young or old. Words which sound like judgement and criticism can lead us to feel defensive and make us want to dig in our heels to making any change in our lives, to rebel against the one who offers the criticism.
Nobody likes to feel we are being criticized, or to feel that we are being judged for not being ‘good enough’. The earliest sin as we call if we go back to the Garden of Eden, is rebellion against the commandments and vision of God for our lives. Advent though is not only a time to bring a corrective lens looking outwards at our world and our society, but it is also a time to look at ourselves, and to assess the personal work we may need to do to bring our lives into more alignment with how God sees us, and might desire us to live and become so that we are freer to take our part in changing the world.
So the first unlearning we may need to do is to remove from our hearts the idea that we are not ‘good enough’, to let go of our negative self-images that we carry so that we can be more open to the spiritual work that Jesus invites us to do. As we begin our new Christian year in Advent, we are invited to begin our journey by seeing ourselves as God would see us, as beloved children, as loved, accepted for who we are with all of our wounds, failures and successes. This is the work that John called his followers to do before they entered the cleansing waters of the river Jordan, to confess their sins, to name who they really were, to be cleansed by the purifying waters of grace, God’s unconditional love.
This is the starting place of any changes we might need to make in our hearts and souls, to allow ourselves to be bathed in God’s love, a love that is capable of healing our deepest wounds which is the ongoing work of forgiveness. I can testify to the power of God’s love to bring that spiritual healing, to bring healing of painful memories, as I have had to struggle with feelings of disappointment of myself for most of my adult life. Without God’s love being continually revealed to me by Jesus Christ I am not sure what my life would have become. Sometimes that work of having to let go of negative self-images does indeed feel like have heavy chaff burned away from your heart and mind. But his goal of changing yourself is the good fruit that John speaks of that God desires and will help us achieve.
So instead of being negative, there is a way in which the judgement that Christ brings, like an ax that is lying at the root of the tree, like a winnowing fork, like a fire that burns – are all images that are positive, that give us the incentive and the energy to do the spiritual work that we may need to do to become more alive to God’s vision of who we might become. Just think if everyone found the courage to examine their own lives, their own attitudes or others, their own self-images and committed themselves to walking the spiritual path.
Now as Christian, I have found that Jesus, his teachings, the wisdom of the Apostles, the prophets, and the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are able to help us face into the truth about the world and ourselves, even the dystopian truths, but they help us to face into reality with hope. But I also have great respect for people who find meaning and hope and the capacity to make changes through other spiritual traditions and practices, those practices focused on bringing peace and justice to the world. All of these are joined together through the creative mind and heart of God that is still alive in renewing this life and stretching our imaginations and hearts to envision new ways of being, leading us to new discoveries in science and the humanities, in religious, moral and political practice.
We hear John crying out to the people with the urgency of all of the prophets, past and present as he hears the voice of Jesus saying that the time to change was yesterday and the time to wake up is now!
As streets fill with shoppers
Bright lights and tempting offers
Christmas songs and children’s laughter
You lead us along a different path
To a desert river and a Prophetic voice
A call to repentance
A call to service
A call to immerse ourselves
In living water that will never run dry
A call to prepare a way in our own lives
For the Saviour of the world to enter in
To know the touch of tender mercy
And rest in your forgiving love
For your faithful prophets
And your Living Word
We give you thanks. Amen