Thursday, December 9, 2010
Lions and Lambs, Stumps and Shoots. . . the Images of Advent
Scripture is rich with images – especially contrasting ones. In this way God imparts to us a glimpse of His kingdom and tells us not only how He works but what He is working for. Advent is the king of seasons when it comes to rich imagery. Today we heard about a stump of a tree which is not yet dead, of prey at peace with their predators, of a wild man sent to men tamed by death and sin, of a brood of snakes hissing danger, of trees that will cut down because they bear no fruit, and of a harvest that sifts the grain from the chaff and burns with unquenchable fire. Have I got your interest yet? There is an image here for everyone. But what do they mean?
If you make one side of these images your focus, then you will see a vision of hope. But if you look at them outside the vantage point of faith, they are strange and even sad. As God’s people by baptism and faith, we see them as the wonderful images of hope for a people filled with hope in Christ. In the voice of the prophet, in a letter from an apostle, and in the words of Jesus we meet a future full of promise. Here in these images is the hope of enemies reconciled by Him who is born the Prince of peace. That reconciliation begins with the Creator who takes responsibility for making peace with His fallen, wounded, and dying creation.
Today we see lambs that lie down with wolves, goats with leopards, calves with lions. The natural conflict between adversaries has been erased by peace incarnate in Jesus Christ. From this peace with God, flows the peace that teaches adversaries the path of peace the winds through forgiveness to reconcile enemies and reunite those estranged. God was at work in Christ bring His peace to reign and it is a radical peace that reigns – a transforming peace, a relentless peace. This peace does not gloss over differences but confronts them with grace.
From these images come the promise of an idyllic splendor that is beyond our human imagination. But this is no fairy tale. It is as real as the fears and divisions that we feel all aroun us. This pastorale scene is the reality we know now by faith but we know face to face when this Advent gives way to Christ’s final Advent or coming as King and Lord of all.
In the surprise of grace, a stump that seemed dead, sprang forth with the life of God as Jesus issued forth from a people who has almost given up on God. The stump was Israel’s dead hope and the seeming end to the story God has been writing in History. But just when they were sure it was dead and done, the surprise of hope brings life from death and Christ is born. All of us are those stumps. We are the sick, the suffering, the wounded, the dying, the broken hearted and disappointed who bear in our lives the mark of death. But instead of reconciling with this death, God has brought the surprise of life in Christ – a life no longer hindered by death. We already possess this life in Christ by baptism and faith and yet the fullness of that life is not yet complete in us.
What we see as images of hope, the world sees with fear and trepidation. Stumps are just stumps – monuments to a past but without any promise of a future. Where lions and lambs lie down, the world sees fear and conflict. This is not the way of the world – so get up and run before the world’s hard reality comes to claim its victims. The prophets of God were wild men – too crazy to be believed and Christian truth too unreasonable and illogical to be believed. Our hope is not rational or reasonable but that doesn’t mean our hope is not real. Yet only faith can see this and trust in the images of hope God speaks to His fallen creation.
We sometimes talk about living life on the wild side but the sad truth is that death has long ago tamed us and stolen our dreams. We are only the shadow of what we were created to be. In our world death is your master, fear and anxiety are your constant companions. But God’s grace is wild – too wild to be tamed by death. God does not make peace with death, He overcomes death and breathes Christ’s radical new life in us. We who were once tamed by death have been made wild in Christ to see beyond death to the future Christ has prepared for us. As much as the world wants to think this way, only faith sees this hope.
The world looks at the bare trees chopped down and picks up the wood to try and build a better today. But we are not content with a better today. We wait upon the Lord whose life causes even the stumps to be reborn. We refuse to be content with the memory of a past and a moment today. We wait for the future God has prepared for us. So don’t be content with fast food today when God has prepared a rich and everlasting banquet to come. Don’t make your peace with death but trust in Christ who brings life stronger than death.
Advent is a season fo images in conflict. Either it is a cosmic battle in which no one wins or your enemy wins – OR – it becomes the image of hope which God alone can make possible. In these images of Advent, we find radical grace and redemption. Our enemies are reconciled to us from the reconciliation of Christ's blood. Our turmoil and inner conflict meet their peace in Christ – a peace not reasonable or logical but passing understanding in Christ only. Death is no longer the enemy that shadows our every day lives but the door through we pass to the life death cannot touch – in Jesus Christ.
The key is faith. Where the world sees as foolishness, hypocrisy, and despair, we see hope. Indeed the whole point of Advent as a season is to refocus our vision from the runaway images of sorrow, loss, and death to see through the eyes of Christ by faith – to see the hope that God has planted within us by baptism and faith.
I remember a tree in our front yard of my childhood home. It began shedding branches and soon the tree trimmer came with his old John Deere and cut it down. It turned out that it was rotten to the core and the inside was hollow. It was dead and waiting to fall. But that spring, the stump shot forth with new branches. It became a bush and we cut it down. We ground down the stump so that tree would get the hint but it refused to die. Today, the image of hope is that tree rotten and dead. A stump was all that was left. But God insisted death would not get the last word. Hope would be born in Bethlehem, laid in a manger, live in righteousness, die on a cross, rise the victor over death, and go ahead to prepare a place for us and us for that place. Amen.