Wednesday, January 25, 2017

“Christmas Conflict” - December 4, 2016

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

I always enjoy the scripture readings from the prophets during the season of Advent.  This year, we will be hearing from the prophet Isaiah each week.  In last week’s reading from Isaiah, we read about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  A wonderful, hopeful vision, with words worthy of a Christmas card.

Today we are in Isaiah chapter 11.  Included in this reading is a vision of what is called the Peaceable 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.
This is another scene that makes it into many of our Christmas cards – a scene of peace and serenity.

We sometimes see this lived out at our house.  Our dog Rudy and our cat Harry will hang out together, taking naps, and it can be cute and cuddly.  I say it can be, because it does not always end up cute and cuddly.  We have had Rudy for several years.  He likes to take naps in his brown bed in his kennel.  But last year, we got Harry, a kitten then and a big cat now.  Harry tends to take over things, he’s kind of an alpha cat, and more often than not, he is the one sleeping in Rudy’s brown bed in the kennel.  Rudy will be sleeping right beside him, in another dog bed on the floor, except that Rudy is outside of the kennel, separated by the heavy metal wire of the kennel.  And that is probably just as well.

From time to time we will hear a story that can make us think of the wolf and the lamb, or the calf and the lion.  Awhile back there was a story from a zoo in Thailand of a tiger raising a group of piglets.  There was video of piglets nursing from their adopted mother, a tiger, who seemed perfectly content with the whole thing.  The piglets were actually wearing little tiger-stripe costumes, but that was just for show for the zoo visitors.  It was a picture of peace. 

This morning we lit the second Advent candle, the candle of peace.  This is a season for thinking and reflecting on peace.  We think of the message of the angels of “Peace on earth, good will to all people.”

But while we read of peace and sing of peace, there is an elephant in the room, since we are going with animal images this morning.  Or to be more accurate, a locust-eating, camel skin-wearing, fire and brimstone preaching prophet in the room named John the Baptist.

John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness of Judea, preparing the way for his cousin Jesus.  He had an interesting marketing plan.  He threatened people with destruction if they didn’t repent, called them snakes fleeing from the wrath of God, and chaff that would be burned up in unquenchable fire.  His sermons must have made you feel just so good.  Just the kind of thing you want to put on your Christmas card.  There is a reason John doesn’t get included in Nativity scenes. 

And so in our scriptures for today, we have peace and calm and togetherness on the one hand and an angry guy in the wilderness pointing out sin and calling for repentance on the other.  What do we make of this?  And wouldn’t we be better off putting John somewhere else, anywhere else but on the Sunday we light the candle of peace?

Well, there is a tension, to be sure.  Our first instinct may be to just listen to read Isaiah and kind of ignore John today.  But it strikes me that tension is where we live a lot of our lives, and perhaps considering both of these scriptures together might be helpful.  (Or maybe not, but we’re going to try it anyway.) 

Let’s be honest: facing tension is as much a part of the holidays as egg nog and fruitcake and Frosty the Snowman.  This is a time of joy, a time for family and friends, a time for celebration – this is all true.  But it is also a difficult time and a time of competing feelings.

This is a season for joyful celebrations, but it is also a time when losses are deeply felt.  There are those for whom this will be the first Christmas without a loved one, and it will be a very different Christmas.  They joy will be rather muted.  For some, it will be all they can do to get through Christmas.

This is a time when we send cards with sentiments like “Peace on Earth,” but we make these proclamations in the midst of a violent world.  There is a tension.  We may speak of “peace on earth” when we don’t really feel it in our hearts.  We speak of peace while we deal with disagreements and conflicts and anxiety. 

Many of us will join with family at Christmas.  But sometimes, these family get-togethers are not exactly smooth sledding.  Some will walk on eggshells around certain family members.  Some of us will have to bite our tongues at times, maybe more so than usual this year.  Some of us are feeling weighed down by stress.  It’s just part of the deal.

And then, trying to make Christmas a celebration of Jesus’ birth when it has culturally become more of a celebration of commercial excess causes a certain tension.  Larry Lindley is the director of the Edna Martin Christian Center in Indianapolis, one of our American Baptist neighborhood centers.  A few years ago, a department store in Indianapolis was giving away Christmas trees they had used in a previous season.  These were very nice, perfectly good artificial trees.  And so Larry called to see if they could have one for the Edna Martin Center.

The store told him that they were sorry, but they could not give Christmas trees away to a religious organization.  Does anyone see the irony?  Starbuck cups are somehow important to Christmas, but on the other hand the Christmas spirit is not something to share with religious organizations.  The celebration of Christmas has in many ways been co-opted by the culture.  Yes, we have conflict at Christmas. 

Conflict is a part of life.  Cats and dogs, lions and lambs, tigers and pigs.  We celebrate with Rodney and Rachel as they graduate and go on to begin their careers, but you know, there can be conflict in the workplace.  There is conflict between generations and between those with differing values and understandings, different tastes and sensibilities.  And conflict is within us too: we feel joy and sadness, excitement and loss, hope and despair, all at the same time.  We might feel it even more strongly in this Advent season.

I told you about our dog Rudy and our cat Harry.  The three of us will sometimes take a nap together – we are all pretty good at it, especially on Sunday afternoons.  And it all goes well until Harry wakes up and thinks, you know, I think I’m going to just bite Rudy, just for fun.  And there is a yelp and then barking and chasing and pandemonium.  The peaceful feeling does not last.  Woody Allen famously said that the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.

So maybe it is appropriate that this morning we have Isaiah on the one hand and John on the other.  Isaiah holds out the Peaceable Kingdom, the vision and hope for peace among people and nations and between those who are very different from each other.  But then John comes along and reminds us that it’s not easy, and that maybe the problem isn’t simply out there, but it’s also in here.  

John was quite a sight: he ate honey and locusts, dressed in camel hair, and called people to repent.  He preached out in the wilderness and people flocked to him for baptism.  But when some of the Pharisees and Saducees, religious and political leaders, came to him, he let them have it.  “You brood of vipers!” he said.  “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  In other words, just saying the right words won’t cut it.  Show by your lives the change in your heart.

If a Peaceable Kingdom is to come, then those things that hold back peace will have to go.  We will have to prepare the way of the Lord.  We will all need to let go of violence and vengefulness and hatred and jealousy.  John’s words may be necessary for us to get to Isaiah’s vision.  Maybe we need to do some repenting in order to help bring about God’s peace.

Now, Isaiah knew something about turmoil.  The Hebrew people had been split into two nations.  Israel, the northern kingdom, had already been captured by the Assyrians.  During Isaiah’s lifetime, the southern kingdom of Judah would be defeated by the Babylonians and the people taken into captivity.  Before any of this, both Israel and Judah had seen a long procession of mostly lousy rulers.  Corrupt kings who turned their backs on God, who had no concern for justice.  We looked at a couple of those leaders, Ahab and Jezebel, a few weeks ago.  Like Israel before, the southern kingdom of Judah was now reaping the fruits of turning from God.  It was a dark time.

But in the midst of all this, Isaiah has a soaring, wonderful vision of what God would do.  Isaiah was able to see beyond the immediate moment, beyond imminent destruction, to a bright future.  It was a powerful vision of unexpected hope.

At the moment, Judah was in ruins.  Isaiah describes the state of the nation as being akin to a forest that had been wiped out.  The trees were all gone.  Utter devastation.  But “a shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  This vision of a coming Messiah came in a time of conflict and even despair.

Peace is not the absence of conflict.  Most of the time, peace is more like a gift of God that we may experience in the midst of the storm.

The story is told of a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace.  Artists from far and wide entered the competition.  The king looked at all the paintings, but there were only two that he really liked and he had to choose between them.

One was of a calm lake.  The lake was a perfect mirror, and peaceful towering mountains were all around it.  Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds.  Everyone who saw this painting thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.

The other picture had mountains too.  But these were rugged and bare.  Above was an angry sky.  Rain was falling and lightning was flashing.   Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall.

At first glance, this painting did not look peaceful at all.  But on closer inspection, behind the waterfall there was a small bush growing in a crack in the rock.  In the bush a mother bird had built her nest.  There, in the midst of the rush of water, sat the mother bird on her nest... perfect peace.

The king chose the second picture.  “Peace,” explained the king “does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise or trouble or hard work.  Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still have calm in your heart.  That is the real meaning of peace.”

In this season, we will not likely experience that first picture of peace, not if we are reasonable aware of the world around us, and not if we are reasonably in touch with our own lives.  And yet – even in the midst of the storm, God is there.  Even in the darkest night, God’s light comes.  When we least expect it, a child is born, bringing peace on earth and peace to our hearts and lives.  Amen.

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