Friday, December 3, 2010

The Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

Peace and Justice Makers

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah was a visionary. The times were scarcely ideal. The kingdom of Judah where he lived was under threat, and yet he managed to maintain a Utopian vision of what God was going to bring about for the people of Israel. And so he prophesied. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” Isaiah sees someone coming through whom God will work in history. It will not be a political Messiah, but a righteous one who takes a moral stance against all the evils of society. Then follows his beautiful image of an ideal world. “The wolf shall live with the lamb. The leopard shall lie down with the kid. And a little child shall lead them.” There will be such a sense of reconciliation with nature that the whole created order will live in harmony. The coming age will be so peaceful that all will wander in safety. God's judgement will permeate the entire world. People will not need to fear because they will understand and trust that God’s judgement is just.

Paul too is a visionary. When he looked at it from his perspective as a Christian, he found great hope in that message of Isaiah. He understood Christ as that root of Jesse. He saw the purpose of Scripture as giving us hope. Hope, he knew, is the great gift of faith. Even in the darkest days of his life, times when he was imprisoned for the faith, he experienced such great hope. He was able to hold fast to that faith because he understood that God’s love is demonstrated in Christ. He may not always have felt it, but if he could find praise in his heart, then hope, he knew, would manifest itself.

Who could possibly doubt that John the Baptist was a visionary? However, with his wild appearance, his strange clothing and fiery message of repentance, he was certainly a frightening character. Like Isaiah he lived in troubled times. However, his words are far from hopeful; they are words of deep challenge. There was no shoot springing up to life for John. Instead he saw the axe lying at the root of the trees. Destroy the roots and there is no hope that the tree will survive. He was writing off the world. His message was, “You will not escape the retribution that is coming.”

John was not speaking to terrible people who had perpetrated unspeakable atrocities. The “brood of vipers” were good, upstanding, synagogue attending folk who had followed this wild man into the wilderness seeking spiritual renewal. Let us face it! You would have to be very hungry for God to do that, especially when you get the response they got from this fiery preacher. He did not tell them to go and pray. He did not tell them to offer sacrifices. “Repent! Change your lifestyle,” he demanded of them. “That is the only way to escape God’s retribution!”

While these three visionaries had very different approaches, all three are peacemakers. All three are justice makers. All three call out to us from time and place urging us to bring about the kingdom of God. They call out to us to change our hearts and to change our world.

During this Advent season we are celebrating the heritage of our Aboriginal peoples. I have to say that it is not one of finer moments as Canadians. The Aboriginal name for North America was Turtle Island. In many ways it fit Isaiah’s vision of a peaceful realm where all walked in safety. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Turtle Island was home to millions of people living in thousands of distinct societies. There were fishing, hunting and farming societies, each with its own distinct institutions, its own language, culture and traditions. These nations cooperated with one another. They resolved disputes as they arose.

Diverse as they were, First Peoples shared things in common. Their relationship to the Land defined who they were. All of their needs, food, clothing, shelter, culture, spirituality, came from the land. They took seriously their collective responsibility to serve the land, not as owners, but as stewards.

Then the Europeans came and claimed the land from the First Peoples. They set themselves up as discoverers of North America. They made treaties that gave them ownership of the land, something that would never have occurred to the Aboriginals.

More and more the Europeans devised ways of taking the land from the Aboriginal peoples. Some was taken in war. Some was stolen outright by the government who wrote laws to enable them to do so. They even resorted to killing. Whole nations of people were wiped out.

British policy was to assimilate. Part of that assimilation took the form of removing Aboriginal children from their communities and placing them in church-run boarding schools, often far from their home communities. I taught in one such school on the east coast of James Bay. We were told as young teachers that our job was to teach the children to become white. We were discouraged from learning their language and culture. The children themselves were punished for speaking in their native language. Having arrived at the school at the age of five many of the children never saw their families again until they left the school after grade seven. You can imagine the irreparable loss to those families. Whole generations lost what it means to be a family. They lost their parenting skills. And of course, we have heard the stories of abuse, sexual, physical, and cultural, that have led to the largest class action suit in Canadian history.

We do not have to look far for examples of evil at work in the world. To understand the preaching of John the Baptist we only have to take a look at the bad people in our world – the deranged, the wicked, the evil, and then look inside ourselves at how we have fallen short of the glory of God. The thing is that when we consider our own culpability in the scheme of things we can come up feeling pretty good about ourselves. We can look back at the history of our Aboriginal people and simply pass it off as part of the culture of the day. I have heard the Residential Schools likened to an English Boarding School. Or I have heard people say, “That is just the way things were!” Countless times I have heard that Aboriginal people bring their poverty and hardship on themselves. No wonder we cannot see the relevance for us in the message of John the Baptist! The deeds that disturb John are not the works of darkness, of people who never go to church, who know nothing of the faith. They are the self-destructive behaviours of those who do. “Demonstrate to me,” he is saying, “that you really are repentant.” Ask for God’s forgiveness. Stop cheating in your business dealings. Reconcile with someone you haven’t spoken to in twenty years. Take your commitment to God seriously. Look after the poor and those in need. Be an agent of justice and peace. Give evidence that you have really changed your life.

And isn’t that the way that we will arrive at Isaiah’s vision of hope? What an amazing vision! “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.” God’s kingdom of shalom will be achieved.

Reconciliation with nature and trust among power structures are within the realm of possibility. We can do something to redress the evil that was perpetrated on our Aboriginal Peoples. We can share with them their vision of God’s amazing creation and our place in it as stewards. There are many signs of hope in the world today. We do not have to have a vision of destruction. We are not helpless spectators. We are stewards and instruments of God. We are in relationship with God. We are part of the process of redemption.

It begins, of course, with an understanding of our own contribution to the evil that we see in the world. We need to recognize the sinfulness in our own lives. And we need to come before God and seek God’s forgiveness. The wonderful thing about it is that we have a God who wants so badly to forgive.

We cannot fathom the wickedness that is in the world. We cannot fathom what possessed our ancestors to treat the People of the Land in such a terrible way. But we do know the secrets of our own hearts and our need for forgiveness.

Let us hear those words of John speaking to us across the ages. “Repent! Change your lifestyle! Demonstrate in your lives that you really are repentant.” That is what Advent is calling us to do. Let us commit our lives to God knowing the power of Christ to forgive. Let us reflect that power to forgive in our own dealings. Let us reflect the love of Christ in our lives. Let us seek the love of Christ in everyone we meet. Then we will be participating in the ushering in of God’s peaceable kingdom. Shalom!

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