Advent 2(A): Promise and Paradox
By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer
Advent is a strange time for Christians – even before the intense commercialization of Christmas that has arisen in the last century. Over the four weeks of the season, the lectionary emphasizes the harshness of divine judgement, preparation for Christ’s second coming, prophetic visions of the promised new creation, and memories of Jesus’ first coming that inspire hope. Advent can feel like a roller coaster to me. On the one hand, the threat of uncompromising judgement makes me feel like I better get my act together. Then, in short order, I feel joy at the promise of a restored Creation only God’s intervention could affect. I have trouble holding the two themes together, imagining the promise of judgement, but I suspect that is the paradox we are called to sit with in this reflective season.
I know many will preach on John’s prophetic ministry in the wilderness of Judea, but for those who want an alternative, the First Lesson from Isaiah 11:1 – 10 offers powerful images to help us find good news in the paradox of the judgement’s promise.
The image of Jesse’s stump bookends this passage from Isaiah. At the beginning a tender shoot emerges into a branch. We are reminded that the root survived the attempted annihilation, whether by the Assyrian army that overtook Israel in 721 BCE (likely the context for the text’s author First Isaiah), or by the God’s people’s faithlessness that led to destructive military alliances, or today’s threats of secularization, commercialization, and the abundant material comforts that lure us away from vibrant faith. One preaching path for this Advent text is to help the congregation name what threatens to annihilate it, to “cut it down,” both internal issues like fear or gossip but also external issues like the seduction of material comfort that can dull our awareness of God’s presence. The image Jesse’s stump ties in with the image from John the Baptist’s preaching of the axe lying at the root of the trees. The Good News that emerges with this playful inter-textuality is that even if the tree is cut down, through God’s grace a shoot will emerge. A new start is given. The “Giver of Life” works underground, in the darkness, in the roots pushing life up from the messy soil where we thought there was only darkness and decay.
Near the intersection of Brown Avenue and Richland Street in my hometown lies a felled oak tree. Melissa, an elderly parishioner, calls it the Resurrection Tree because a remnant of tree’s veins remained intact allowing it to sprout new branches and be “born again.” The Resurrection “Tree” (it looks more like a shrub) is gnarly looking: the decaying trunk dominates the view and the live shoots emerge at unusual angles. There is unconventional beauty in this Resurrection Tree, but to see it you have to accept that the death is part of picture.
The unusual prey-predator animal pairings referred to collectively as the “peaceable kingdom” dominate the second half of the text. Many of us have an image of this text based on the paintings titled ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ by Quaker Edward Hicks. Hicks created over 60 artworks of the same title depicting the same basic scene inspired by vv. 6 – 8. Some critics suggest that Hicks’ ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ scenes become less and less peaceful over time reflecting his involvement in a painful schism within 19th century American Quakerism. What happened with Hicks’ paintings, this movement toward the partisan, often occur when we uphold images of peace… moments of peace and equality quickly degrade into tools for our own agendas and are tarnished by our preference for being right, rather than prioritizing relationship. Hicks’ ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ paintings point both toward the promise of Advent—the peaceable kingdom of God—and humanity’s need for purifying judgement, directing us away from our self-righteous tendencies toward the Divine who alone can transform and save us from ourselves.
As I reflect on the peaceable kingdom as an Advent image, I notice that for this vision to be realized, a characteristic central to these animals’ instincts will have to die. The predatory instinct of the wolf, the leopard, the lion, and the bear will have be tamed. And the lamb, the kid, the calf, the fatling, and the cow will have let their fear die. Similarly, children seem to have an innate fear of snakes, and parents certainly have a knee-jerk mechanism that would prevent playing near adders’ nests. The hope of Advent, the promise of judgement, is that God’s Spirit is powerful enough to transform our most innate and death-dealing instincts—to be right, to always want more, and to have power over others—into trust and harmony in the order of Creation.
Advent calls us to keep one eye focused on the ultimate promise that of New Creation where the wolf lies with the lamb, the poor are judged as worthy as the rich, and the meek as valuable as the royalty. But our other eye can stay focused on the here and now. As we await that final transformation into the New Creation, hope for the present time comes from God’s judgement which frees us from bondage to the parts of ourselves and social structures that bear bad fruit and trains our instincts to “love God commands…so that we may obtain God’s promises,” to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for Proper 25.
Our Advent gaze invites us find unconventional beauty in a decaying tree that somehow sprouts a branch.
Our Advent gaze invites us to trust the uncomfortable promise of judgement, the paradox of hope that in the darkness and decay, roots of justice and righteousness are being nourished and that one day Christ’s Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might will rule the earth from the holy mountain down to the waters that cover the sea.
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina. When she isn’t at “church meetings” as her 4 year-old daughter says, she can be spotted raising children, reading, and occasionally piddling in the yard.