Rev. Jeff Bacon
December 8, 2019
Let’s open our hearts together in prayer. Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, help us to live your message of peace. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Today we back up from contemplating the Hope of Christ’s second coming, to the time when John the Baptist was proclaiming, “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” We’re anticipating Jesus coming in this season of Advent, and today, we’re reflecting with anticipation, Jesus coming in person at the beginning of his ministry.
Our gospel reading today speaks of the beginning of a time of great transition and transformation. From the time of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, to the crucifixion of Jesus, is only about three years, yet in that short time, Jesus laid the foundation for the Christian faith, an impact so great that the whole world measures the passage of time from his birth. We’re now about 2,019 years since the birth of Jesus. The abbreviation AD stands for the Medieval Latin Anno Domini which was used by the Christian monk Dionysius to refer to his estimate of the year of Jesus’ birth. Jesus’ ministry had an incredible impact on the whole world.
John the Baptist was a respected Jewish Prophet with his own disciples. He was interpreted by some as the return of the prophet Elijah, who in Jewish tradition was the harbinger of the coming of God to earth. Like Elijah, John wore a camels’ hair coat and ate the ritually clean, but crude food of poor wilderness dwellers: locusts and wild honey. John was upsetting the hierarchy and in his identification with Elijah and the wilderness, he symbolized God’s great renewal of the Israelites during their 40 years in the wilderness with Moses.
An important part of John’s popular wilderness renewal, was the way that he baptised people. Unlike Jewish ritual cleansing, John baptized people in the Jordan River, in a personal, once and for all act of forgiveness that was said to be from heaven. It’s not surprising that John the Baptist posed a threat to the religious authorities who believed they controlled access to all heavenly things! John said that neither religious status nor even Jewish hereditary lineage back to Abraham, mattered to God.
John the Baptist was a voice crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” as foretold by the Prophet Isaiah. And in that radical message, John acted as a bridge to the new age of Jesus’ ministry of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, the single covenantal act of baptism, the hierarchy-shattering equality of all people, and inclusiveness that even included the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees who persecuted him. In a striking image, Matthew likens them to a brood of vipers fleeing before the wrath of a great fire that will consume them. It’s an allusion to the snake in the Garden of Eden, representing the Evil One: predatory, poisonous, false teachers who pervert the people.
In our passage from Isaiah this morning, the Prophet Isaiah makes some absurdly peaceful pairings: “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the fatling and the lion together, and a little child shall lead them.” The little child is thought to be a prophesy of Jesus, which did happen, but the new world order of peace is still arriving. Isaiah’s peace is a stark contrast with the brutality of the world. How do we reconcile this vision of peace with terrorism, oppression, gun violence, natural disasters, climate change; all of which can instil a deep sense of anxiety about the power of evil and violence that wreak havoc in our world.
And if we consider our own lives, do we have the peaceful forces of the lamb being consumed by the predatory forces within us? Someone wins and someone loses, and the winner is usually the smartest, the fastest, the strongest, the most driven and the most selfish. We can identify with both feelings of weakness and feelings of aggression; at times feeling preyed upon and at other times as the predator. You may have felt both while trying to get ahead in life, or even in busy traffic jams, or while Christmas shopping at the mall. Maybe the message is not just directed to the predator. Maybe the lamb is also being encouraged to deal with the lion, the meek encouraged to speak up and to help peacefully transform the world with justice and righteousness. The divine vulnerability of Jesus transforming the world. Can the lion and the lamb within us live in harmony? Can we be at peace within ourselves?
An aerosol propellant called 1,1,1 trichloroethane, now banned, was used in spray cans of household cleaners. John Broder wrote in the New York Times that “In the early 1980’s, teenagers discovered they could get high by spraying the cleaner into a plastic bag and breathing the propellant fumes. The label on the can clearly warned of death or serious injury if the product was inhaled, said Victor E. Schwartz, a Washington lawyer, but some young people ignored it, leading to at least one death. The company wanted to make the warning larger, but Mr. Schwartz argued against it, saying that teenagers would then assume that there was more of the propellant in the product. ‘What do kids worry about more than death or injury?’ Mr. Schwartz asked his clients. ‘How they look, of course. So, we wrote the warning to say that sniffing the stuff could cause hair loss or facial disfigurement. It doesn’t, but it scared the target audience and we haven’t had a liability claim since then.’” It sounds comical, but it indicates that what we fear controls us.
For the twentieth anniversary of Larry King Live, Barbara Walters interviewed Larry King, the man who became famous interviewing others. Barbara Walters asked Larry King direct and revealing questions. Two of the most telling responses came when she probed about fear and faith. Barbara Walters asked Larry King, “What is your greatest fear?” He immediately replied, “Death.” This interview occurred in 2005 when King was at the very top of his career and had much to lose, but none of that mattered compared to the fear of death.
Walters’ follow-up question was, “Do you believe in God?” King replied, “Not sure. I’m an agnostic.” Regardless of our success or status, if we’re uncertain about God we will most certainly be fearful of death and it’s difficult to feel at peace with that constant fear hanging over us.
Isaiah envisions a world of hope and peace; a transformation that starts with a stump: the stump of the family tree of Jesse, David’s father, an ancestor of Jesus. Hope emerges as a tiny bud of new life in an unexpected place. Are we the tiny buds of new life? Is God nurturing us this very moment; the beginning growth of something new and good, emerging from the old and broken with new vitality?
God’s ways in the world are sometimes strange, unforeseen, and unpredictable: like when a man dressed in camels’ hair and eating locusts and wild honey emerges from the wilderness and baptises Jesus, the Prince of Peace; like when the meek servant, mother Theresa walks peacefully through the slums of Calcutta; like when Nelson Mandela is imprisoned for peace in South Africa, like when Martin Luther King Jr. marches for peace across the racial wilderness of the United States; like when two young boys, Craig and Marc Kielburger emerge from the wilderness of Thornhill, Ontario to advocate peace for children around the world through Free the Children and Me to We; and like when a peaceful little baby is born in a manger.
I’d like to close with a challenging fable about peace. “Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a sparrow asked a wild dove. “Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer. “In that case, I must tell you a marvellous story,” the sparrow said. “I sat on a branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow – not heavily, not in a raging blizzard – no, just like in a dream, without a sound, and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say, the branch broke off.” Having said that, the sparrow flew away. The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps only one person’s voice is lacking for peace to come to the world.”
Perhaps ours are the voices that are needed for world peace. It begins with peace within, which begins with faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.