Second Sunday in Advent, December 4 2016
Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12
Rev Loren McGrail, United Church of Christ | National YWCA of Palestine
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…and 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” says the prophet Isaiah on this second Sunday in Advent, Peace Sunday.
This, my friends, is the peaceable kingdom, which has been depicted in art and hallmark Christmas cards since time memorial. It’s a perfect Advent lectionary reading especially when paired with that other prophetic voice that of wild man John the Baptist, calling out in the desert to make a highway for our Lord. And it is indeed a message for us here in Jerusalem where so much violence and destruction is still happening on these holy mountains and now in these water flooded valleys. It is indeed a message for all those seeking and working for a just peace in the world.
Let’s explore how or why this is so. First we must know that the stump, Israel’s political situation is in conflict with the religious yearning of Israel the shoot. Whether the text dates from the time of the threat from the Assyrians or from the Babylonians, the people of Israel are in captivity and the future looks bleak.
God’s first act is not to save but to cut all the trees down to their stumps. Clear cutting is drastic and looks ugly. Calling people a brood of vipers isn’t very nice either. New life doesn’t just happen in these stories. Something must be cut back, cut out, or die for new life to come forth. God the creator is indeed the one with the ax and the one coming will have a winnowing fork to clear the threshing floor. These are uncomfortable images for us who prefer to soft pedal around a God who is harsh and judgmental. And they don’t make for good Christmas carols either but they are indeed part of our Advent preparation.
Advent is often seen as a time of becoming alert or awake or waiting but it is also a time of destruction. Listen to these words from Jesuit priest Alfred Delp who was part of the German Resistance Movement and thus executed in February 1945:
“The primary condition for a rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender… a shattering awakening; that is necessary preliminary. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken.”
If clear cutting is necessary for a new shoot or branch then repentance is a strategy of intervention or recovery so that new life can be received. Both are actions of preparation. God will cut down the trees of self-centeredness and injustice at its roots. Redemptive joy and a kingdom of righteousness are made possible by a steadfast God. And later, He came down so we could have hope and peace, love and joy.
The poet Steve Garnas-Holmes describes the relationship between pruning and peace building this way:
Let me stand before enemies with love,
prepared to break soil, to prune branches,
to do the hard work of growing peace.
For I will need stout tools to work this rough land well,
to bring fruits of justice out of rocky earth,
to tend the muscular trees of mercy.
Growing peace is hard work. It requires “stout tools” to bring fruits and tend not just trees but “muscular trees of mercy.”
The ax is at the root of trees who invoke a genealogy of chosenness, or who don’t judge the poor with righteousness or decide with equity for the meek of the earth, or who destroy on God’s holy mountain. The ax is at the root of racism, sexism, elitism, homophobia, and extreme nationalism.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. We must bear fruit of repentance, turn away, turn around, or turn toward God.
How? We whisper. How many trees must fall? Will God really find my stump worthy of redemption? I have lived off or on these fruits all my life; can I really change and grow something new? Like an addict, we know we are dependent upon what is wrong but don’t know how to give it up or turn it over.
How? We whisper. How do we prepare the way? How do we make a highway for our Lord through the desert of our own lives? Can we really make our crooked selves straight? We have become used to making excuses. We aren’t perfect after all. This is how things are in the real world we say pragmatically when questioned but then we sometimes wonder right before sleep in the dark, “What kind of roadwork is needed? Where can I find a road crew? What are the obstacles or stones that need to be removed?
In the Judean desert today, the place John wandered until he came to the Jordan River to baptize, the roads are indeed straight. They are Israeli military roads.
However before they became military roads they were pathways the animals took following the contours of the land said our guide Osama. The animals always take the easiest route.
John quotes Isaiah in the days of Israel’s captivity because Isaiah’s imagery speaks to the importance of preparing for the ruler’s procession to the city and the need to level the potholes, remove the rocks, and make the crooked places straight. The ruler coming this time however will be a child, a baby born in a cave in Bethlehem, and he will lie in a manger surrounded by sheep and goats, cows and camels and I am sure a few wolves and lions though my nativity sets never include them.
The road follows the contour of the land. This is how it should be. David Korten, in his column called A Living Earth Economy for YES Magazine, says we need to find a compelling narrative to create “an ecological civilization”, a narrative that will give us “courage and a guiding vision to take the step to species maturity.”
I am not sure exactly what species maturity is or means but I think it has to do with following the contours of the land, sharing the land and the highways with others, and when we have gotten off course to get back on. Repent. Recommit. Don’t remain calm or accept the inevitable. Stand up for the oppressed – those standing in the freezing cold at Standing Rock, those whose homes are flooded by the rains due to lack of sewers or infrastructure in Hebron. It means saying No with one hand so you can extend the other to say Yes.
I would like to leave you with a few stories from this week’s news that might provide you a glimmer of what peace with justice looks like in practice.
As fitting our advent readings about trees and fires, I would like to share with you two stories that might provide a tea light of hope in this dark time of raging fires and destroyed trees, of crooked roads full of checkpoints or roads made straight for some but not others.
The first story is about tree planting and setting the record straight.
Rev Bas Ader was a resistance fighter in the Netherlands when it was under Nazi occupation. As part of living out his faith in action, he saved the lives of more than 200 Dutch Jews. As a tribute, the Jewish National Fund planted more than 1,000 pine trees in the Hebron district.
Erik, his son, a former diplomat, came to Palestine and learned that they had been planted over the ruins of Bayt Nattif, a village destroyed by Zionist forces during the Nakba.
Erik was distressed to learn that the legacy of his father’s brave deeds was being used to conceal the displacement and dispossession of another people.
A few weeks ago, he came to Palestine to honor his father in a way he felt was more fitting. He donated 1,100 trees to the Palestinian village of Fa’rata, a village under Israeli military occupation. He chose this village because the nearby settlers had torched the olive groves. He chose the Keep Hope Alive Olive Tree Campaign of the Joint Advocacy Imitative of the YMCA of Jerusalem and the YWCA of Palestine to accomplish his task of reconciliation with the memory of his father.
“A possibility for peaceful resolution based on justice requires that the history should be acknowledged.” The plaque now reads: “Over a thousand olive trees were donated to Far’ata in memory of Rev Bastiaan Jad Ader who saved hundreds of lives during the Holocaust. Never again to anybody, anywhere.”
Erik Ader reminds us that growing peace requires a full acknowledgement of history and that making the way is not only about removing obstacles but exposing the truth and literally growing something new.
The second and last story comes from just a few days ago when Israel and Palestine were in flames, literally from fires raging across the dry landscape. It’s a story that we must hold in our hearts and light again and again when all seems lost to violence and hatred. It is the story of a conservative synagogue and an Arab wood supplier and a carpenter from Haifa.
During the height of the fires, this synagogue was destroyed. The wood supplier and the carpenter offered to rebuild their neighbor’s house of worship in an act the Rabbi from the synagogue says “extinguishes the fires of hatred” and visibly says two people on one land can co-exist.
John the locust eating, camel hair wearing wild man of the desert, the messenger, the voice in the wilderness crying out, the baptizer, comes to remind us to stop destroying the land, stop relying on our entitlements – secular or religious, and turn around, or convert.
It is not our work to cut down or burn the trees. Ours is to be co-creators in the garden of life, to join in the hard work of growing peace. Ours is to be road builders of equality and justice. Ours is to re-member history covered up and replant a new story. Ours is to rebuild each other’s worship spaces when they are destroyed by fires or hatred because we are neighbors, workers in the same garden.
“Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken.” Let us join together this Advent season in becoming movers and shakers, tree planters, and road builders. Let us prepare the way for the One who risks being born in such a time as this. Let the work begin, and may it begin with us.