ST. PAUL’S CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12; December 8, 2019, Advent 2A
Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Last week we heard the first of the Advent readings from the prophet Isaiah – that wonderful verse that describes peace under God’s reign: they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. It was against this passage that we lit the Advent candle of hope – a light shining in the midst of war, of hunger, of oppression, of the way things have always been. A tiny light of hope that things can be different – and isn’t that the message of this season. Things can be different – we don’t have to live in the darkness forever.
And now today: the light gets a little brighter as we light the candle of Peace. A peace so profound that not only nations but all creation ceases to engage in war. There’s an urgency added too: Isaiah tells us the shoot coming up from the stump of Jesse will strike the earth, will slay the wicked. And the gospel lesson underlines the urgency in the words of John the Baptist. The light shines brighter but there is a harshness there too. We’re all called to prepare the way – the way to a time of peace. The way to God’s realm which is ever so near.
Do we honestly think peace will ever come? It seems naive, doesn’t it, with the way the world is these days, to think that true peace can ever be real. But that’s exactly the message of Advent that we need to re-hear, that we need to re-live every year. We need to encounter this story over and over again, to reminded, don’t we. Reminded of the possibility – of the Advent Promise. Maybe we’ll really hear it this time.
Like all of you, I find my mailbox cluttered with catalogues and requests for money at this time of year. often I recycle them without opening. But this week I actually read the letter from Heifer International.
It was a real gift as I’d been thinking about this sermon – on the 2nd Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of the Peace Candle – with the beautiful reading from Isaiah – next to the strangeness, the urgency, of the John the Baptist account. I found a real hope in this letter and a glimmer, a real possibility of what the Advent promise of peace on earth might look like.
It was the night of April 16, 1994 when Agnes and a small band of survivors slipped into the lake under the cover of darkness. She was fleeing for her life. Her husband had been killed earlier that day – and now, pregnant and alone, she clung to a makeshift raft in a desperate flight to safety on the other side of Lake Muhazi. Agnes is from Rwanda – she is Tutsi. And she was on the run from the Hutus. We’ve all probably heard quite a bit about the Rwandan genocide and the unspeakable brutality that families like Agnes’ endured.
Jo Luck, the president and CEO of Heifer Project traveled to Rwanda –she reports that Agnes made it across the lake that night and eventually to a refugee camp where she joined women and children who had also fled the violence. Agnes didn’t know it yet, but by the time the killing was over, 25 members of her family would be gone forever…everyone except her brother. Miraculously, Agnes and her baby survived. But the years that followed brought immense hardship as she struggled to provide for her child and for the baby orphan she adopted.
Eventually, Agnes returned to her home in the small village of Kabare after the fighting stopped. But she found that in the chaos of the genocide, her family’s cows had been stolen or killed in the crossfire. Rwanda was forced to import the majority of its powdered and fresh milk from Europe or other nearby African countries but at a cost too expensive for many of the poor Rwandans. That’s when the government launched a program to address the specific need for dairy cows to restock the population. Heifer Project began working in Rwanda in 2000.
Agnes’ family had owned cows so she was able to care for them. But in the poverty she had experienced, she always thought the idea of having a cow again was beyond reach. But thanks to Heifer International, she now got an average of 5 gallons of milk every day. There was extra to sell at market and share with her neighbors, also caught in the aftermath of unspeakable violence.
Now – here’s the remarkable thing, that hint of the Advent promise of peace on earth. Remember, Agnes is a Tutsi.
She gave away her first born calf at a “passing the gift ceremony” that is traditional with Heifer Project. And this ceremony incredibly brought together Tutsi and Hutu families in a spirit of peace and harmony. Agnes’ calf will now feed and bring hope to a Hutu family. The cow is serving as nothing less than a symbol for healing in a country suffering from deep and profound wounds. Tutsi and Hutu, joined together for a moment in hope, in healing, in peace.
“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 the Sunday of the Candle of peace – and it’s also the Sunday of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness: Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is near. Repent, for every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Repent, for after me will come one who is more powerful than I – whose sandals I am not fit to carry.
John sure presents a strange image, doesn’t he. Strange garb, strange diet, long, long hair and long, long beard. We put this passage against the beautiful images of Isaiah – those hopeful images of the wolf living with the lamb. I can do without these almost harsh words from John – can’t you? And I think that’s our nature – we want to concentrate on beautiful images, images of peace, of “nice.” None of us want to be focused on the negative – but we are surrounded by, bombarded by the hard stuff in this world all around us, aren’t we. Children dying in detention centers at the border, shooters at military bases, uncontrolled fires raging around the world. Warfare. Oppression. Anxiety is rampant. Depression can overwhelm us. Peace? Is it possible?
There is no lasting peace in human terms, is there. Think of addictions – the ignorance – the greed – the rebellion. Think of those people who live in fear – and of those who do all kinds of destructive things – and yes, think of those bedrooms or living rooms or playrooms where there is violence or neglect. There is no peace in the hearts of literally millions of people.
The Christmas lights, the Christmas joy is tempered by this truth, isn’t it. Oh, how we hate to think of the harshness – the reality of life as we know it. We yearn for peace – will it ever come!
Well, the kingdom of God is at hand. Agnes is proof of this promise. There are signs. The light begins to shine a little more brightly. We Christians are to expect the unexpected with hope – but we can’t be complacent, for God does not move in the world in predictable ways.
I’ve also thought of my visit to Coventry Cathedral in England – the beautiful cathedral was bombed during World War 2 – it was rebuilt but right next to the ruins of the old church – young people from England and Germany cleared the debris and left the burned out shell as a reminder of the violence but also a monument to cooperation, to healing, to peace. Who would have thought it? Expect the unexpected: Tutsi and Hutu. English and German. Broken relationships being restored – even if in small ways – because, there’s no such thing as a small restoration.
What’s Christianity all about at its most basic?
I would answer that it’s about relationship – our relationships with God and each other. And then what is sin…..well, sin is the breaking of relationship – with God and each other. Then comes the definition of repentance: simply put, it’s saying I’m sorry and I won’t do it any more. I won’t repeat the same mistakes – I’ll break from the past, I’ll change direction. And that’s our calling: we have to change. We have to please God in the work we do each and every day. Unless we repent, we cannot find peace.
That’s just what John is telling us. And that’s what Isaiah is telling us – peace comes with turning toward God and living as Christ has taught us – seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Peace comes when we forgive others as God forgives us. Peace comes when we serve others as Christ has served us. It’s then and only then that we will find a lasting peace. It’s then that our world might experience a lasting peace. And we have that promise – of a world of peace. If we choose to live it out.
Agnes made that choice when she participated in the “passing on the gift ceremony” with her mortal enemy, the Hutu. German and English young people made that choice when they worked to build the ruins of Coventry Cathedral into a monument of peace. What choices will we make? In our relationships? In our homes, our church, our workplaces.
Peace is more than absence of war, isn’t it. It’s entering into relationship with God and each other in new ways – in unexpected ways. In countercultural ways. And it’s always our choice to receive that gift. Isaiah points the way. John the Baptist points the way – in strident voice. With an urgency we’d rather not hear. But both Isaiah and John the Baptist are equally as urgent in outlining the promise – that peace can come – and it comes from and through the Prince of Peace, whose birth we await in this season of Advent. Can we imagine that peace that passes all understanding? If not in this season of hope, when?
Please listen to these words from Maya Angelou – from a Christmas poem: Amazing Peace. She has a real gift for words and images – listen and imagine!
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the glad season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner. Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness. The word is peace.
It is loud now. It is louder. Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is just what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clasp hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
That’s our challenge. That’s our hope. We can make the choice to repent, to receive God’s forgiveness, to do our part to change the world to a place where the wolf lies with the lamb. And to move toward a peace that passes all understanding. A real and lasting peace. Imagine! The light shines – let that peace begin with us. Amen.