(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on December 10, 2017, Advent II)
From “Besties” to Break-Up
For me, the first few days of college felt like a whole new world. Last week, we followed the gospel of John all the way back to the beginning of the world, as it began the Advent story not with Mary and Joseph but with creation. That’s a little bit what college felt like to me: the creation story. All around me were new possibilities and new people and new purpose, and it was all very good. But there at the very beginning, I felt alone. Just as the first human was alone.
The good news of the creation story—which is also the good news of Advent—is that God sees when we are alone and knows that that is not good. In the case of the first human, God created a companion. In the case of college, I made a few good friends. And it was good again.
One of my friends, Amy, had a similar experience. When she first arrived at college, she felt bewildered and alone. So she sought out clubs and activities where she could make some friends. It was not long before she started attending the Baptist Student Union, where she met Claire. They would soon become self-declared “besties.” Life was good.
The next year, Amy and Claire decided to be roommates. Both fantasized about how wonderful it would be: impromptu movie nights, shared study sessions, decorating the room with their favorite colors and posters.
They lived together three weeks before Amy moved out.
I wasn’t there on the front lines to know what went wrong. All I knew was that the two girls who were “besties” were now broken up.
The Real Adventure Is Reconciliation
If the creation story reminds us that it is not good to be alone, then everything after the creation story—from Cain and Abel to Amy and Claire—reminds us that it is not always easy to be together. The drama of Advent, then, is not simply about being alone. God has already given us each other, as God gave the first human a companion. We are not alone. But we have trouble being together.
The adventure of Advent, then, is about more than meeting someone new. It’s not simply that God will come and we will not be alone. The real adventure is reconciliation with each other. God will come and reconcile us with each other and with God.
Isaiah’s Strange Peace: Children Leaders and Immigrant Predators
The prophet Isaiah dreams restlessly about this reconciliation. Peace haunts him. He can’t get rid of the thought. The same images keep intruding on his mind, and we hear them again and again in his prophecies. First there is the young child (cf. 7:14; 9:6; 11:6, 8). “Look,” Isaiah says, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Later he exclaims, “A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Just how a defenseless child will achieve peace is left completely to our imagination.
The next image that preoccupies Isaiah is a strange group of animals dwelling together side by side (cf. 11:6-9; 65:25). “The wolf shall live with the lamb,” he says, “the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together.” That’s a bizarre enough picture if you spend just a minute with it. But it’s even more bizarre in the original language, where Isaiah is saying that the wolf will “sojourn” with the lamb, which is to say, the wolf will live like an immigrant among the sheep, adopting the sheep’s way of life, submitting itself to the jurisdiction of the sheep. But Isaiah’s not done. Who should show up next, but a very familiar character? “And a little child,” he insists, “shall lead them [all].” The next snapshot of Isaiah’s vision is similar: “The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Notice how the predator again adopts the way of its prey: the bear grazes with the cow. The lion eats straw like the ox.
Peace from the Memory Care Unit
What an outlandish dream of peace! Mighty animals meekly submitting to the ways of their prey, and a little child leading them all. What’s it supposed to mean?
This past week, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the memory care residents across the street at Symphony Manor. We put some puzzles together. We talked about cats and dogs. And we introduced ourselves more than a few times. I don’t want to over-sentimentalize the moment, but I did experience there a real peace. In their presence, I was accepted without question. I had no self to prove: no image to protect, no expectations to live up to, no goal to achieve. I simply belonged.
I wonder if I were not somehow in the presence of the child leader. I wonder if I were not the wolf submitting to the lamb, the bear grazing with the cow, the lion eating straw alongside the ox. I wonder if the adventure of Advent is not about the peace that is born when we forego ourselves and follow the lead of the weak and the vulnerable.
Because they were leading me. By their trust and their welcome and their simple sharing. We had celebrated the Lord’s Supper with them, but they were showing me the gospel truth of that meal, embracing me at their table without question, making me a part of them.
Matthew’s Peace: Women, Foreigners, Sinners Included
Isaiah’s not the only one to see peace in a child, to envision reconciliation among opposites. In the gospel of Matthew, Advent begins with a genealogy of the baby Jesus. This is probably a passage you skim, if not skip entirely: “So-and-so begat so-and-so,” and so on. Normally in that culture, genealogies were about self-glorification. You would point out all your greatest ancestors. At first, that’s what the genealogy in Matthew looks like: a Who’s Who of the Bible. Abraham. David. All these kings of Israel. Jesus has an impressive résumé here. But when we look a bit more closely, we see something very odd. In this long list of fathers, Matthew decides to include four mothers. To include women in a list of men is odd enough. But his choice of mothers is even odder. He does not choose the respectable matriarchs, like Sarah or Rebekah. He instead mentions Tamar and Rahab, whom for the sake of decency I will call “loose ladies”; Ruth, who was a foreigner; and Bathsheba, whose story reminds us of King David’s wickedness.
In Matthew’s day, women, foreigners, and sinners were all considered inferior. Why highlight their place in the birth of Jesus, when it would have been just as easy to hide them? I wonder if this isn’t Matthew’s way of dramatizing the adventure of Advent, hinting that the reconciliation of all the world is somehow already in this baby boy’s blood: man and woman, Jew and foreigner, righteous and sinner, all will be reconciled in the life of this child.
Jesus Christ Is Our Peace
It’s not easy to be together. But that is the adventure of Advent. Isaiah saw it in his visions of peace. He said it would happen on the day when a child would lead us. He said it would happen when we forego ourselves and follow the lead of others, especially the weaker among us. Matthew sees it too in a child whose humble birth gathers together all the loose ends of the world—men and women, Jews and foreigners, and the righteous and sinners.
These are beautiful sentiments, but let’s not confuse their beauty with ease or convenience. If Jesus Christ, who is our peace, is any indication, sometimes reconciliation means conflict, or keeping a safe distance—or even a cross.
In the case of Amy and Claire—well, they never roomed together again. But now they are both married mothers, whose children share play-dates from time to time. They are no longer best friends. But now at least they are real friends. And I have to think that has something to do with the child prince and the immigrant wolf. I have to think it has something to do with letting go of control, listening to each other, honoring differences, and looking not to one’s own interests but to the interests of the other. In short, I think true reconciliation has something to do with the life and love that is coming—the life and love that we know best in the flesh and blood of the child soon to be born.
Lion who grazes
Alongside the oxen,
Who leads us
In the way of peace—
You are our reconciliation.
Show us what togetherness
Really looks like.
And bring us together
In your love. Amen.