Reflections for Sunday, December 8
Psalm 72 concludes the second of what many consider to be five shorter collections of psalms contained in the larger corpus of 150 psalms. To emphasize that conclusion, the psalm ends with a doxology: “... Blessed be his glorious name forever and may all the earth be filled with his glory. Amen. Amen.”
Following up on our theme of Kingship as Kinship from the past couple of weeks, it is worth noting that the righteous and just king of the psalm is one who champions the most vulnerable in society and defends them against their oppressors. The king does not lord over, but is a servant to, his people. And, appropriate to our Caring for Creation conversation, the psalmist uses the natural world as both the frame and the vehicle for the just king and his kingdom. Mountains and hills bear righteousness and prosperity while sun, moon and rain are symbols for the duration and abundance of the king’s peaceful reign.
Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13, Isaiah 11:1-10
If you have the introduction to this blog, you would have seen my suggestion that a person’s interpretation of biblical text depends on their personal experience, their education and their preferences. What we say about yesterday or yesterday’s text is always something we are saying about ourselves today. Perhaps that is a post-modern truism, but it seems worth repeating nevertheless because it is all too easy to fall into the idea that there must be a right way to read our biblical narrative (or any narrative)—one true way to understand the myriad sacred stories, poems and prophecies that we have received from thousands of years ago, stories, poems and prophecies that we have translated as best we can into the modern vernacular from languages that have not been used in their ancient form for hundreds, even thousands of years.
All of which is to say that, while other preachers may be preaching today about the need for repentance in the face of a returning Messiah, or wondering which of the cast of characters in the story of John baptizing in the river Jordan we see in ourselves, I am noticing something different. For the past several weeks, while thinking about last week’s sermon and the preparing for our Advent Caring for Creation discussion, I have had my mind and heart filled with readings, thoughts and feelings about the natural world. So, naturally, that is where my attention is drawn in this morning’s readings.
Isaiah’s fantastical image of nature radically transformed at the coming of Jesse’s descendant jumps out at me. It’s not simply Jesse’s descendant that Isaiah writes about. Isaiah could have just written that, but, instead, he invokes imagery from the natural world to make his point. A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse and a branch will grow from his roots. And there’s that remarkable image of wolves lying down with lambs, leopards with kids, and calves, lions and fatlings, there’s cows and bears grazing together. It’s all nature all the time with this Isaiah guy. And the same thing with the psalmist. In today’s psalm, as I mention above, mountains bring prosperity, little hills bring righteousness, the just king is compared to rain on a mown field, an abundance of peace will last until the moon is no more.
And what about today’s Gospel? Same thing: John the Baptist in camel’s hair clothes, eating wild bees and locusts, trees being cut down and thrown into a fire along with chaff separated from the good wheat, a brood of vipers, stones turning into people, with the whole thing located in a river in the mysterious and somehow dangerous setting of the wilderness. None of these poems, prophecies and stories would evoke the same response in us without their generous use of images from the natural world. And, ultimately, the natural world is one of, if not the primary frame, symbol, metaphor and vehicle in biblical text. The whole book starts off with a detailed description of creation and the aftermath of that first story resonates through all that follows.
Except what about the Book of Acts and the letters that come after? Today’s reading from Romans quotes our passage from Isaiah very briefly, but, otherwise, it’s all theology (uplifting as it is) and no biology. And as we have said a few weeks ago, beyond a storm while St Paul is at sea, elsewhere in Acts and the epistles there’s not much nature at all.
But, there is one moment earlier in Romans where the letter’s author has a moment of creation centered lucidity. “We know that the whole creation,” he writes “has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait.” The verse actually goes on a bit further but, in this Advent season, it seems appropriate to stop there: “while we wait.”
What a great summation of our current global situation: all of creation groans under the burdens that human beings have placed upon it—taking from it more than it can give, pouring into it more and more horrible things than it can take, tearing down and tearing up. And we groan along with the natural world shocked by our own capacity for destruction and abuse even as we diminish our own present well being and risk the viability of our children’s future. But what are we to do? The situation seems completely overwhelming, and overwhelmingly complex. So we wait. Surely, if God has ever intervened, can ever intervene, in human affairs, now would be the time to do so. And that brings us back to the traditional Advent theme of repentance. We need not wait idly. While we wait for Jesus to return and to help us once and for all to heal our grasping, frightened hearts and to banish our tools of superfluous consumption and destruction, we are called to repent, to turn from our current harmful practices and to seek new healthful, sustainable ways of living, living in harmony with, not opposition to, the natural world on which our lives depend at every moment.
The same is true in our personal and communal lives where, inevitably, we all find ourselves from time to time in a confusing wilderness, unsure of how we got where we are, unsure of precisely where we are, unsure of how to proceed. Yes, as our naturalist friend Isaiah writes, those that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength, they will mount up with wings as eagles. At the same time, we need not wait idly upon the Lord. As we heard this morning, we are called to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight. We are called to turn towards him and follow in his way of love, wholeness and peace. During this season of expectant, hopeful anticipation, we might do well to remember that, just as we wait and look eagerly for Jesus, Jesus eagerly looks and waits for us.