Thursday, December 05, 2013

December 8, Advent 2, Children of Light 2: A Little Child

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

You get quite a menagerie today. You get a wolf, a leopard, a lion, a bear, and another lion. You get a lamb, a kid, a calf, a veal-calf, a cow, and an ox. You get three kinds of poisonous snakes: the asp and the adder and a whole brood of vipers. You get camel’s hair and three leather belts and sandals. You get locusts, and honey, and wheat, and the chaff of the wheat, and straw. You get a tree stump, a shoot, a branch, and roots, and a root again in Romans. You get an ax on the roots, and trees chopped down and burned. You get fire, twice, and water, and wind. You get sea water, and rain, and showers, and mown fields, and little hills, and mountains. You get stones, and their children, and children of Abraham. You get a little child, and a nursing child, and a weaned child.

I love all the animals, because the season of Advent is for children in the way that Lent is for adults. In Lent you get ready for a death, but in Advent you get ready for a birth. Both Lent and Advent are penitential seasons, but the penance in them differs.  Lent is for self-examination, while Advent is for hope and expectation. In Lent you look for your guilt and in Advent you look for your innocence. In Lent you locate all your guilt inside yourself, and you register your guilt, and process it. In Advent you have find inside yourself your place of innocence. That’s the childlike part — that unstained innocence, that wide-eyed innocence of little children.

You have that space of innocence inside you. An open space, a little room of receptivity, of unreflecting eagerness, of easy hope and easy joy. Can you still find that place in you?

Experience is the enemy of innocence. The little child will lose her innocence as she gains in her experience. The experience of snake-bite, the experience of poison and of pain, the experience of betrayal by your friends and denial by your intimates. Your hopes dashed, your native joy corrupted. You learn the habits of not trusting, and also not revealing. You learn to judge what you see and decide what you hear, and you have be quick about it and maintain a good defense. You have developed your skills in how to deal with a vicious and malicious world. You learn to take some pleasure in your skills, in the thrust and parry of your sword, in the subtlety of your attack, in the sharpness of your sight, in how deft is your defense, in your shrewdness and your cunning. Yes, you are a decent person, and you keep yourself from extra guilt, but you’ve too much experience ever fully to enjoy again your innocence.

The gift of Advent is that doesn’t have to be this way. The penance of Advent is to recreate within yourself your place of innocence, a pocket of light and air inside you that is free of dust and dirt and sticky webs. Because when you go in there it isn’t free and clear. Your guilt is there. Your shame. The record of your betrayals and denials is all there, and the residue of what’s been done against you and unfairly.

In Lent you are the one who cleans it out. Lent is your own spring cleaning. In Advent you just let him in. Don’t register what’s there, you don’t have to examine what is there, just let him in and he cleans it for himself to make it ready for himself. He makes your place of innocence empty of everything but his gentle, joyful self. You don’t have to clear away your darkness first to let the light shine in. It is the light itself that clears away the darkness in you.

The Advent way to find again that place of innocence inside you is to embrace with your mind the Lord Jesus as a little child. Give yourself to that image, trust that God’s behind it. He will clear away your skillfulness, and the lessons of your experience. He has to clear away your smarts, your shrewdness, and the pleasures you have learned. You let him in as a child pure and innocent, and you become again a child with him. Of course you doubt it, from the poison of the snake, but this child is immune to the poison of the snake, and with his mouth he sucks the poison out of you.

God as a child. Or God within the child. That’s how Christians have taken this prophecy of Isaiah, and taken it beyond how Isaiah had foreseen it. Let me draw you briefly away from your personal place of innocence to do some history (but I will bring you back to it). The prophet Isaiah was predicting the return and revival of the ruined, cut-off dynasty of King David.

You know that King David’s father was named Jesse, and so the family tree of King David is often called the Jesse Tree. The Jesse Tree is called a tree-stump by Isaiah as a metaphor of the dynasty of David’s descendants being cut down by the empires of Assyria and Babylon. The hard thing that the prophets said was that God was behind this cutting down, that the ruthless empires of Assyria and Babylon were the instruments of the Lord God in punishing the House of David for its faithlessness.

But God would still be faithful. God would cause a new shoot to grow up from the stump of the Jesse Tree. We’d guess that Isaiah would anticipate a normal king again, but very good and very powerful, and not afraid to smash some heads. He would be vigorous and even merciless in the working of his justice. Justice, justice, justice. The fruit of his justice would be the peace that we see in the fellowship of the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf, and a little child leading them.

In the subsequent history of Israel we don’t find any fulfillment of this prophecy in the way that Isaiah might have anticipated it. There would be no political revival of the dynasty of David. The Jesse Tree scattered many seeds, and there were many descendants of David among the Jews, but none of them ever was king again. Except the son of Mary.

The remarkable thing that Christians claim is that this prophecy was very much fulfilled, but in a surprising way beyond anticipation, and with a doubling of intensity. First, that the little child in the peace part of the prophecy is the very branch of Jesse in the justice part. The child of peace is the captain of justice. And second, that this captain of justice will be God’s own self, that God will just come down and do it God’s own self. Which means, if you complete the circuit, that God is in the little child, and it’s as a little child that God desires to come into your life. The peace that he gives you is how you get your justice and your righteousness. Let him into your imagination and he will do your penance for you. Let him into your place of innocence and he will give you innocence.

What that innocence allows for is wonder, the wide-eyed wonder of a child. You want that. You want to forsake the suspicions you’ve developed in your life. You want to welcome the gifts of the world and the colors of other people and be open to what they do all day. There is so much good reason not to do this, so much good reason to judge the world ahead of time, but for your soul to be joyful you need to be in your place innocence in order to look out wonder. You want to practice the wonder which God intended to be normal for human beings.

One more thing. When you go into your place of innocence with the Lord Jesus, then in there you will also find your hope. Even after all of your experience. Hope is not optimism, hope is what you depend on precisely when your experience is bad. You have to have the hope. Because you’re not a child, because you have experienced the loss and grief and pain. When you have hope, then you know that you are in the place of innocence and wonder. Whenever you struggle to have that hope, then go back to the promises of God in Jesus Christ for your encouragement. Your hope depends upon the Word of God, and your hope is energized by the Spirit of God.

Do you suppose it’s true for you? Does God not love you? Does God not understand you, and also understand the world in all its good and bad even better than you do? Has God not entered the world to bring joy to you and peace? I close with the blessing of St. Paul: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.


cottonwoolandsilk said...

Beautiful sermon Dan

Old First said...

Thank you, Kathy. The congregation accepted it too. These were new categories for me.