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Isaiah 11:1-10 & Matthew 3:1-12
The Peaceful Kingdom. That is the title, the heading, for this passage from Isaiah in the New Revised Standard Version. Isaiah lists all of these signs of peace – wolves living with lambs, cows and bears grazing together, a children placing their hands in a den of snakes. It’s lovely imagery and I’m also not sticking my hand into a hole in the ground anytime soon. For the signs are not here. Wolves don’t lie down with lambs, they devour them. And lions don’t eat straw. The Kingdom is not peaceful.
Of course they knew that then, and they didn’t actually see those signs, either. But Isaiah persists. He knows they see a dead stump, the possibilities of growth and renewal and life cut down by the forces around them. So, he imagines the shoot sprouting forth from what is thought dead, he imagines possibility where there is none. What he does NOT imagine is Jesus, for Isaiah is speaking to his time – this is not a predictive text, but a hopeful one. So hopeful that the followers of Jesus, some hundreds of years later, would borrow this language to make sense of Jesus in their time, inspired by that same hope. Isaiah’s words speak beyond his time 300 years ago, they speak past 2,000 years ago during the days of Jesus, they speak even to us today – for it’s always hard to imagine wolves lying down with lambs. It’s equally hard to imagine peace, because we don’t know what that looks like.
My two children have never lived in a United States that wasn’t at war. Let me say that again – 17th year old senior in high school and my 15 year old sophomore have not been alive during a time of “peace,” defined by us not being at war. I’m not sure that’s peace, but it does seem the bare minimum. Any dreams we might have of a world with no war are just that – dreams. In fact, they’re not even dreams, for a whole generation doesn’t know what it means to not be at war. Historians note that during the reign of Augustus Caesar, from 27 BCE – 14 CE, the Roman army was not engaged in combat somewhere in the vastness of the empire for a total of 35 days. That’s 35 days in 41 years! The Pax Romana, the Roman “peace,” was anything but peaceful, and the people who wrote our scriptures knew it…they lived it. They lived it so much, and for so long, that they began to think of peace as something beyond the absence of war, as something other than a blissful utopia (which seemed a pipe dream). They began to think of peace as something more than just quiet.
Peace may not seem like a natural state for us, given that we’re always warring with one another. Then again, maybe it is our natural state, one that we’ve ignored or been tempted away from, like the Eden fable reveals…part of us, but so covered up by other stuff that we have to do some heavy-duty excavation. The Baptist’s coarse language, a shock during this relatively joyous time of Advent, insists that we have to do this kind of work. We have to turn around – to literally change direction. Nothing short of that abrupt shift will do. You can’t ease into it, or decide that you can have peace after all the conditions are just so. It is a trajectory, an orientation. Now, what this passage fails to impart is that the act of repentance isn’t a singular event. You don’t just do it once, wash your hands and move on. You have to choose it again and again and again. For there’s a rip current in this world, dragging us in a particular direction, at it isn’t towards peace, unless that “peace” is something being sold to us.
The word that is most often translated as peace in the Greek Testament is eirene, from the verb eiro, which means to join or bind together that which has been separated. It conveys a sense of internal well-being, of harmony, and not the absence of conflict or stress. Eirene forms the basis of our word in English – serene, as in serenity. And serenity isn’t a place, it is a state of being. Problem is, we get sold serenity (or peace) like they’re some place, some state we can permanently achieve if we have the right thing, or enough money, or the right house, or, worse yet, it’s a pill or a drink that can magically transport us to that idealized locale whenever the stresses get too much.
Like the people on the side of the Jordan with John, we can easily think that a ritual or an external action will bring us this prized thing we call peace. It works off an old and seemingly intractable theology – an act of ritual will appease God, avert judgement, and set the world right. But that’s not what John says. He tells those surrounding him to repent, not offering up his baptism as a magic fix at all, just an outward sign of what he asserts must happen inside.
Repent. When you’ve done something that doesn’t make for peace, turn around. Make a different choice. You don’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. Yes, repentance means judgment, but we should be very precise with that word in light of the ways it has been misused. This kind of judgment is what you pronounce on yourself, or with the help of people who love and know you. It is recognition that we are not perfect, that we make mistakes. Such judgment may bring with it some healthy guilt for things done wrong, but it does not shame. It recognizes the thing that we all have in common – we all mess up. We all make poor decisions. We all miss the mark.
And when we do, what we do next can make for peace, or not. It can leave us feeling free, or like we are trapped, imprisoned by that mistake. We have all known someone, or perhaps we ARE someone, who has borne the weight of a mistake in the past but never engaged in the work needed to make amends for that mistake. So, we bear it…and then it becomes so much a part of us that we cannot release it, we even get defensive about it if someone brings it up. We do this as individuals and also as a culture. We will soon recognize 100 years since the race massacre here in Tulsa, an event that we seem unable to recognize effectively or release fully, because we don’t repent, and WON’T repent because it would mean admitting we have been wrong, wrong in the way that we have structured our systems, wrong in the ways that we value each other and wrong in our legendary stories we tell about our city, state and nation. So, it lingers…it hangs on us, and it’s impact imprisons us just as surely as if we were locked away.
Repentance is about setting ourselves free, not about shame. And it’s more than just personal, it is something we do for ourselves AND something we can and should do as a whole people. Isaiah calls for ISRAEL to repent – the whole nation. And John speaks of us individually, but also knows, in fact will know in the most visceral sense very soon, of the power of political and social systems and what repentance must take place in a collective sense in order for them to change. Repentance, in this way of seeing it, is about freedom.
Remember that the appearance of John the Baptist, as Matthew points out by pulling in some words from Isaiah, is not about judgment, it’s about a return from exile! It is about escape from the exile in Babylon, in Isaiah’s context, and escape from the exile in the empire of Rome, in Matthew’s context. And the spiritualtruth here is that “turning around” delivers the kind of peace we seek. When we just go through the motions, when we talk a good game but do nothing, we are in trouble. When ritual replaces acts of mercy, when correct belief trumps love, we begin to hate and exclude those who do not bind their hand in the glove of our worship. We begin to breed the evil nastiness that is a nest of snakes, a brood of vipers, John would say.
John yells at us from knee deep in the muddy water – don’t think that repeated ritual or clinging to doctrinal purity will save you — do good all the time. This is, of course, an impossible directive. None of us can do good all of the time, so he follows with the call to repentance, for this is the formula that fosters something as vast and unachievable as salvation. This is the formula that brings us a sense of peace that lies beyond whether or not the circumstances are what we’d like them to be. For peace comes not from outside, but from within. When we root out the violence in our own hearts, when we practice living with compassion and mercy – first with ourselves and then with others – then real peace is possible. For learning to be peaceful as a spiritual practice is not for the peaceful times. Anyone can find peace when everything is going great and the world is calm. Peace as a spiritual practice is for the rough places, for the uphill slog, the heavy sledding. And peace as a spiritual practice begins with the act of contrition, with the acceptance of repentance as a way of life, for if we never become comfortable with owning and dealing with our mistakes, we will always be imprisoned by them. We don’t get to reconciliation without truth, we don’t get to forgiveness without confession, and we don’t get to wholeness without repentance.
When we forget this eternal truth, or when we turn it into a weapon to be used against other people instead of directed first and foremost at ourselves, we can create an atmosphere where another mass shooting happens and we do nothing, where another trans woman is murdered and we change no laws, where a 16 year-old Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez can catch the flu and die in custody of our government which will deny, obfuscate and stay the course, because we cannot, or will not, turn away form the things that we think are good for us, which have brought us the same artificial peace that the Pax Romana brought, the lies and legends that have formed us as a nation, built on the hierarchy of human beings, and the subjugation of some by others. That may be many things, but it isn’t the Gospel that Jesus brings, nor is it peaceful.
The peace that Jesus promises belongs to a new way of being. And Advent is here to remind us that we do not seek the best of the world that is, we seek a new world altogether. For Jesus is born to usher in a new kin-dom, and Advent is our preparation time – preparation for a revolution of love and hope. A revolution that begins with us turning around, turning towards one another, and seeking a new way to be in the world, imagined in the voices of our youngest, pictured in the imagery of the season, set forth in the story of a baby born to us again – possibility itself wrapped in swaddling clothes, soft and vulnerable, and placed in the manger – a revolution of peace waiting to happen.
Come, O long expected Jesus – born to set ALL people free. Grant us the wisdom and the courage to accept our own salvation. Amen.