Though we light the 2nd Advent candle this week–the Candle of Peace–I like to think of this second Sunday in Advent, particularly when we’ve got today’s gospel reading from Matthews, as “Brood of Vipers Sunday.” Good ol’ John the Baptist, cutting through all the pre-Christmas glitter and sweetness with a healthy dose of telling it like it is. “You brood of viper!” he yells at the Sadducees and Pharisees who had come out into the wilderness to see him, “Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?!” Wow, don’t hold back, John! Tell us what you really think!
“The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to [John], and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” You could say John was the anti-celebrity, in his clothing of camel’s hair and leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey, and screaming at the top of his lungs–”Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And yet people streamed out into the wilderness to hear him and be baptized by him. Maybe they were tired of living their lives the way they were. Maybe John’s call to change, or get back on the right path, was actually refreshing. “Perhaps,” as one commentator suggests, to know that “there is a God who holds us accountable–that the world is not amoral” is actually “good news.” It affirms that gnawing feeling that something’s not right here. “To be confronted by such a holy God [this commentator says]…is to discover who one really is, which though it may be painful, may also be a relief.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, p. 17)
It was clear that something wasn’t right when Isaiah prophesied to Israel. This familiar passage about the shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse is set in the context of a whole lot of stumps. The Lord God will clear cut Israel, in fact, Isaiah says just before our text. “Look,” he says, “the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. God will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”
In the midst of this devastation, “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse [David’s father], and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth..” Is he talking about Jesus? we Christians assume. Or maybe talking about a leader like Nelson Mandela became.
But what’s wrong with Isaiah’s vision? The wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the kid, the calf and lion and fatling together? The cow and bear grazing together, the lion eating straw like the ox–how long do you suppose the lion will be satisfied with that?! And throughout this portrait, images of the little child–”A little child shall lead them…” “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” What’s wrong with this picture? There was no more vulnerable or powerless figure in Isaiah’s–or Jesus’–time than a little child. So many died in childbirth or infancy, they were the last to get fed. This utterly vulnerable one shall lead the nation? Shall play in the midst of very real dangers and threats? Surely this is only the stuff of children’s paintings and fairytales. And yet….and yet…
This vision of the “peaceable kingdom,” as Edward Hicks’ famous painting of the scene is entitled, this portrayal of shalom –of peace, of wholeness, of harmony– is a vision of creation time, as Walter Brueggemann puts it (cited by Kate Huey in Sermon Seeds, 12/9/13). “The big ones eating the little ones is not the wave of the future…The leader who upends the strong over the weak is himself vulnerable and humble.” What is normal or abnormal? This is the promise of something better than what we’ve gotten used to as “normal.”
In his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Charles Eisenstein talks about his nostalgia for the cultural myths of his childhood, when “everything worked”–
“a world in which there was nothing wrong with soda pop, in which the Super Bowl was important, in which America was bringing democracy to the world, in which the doctor could fix you, in which science was going to make life better and better, and they just put a man on the moon.”
If you worked hard, you would succeed, he recalls.
[But] as my horizons widened [he says] I knew that millions were not supposed to be starving, that nuclear weapons were not supposed to be hanging over our heads, that the rainforests were not supposed to be shrinking, or the fish dying, or the condors and eagles disappearing. I could not accept the way the dominant narrative of my culture handled these things: as fragmentary problems to be solved, as unfortunate facts of life to be regretted, or as unmentionable taboo subjects to be simply ignored. On some level, we all know better.
We’re reluctant or afraid to give voice to that knowledge or feeling though.
Addiction, self-sabotage, procrastination, laziness, rage, chronic fatigue, and depression are all ways that we withhold our full participation in the program of life we are offered. When the conscious mind cannot find a reason to say no, the unconscious says no in its own way. More and more of us cannot bear to stay in the ‘old normal’ any longer.
(Excerpted from Dec. Kripalu Compass online)
“The wolf shall live with 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.” Is that the “new normal”? And if Isaiah wrote this 2500 years ago, when is this “new normal” going to appear?
Isn’t it interesting that at the center of this vision of the “new normal” promised by God is the figure of vulnerability. Who of us wants to be vulnerable? How risky and naive is that? The world eats up the vulnerable, we say, we know.
And yet, in her research on shame and vulnerability, sociologist Brene Brown has found that the willingness to be vulnerable is an essential quality of what she calls “wholehearted living.” Vulnerability, in fact, is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. (Brown, Daring Greatly, pp. 33-34)
You may have heard Krista Tippett’s interview with Brene Brown this morning on VPR’s
OnBeing. Krista asked Brene to explain a statement she had made: “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experience.” So explain that sentence to me, Krista said to Brene.
Vulnerability, I think, you know, when I ask people what is vulnerability, the answers were things like sitting with my wife who has Stage III breast cancer and trying to make plans for our children, my first date after my divorce, saying I love you first, asking for a raise, sending my child to school being enthusiastic and supportive of him and knowing how excited he is about orchestra tryouts and how much he wants to make first chair and encouraging him and supporting him and knowing that’s not going to happen. To me, vulnerability is courage. It’s about the willingness to show up and be seen in our lives. And in those moments when we show up, I think those are the most powerful meaning-making moments of our lives even if they don’t go well. I think they define who we are.
And further, Dr. Brown says:
And I can tell you as a researcher, 11,000 pieces of data, I cannot find a single example of courage, moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage, I cannot find a single example of courage in my research that was not born completely of vulnerability. And so I think we buy into some mythology about vulnerability being weakness and being gullibility and being frailty because it gives us permission not to do it.
If we define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, as Brown does, then think about love. Surely love involves uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. No vulnerability, no love. Are we willing to pay that price? And the products of vulnerability–
creativity, imagination, empathy, courage–can you think of any more essential qualities we need in our leadership, our common life, our family and individual lives right now?
“A little child shall lead them,” Isaiah says of God’s vision for us. Vulnerability is at the heart of this vision. Love is at the center. The arms of the cross intersect in the middle of this vision. John the Baptist saw the ax at the root of the tree, Isaiah saw a shoot growing out of the stump. Jesus came as a little child.
“O tidings of comfort and joy!” the carol sings out. It’s what we all want. But to get to comfort and joy we must be willing to go through the discomfort and risk of vulnerability. We have to allow ourselves to feel, not to numb, all those feelings of discomfort and sorrow– our fears of being exposed or failing or being imperfect–we have to allow ourselves to feel those uncomfortable things if we are also to feel the things we want to feel–like joy and love and courage and belonging. There is no such thing as selectively numbing just the unwanted feelings. We end up numbing all feelings, even the good ones.
We can risk all this because the Love that came (down) at Christmas is also not selective. It is for all of us. Each one of us is worthy to be loved. Even those whom some would call a “brood of vipers.” “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, [Isaiah said], and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” That’s where the vipers live! We are–all of us– loved. That’s the old and the new normal for God. “O, tidings of comfort and joy!” Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark