4 Dec 2016
“A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse …” (Isa. 11:1) In the name …
Last Sunday we drove Amanda back to college. We had our dog Mason with us. We pulled into a rest stop in Vermont to walk the beast. At the back of the rest stop there was a gate that was slightly ajar that led out to some beautiful rolling hills of green grass. I took Mason through the gate. I decided we would climb to the top of one hill to look around. As I’m walking, I’m starting to notice some rather large deposits of, for lack of a more polite term, fertilizer. My first thought is that others must have walked their pets out here too. Then as I continue walking up toward the summit of the hill, I remember that we’re in rural Vermont. Maybe that fertilizer wasn’t from other pets. Maybe I was in somebody’s pasture. Then I remember I’m wearing a bright red Red Sox jacket. I’m still walking toward the summit of the hill and I have to admit I was a little bit apprehensive that on the other side of that hilltop could be a very protective bull who would not be big fan of a stranger walking across his turf in a bright red coat. That’s when I looked back over my shoulder to where the gate and parking lot were. It didn’t seem so far to walk to where I was, but if I had to run back it looked like it was miles away.
Such perceptions, I guess, depend an awful lot on your circumstances. And that’s where I would like to begin talking about this morning’s message of peace. Mary Ellen read for us a passage from the prophet Isaiah. He was preaching at a time when the Jewish people were in a desperate situation. They were on the verge of complete defeat. They were going to lose their country and their Temple. Everything they trusted in, everything they believed in, were going to be lost. Into this confusion, God sends Isaiah, and the prophet is blunt. Defeat is inevitable, he says, but new possibilities will arise through this destruction. The old must give way before the new can be put in place. The image the prophet uses to convey this revelation is the stump of a tree, and out of this apparently dead wood, says Isaiah, “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.” Then the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the lion shall eat hay like the ox. Circumstances were so bad that people couldn’t imagine a way out except for God to change everything and to do it all for us.
John the Baptist picks-up this imagery when he says to us today that “the ax lies at the root of the trees.” Still with John, Israel is in desperate straits. Almost 600 years have passed and nothing has really changed. Israel has a rebuilt and massive Temple in Jerusalem, but John is in the wilderness complaining that it, its worship and all the leaders in the capital city are tainted and impure. There’s still that hope for a Saviour who will change everything. He will gather all the righteous and he will destroy all the others. John, just like Isaiah, thought God was going to do it all for us.
But it’s Advent and we’re preparing instead for the coming of the Christ Child not as completely other, but as one of us. I’m hoping that we can begin to see through the comparison of these passages with actual history that God has surprised us in the way He entered our world and the way He may work to change the world. A friend shared with me a tip about a book called Bright Sided, which is play on the phrase “broad sided.” Broad sided is a harsh, extreme and unexpected attack. It’s to be caught off guard. And the premise of the book is that the same kind of destruction can take place through the now current rage of the power of positive thinking. It is almost magical. All you have to do is think positively and it will happen. Reprogram your mind with images of what you dream of being and that is what you will become. You are what you will yourself to be.
This can lead in the opposite direction however. There is a difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better on their own. Hope, on the other hand, is the virtue that if we work hard enough we can make things better. Hope is an active virtue that it is powered by God. It’s not only the optimism of believing things will improve; it’s working to make them improve because we believe that God has empowered us to make this possible, and our proof for this hope is that Jesus came as us. When Isaiah and John the Baptist were confronted with total failure, they countered with a solution that was totally in the hands of God. But the reality of their prophecies was not the magical transformation that led to butterflies, flowers and rainbows everywhere. There was the transformation of us instead. Christmas lets us believe that Jesus was and is one of us, and when we believe in this revelation then we see what we can be, we see what’s possible, and we change.
In Advent as we imagine the peace on earth that Jesus’ birth promises, we need to realize that God is not going to do it for us, but that God has entered the fray Himself in Jesus and that with Him as us and with our faith in Him leading us, we can make peace possible. As Kami told us at the beginning of Mass: “As we await the coming of the Prince of Peace, we need to think about peacemaking in our everyday lives. How many disputes or arguments would end quickly with a simple apology? Peace-making is a blessing that will eventually reap rewards so be not troubled or afraid to take the first step.”
Remember that gate story in my bright red jacket. Perception depends a lot on circumstance, and ours make peace seem unlikely. Our circumstances are of constant wars, and now we live in a time of increasing civic and social tension too. Animosity is increasing and differences aren’t being tolerated by a lot of people. (*) In these circumstances, it seems so unreasonable to expect peace. But that’s exactly when we need to look to the coming Child. He was peace amid a hatred and violence filled world. He made peace His priority because He saw God more clearly than He saw anything else, and that’s how He can change our world too by changing our perception. Christmas gives us hope so that we can work to make peace possible. May this be our prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo