Stand as a Signal

An Advent Song of Ascents

Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

It is the second Sunday of Advent, and we’re making a declaration. Whether we are heeding the call of John the Baptist to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” or longing for the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah, we are taking our stand for the promise that Jesus offers for beloved community, a new way of living. We are declaring and leaning into this kin-dom of heaven, living it now in all the ways we can.

Our house is . . . unsettled. Standard operating procedure, to be sure. But the animals seem especially uneasy. The dog and the cats all seem to be wanting something we can’t quite figure out. Nick, the three-legged rescue terrier mix, thinks he’s in charge of the world. As far as he can see, he is responsible for everything, every intruder real or imagined, every foot crossing into his line of sight; and woe be to any other dog that saunters past the house. At the same time, he is sharing a residence with two cats: Dora, the substantial cat; and Cato, short for Catastrophe, who does her level best to live up to her name. Cato doesn’t care a whit about Nick’s opinion and gallops through the house with abandon, upsetting the carefully maintained piles of things in strategic places, and even tries to cuddle up next to Nick, who looks at us like, “Can you do something about this?” Dora, on the other hand, though she is more than twice Cato’s size, is a little more skittish. She slinks around, hoping the dog won’t appear, and then skitters up the stairs when Nick comes exploding into the room.

My wife is convinced that if the cats would only give the dog a swat on the nose now and then, they could occupy the same space. I’m skeptical, given the demeanor with which the dog approaches anyone and everyone, sounding as though your liver just might be on the menu. But who knows? Maybe it is all a show. Maybe they really are friendly beasts and could live together in peace and harmony, holding paws and singing the animal version of kumbaya.

Yeah, right. Tell us about it, Isaiah.

The wolf shall live with the 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. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9 NRSV)

Admit it, you thought it was the lion and lamb, didn’t you? Not sure how that became the prototypical image of the peaceable kingdom. But Isaiah says it is the wolf and the lamb and the lion and the calf. The fatted calf. The calf ready for eating. Impossible. Outrageous. Like Democrats getting along with Republicans. Won’t happen. Freedom Partiers and Gun Control Advocates. Can’t happen. Social conservatives and the live-and-let-live sort. Nah, unimaginable. Well, maybe if they were allowed to give each other a good swat first . . . No, no, bad idea. Our differences are too great, aren’t they? Our divides too deep—until someone comes and points to a higher truth, a deeper reality, then all those things that separate us will continue to have us drawing up battle lines. It is the nature of the beast.

Isn’t it? We are convinced it is. And yet there is a small glimmer of hope deep down within us that only dares show its face at this time of year. We dare entertain the idea that peace on earth is possible during Advent. And then quickly shake our heads and say it is kid’s stuff. Like Charlie Brown and his poor excuse for a tree and the Grinch and his heart that grew three sizes one day—it is the stuff of cartoons and sappy seasonal specials. Only there does it really work out. Only there are the teeth not bared and claws sheathed. Only in our dreams and fantasies, not in our living rooms and boardrooms, not in the marketplace or on the battlefield. Not in the real world, where we live and move and have our being. Only in our holiday imagination.

Unless there are people willing to work and suffer for a different way of being in community; to stand as a signal to a better way. But who would want to do that? Who would sacrifice that much, endure that much to bring about a new world, a new peace?

A church I served on the south side of a large city annually held an event called Jubilee Christmas, and it was a monumental work of planning and giving. One year, twenty-one families were able to have Christmas for their children because of the generosity of a congregation of people who know what it is to be blessed to overflowing. I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, so they gave Christmas gifts, big deal. A whole lot of people give Christmas gifts to the needy this time of year; it’s a regular occurrence.” The truth be told, Jubilee Christmas is like a lot of other giving programs and ministries at Christmastime. But when I watched this one unfold, it just seemed to feel a little different from other attempts at giving I had been a part of. Because it wasn’t really about giving; it was more about sharing. Yes, giving happened, and for a lot of those who helped make this event happen, their involvement was bringing in items to give away. But the Jubilee team and the hosts of the families were there to do something more than simply give. They wanted to share something significant; they wanted to offer an experience, not just a gift. They wanted to share the joy of Christmas, the warmth of Christmas, the love of Christmas. They wanted to share Emmanuel, God with us, in as tangible a way as they could. They wanted to welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed us, as Paul says in our Epistle text from Romans (Romans 15:7).

It’s kind of complicated how it all happened, and I don’t even know all the story, to be honest. It was a well-oiled machine, honed with hours and years of practice. But it never felt machine-like, nor did it feel patronizing in a way that mission work sometimes does. It felt real. It felt good. And here’s the amazing part, barriers were crossed in this sharing. Barriers of language, of culture, of economic status; and just those we no longer know how to be neighbors with, the strangers next door barriers that trip us up all the time – none of that mattered. Because God has put on flesh and chosen to be born among us, so we don’t have to live in fear of one another if we but take the risk of wanting to share, wanting to live in the peaceable kingdom.

When you hear those words – the peaceable kingdom – you think of a painting. A painting of animals clustered around a small child. The animals seem to be smiling, childish in their depiction, primitive, we call it. And in the background of the painting, there is a European man gathered with a group of Native Americans offering a hand of peace. That’s the famous Quaker, William Penn, and the peace treaty he made with the original occupants of the land. The painter was Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister and painter. And it was his favorite subject. He painted over a hundred different takes on this image, and some sixty-plus still exist.

What historians have noted, however, was that there was a subtle change in the depiction of the animals in the paintings. In the older ones, they are kind and even playful as they lie together, predator and prey. But as time went on, the teeth grew sharper and the snarls more pronounced. Hicks was said to have begun to lose hope in humanity as he watched the barriers grow higher and stronger, the animosity grow deeper and more violent. In those later paintings, however, the child, the Christ, tightens his grip on the lion’s mane and the bear’s neck, holding them in place with strength when their will was not with him. Hicks, though he began losing hope in the workings of the human community, began to cling even more tightly to Christ. In Christ, Hicks would put his hope.

Isaiah speaks of death, the stump of a nation, of a dream cut off, destroyed, ended. But not ended. Out of that death comes a sprig of life. Out of that dream denied comes a new dream, a new hope. That’s what Advent reminds us—not that a festive season and a small celebration is returning once more because the calendar pages have turned; but that hope out of despair is possible, that life out of death is real, that a dream of a way of living that honors God and neighbor both is not only possible but is within reach. If we but set aside that which keeps up apart, those differences that make us suspicious of one another, and hold on to the common humanity that makes us so similar. That’s why we love our neighbor as ourselves because they are ourselves, just like ourselves. They may sound different and look different and act different, but they are us. And we can learn to trust, even as we choose to be trustworthy.

When we love, when we welcome, when we share Emmanuel in our world today, then we will stand as a signal to the nations that there is a God among us and there is a way to know peace, and there is hope in the midst of despair; there is joy even in brokenness. We are called to stand as a signal. Advent is the reminder of that call and a reviver of that hope.

In This Series...

First Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Third Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes


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In This Series...

First Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Third Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes