|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Isaiah 11:1-10||Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19||Romans 15:4-13||Matthew 3:1-12|
By Bruce G. Epperly
Advent season invites us to take adventures of the spirit. An adventure of the spirit, as Whitehead notes, is not for the faint-hearted or those who seek a safe path. Spiritual adventures are for those who are willing to leave their personal, relational, and congregational comfort zones to explore God’s pathways of possibility in our time. It is for those who seek new horizons of faith and spiritual transformation.
Isaiah presents a breathtaking vision of Shalom that will change everything in our lives. The corporate and governmental world must relinquish violence and competition. Swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. God’s way of justice must take root in our daily face to face and distant political and economic relationships. The non-human world will reflect God’s dream of harmony: enemies will become companions and predator and prey will lie down together. History is being judged, albeit through the eyes of love, in relationship to God’s vision of Shalom and Wholeness.
Isaiah imagines a spiritual leader or spiritual community that will be a precursor to this new age. This individual and corporate embodiment of the new age will call the world to wholeness, and like an ancient shaman join the human and non-human world in harmony. The new community will reflect the reality that God addresses non-human and human alike: the non-human world stands on its own as beloved by God and has its own unique mission in God’s realm of Shalom. The whole planet is called to align itself with Shalom and live out of God’s abundant blessings.
Christian teachers imagined that Isaiah’s vision of spiritual leadership found its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. They saw Christ as embodying Isaiah’s dream through healing, hospitality, and personal transformation. Christ’s evolving realm came to include all persons, the non-human world, and all creation in a circle of healing and creative transformation. What happened in Bethlehem and then in Galilee shaped human and world history alike.
The Psalmist celebrates a truly God-embracing ruler. Guiding by God’s vision of Shalom, the ruler seeks justice and provides sustenance for the vulnerable and marginalized. Justice-seeking in human communities furthers well-being in the non-human world. In the fabric of relatedness, the human and non-human worlds are connected, and there is no break between humankind and nature. Our greed, consumerism, and violence leave scars in our most vulnerable human companions and create desolation in the ecosystem. God hears the cries of the suffering whether they come from little children, grieving parents, or dying species. Our hope, the Psalmist believes, in his justice-seeking communities, guided by leaders who walk the pathways of Shalom.
In the Romans reading, the apostle Paul invites us to leave our ethnic and social comfort zones to embrace strangers. God’s realm includes persons of all races, and the pathway of Jesus and the words of Isaiah counsel a truly joyful realm of diversity. Welcoming diversity is not a chore, but a joy, awakening new possibilities for growth and creativity. The ministry to the Gentiles, to ethnic others, fulfills Isaiah’s prophetic dream. Harmony among peoples and harmony in creation mirror one another. The dynamic unity-in-diversity that stands as the mission of the Christian movement is part of God’s dream of a new heaven and a new earth.
The gospel introduces John the Baptist, that fire-brand, no nonsense preacher and way shower. John’s words are harsh and direct, challenging us to let go of everything that stands in the way of embodying Shalom in our lives and communities. John brings a pruning hook to cut away all the unnecessary debris of life so that God’s light might shine in. God is near and we must be prepared, or the realm of God may pass us by.
Jesus once described his relationship to his followers as being like a vine and branches; fully connected to Christ, we bear much fruit. But, disconnected we wither and die. John’s pruning opens us to the energetic and enlightening power of God’s love.
Repentance opens us to more than we ask for or imagine in relationship to God. Repentance invites us to practice a spiritual, relational, and economic simplicity so that we can experience God’s moment by moment call in our lives. The divine aim is so easily drowned out by the consumerism of our culture, our own self-centeredness, and our temptation to substitute things for love. Awareness of God’s aim emerges from practicing spiritual simplicity, moving from the subliminal to the forefront of our experience, when we pause long enough to listen, prune out the inessential, and commit ourselves to exercising our creativity in response to God’s call.
Following Jesus’ pathway is always countercultural. It goes against common social and governmental wisdom, it counsels simplicity and purity of heart, and it takes us beyond enmity. In its simplicity, there is joy beyond measure. During the busyness of December, today’s readings challenge us to step back a bit, and to take stock of what’s truly important in our lives and in our institutions. The process may be painful at first and challenge us to turn our lives around, especially when we let go of familiar habits and comforts, but in the quest for spiritual simplicity, we will discover a deeper wisdom that gives a glow to every day and wonder to every encounter.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA. on Cape Cod. He is the author of nearly thirty books, including his most recent books, Adventurous Advent: Days of Awe and Wonder and Letters to my Grandson: Gaining Wisdom from a Fresh Perspective. He may be contacted for conversation and engagements at email@example.com.