Advent Imagination (Isaiah 11:1-9; Philippians 4:4-9; Luke 1:67-79)
I was delighted this past week to discover research from an association of Pediatricians that held tha tfancy, battery-filled toys and computer games do not teach children as well as the old fashioned toys like Lego’s or blocks, puzzles, dolls, dump trucks,etc. I was delighted not only because these are the toys I remember and I like to be affirmed (although both things are true), but because one reason the pediatricians gave for their findings was that the newer toys and games did not lead to the development of imagination and imaginative play in children as well as the old ones do, where children make up whole stories and scenarios right out of their heads. We know that early imagination is critical to later creativity and problem-solving skills, as well as to social skills. As I say, I was delighted.
I believe that imagination is also critical in our lives of faith as we think about living in a world that resists faith, and prefers the linear, the causal, and the so-called historical as a synonym for truth. Imagination is not the same as faith or truth, but it is crucial for the development of a sense of either.
On the Second Sunday of Advent, as you heard David say this morning, we lit the candle of Peace. What does (or might) the it look like to imagine peace? Well, first of all, the context of our imagination begins with the reality that, once again this year, we live in a country and a world that is far from enjoying peace, even though foreign armies are not marching through our streets (except in the imaginations of some politicians, perhaps). So, we begin with an unpromising situation.
One of the advantages of both preaching from a manuscript and keeping all my old sermons is that I can look over how I started my sermons on the Second Sunday of Advent through the years. It is depressing to see that, in great majority of them, I have started by saying how un-peaceful our world seemed at the time, so that, when I say that this year is no different, it ought not to surprise us. What part do Christians play in this situation?
In Jimmy Carter’s 2014book A Call to Action, he wrote that many devout Christians advocate warfare and violence at a much higher rate than the population at large, on which he commented: “An eye for an eye has become more important to them than the teachings of the Prince of Peace.” (J. Carter, A Call to Action, Simon & Shuster, 2015: 17.)
I hope that we do not allow living in a violent world make us lose trust in that One we Christians call the Prince of Peace (taking a line from Isaiah 9) or “Our Peace” (taking a line from Ephesians 2). We simply have to remind ourselves that it is not only in our lifetimes or those of our parents or grandparents that the way of the world has been disheartening to imagined the peace and wholeness of Jesus. Perhaps it is a good thing, at least once in a year to speak a word in favour of peace and wholeness, even in a world that resists it.
Our lectionary texts today deliver old reminders. In the daysof Isaiah the prophet, the dominant world power was Assyria. Assyria wasapparently all powerful and could not be resisted. In Isaiah chapters 1-12 the prophet clearly set out two ways of giving imagination to the way the world is. First, because hard to ignore, was how Assyria imagined the world: that might makes right (so that virtue is defined as the will of the stronger). You and Iare still very familiar with this way of relating in the world, we live with itevery day, as does every country on earth. Our recent election, once again, was built upon destroying the opponent’s credentials, credibility, and reputation. We ought to realize that it isn’t only the “other party,” or the “other candidate” that’s guilty. We all have a big share in imagining things the Assyrian way. It’s going on right now in this state. Now, religionhas quite often been handmaid of the Assyrian style of leadership and visionfor the way things go in the world. Some of the dirtiest, most self-destructive struggles I have witnessed in life come inside church walls. None of us is probably proud to admit these things, but we all know them. Isaiah knew them back in the 8th century before Christ. And he pictured the end to which this vision of the world pointed as destruction. Hi scall to ministry in chapter 6 reports that their end would be “cities laid waste, without inhabitants, and houses without people and the land…utterly desolate” (6:11). And these things are about God’s people. Where the answer to force is more force, waste and desolation are and will be the result. It has always been so. And, finally, even mighty Assyria(the great aggressor) meets one who is stronger. The result, Isaiah wrote just before our passage in chapter 10: “Look the sovereign, the LORD of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying force”(10:33). This simply means, when we live by the sword, we die by the sword. There is always someone stronger. And, surprisingly, when there’s no one else to take the Assyria’s of our world to task, it’s God who steps in, in Isaiah’s imagination, and does it. If you want to play by the rules of“whose got the bigger stick,” God always does.
But that’s not the way God has designed things to be. There is second imagining of the way things are in Isaiah 11, and it’s the way of God’s own spirit – the vital energy of God present in the world. This way of God’s own wholeness, is found in the few poetic lines we read from Isaiah 11.
It begins: “A shoot (new growth) shall come from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” We don’t even mention Jesse’s great son David, because, well before Isaiah’s day, the monarchy David founded had bought the Assyrian imagining of how the world was. And so, since God is really running the world, and since aggression only brings more aggression, Jesse’s a stump now.
I’ve said to you before that, usually, when God does new things, they grow out of old thing s. So, here, the root is Jesse, the old chosen family, but the family wasn’t chosen for privilege, but for sharing God’s own wholeness with the world. Jesse’s family was intended to share in God’s imagination of the way the world is.
So, here’s how God imagines peace. There will come a ruler upon whom God’s own energy and presence (that is, God’s spirit) rests to give wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and a true respect and understanding that it is God’s imagining of the world that is the right one. Such an imagining is this ruler’s very delight. This ruler does not judge by outer appearance, but by a set of values: justice, equity, and righteousness, all of which make a place for the meek and the marginal of the earth.
And what a different world flows from God’s vision. It is sometimes called the Peaceable Kingdom. Animals and humans coexist in peace, and children are the leaders. No one hurts,no one destroys. The whole earth is God’s Holy Mountain. And knowledge of God (like knowledge we have of friends and family) will cover the earth as water covers the sea. It is the perfect description of shalom.
We know that this must bean ideal poetic vision. Why? Well, we know it doesn’t exist in this world. Is that all it is? An ideal? Even if our answer is “Yes,” we shouldn’t think it unimportant, for without ideals for which to aim, where would we be? Value systems are built on ideals. But it really is more than that. It is God’s imagined Peace. The Genesis stories of creation imagine that God created humans to be co-creators of this vision together with God. God’s imagination of how the world ought to be (and will be one day) has not changed since the beginning. (Can we imagine God playing with Lego’s?) The idea of Shalom needs to be unpacked as wholeness and centredness, not only the simple lack of conflict. Shalom can exist in the heart of the storm. It is present when people conserve the most humanity in each one involved in each situation in which they’re involved.It exists when those values of justice, equity, and righteousness make a place for the meek and marginal of the earth. To make it real takes imagination that gives birth to creativity, and leads to creative metaphors and plans that enflesh the creativity in actions. My how I could go on!
Let’s talk about Luke. He put the words of our Gospel Lesson in the mouth of Zechariah, the aging father of John the Baptist. They were his first words, after being speechless for most of his wife’s pregnancy. And Zechariah’s song imagines that his son will usher in an opportunity once again for the wholeness of God. He ends the passage this way:
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the ways of peace.
In the Christian story, his son John was the forerunner of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. This Jesus taught that his disciples can begin to bring his own message and mission into focus by imagining Jesus’ service and gentleness into the reality of everyday life. And, for a while, that’s how the disciples were.
Eventually, however,through many twists and turns, the community of Jesus became known as the Church. Finally, the church became legal, and soon imagined, not Jesus’ Peace or God’s Peace made real in the world, but bought into what I’ve called Assyria’s imagination of the way the world is and the way to use power. The Church and the State became one. You were in the Church or else. You had no choice.And that became the reality. You can imagine how, as a Baptist, it relate to that, but even in that situation, folk are still given the opportunity to imagine God’s Shalom, wholeness, albeit in limited ways, sometimes subversively. How, in this world, can we possibly do it? Well,one way is simply to push it all to the end of time. However, is it inevitable that God’s Shalom will have to wait some glorious time in the future? Well, given the realities of the way the world has run, and does run still, we can be forgiven for answering in the affirmative. But I don’t think it’s the full answer.
Paul wrote a letter while he was in prison to one of his favourite churches, in the town of Philippi in Macedonia. The little church there was beginning to experience opposition because the imagination of Jesus about the way the world is and the way of service and empowerment ran counter to Assyria’s imagination, which, by now was Rome’s imagination. And church folk were beginning to pick at one another under the pressure. But, in essence, Paul said that they had opportunity to put wheels on God’s vision by re-imagining it. In two small paragraphs, he says that if this community of believers (and any such community) wants to be the peaceable Kingdom imagined by God and by Isaiah, that they will be known by their joy, their lack of worry, and their insistence upon living lives of thanksgiving and unashamed dependence on God for what they needed. As they relate to one another and their larger community they will focus on anything honourable, good, just, pure, pleasing,commendable and excellent. And they will praise people any way they can. Every time we do these things with one another, and with those people we meet, we are doing a little to enact God’s imagination of the way the world is, God’s own wholeness. I truly believe that followers of Jesus are intended to be truly alternative communities to those that are available in the larger world –communities that continue to operate on competition, brutality, subjection of the weak to the strong, etc. Communities of Christian faith are those outposts of the peaceable kingdom, the foothill sof God’s Holy Mountain that show forth to the world a different kind of society; one modeled on kindness, gentleness, goodness, nurturing, cooperation,and good will. It may be “the way of the world” that part of life is lived on Assyria’s imagination of the way things go, but, Isaiah, Paul, Jesus, and many others, do give us hope of wholeness and peace that one day shall fill the earth – even as the waters do cover the sea. And that, until then, our communities – this little community on this corner – may be precursors of it.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.