One of the giant figures of the Advent season is the prophet Isaiah. In the Jewish context he preaches a future in which justice shall reign and Gentiles will look to the descendants of Jesse for inspiration. And from a Christian point of view, this shoot of Jesse is Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. So it is that Isaiah serves as a prophet in two religious traditions.
All that is well and good, but there are elements in Isaiah’s vision that are a little on the impractical side. It’s nice enough to imagine the day when the wolf will be the guest of the lamb (Isaiah chapter 11.) I can also concede the possibility that cows and bears might be neighbors, as they already are on a few ranches in the west. But it strains credulity that God’s plan includes the day when lions will become vegetarians and children will play with cobras. Of the many items in the Bible that require a leap of faith, these pose some of the greatest chasms to cross. I just can’t see myself jumping that far.
Of course Isaiah is speaking in symbolic language, and for good reason. If you can’t imagine the day when leopards, goats, calves and lion cubs will all hang out together, then you have a rough idea of what it will take to achieve world peace and justice for all. They are so beyond our reach, that they seem impossible. But Isaiah appears to suggest that they are not impossible quests. They are all within reach, despite our almost universal pessimism.
This brings me to one of my pet peeves about a few preachers. I don’t mean to throw stones, but it irritates me when people use the pulpit to run through a list of impossible items, and then dump them onto an unsuspecting congregation. I’m for peace in the Middle East as much as the next guy. I’m for an end to the violence that plagues central Africa and the poverty that still seems to grind at people in the far corners of the world. But to impose those challenges on the average person in the pew is to stick them with the impossible. It’s the equivalent of telling them to turn lions into vegetarians, and to do it by the end of the afternoon. And when you’ve done with that, then go see to the leopards. In short, all these things are too tall an order for our meager energies. They’re beyond the talent of most of us in the room, unless I am mistaken here.
Is this yet another case of religion placing impossibly idealistic burdens upon us? I hope not, despite the fact that I’m not likely to achieve world peace all by myself, and certainly not by Friday at the earliest. But therein is the lesson to be learned.
One of the great points I drew from reading Martin Luther years ago was his emphasis on the total depravity of people. He didn’t mean to trash people, nor did he imply that we were created as so much rubbish. Rather, he wanted to convey one fundamental fact: if you are laboring under the illusion that you can save the world, all by yourself, then you are one sad customer. You can’t. There’s just too much to save, and you cannot do it all alone. That’s why, ultimately, we must turn to God for help. Alone we can do little or nothing. With God’s help we’ll be amazed at what we can accomplish.
So the next time some preacher assigns you the task of ending violence in America, and to do it by Wednesday, take it with a big grain of salt. Whatever the homilist may have meant, interpret it as an invitation to look at the big picture first, and then go and begin to do your own part in achieving the impossible. Generally the impossible begins with our own lives, because the impossible has to start somewhere, somehow. And if I don’t work with God to get my own life in order, then the big goals will always remain just beyond my reach. World peace will never come if I don’t make a place for it within my circle of friends, within my own home, and deep within my heart.
That, it seems to me, is a central message of Advent. If some of life’s aspirations are too much to do all by ourselves, then call on the Lord to help with that burden. And then get down to the business of doing what it is that the Lord calls us to do. After all, that is why Jesus comes as Messiah.
There are two other bits that are worth keeping in mind. First, the invitation that Advent puts to us in non-transferrable. The Lord invites us to do what we alone can do. We can’t pass that off to someone else, hoping that they will carry our burden of responsibility for us. Second, the invitation is time-sensitive. Sure, Advent lasts about four weeks, and we hope that there will be more Advents to come. But what if this is my last? What if this is the moment when the Lord has chosen to speak to me? Will I have the nerve to tell God to get back to me later, when I finally have the time? I hope not.
+On December 2nd I was a guest speaker at an undergraduate theology class at Saint John’s University.
+On December 4th I presided at the Abbey Eucharist, and you may read the text of the homily, Jesus as Leader, in Presentations.
+Once again, during the past week I avoided the airport, and it allowed me the chance to enjoy a major seasonal change in Minnesota. First came a big ice and snow storm. Then came the cold, and cold it was. By Friday I finally caved in and turned on the space heater in my room, for the first time this winter. Last year I wrote a post on the acquisition of this space heater, which I use only when it gets desperately cold. Normally I don’t turn on the antiquated radiator in my room, simply because the two options include “cold” or “full-blast tropical.” But by Friday I had little choice. Happily, the space heater still works.
+On December 7th Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud came to Saint John’s to ordain to the diaconate Brothers Bradley and Michael Leonard. Though Bishop Kettler had visited Saint John’s a few weeks ago to attend a football game, this was his first official visit as bishop to the Abbey. He set a nice tone with the opening lines of his sermon. ”I’m supposed to read a canned sermon of instruction,” he said, “but I’ll get to that in a little while.” He did read the printed text later, but we all learned that he can speak just as well for himself. It turned out to be a wonderful event, and Bishop Kettler joined monks and guests for lunch in the Abbey refectory.
+In a homily last week our confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann spoke about the overabundance of great Advent music. He cited two hymns that we had sung particularly well that week, and lamented that Advent is just not long enough to sing all we’d like to sing. I agree completely, and with that in mind I recommend for your listening The Holly and the Ivy, sung by the choir of King’s College Cambridge.