5th Dec, 2004

The Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalms 72:1-7, (18-19)
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

“The New Creation”

Spenser Elliot came into our lives as a wild, keenly intelligent, six-month old tabby who had spent most of his young life in a cage. The abandoned kitten was just too wild for anyone to manage. He couldn’t tolerate being around other animals so he sat alone for months in a carrier until the night we brought him home.

In those ragged early days, Spenser bit, scratched, hissed, squirmed and attacked. He didn’t want to be held. And he never quite knew where to be or what to chew next. Lo constantly looked like someone who wrestled with rose bushes. Still there were glimpses that this was an amazingly curious, tremendously sweet and brave, little guy. Things changed when he met a friend – a 12 year old Jack Russell Terrier named Freckles. The cat saw the dog and somehow decided they were buddies. They would play ’til they dropped and then plop down and sleep on each other.

Now the fascinating thing about this friendship is that Spenser would have had no trouble at all eviscerating any other dog in the world, and Freckles would have tree-d any other cat given the slightest hint of an invitation. Yet somehow these two managed to put all their predatory instincts aside to be friends.

A cat and a dog aren’t really natural enemies you might say. Humans have domesticated them, you might believe (even when it’s obviously actually been the other way around) and you’d be correct. There are, after all, lots of stories of dogs and cats as friends and even of dogs and chickens and cats and mice and canaries and all kinds of combinations that seem to defy “the instinct to be enemies”.

A few years back in the Pacific Northwest there was an eagle that bonded with a wolf. The photographer who tracked them documented this remarkable pair bringing food to each other and the wolf keeping the bird safe from the pack through the entire winter. In spring the eagle flew off but only after great displays of bonding and affection were exchanged between the two.

While Bishop Desmond Tutu may joke that “if you see a lion sleeping with a lamb you can be certain that the lamb isn’t sleeping very soundly”, in fact, lions in the wild have “adopted” and raised young members of the deer family.

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 words of Isaiah speak to a time that seems impossible and yet, happens in rare moments and in seldom seen glimpses all around us that whisper of a world laying in wait within us.

In the two decades of the 1950’s and 60’s in the far end of the Ojai valley, not far from here, there was a home for severely handicapped children called the Houghton School. Mrs. Houghton was a woman of deep and abiding faith who loved these children for their special innocence and profound vulnerability. The school was a rustic place with two ramshackle buildings and many oak trees and fields of grass and flowers. It was next door to a spiritual center and just down the road from a retreat house.

Every spring when the empowered sun would warm the floor of the valley all of the creatures who lived in burrows would make their way to the daylight to begin their lives out in the world. None of these creatures loved the warmth more than the many snakes. On more than one occasion Mrs. Houghton and her assistants would look out one of the windows to see a snake raised up coiled staring at an infant. Too terrified to move they would watch frozen as the snake would weave its head slowly from side to side and then finally lower itself to the ground and slide away. There were many snakes and many instances of interaction with the children as well as with their caregivers. And yet, no one was ever injured.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand in the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

How does a cat that hates dogs and a dog that hates cats come to love one another? What kinds of impulses and instincts do they have to over-ride? What happens to a lion that allows it to live with a lamb? And even more than that, befriend and care for the lamb? How do hunger, fear, and aggression, animosity and territoriality become transmuted into mutuality, protectiveness, nurturance and kinship? What turns the natural fear in a snake into fascination, the lust for power in a human being into the willingness to pursue peace?..

These are huge, crucial questions.

Isaiah tells us that it is the coming of the Messiah, the shoot that shall come out of the stump of Jesse,..
In the Messiah the world will be made anew. Creation itself will be transformed. That’s what Isaiah is saying: All of our old “instincts” can be transformed by the spirit of the LORD made manifest (we know) in the coming of Jesus Christ. That’s also what John the Baptist is saying: The Coming One will not be limited by the old but will create anew through the power of the Holy Spirit and burn away all that is not worthy.

The people have to choose, John says. Do they want to turn their lives around – that’s what the word “repent” actually means – or are they going to make no effort thinking that they are safe and good enough simply by being the children of Abraham? God gives us a choice but we have to participate. We, humans, have to want it. We have to choose it. We have to desire to repent. We have to desire to become worthy. The way we do that is through the Coming One. Through Jesus our desire to start over, fresh, becomes real – we are born anew, made new.

Paul tells the Church in Rome that scripture was written long ago to give people strength and hope so that we could finally come to the time, at last, when the long hoped for opportunity would be made real – when we could live out with one another the welcome that Christ offers us.

I’m going to say that again differently. God has given Creation a second chance to be made such that love, caring, nurturance, protection, kinship and kindness can be separated from greed, territoriality, selfishness, cruelty and aggression. That which separates and redeems is The Coming One, He whose life, death and resurrection we celebrate at every Mass. He who taught us to love with all out hearts, minds and souls.

Paul understood that these new Christians didn’t know how to live the gift of their redemption. He taught that as well as preaching to the Jews and Gentiles, the congregation needed to live the welcome and example of Christ Jesus in their interactions with one another.

Each time we come together to participate in the Mass we are attempting to receive and embody the radical transformation brought into the world by the long proclaimed root of Jesse made manifest in Jesus. When we were baptized our lives were changed forever. We made the decision, the choice to renounce evil and to live and die in the life and death of The One Sent to Redeem the World. That blood transformed us and continues to transform us over and over again each time we seek to live in the life and example of Jesus Christ. It is not easy to love one another. We fail constantly.

The serpent, the lion, the wolf – all creatures – live with bloody tooth and claw within each of us. We know far too well how to hurt, maim, kill, over-power, intimidate, slander, and feed off of one another. We need to learn to recognize and respect the danger of our own predatory instincts. Our own lust for power over others. How do we do that?

There are many steps. We go through them over and over again each time we enter into prayer, each time we come to Christ’s Table, each time we seek sincerely for forgiveness for the ways that we have gone astray. We know what those are because we hold them up to the gift that God has given us for our redemption. God has shown us The Way.

We have a gift – an astonishing, mind-boggling, unbelievably loving and precious gift – in the One who came to show us the way to live in perfect love and peace. God slipped God’s sweet Self into a manger in Bethlehem to live a manifested life of love so great it is beyond our comprehension. God came into human form to live in utter faithfulness and obedience that included the sacrifice of his life and death that lifted us all right through the Cross of Calvary. Jesus’ life and teachings call us to look for God in all things – especially within all interactions. Christ calls us to be a people of peace and reconciliation – always and everywhere. God is present always and everywhere. Our most difficult task is to choose to seek God within ourselves and then to seek God within The Other.

Everything changes – everything – when we are willing to see ourselves through the eyes of Christ. Oh my! Everything changes – everything – when we are willing to see the Other through the eyes of Christ as well. Every creature – including all those within us – changes when we meet it with the love God calls us to – instead of with hostility – even if it bites and claws and hisses. We change when we choose to try to live God’s intention for us. No matter what else happens, we change when we choose to receive the gift of Bethlehem.

A Native American grandfather talking to his grandson said,

Like all people young and old,
I have two wolves fighting in my heart.
The one wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one.
The other is the loving and the compassionate one.
The grandson asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”
The grandfather answered, “Whichever one I feed”.



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