Lambs, lions, oxen, vipers, 2 Advent (A) – 2007

December 9, 2007

Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

“The lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Isaiah’s description of the peaceable kingdom offers us a hope-filled vision of a future world without conflict, but is it really good news for the lion? What sort of lion, shaped as a wild predator in sinew and tooth and claw, would resign itself to grazing meekly alongside the livestock?

The Messiah, the one whom Isaiah calls the “shoot … from the stump of Jesse,” will “decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” The meek creatures – lambs, kids, and fatlings – must surely welcome this new world in which they need not fear being devoured by fierce predators. As for the predators themselves, however, must the wolves and leopards lose all that they are in order to bring about this idyllic society?

Perhaps it would help to realize that the sheep, the cow, and the kids are changed as much in their own nature as are the lions and bears. For a deer to lose its timidity is just as radical a change as for a cougar to lose its ferocity. In fact, the entire equation of predator and prey is broken in this new and peaceful world. There are no longer victors and victims, but a new society in which all creatures thrive.

In place of a world of competition and scarcity, Isaiah shows us a peaceable kingdom full of astonishing abundance. The lion and the bear are grazing now, but what grass it must be! Enough to satisfy a ravenous wolf, and enough to embolden the wariest lamb.

Grass like this only grows in a landscape “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” That same knowledge and fear of the Lord rests on the Messiah with the spirit of the Lord. Because of it he is able to judge not by appearances, but by the heart of things. The Messiah judges, yes, but with righteousness and equity.

Knowledge of the Lord is a dangerous draught; it is deep and life-changing water. It is in fact baptismal water, water that transforms us and births us into new life.

In today’s gospel reading, John the Baptist draws crowds to himself at the Jordan River with the call to repentance and the promise of the kingdom of heaven. John, too, judges people by their hearts, not merely by their outward appearances. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, the respectable and the pious, do not get a warm welcome to the Jordan. “You brood of vipers!” he calls them.

Yet even vipers will be transformed in the peaceable kingdom. John does not deny them baptism or refuse to hear their confessions. Instead, he admonishes them to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Good fruit, good wheat, is the very food by which all are fed in the kingdom of heaven.

Fruit worthy of repentance cannot grow without deeply changing our self-perceptions. John would not allow the Pharisees and Sadducees to rest on their status, their past, or their ancestry. Goodness does not depend upon who you have been, or where you have come from. Rather, it depends upon what you choose to do, and upon who you are becoming. Choice and new growth are the essential elements of repentance.

John, like Isaiah, heralds the arrival of the Messiah as well as of the kingdom of heaven. John promises one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This baptism will surely be no less transformative than rebirth through water. Indeed, while the Spirit might seem like a gentle dove, fire seems like a roaring beast.

But this holy breath and holy fire may in fact be one and the same substance. John describes how the chaff will be burned with “unquenchable fire,” while Isaiah tells us that the “breath of his lips” shall slay the wicked. Wind and fire can surely destroy, but they can also stoke the flames of the craftsman’s forge. Just as the Messiah both judges and redeems, the Holy Spirit both consumes and creates.

The kingdom, the end times, the world perfected, the second coming of the Messiah – these will arrive with holy fire. Fire is always a sign of transformation, and if we are not transformed by the spirit, then we will be consumed and destroyed. But those who have allowed themselves to be reshaped by the baptism of water and the Holy Spirit will greet the fire as warmth and light.

Advent reflection and repentance calls us to allow ourselves to be shaped into new creatures. As we ponder the earthly arrival of Jesus and prepare ourselves for his coming again in glory, we understand that our Messiah himself has been both a nursing child and a righteous judge. He appears as slain lamb and as mighty king.

As for us, it really does not matter whether we see ourselves now as lambs, lions, or vipers. The kingdom of heaven that draws near will not be filled with cowardly lions and oblivious oxen, but with peaceable lions and oxen freed from fear. In the kingdom of God, we will feed in abundance, and we will bear for each other the best fruits of repentance.

 

— The Rev. Cole Gruberth is a recent graduate of General Theological Seminary and a newly ordained deacon. He is an associate rector at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Poway, California.

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