2nd Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10;
Matt 3:1-12; Rom 15:4-13
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/sbq7iTvEUx8
SUBVERTING SYMBOLS OF POWER
How might we typically symbolize power in today’s world? I think the most common suggestion might be something like the American flag. It’s the chief symbol for the nation with the mightiest armed forces in the history of the world.
A key theme of my preaching has been that the entire notion of power is being subverted in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Last week (Advent 1A), we saw the prophet Isaiah, in his vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, begin to subvert the whole notion of power as armed forces. Swords are to be beat into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks. Or for the Jesuit chapel at St. Louis University, artillery shells fashioned into lighting fixtures. In the New Testament, as Jesus stands on trial before Pilate, he tells him that if his kingdom was of this world his followers would be taking up arms and fighting. That’s what we do. That’s power to us. But that obviously isn’t what happened with Jesus. It happened briefly when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, but Jesus had put a quick stop to it, even healing the ear of a wounded servant. “Those who live by the sword,” says Jesus, “die by the sword.” So much for military might.
No matter how we might try to symbolize power for human beings, the Bible shows a process of subverting it. How about animals, for instance. We human beings often like to use animals as symbols. The United States has made the same choice as the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day, by using an eagle to represent power. A lion is another popular choice. Or take many of the mascots for our favorite football teams. I caught some of yesterday’s conference championships, for example: It’s the Georgia Bulldogs, not the Georgia Poodles or Shih Tzus. It’s the Michigan Wolverines, not the Michigan Moles. And I noticed for the highly ranked TCU team, that they are not just the Frogs but the Horned Frogs. It’s got to be more menacing, right?
But look at today’s installment of Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom. You have the wolf and the leopard, the lion and the bear, and the poisonous snake — the top of the food chain. But you have them lying down with the lamb and the calf and the toddler. We’ve seen recently from the Book of Daniel great and terrible beast representing the mighty empires of old, but the one who gets to reign in God’s Kingdom is the defenseless human being — the Son of Man who Jesus came to see himself as. And in the Book of Revelation you get many of the same terrible beasts, but the one who reigns and presides over everything is the Lamb Slain — the same Lamb Slain that’s featured in our Sunday liturgies as the symbol of true power and victory of God. A key theme in the biblical journey is to lead us to a subverted understanding of true power and victory. It is not achieved through great military might, the power and ability to force others to bend to your will as emperor or empire. No, in God’s reign true power and victory boil down to God’s power of love as the power of life itself. The power behind life is the power of God’s love, which we chiefly come to see as we stand at the foot of the cross of Jesus. And make no mistake: the cross is about God’s Messiah laying down his life for all of humanity in an act of nonviolent resistance to the deadly powers of empire. Human empires divide and conquer, leaving death and destruction in their wake. God’s reign unites and heals that which is divided and raises to new life that which is dead. The Gospel of John ends with the cross and resurrection, but it begins with the Word Made Flesh who is the very principle of life itself. “In the beginning was the Word. . . . All things came into being through him. . . . What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4) It’s about life, not the power to kill.
Let’s briefly consider one more category of symbolizing power, trees. We might choose a mighty oak or a Giant Sequoia of California. The Bible sometimes names the great Cedars of Lebanon — which Jesus subsequently contrasted with the tiny mustard seed growing into great mustard bush. (A little subversion again?) In this morning’s First Reading, we get the stump of a great tree, with a tiny green shoot coming out of the top. Do you see how that shoot symbolizes the power not only of life, but new life out of death?
I’d like to share with you this morning one of the most important influences in my life. I characterize much of my journey as a pastor as one long thirty-plus-year conversion experience into what I hope is a more faithful way of understanding and living my Christian faith. I’ve talked about someone like René Girard, whose anthropology, his understanding of what it means to be human, has been crucial to understanding my faith. My faith is not a conversion into a new religion but a new way of human.
This morning I’d like to name someone who provided the last major piece of my conversion, chiefly involving my prayer life and overall spirituality. He’s a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr. And the most important book of his to me has been Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Even bigger is a conference he gave on “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” with a Catholic lay leader named Paula D’Arcy.
Paula’s ministry grew from personal tragedy. In 1975, at age 27, she survived a head-on accident caused by a drunk driver swerving across the median. It took the lives of her husband, Roy, and twenty-one-month-old daughter, Sarah. Pregnant at the time, Paula survived the accident to give birth to a second daughter, Beth.
In this conference on “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” she tells the story of her long journey from that horrific loss into new life. And I find it interesting that just before she relates the key moment in that journey, she pauses to tell about an interview with author Rachel Remen (author of Kitchen Table Wisdom) she heard on NPR. Dr. Remen had in her own life received a jolting diagnosis of Crohn’s disease when she was only 14. The doctor had told her she would suffer many debilitating surgeries and not live past the age of 40. She was in her 60’s when she gave the interview. But Dr. Remen had always remembered something on that day of receiving the dire diagnosis. As she walked up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, she saw two blades of grass coming up through the pavement. Not between cracks in the pavement, mind you. But, somehow, right through the slab of cement itself. That remained for her a symbol of life’s power to break through obstacles and rise to new life.
After sharing that image from Dr. Remen, Paula D’Arcy goes on to share the turning point in her journey. About a year-and-a-half after losing her husband and daughter, a friend arranged a meeting with well-known preacher Norman Vincent Peale. He proceeded to do something she hadn’t expected: he quietly spent a half hour listening to her story, after which he said quietly, “Young woman, you’ve got a huge challenge ahead of you.”
“Wow!” she thought. “No kidding. I came to hear you tell me that I have a huge task facing me? I think I know that.” But she simply asked, “What’s that?”
To which he responded, “Discovering the purpose of your life.”
Again, Paula felt the anger rise in her, her mind flooding with thoughts. But she simply said, “I lost the purpose of my life when my husband and daughter were killed.”
He brought his face closer to hers, with great love clearly filling his eyes, and said, “You lost the purpose you wanted. But there is another purpose in life for you. Life has a larger purpose.” And there was one other moment she vividly remembered. As she was leaving, he said, “Paula, what you are looking for is already inside you.” Do you understand the gift he gave her. He’s Norman Vincent Peele, known for what? The power of positive thinking, right? That’s what he called his ministry. But instead of laying out for her some program derived from that ministry — something to impose on her life from the power of positive thinking. Instead, he assured her that the power of life, the power of love, was a seed inside her that would grow. And it did.
With those words, her life began to open up to new possibilities. Within several years, it was actually Norman Vincent Peele himself who asked her to speak with him to grieving people in need of healing. That’s how her life as a speaker and spiritual teacher began. Her life which had been like a stump cut-off by that drunk driver, now had a shoot of new life.
As a pastor, it is my privilege to come along-side people whose lives have seemingly become cut-off from terrible loss, only to witness, slowly and gradually, the sprouting of a new shoot of life. And most often it involves finding one’s purpose once again, in the face of loss of purpose. It’s rarely in the more public ways of someone like Paula D’Arcy, a person who suffered unimaginable loss only to turn around and share her way of healing with thousands of others as a speaker and teacher. More often, I experience the new shoot growing out from the stump in quiet ways. Like a widow who, after sufficient healing herself, begins to befriend and accompany other widows. Like an addict laid low by addiction who slowly regains his life with the Twelve Step spirituality of A.A. or N.A., who becomes a sponsor for another addict, the Thirteenth Step. My father was one of those. Like a soldier who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who experiences healing and begins volunteering with other veterans. Like a survivor of incest or abuse who goes on to help others survive. It is a privilege to journey with individuals going through healing, to experience the new shoot of life growing from a stump.
Brothers and sisters, this image of the stump and the new shoot from Isaiah, it speaks not only to us as individuals, at times in our lives when we may need new life, that green shoot coming up out of the stump. But the word of hope comes to us also in our communities. Isaiah’s community was growing the loss at a time when the whole nation of Israel as they lost their own government and began the long history of being governed by other empires.
We might ask in our own situation, Is the church of today in need of God’s power to bring new life? A shoot out of a stump? Can that be Bethlehem’s story? I propose that would mean revitalizing our Gospel message of one from centering on converting to a new religion so that people can go to heaven, to centering of following Jesus in converting to a new way of being human which brings healing to a broken, divided humanity. We might see in our own situation the stump of failed politics — politics of division, of domination, of winning over your opponent. Out of that, we might offer a different message, about the power of life itself, the power of love, the power of healing.
This is what St. Paul does. St. Paul saw the Gospel as being about healing the division of Jew and Gentile — how, “Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.’” (Rom 15:12) The situation of his church involves the challenge of bring Jew and Gentile together, of bringing together that which is divided. Theirs is a mission of fulfilling what was promised to Abraham and Sarah, that Jews would be a blessing to all the families of the earth by being at the heart of bringing the human family together.
This is a story of a green shoot growing up out of the stump of our failed politics. This is the message we have to share with our neighbors and ourselves. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, December 4, 2022
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/sbq7iTvEUx8