By Elaine Ramshaw*
Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
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December 4, 2022
‘In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ -Matthew 3:1-2
It sounds as if John the Baptist did a lot of threatening. Bear fruit or you’ll be chopped down! Yet crowds came out to him to be baptized. Were they all drawn by threats? Jesus himself came to John to be baptized. Was he motivated by threats? “Repent,” says John, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Maybe it was a vision of the kingdom of heaven, the promise of its nearness, that drew Jesus and so many others to John. What’s the content of that vision, that prediction? Jesus would tell many parables, stories that began “The kingdom of heaven is like,” and suggest what Jesus saw.
An earlier description of the kingdom of heaven can be found in today’s reading from Isaiah — not a story, but an image, an image of predators and prey so transformed that they live together in peace.
This image of the “peaceable kingdom” on a literal level contrasts with the suffering built into the natural world. It also reflects the suffering and injustice of human society, where the strong and powerful and monied take advantage of the weaker, less powerful, with fewer resources. Here it is especially the powerful ones who need to repent and be converted. The lamb and calf may need to summon courage to lie down near the wolf and the lion, but the predators must fundamentally change, to stop feeding off the weak and to eat grass or straw like their former prey.
What does this image of the peaceable kingdom mean to us? How does it speak to our experience of the world, and what does it call us to do as stewards of God’s world? What does “repentance” entail, if this is the new world we are turning towards?
We have all been lambs, at least in childhood, subject to bullying or cruel teasing, at times ignored or abused or parentified. Some of us have been preyed upon in adulthood by people or systems that had power over us. It’s harder to see ourselves as wolves because most of us don’t intentionally prey on others. Yet as adults we have power that we may misuse, over children or employees or the environment, and as Americans we consume the lion’s share of the world’s goods. We certainly have room to grow.
Once we’ve glimpsed that peaceable kingdom—what Bishop Tutu called “God’s dream” for the world—repentance involves taking inventory of how we participate in the unfairness of the world as it is. Then we get to address that unfairness however we can, turning towards the coming kingdom.
A little child will lead them. In Advent, moving towards Christmas, we may visualize that child as a baby in a manger. But the child in the vision is not superhuman; rather, an ordinary infant. Maybe what’s important is that a little child is vulnerable, the opposite of this world’s ideal of status and power.
In our Advent repentance we need to look towards the least powerful, the least influential, the ones with the fewest followers, for clues about what’s important in life and where we need to reassess our own status and power. When we need to assert ourselves as lambs in the presence of our enemies. When we need to stop consuming like middle-class Americans and start consuming more on the scale of the people in the two-thirds world. What we need to claim, and what we need to give up or to share.
The hymn “O Day of Peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #711) uses the image of the peaceable kingdom from Isaiah. While the focus in the hymn is the end of warfare, it also asks God to guide us to justice and love by delivering us from our selfish schemes. This allows the image to speak to economic justice as a necessary step to true peace among people.
Perhaps some older children or teens could use the images from the peaceable kingdom to craft a petition for the Prayers that asks for peace and justice: “Make the wolves and lions in this world stop hunting the helpless lambs and calves.” They could name some of the wolves and some of the lambs in their experience and in the news.
John the Baptist tells the highly religious people that they can’t coast on being Abraham’s descendants. You might explore this point with children through the picture book Pippin the Christmas Pig by Jean Little (Scholastic, 2003). Set in a contemporary barn at Christmas, the tale unfolds as some of the animals brag about what their ancestors did for the Holy Family (think of the carol “The Friendly Beasts”). But poor Pippin is told that pigs have nothing to give a holy child. The plot takes some twists, but all the animals learn a valuable lesson when Pippin helps a young homeless couple.
The book could be read as a children’s sermon (perhaps abridged) or as part of Sunday school. With older children, one might connect it to John the Baptist’s words about Abraham. Remind them that Abraham welcomed strangers to his tent where Sarah fed them—so housing and feeding the homeless is one way to be Abraham and Sarah’s descendent today.
Exploring the “peaceable kingdom” in Isaiah, ask teens where they have seen the “unpeaceable kingdom” — conflict, injustice, violence and predation in the world (or perhaps in fiction or film). What is the role of money and power in these evils? Who are the leopards, the wolves, the bears in our human society? Who are the lambs and the calves?
Now ask where they have seen images or examples of a better way to live in the world (or fiction). What’s the role of money and power in that better world? How is it different from the world we live in? What would have to change for the modern-day lions to lay down with the lambs?
* Elaine Ramshaw is an author, spiritual director and seminary instructor who teaches pastoral care online from her home in Connecticut.