Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
A Young Driver
A short story I can relate to as my son learns to drive. A teenage boy has just passed his driving test and inquires of his father as to when they can discuss his use of the car. His father says he’ll make a deal with his son, “You bring your grades up from a C to a B average, study your Bible a little and get your hair cut, then we’ll talk about the car.” The boy thought about that for a moment and decided he’d settle for the offer, and they agreed on it.
After about six weeks his father says, “Son, you’ve brought your grades up and I’ve observed that you have been studying your Bible but, I’m disappointed you haven’t had your hair cut.”
The boy replies, “You know, Dad, I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve noticed in my studies of the Bible that Samson had long hair, John the Baptist had long hair, Moses had long hair and there’s even strong evidence that Jesus had long hair.” His father quickly replies, “Did you also notice they all walked everywhere they went?”
A Voice in the Wilderness…
Advent is a time where we hear the voice of that long-haired fellow, John the Baptist. His call is one of repentance, that is, he was calling for a change to the status quo. He was calling out the religious people in particular, and he challenged their unchallenged assumptions. Perhaps they weren’t the upright children of Abraham that they thought they were, perhaps they were more like the lifeless ‘stump’ envisaged by the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah’s colourful vision posits the royal line as a dead tree stump, void of life. Without strong leadership, the people of God were lacking hope and a future. Their monarchy had failed them, empires conquered them, and their faith was fragile. But then Isaiah had a vision of the wind, the Spirit of God, blowing over the stump…and a shoot of life emerges…
Isaiah’s vision is of a restored, reconciled creation, in which brutality is tamed and deathliness is overcome. The oldest of enemies—wolf-lamb, leopard-kid, calf-lion, cow-bear, lion-ox—are made friends. We thought it not possible, but the wind has blown newness. Three times a child is mentioned: “a little child” (v. 6), “the nursing child,” “the weaned child” (v. 8). The little child may be the new shoot of Jesse who will preside over new creation. More broadly, “the little child” bespeaks the birth of a new innocence in which trust, gentleness, and friendship are possible and appropriate. The world will be ordered, so that the fragile and vulnerable can have their say and live their lives. The new possibilities depend on the wind, which the stump cannot withstand. That wind is blowing. Advent is our decision to trust the new wind against the hopeless stump of what has failed.
Advent: A Time to Listen
Advent is a time to listen to the voices crying – the voices that speak of the wind of God’s Spirit breathing life over the stumps of what has failed in our lives…and in our world. Whose voices need to be heard today? Whose voices do we too often silence?
I spoke last week of prophetic imagination, of the God-given ability to see things not as they are, but as they could become. Children and young people have an incredible aptitude for prophetic imagination. In Isaiah’s prophecy we hear of a child rising up to lead the people. John the Baptist reminds the religious people in his message that God’s creative Spirit can transform rocks into the true children of God. And Jesus himself welcomed the little children and advised his disciples to have innocent dispositions and open hearts like those of children.
A Little Child Shall Lead Them…
In our context, we would be wise to pay attention to the young people working working to change the world:
You’ve likely heard of Swedish advocate Greta Thunberg by now, and her remarkable advocacy for caring for the planet. But I wonder if you’ve heard of these teens in the last handful of years:
Muzoon Almellehan, a Syrian activist and refugee working out of the United Kingdom to keep Syrian girls in school. Almellehan’s activism received recognition in a number of countries, and has led to her receiving the sobriquet “Malala of Syria.” In 2015, she was listed as one of BBC’s 100 Women.
Emma Gonzalez, survivor of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and activist and advocate for gun control in the United States. Just three days after the massacre, González mustered remarkable resilience and courage when she transformed her anguish and heartbreak into unabashed activism. She delivered an impassioned speech at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale, calling “B.S.” on President Trump, other politicians and the NRA for not tightening gun laws that could prevent “the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred.” She created the @Emma4Change handle to promote stricter gun laws, and along with other Parkland survivors she founded March for Our Lives, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization pushing for stricter gun laws and registering young voters.
Taking our Lead from Youth?
Many of us laud the efforts of these exceptional young people, and hopefully we are beginning to see that their voices are the ones leading us into the future. Are we willing to let our young people lead us in the Church?
Several years ago, I led a youth retreat in Thunder Bay and I asked the 50 youth present if they felt heard in their churches. Only a few hands went up (and those were of the kids I brought with me from my church, to whom I’d just recently spoken to about having their voices heard in our church!)
Our Advent Experiment
What does that mean for us at St. George’s? An important aspect of this Advent experiment is trying to make the children feel a little more included in our worship. Songs that are easier to sing, a liturgy that’s shorter and simpler, can help young people engage in our time together. The prayer circle gives our young people a chance to voice their concerns to God in the context of our community. Through prayer, we get to see a little of what’s on their hearts, of what matters to them. In our reflection on our experiment in the New Year, we’ll be sure our young people get the chance to give us feedback on how we might best move forward. Our desire to be more inclusive in our worship isn’t simply because inclusivity is a worthy aspiration, it is so that we can create space for the wind of the Spirit to blow newness into our lives.
Praying for New Life
Advent is a wonderful opportunity to take time to ask the Lord to blow fresh life into our hearts, minds and bodies. It is a time to discern for the voices that cry out to us of the need for change in our lives, and in our world. It is a time to ask for a renewal of the Spirit, for God to awaken our souls to the love and grace of God. We need renewal in our church where the Spirit of God draws more and more people into a deep relationship with God-self – where the Spirit of life is keenly sensed in our worship together, where we are quicker to listen and to forgive than we are to speak our piece. We need renewal, and renewal starts with prayer.
So, as we long for the arrival of the Christ-child these next few weeks, let us be attuned to the ways God is speaking to us through youth and children, and to the new ideas and innocence they represent. And let us make Advent our decision to trust the new wind against the hopeless stump of what has failed.
Thanks be to God!