We’re drawing deeper into Advent now, the days are shortening, the cold and wet are creeping closer. Meanwhile, the shops are full of – beautiful things, and plastic tat, and carols, and cheesy music, all jumbled and clashed together as we go from one to another, and back again.
How to hold on to some kind of centre, some kind of Peace, in the midst of lists and duties and timetables and so many forgotten-to-do-in-time things? How to hold on to a centre, and to peace, in the midst of loss, and loneliness, and Christmas pasts? This Sunday, the second of Advent, sometimes takes the theme of Peace, and peace is much needed.
Once again, readings for this week turn to the prophets.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the
knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11: 1-2, 9
I am very struck by the image of the tree stump – cut down, presumed dead, or unproductive – springing back into life. We see again the hope in even the most hopeless situations, the determination of life, and in the promise of Isaiah something or someone, to persist, to keep growing and going, despite how things seem. All is not lost.
Even my beautiful dead cotoneaster, picture above, harbours life. Although the plant itself hasn’t sprung up from dead roots, other things have. Birds perched in the branches, dropping seeds, and now the light has reached the ground, things are growing – a holm oak, some sycamores, and the rose I planted to climb up the trunk. I wrote about the tree here.
Trees come up in the reading from the Gospels, too. John the Baptist, preparing the way for the ministry of his cousin Jesus, speaks of knowing trees by their fruit. What their lives produce.
Here it is, from my version in The Bible Retold.
Under the white heat of the sun, far from shade, the murmuring crowds gathered. Some had walked through city streets, others through fields and vineyards, but all had come out into the stony, dusty Desert of Judea to see one person.
It was John, son of Zechariah, who stood by the river Jordan.
John was no polished performer – he looked wild, dressed in rough clothes of camel hair held together by a leather belt. He was thin, eating only the locusts and wild honey he could find in the desert. But his words were full of power, full of life and holiness. He called out in a loud voice “Repent! Turn your lives around and come back to God! His kingdom is near. Come and be washed clean!” And many came forward, full of sorrow for the wrongs they had done, and John baptized them in the River Jordan.
There some among the religious leaders who came and joined the crowds to look holy in front of everyone else – they thought they were good enough already, and had no real need to change. “You snakes!” the Baptist spat: “We can tell what you are like by what you do – just as you can tell a tree by its fruit. Don’t think you can fool anyone with show-religion!”
But most who came were hungry for a new beginning. For John taught them to hope. In his words, they caught a glimpse of something beyond their everyday lives. They understood that John the Baptist was preparing the way for something, or someone, astonishing.
“I baptize you with water, for repentance. But you wait. There is one coming after me who is so much greater. I am not even fit to carry his sandals for him. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire – a baptism that will wash you inside out.”
In Luke’s Gospel, we get an insight into what this preparation for the one who is to come might look like in practice
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” …..
We remember the Advent traditions of giving – not just to friends and relations, but to others as they have need. What John the Baptist is calling people to, to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God, looks a lot like sharing, like generosity of spirit, as we are able. Perhaps this is a way towards Peace.
As our readings take us closer to Christmas, to the birth of the one who we have been waiting for, we will find a clearer focus on the Prince of Peace who is to come, and the way of peace he walked.
Perhaps we can make time to keep our eyes open for signs of new growth in the winter gloom, when all seems cold.
Are there shoots appearing? Are there signs of new life?
Can we pursue peace by looking for justice, and by sharing as far as we are able?
We can share kindness, and patience, and perhaps a smile to cheer someone’s day. Perhaps we can do more than that. If we have the choice to simplify things for ourselves, we may find we have a little room to share with others.
Might that be a path to a more peaceful Christmas?
Wherever you are in your Christmas preparations today, may you know Peace.