It’s the first of December, we’re entering into Advent proper now. This post is in preparation for the second Sunday of the season, and for many the theme of the week is Peace, following on from Hope last week. Tree stumps also feature.
Once again, we are engaged in a radical practice of seeing what could be alongside what is. As with the thoughts on Hope, we’re not trusting to wishful thinking, or pretending real obstacles to peace don’t block our way.
They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace.
Says Jeremiah . And I’m sure we all know the distress of having some deep issue dismissed, and peace proclaimed when what that means is people keeping silent about weighty matters. That is no peace. We are in search of something much more radical.
How to hold on to some kind of centre, some kind of Peace, in the midst of all that surrounds us? Whether that’s deep matters of justice, distress, and hurt, or our more daily concerns 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, the theme of peace is much needed.
Once again, readings for this week turn to the prophets. A longer meander through the section of Isaiah we read from below will reveal much that preceeds the talk of peace. There are words which seek to uncover injustice and untruth, addressing past conflicts and wrongdoings. This isn’t peace which seeks to bandage over matters that need deeper healing, this is peace as a result of a long process of radical transformation. It’s a vision of the dream of God for the world. Of the growth and new life possible in things which seem beyond hope of greening.
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.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11: 1-2, 6-9
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. Many have looked back at these words of Isaiah and seen the coming of Jesus in them. In the shoot springing up, and in the little child who will gently lead. Born into most unpromising circumstances – homeless (at least temporarily), under enemy occupation and the cruel rule of a local puppet tyrant – there is a deep promise of peace and hope in the coming of Jesus. This new growth will take a suprising form. This dream of a new world will grow under the surface, in hearts and lives. Appearences are deceptive.
Even my beautiful dead cotoneaster, picture at the top of this post, 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. And the dead wood is a haven for so many small creatures. I wrote about the tree here.
And deeper, and further into the prophecy, we have the harmony of all creatures, including humans, living at peace. We have an ecology of plenty and playfulness, of trust and abundance. As we meditate on the possibilities of peace, and the world as it may be, can we catch a vision of what that might be like? As we see the number of trees, the whole landscapes and ecosystems, that have been lost, how might these words speak into that situation with hope, justice and peace?
You might consider writing down your own vision for how such a just, peaceful, restorative, abundant world might appear. You might wish to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” from the Lord’s Prayer. What comes to mind as you pray that bold and transformative prayer? And as we pray, so we seek to live. How might we live this week in response to this vision, this dream, this prayer?
And as we do so, we could turn to this week’s gospel reading. Trees come up here, 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 – springing up like a new shoot – 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.
This photo is of an apparently dead, flailed hazel hedge near where I live. Despite this treatment, it has put out some new growth. How many years it’ll withstand such an onslaught, I don’t know. But I am heartened to see the new shoot growing up from a very unpeaceful process. You can read more about the hedge here.
As a small stone, dropped in a pool, sends ripples to its furthers edges,From Prayers and Verses
help us know our small actions of love and kindness can do great good.
Help us do the good things we can,
trusting you will use them.
On the subject of trees, Eden online bookshop has a few copies of my children’s picture book available….