At this time of year, with Christmas just a few hectic weeks away, any discussion of inner peace may seem abstract at best. If the shopping and cooking and decorating and wrapping and many social obligations don’t get your peace, then a family member is sure to bring up politics at the dinner table and then, well, peace will have a tough time indeed.
We would do well in this season, I think, to follow the advice of Saint Francis de Sales: “Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.”
St. Francis de Sales did not have to contend with a 21st Century notion of “the holidays,” but the peace he describes is our goal. Peace – specifically, inner peace – is our topic here today. In this season of Advent, we wait for the arrival of our King, our Messiah, our Prince of Peace, who will bring us, as Paul says in Philippians 4, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” which “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
But our waiting is not idle time. We have some preparation to do. Just as we clean the house, prepare the gifts and cook the meal in advance of our Christmas guests arriving, we have some spiritual housekeeping to do in preparation for the arrival of our Lord. As the prophet Isaiah tells us, we need to “‘Prepare the way of the Lord,’” and “’make his
paths straight.’” We need to clear the path to the peace Christ brings us.
We read a lot of Isaiah during Advent, because his prophetic ministry centered on this theme of the long-awaited arrival of Christ. And, Isaiah is quoted directly or referred to in each of our readings from today. But, honestly, on the surface, there’s just some weird stuff going on in these readings. First, Isaiah is going on about a stump and some branches, then wolves are living with lambs, lions are eating straw and children
are playing with snakes. Then, in our Gospel reading, John the Baptist is yelling about a brood of vipers, and finally, Paul brings us back to the stump and tells us we will be filled with “all joy and peace in believing.”
From where does this peace come? And what does it have to do with a bunch of stumps and snakes? The prophet Isaiah points us to the answer in today’s reading, which begins with the promise of new life springing up from a seemingly dead stump: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
The historic reference Isaiah is making with the stump is unclear – it could be the end of the Davidic monarchy, or the fall of the Northern Kingdom or the Assyrian captivity. Regardless, the stump here refers to the people of God being cut off from their roots. And that notion of us, as children of God, being cut off from our roots, from our true
beginning, our source, goes all the way back to Genesis 3, and the Garden of Eden, and another story about a snake and a tree.
Things were going just swimmingly for Adam and Eve in the Garden. We were naked before God. We had no pretensions, no pride, no fear, no hatred, or sense of possession and greed. We were simply one, completely at peace, with our Creator and all of Creation. Then, along slithers a snake – the serpent, the devil, Satan – and says, “Hey, look at all the shiny things I can give, if you just listen a little less to God, and listen a little more to me.”
And they – we – took, and we ate. And we shattered that perfect peace we had with God and with Creation. We began to cover ourselves with fig leaves of shame, of pride, greed, fear and hatred. We piled them on ourselves – continue to pile them on – until we were scarcely recognizable, until we could scarcely recognize ourselves. And suddenly, looking back on the perfection of peace and beauty God gave us, we saw what we had done. We saw what was left – a stump.
That would seem to be the sad ending of a very sad story. But, any of you have ever cut down a Bradford pear, or a maple, or – God help you – a mulberry tree, know a stump is not necessarily the end of the story.
That tree has been storing energy from photosynthesis – energy from its true source – in its roots, for just this occasion. It summons all that energy from the sun, and suddenly, one day, when you’re not really looking, that gnarled, dead stump is green with new life.
And that is precisely where Isaiah picks up: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” We were cut off from our roots – we cut ourselves off from the source of our peace. But, deep within that stump, a new beginning has been growing. As we speak, in this season of Advent, that new beginning is growing, within the womb of the Virgin Mary. And when that new shoot appears from the gnarled old stump we’ve made of creation, it changes everything.
Christ’s birth, his Incarnation in our world, renews the promise we turned our backs on in the Garden of Eden – His birth gives new life to our birthright of perfect union with our Creator. The birth of Jesus the Christ completely reorders Creation and our role in it. All the old lies of the serpent about the way things are, the way things have always been, the way things have to be – all those supposed truths of this world are turned on their head.
This is what Isaiah means when he gives us the imagery of cows and bears grazing together, wolves living with lambs and lions eating straw like oxen. These things make no more sense than a baby being born to a virgin, or than the King of kings being born in a sheep hovel to a couple of hicks from Nazareth.
In the eyes of this world, these things make no sense. But Christ does not come to redeem in the sense of this world. No. Christ comes to unfetter us from the lies we’ve been clinging to since the serpent first whispered them to us in the Garden – lies of not being good enough, of not being loved, lies of fear, and hatred, greed, pride, and shame. Isaiah tells us “The nursing child (the baby Jesus) shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child (our Savior) shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” Christ not only overcomes the lies the serpent used to steal our peace – Christ makes child’s play of the serpent himself.
You see, on the other side of Advent, the serpent has lost his fangs. The serpent has lost his power in the presence of Christ. And if we will only repent, as John the Baptist demands in our Gospel reading – literally turn back to Christ, and turn our backs on the lies of the serpent – we can regain the peace we lost in the Garden. As long as we seek our peace in Christ, and not in the means of this world, our peace cannot be shaken. As Isaiah tells us, “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.”
This peace within does not mean we won’t face troubles without. On the contrary, we will face troubles, and all the places this world tells us to seek peace will disappoint. Jesus reminds us the peace he brings doesn’t look or feel like this world. He says in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” And again, in John 16:33: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulations. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
We’ve created all kinds of ways in this world to try to manufacture the peace we lost in the Garden – possessions, lust, manipulation, exploitation and repression of our fellow children of God. But, John the Baptist tells us in Matthew, those false trees of this world, bearing fruit of greed, fear, hate and violence – an ax is lying at the root of those trees, and in Advent we wait for Christ to come and start swinging that ax.
That can be unsettling. But, in the place of those false trees, the trees of the serpent’s lies, Christ gives us the true tree of peace. It is the tree of our true roots. We call that tree the cross, and its fruit is Christ’s body and blood.
In that Communion, with Christ, and with each other, we reconnect ourselves to what we thought we lost forever in the Garden. We find “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” for as Christ tells us, “behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” In this surrender at the foot of the cross, in this partaking of the fruit of Christ’s sacrifice, we realize Paul’s prayer for us, from Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Let us pray.
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.