2 Advent A – December 8, 2019
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Sometimes we wake up in the morning with a glimpse of a dream that we have had. It’s often hard to remember all the details of a dream but sometimes just an image from a dream will hang around with us for a while. And, if we’ll take the time to pay attention, that image can be helpful to us. A while back I woke up with just a snippet of a dream. It was of cat racing through a crowded intersection. The cars were whipping by in different directions and the cat was scurrying through the middle of them. And that’s all I could remember. It was an unsettling image and, as you might imagine, I was dealing with some rather threatening stress at the time. But after a few weeks of thinking about that image I came to the more peaceful realization that the cat in the dream was not squashed. Its speed and agility, along with some inexplicable good fortune, were protecting the cat from all the danger. And yet the danger was very real.
There are two images from our lessons today that I invite you to carry around for a while. Take some time to pay attention to them and learn what God might have you learn on your journey.
The first image is from Isaiah and is an old dead stump with an alive new sprout growing out of it. What might that represent to you in your own life? It’s such a hopeful image yet one with some sadness as well. We might wonder what ever became of the tree that used to grow tall and broad from that stump. All of that is long gone. And now something new is growing. It will take a long, long time for that sprout to grow into a full tree but there is that new promise right there in a place that the world has written off and forgotten about. Out of something the world thinks of as dead, here comes new life. When we think all is lost, that everything that is good is in the past, that is often when something brand new will present itself. We didn’t cause it. In fact we had given up. And along comes surprising growth. Life keeps popping out in surprising places. Mull that over these next few weeks as the year draws to a close and a new one emerges, as the shorter, dark days play themselves out and yield to longer and lighter days, as you think of what has died in your life and what is now beginning to grow.
The second image is in Matthew. It’s the image of a winnowing-fork being used to separate wheat from chaff. In some ways that is a more threatening and violent image. We might focus on the good wheat which can serve as food and the evil chaff that will be burned up. Some have even thought of this as a forceful God taking the good stuff to heaven and sending the bad stuff off to burn in hell. But maybe there’s more. Chaff serves an important role in the development of wheat. Chaff is the hull that protects the seed as it grows into something useful. Chaff is the container in which the contents grow and develop. Without that container the contents would never survive. And yet there comes a time for the container to yield to the growth of the contents. Over time the contents outgrow the need for the container. They are ready to take on the world and blossom and flourish. The winnowing-fork helps that process along. The fork is used to pick up a heap of straw and then is shaken back and forth until the chaff falls away from the wheat. The forceful image also connotes gentleness and care. When it is time for growth, life jostles us and invites us, forces us, to let go of the defenses we have held onto because we are now ready to emerge more fully.
We might recognize this as the development from childhood to adulthood, where we leave the protective environment our parents have provided and move out into the world on our own. There are stages of development we go through. All are necessary and purpose-filled. Sometimes we cling to childish attachments and life pushes us to move forward. Sometimes we develop defenses in our early years that we have to let go of in order to be adults. John Bradshaw writes about the wounded child that is within each of us. As children we are dependent on someone else protecting us. When we are hurt as children we might learn a defense such as dissociation where we literally take our minds somewhere else in order not to feel pain. As adults we have to learn to be our own parent and care for ourselves in ways that will help us grow. We learn to be more present with our pain rather than running from it. We learn to stand up for ourselves and establish healthy boundaries. We let go of those old defenses and discover an inner strength we have not known.
Richard Rohr has a book we have used in a class here entitled Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Second Half of Life. There he talks about the two major tasks in human life. “The first task is to build a strong container or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.” In the first half of life we build the container, what Rohr refers to as the false self. In the second half of life we discover the contents, what Rohr refers to as the true self.
That true self is that quality of life that we come to church to find. We’re here looking through the word and sacraments to find what is real and true, what is life-giving, what is eternal amidst the temporary.
Jesus is that new sprout coming up from the old dead stump. He is the promise of life where we thought all hope was gone. He is the indication that goodness will not die. Even though death is real and unavoidable, that is not the end of God’s purpose. There is more.
Jesus is the winnowing-fork coming to us, not to take the good to one place and the evil to another. Jesus comes to jostle the world, to shake it enough to allow the contents to be freed from the container, to bring our true selves to life so that we might embrace the wonderful fullness of living and loving. It helps when we cooperate, when we wiggle free of that old container and embrace our potential. But the winnowing-fork does its work even when we do not cooperate. The power of that which is greater than us does not work only when we let it. That power which is greater than us ever so gently and ever so firmly shakes us free and brings us the goodness we seek.