It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
With angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold.
“Peace on the earth, good will to all, from heaven’s all-gracious King;
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel-sounds the blessed angels sing.
Our dachshund Lucy is one of those dogs for whom the kitchen is the promised land. She believes with every fiber of her being that whenever John or I walk into the kitchen, something good is going to happen. She does not seem to notice that most of the time it does not. Most of the time nothing good happens to her at all. But Lucy is all about the promise.
Turns out that is a very biblical way to live. But it requires enormous persistence, and, like Lucy, who needs the cooperation of one of her dads to make something good happen, we cannot do it alone. To live “all about the promise” takes a community, because, as Edmund Sears points out in his hymn, we live in a world that frequently reminds us that this is not the promised land. It is a world where weariness and sadness are as present and persistent as any promise God ever made.
Yet the Bible just keeps throwing these outlandish images at us, goading us into never giving up because the outrageous promises will surely come. Shoots of new life will fly out of old, dead stumps. Wolves will forget their natures and lie down with their supper rather than devour it. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says of these images:
Obviously something powerful and incredible is going on here, namely, the announcement of a world not yet known or possessed, but a world promised that will surely come. It is the [song] of a community fully freed and reconciled, in which every form of hurt and fear has been overcome. That is what is promised and what is to come. And that is the song of the promises and the images of the poets, the voices of Moses and of Jesus, that a new world is about to be given, and we can trust ourselves to it and live as though in it
Last week I spoke about the importance of reconciliation as a way of life, the desire to be at peace with one another and to make peace where it does not exist. Who are you carrying a sword for, and what would it take to agree to beat it into a ploughshare?
Today we can give that question slightly different language. What would it mean to sit down with someone with whom you are angry or who you mistrust, someone with whom you are certainly not at peace, and say, “Could we live together as though this were the promised land?”
Well that’s crazy, I say to myself, because this is decidedly not the promised land. Yet does that mean that I believe that God’s project of building a new creation is something that only happens in another place and another time? That God is unable to do something new with my life or the person with whom I am at odds?
I know it is hard to believe that people can ever change, especially when they have done us wrong, but do not we believe in the God who brings life out of death? Cannot this God, with some cooperation from us like the willingness for something or someone to be different, not bring newness to any given situation?
John the Baptist knew this was so hard for us that he tried to scare us into it. “The willingness for something or someone to be different” is an example of repentance. There can be no peace without the capacity for repentance, for changing one’s mind, for not allowing us to get stuck in old patterns of being, for being willing to live in a new age. This is precisely what Nelson Mandela came out of prison believing and put into practice to forge a new country. The accomplishment of this new age for South Africa was extraordinary. Brueggemann asks,
Does it boggle your mind to receive a special invitation to live in the new age? [We call this special invitation “Baptism,” by the way] Does it frighten you to think of leaving the old age, the old patterns of behavior, our accustomed loyalties, and our favorite fears and angers? Shalom is talk about this new-age stuff. It is about new-age faith but also new age politics. It is about new-age love but also new-age justice.
And I have to let Brueggemann go on in a trumpet call to us:
Put off the old age and all its images and expectations and mindsets and patterns of behavior. Put on the new age, new expectations, new identity, new ways of being and living. The old age/new age talk is radical and abrupt and sounds like tent revival talk, but the churches like ours cannot abandon it to fundamentalist groups. It is our language and our tradition. It is the central biblical way of affirming that newness can come, that there can come death and new life to us, that the world can be radically changed and our way of being in the world can be transformed. But in our church tradition, we do not confine old age/new age talk to personal living, as do some others. The old age/new age issue also concerns public issues and institutional ordering in life. The new age is concerned not only with joy, but also with justice, not only with love but also with equality…
The joy of Advent and the true message of Christmas is that God can do a new thing with old you and old me and an old, weary world. God can even do a new thing with old institutions and an old church. But we have the power in our God-given freedom to keep saying no. We can join much of the world in saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” “he or she will never change,” “a leopard cannot change its spots,” nothing new and truly life-changing can come out of an old church.
To which the People of God, the People of Promise, should say, “Bull!” We can bear fruit worthy of repentance. God can raise us up—even old stoney hearts like ours—to be his own children. We can be free and we can make peace and live as if what we believe is actually real. This too is why the baby was born.