Church of the Advent Baltimore • Advent 2a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGAdvent is the season of the church year in which we prepare our minds and hearts for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, not only the yearly commemoration of his coming as a newborn infant to the stable in Bethlehem, but in watchful preparation for the as yet to be realized coming in glory at the end of time, when he will judge the living and the dead in perfect righteousness. So we find ourselves, in Advent, perhaps especially in the Church of the Advent, somewhat torn between two images: the sweet Christ Child in the manger, and the transfigured, majestic figure of the everlasting Judge and King, whose coming is foretold by the wild prophet John the Baptist.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
On this Sunday the two images come together. in the prophet Isaiah’s words. The prophet describes the peaceable kingdom, his vision of God’s just and righteous reign. And at first the vision of the one who shall come forth from the root of Jesse sounds like the same mighty judge John the Baptist promises. Here is one upon whom the Spirit rests, who is full of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. Here is one who shall judge with righteousness and equity, whose very voice strikes the earth like a rod, whose breath slays the wicked.
But then the imagery shifts. Suddenly all is peaceful: wild beasts of forest and field no longer prey on the domesticated animals of pasture and barnyard, but graze and nestle beside them. The two worlds, wild and domestic, come together in peace. And, wonder of wonders, all this harmony is orchestrated, brought about and led not by an army of lion-tamers with pistols and whips, or a crowd of Australian alligator wrestlers with cages and anesthetic darts, but by a little child. Even more surprising, infants young enough still to be nursing, and others just starting on solid food, can play with snakes in perfect safety, the archetype of human enmity with the natural world from our infancy in the Garden of Eden — the serpent — has lost it’s poison, and has become a plaything for the children of Adam and Eve. This peaceful lordship that turns the curse of Adam on its head, this peaceable kingdom established on God’s holy mountain is, simply put, child’s play.
+ + +
Now, this is not frivolous talk. Few things are more serious than child’s play. I really mean that. Have you ever watched children playing? Children take their play very seriously, and the more deeply involved in play they are, the more intense their concentration. Where else but in play do you see actual wrinkles form on the foreheads of children? Where else but in play do you see little tongues appear at the edges of tiny mouths, as tiny hands struggle to color within the lines, to make a puzzle come out just right, for a doll’s hair be styled in high fashion, or a plastic peg hammered down just so with a plastic hammer into a plastic hole? No, children at play are quite intent on their playing!
Children in a snowball fight are as focused on their battle as any general. And I dare not even mention the intensity of a child apparently glued to a PlayStation! And a five-year-old hosting a tea party for dolls and teddy bears will — should you be honored with an invitation to such an event — enforce upon you a protocol and etiquette as rigorous as a state banquet. The Cabbage Patch twins must always be served first, in recognition of their youth, while Barbie, being a mature young lady, is expected to be patient, and Pooh Bear has to be watched lest he sneak a cookie before the proper time. As you balance the tiny saucer and minuscule teacup, savoring the invisible tea and make-believe cake, you are apt to marvel at the child’s knowledge of etiquette, and stern resolve to enforce it.
Yes, the prophet was right in describing the kingdom of God as child’s play, for child’s play is not frivolous. It is just that we tend to forget this as we grow older. As we age out of the pure, clear world of childhood, we are apt to begin making compromises, to accept less than what we know is right, to move from the clarity of the black and white into those shades of grey. And we tend to see this as maturity. We gain peace at the cost of principle. We become judicious; we weigh profit and loss ratios, and we deal and we compromise. And we settle. And how often do we end up with far less than justice and righteousness for the sake of an imaginary peace — a peace that turns out not to be peace at all.
+ + +
But the judge eternal described by Isaiah, comes upon us with the ferocious intensity of a child: a single-minded child who can look straight through our adult compromises to the burning truth of our failures. He does not judge by what he sees or hears, this eternal judge whose coming we await. What? A judge who pays no attention to evidence? What kind of justice is that? Who wants a trial before a judge who passes sentence before he hears our excuses and our explanations and our rationalizations?
But my friends, this is the justice of a child, of the child. The child who knows what’s fair and what’s not, and from whose ringing sentence, “It isn’t fair!” there is no appeal. The child who knows when her parents have been arguing, however much they try to pretend it’s all O.K. for her sake. The child knows when he’s being lied to, however good our intentions, and his piercing eyes see through us as if we were so much cellophane. The child who knows the rules for snowball fights and tea-parties, and dispenses the firm justice of the playground. The child who knows how to tame animals more real than the ones of flesh and blood, the animals of the playroom, where Pooh Bear and the Lion King take tea together, and a dinosaur eats cookies from a plate. And all the while, the child oversees this feast with serious attention, and a sense of what is fair and right that puts any adult tribunal to shame.
+ + +
This is what the Justice and Lordship of Jesus is like, the just, clear, focused reign of the Son of God. Under the watchful eye of this child who comes forth from the root of Jesse, all our excuses and compromises and rationalizations are laid bare. All of our efforts to bend the rules are exposed. All of our lording it over one another, preying on each other like wolves and bears and lions, is shown up for what it is.
But the good news is that this Child of God who comes to judge us is merciful as well as just. Though he sees right through us, perhaps because he sees right through us, he will also save us, for though he sees how shallow we are he knows we are worth saving. And his loving justice can begin to transform us, and redeem our corrupted nature as surely as it undoes the curse of Adam. The old curse is done away with, transforming serpents into playthings, undoing the ancient enmity and antagonism between the wild and the domestic. Under the miraculous rule of this divine child-king even our own rough nature is transformed, our rough coats of wolf-grey fur, soften and turn to plush. Our shaggy lions’ manes are trimmed and turn bright gold, festive with bows and ribbons. Our leopard spots turn into polka-dots. Rough grizzly bears grow plump and soft and dip their blunted claws into a jar plainly labeled H-U-N-Y. And all of us together gather around the tea-table, colorful bows around our necks and ribbons in our hair, as the Child pours us our tea, and feeds us cakes, and we partake of the sacrament of peace — coming to God’s kingdom, at long last, precisely and exactly as he said we would have to come: as children.
May we then, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, be ready to enter the heavenly child’s-play of the this miracle child, the just and righteous rule of the Son of God, whose infant hands possess all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.