The history of God’s relationship with humanity, as we read it in the Bible, is an amazing story of a Creator who continues to offer new life to people who choose to be friends of God. The enemies of the Chosen People had tried every way they knew to crush the Kingdom of Israel. After the death of Solomon, who was the son of King David and grandson of Jesse, the Kingdom of Israel was divided and centuries of trouble began. War, affliction, imprisonment, and starvation define the story of Jesus’ ancestors. When Jesus was born, there had not been a viable king on the throne of David for generations. And yet, somehow, there was still hope, there was still life stirring in that fragile old kingdom.
God always offers new life, which emerges out of the deep roots of the old life. Deep Roots/New Life.
Today’s scripture evokes this theological truth, using our spiritual family tree. Both Mary and Joseph are descended from the lineage of David. Through his earthly lineage, Jesus is connected to Jewish royalty, the little shoot emerging from the root of Israel, for whom John the Baptist prepares a way.
The Baptist preaches of the coming of the Messiah, a leader filled with greatness and power. Who wouldn’t choose a Messiah who is more like a tall cedar tree than a tree stump? More lion than lamb? On some days isn’t a ninja Messian somewhat more compelling than a suffering servant?
And yet, Advent offers us the opportunity to embrace the profound and surprising knowledge that God chose to begin an incarnate human life in a position of significant weakness: we know a Messiah born as a fragile baby. In Christ, God chooses vulnerability over invincibility. We often pray to God, using the terms Almighty and Everliving. In Bethlehem, those are the very qualities which God casts aside. Our faith in Christ is about recognizing the power God accessed through uncertainty and vulnerability, in order to offer us new life.
Power in uncertainty and vulnerability is not just the context of ancient biblical history. It is also the foundation of our own life of hope. While each of us faces our personal obstacles, I am raising this because of the many difficulties and disappointments of the past several years and the challenges we face as a community of faith. Pandemic, disruption, resources, our own anxiety.
We believe that God always invites us to live in hope. Neither difficulties nor endings are the final word. God always offers us new life. Where we can see ruins in deteriorating organs and leaking roofs, God envisions a new beginning. Now is the time to remember the message of the angels of Bethlehem, responding affirmatively to the command “be not afraid” in order to let that new growth emerge.
Do you know that in nature, as wind blows it generates tiny cracks in the trunk and branches of trees? Trees rely on this trauma for their growth. Standing in the wind, breaking a little and rebuilding at the same time, is what helps trees grow stronger. Even when a tree breaks off at the trunk, the fallen tree nurtures new life. These are called nurse trees. Nurse trees in the Redwood Forest provide ecological support for new seedlings. Have you ever looked back at the fierce storms of life to realize that they generated important changes? Storms are as necessary to our growth as the easier days of warmth and sunshine.
We have survived a major storm, and we need to figure out what to do now.
As John the Baptist blows into our gospel today, this prophet who seems to have no peace within himself brings good news for us in a most earthy and undiplomatic way. His blustering sermon is replete with locusts and vipers and axes and fire. (I feel so bland!) He demands that we move in a new direction, and is decidedly impatient with leaders who embrace the way we have always done it. John wants to shock us out of our immobility, and offers a new direction, calling us to root out all the old paralyzing habits that have grown up in our souls, and to gather in the new growth, rooted in God. Okay, John, here we go!
What does new life look like in real time? The life we seek begins with curiosity about possibility.
The wonder of the season of Advent is that we may catch a glimpse of the transition that is to come. We see some new faces at church services and coffee hour. We hear the beauty of an anthem sung with new voices. We smile as a young man comes forward to watch the organist at the end of a service and before his organ lesson. We find a way to move forward that does not depend on replicating what we have done before. We begin to think, “This is what could be!” We can pray, and discern, and take a calculated risk.
We – our Vestry and Wardens, and our organ discernment team, and our many members and friends who have pledged their support – have decided to move forward. We have committed to the renewal of life at your cathedral, after the pandemic disruption. Yes, our times are uncertain. Human time is always uncertain – the one thing on which we can depend is that things are going to change. We choose to believe that these glimpses are signs of God’s new beginning. We choose to believe that God is offering us new life. We are going to tend the new life in our midst, the place where faith longs to break through the hardness of our anxious disbelief.
I invite you to join this moment of grace in challenge. It is not just about the budget. It is not just about the music. It is about bearing fruit worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It really is all about the sustenance of our community of faith, doing the work of God in this area, connecting our rich past to our rich future.
God always offers new life, which emerges out of the deep roots of the old life. Come and be part of Deep Roots/New Life.