TEXTS: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:1-2)
I’m curious: How many of you have ever heard of a man called Edwin L. Drake? Even here in Alberta—where our economy runs on oil—very few people have ever heard of Edwin Drake. And that’s puzzling, because Edwin Drake is the man who founded the modern petroleum industry. Drake pioneered a new method for extracting oil from the ground by drilling for it, using piping to prevent borehole collapse—thereby allowing the drill to penetrate further and further into the ground.
Previous methods for collecting oil had been limited to harvesting it from places where it naturally percolated to the surface. People knew it could be used to make useful products like kerosene, but it wasn’t available in sufficient quantities to be commercially useful.
On August 27, 1859, all that changed. A well that Edwin Drake drilled near Titusville, Pennsylvania struck oil, thereby demonstrating that a dependable supply of petroleum could be obtained through drilling—and the rest, as they say, is history. But it might never have happened, because the drillers whom Drake first approached with his idea scoffed at him.
“Drill for oil?” they said. “You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.”
When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord. He’s coming right after me,” a lot of people thought he was crazy—a screwball who lived in the desert, scavenging for food and pretending to be Elijah the prophet. John was announcing a new vision—a vision of One coming after him to establish God’s Kingdom of justice and righteousness and peace—but to many, he sounded like a madman.
When Isaiah came announcing the vision he received from the Lord, I imagine he got a similar reaction. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together” (Isaiah 11:6a). The cat will curl up with the budgie, and the cougar will graze with the caribou. The small child shall take a rattlesnake for show and tell, and the politician shall speak the truth!
How can you ever believe such things? They’re not reality. They go against basic nature. They’ve never happened before. They defy comprehension. Isaiah was a nut!
Or was he?
It’s a very strange thing, reality. It is not nearly as fixed as we like to think it is. Our beliefs about the limits of reality get tangled up with our expectations—with what we have experienced. Yet, what is seen in one place or time as being outside the realm of possibility is taken for granted as reality in another place or time.
Once, people who thought heavier-than-air craft could fly were called “unrealistic.” People who thought that the earth was round were locked away because they had clearly lost touch with the “real” world. But if Nelson Mandela can become president of South Africa, who’s to say the lion cannot lay down with the lamb?
Beware of those who want to define reality for you. Beware of those who tell you what is or is not realistic.
Beware and be aware. If someone else is trying to define the limits of reality for you, ask what it is they have invested in the present reality. Why would they be threatened if you believed that something was possible that is not yet in place?
Why do the forest industries tell us that investing in timber plantations instead of old growth forests is unrealistic? Why do the arms manufacturers tell us it’s ridiculous to speak of loving your enemies? There’s money to be made. There’s power to be kept. There are vested interests to be protected.
That’s why—for decades after they themselves knew better—tobacco companies insisted that cigarettes were harmless. That’s why—for decades after they allowed military personnel at CFB Gagetown to be exposed to Agent Orange, the Canadian Forces insisted—indignantly—that they would never do such a thing.
Hell hath no fury like vested interest masquerading as moral principle.
But you know, this manipulation of our views of reality does not just happen on the world stage. I’m sure we’ve all experienced it personally. We’ve all been told:
- “It can’t be done.”
- “It’s unrealistic to think you can change it.”
- “You’ll always be like this.”
- “That’s the way it’s always been.”
- “Get your head out of the clouds, this is the real world.”
- “This is the only place you’ll ever fit.”
- “This is your lot, and you might as well accept it.”
If somebody’s telling you that stuff, you should ask yourself why. Why do they want to keep you in your place? Maybe it’s nothing more than the fear of seeing someone else achieve what they are afraid to try—but often it’s more sinister than that. Always be wary of anyone who tells you your dreams are impossible.
Sometimes, of course, the things which hold us back are not external. Sometimes the demons are inside us. Often, we resign ourselves to the inevitability of things. We have heard so often that history repeats itself—and that “the more things change the more they stay the same”—that we believe it. We take it for granted that the way things are is the only way they can be. Our experience limits our vision:
- “I’ve never seen a leopard change its spots—therefore, it can’t.”
- “I’ve never seen a lion lay down with a lamb—therefore, it could never happen.”
- “I’ve never known someone I could trust—therefore, there isn’t anyone.”
- “I haven’t been able to change this pattern in my life before—therefore, I never will.”
We end up as our own worst enemies that way. A mixture of fear and short-sightedness keeps us inside the prison of our present circumstances. The voices whisper away within us:
- “Every time you’ve tried to get out of this before, you’ve failed.”
- “Don’t risk being a failure again.”
- “You can dream your dreams, but they’re only dreams.”
- “You always have to go back to reality when you wake up—back to the real world, where nothing ever changes.”
But look … The realm of the possible is always bigger than we think it is. If your relationships have always been disasters, it doesn’t mean that you are incapable of having good relationships. It may mean that you’ve been approaching them in the wrong way. If a mountain climber fails to conquer a certain peak, he tries a different route the next time. Just because it can’t be done this way doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. The fact that conflict persists does not mean that the lion can never lay down with the lamb! No. It means that we have not yet found the way to peace.
John the Baptist was right. There was One coming after him who would change all of our realities. No longer is it true that you are only acceptable to God if you are a descendent of Abraham. God can turn rocks into children of Abraham!
The One who came after John said anything could be possible, if you could believe in it. He called us to take up the vision of Isaiah—to look for the day when there will be justice for the needy and equity for the poor. Jesus lived and died to let us know that we can expect better than just more of the same. He was raised from the dead to show us that even death is not the end of hope. Even death cannot limit the scope of reality. Change and rebirth are not only possible in the here and now, but they are no longer confined to here and now.
Jesus Christ has kicked open the doors of all our prison cells. We are free to believe and strive for and achieve what was once believed impossible. But the prisoner whose dreams and vision have never extended beyond the closed door will tremble at the prospect of venturing beyond it. And that’s a pity, because the Christ who burst open your prison door also promises to travel with you in the unknown territory beyond it.
You may have never seen beyond that door, but there is a beautiful world waiting to welcome you there: a world where the lion will lay dawn with the lamb; a world where snake pits are safe playgrounds for children; a world of justice for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, and comfort for the broken-hearted.
That is the message of Advent—and it is the gospel we preach. Thanks be to God for this good news!