Read Isaiah 11:1-10
You have heard me use the word, “subversive” on several occasions over the past few weeks. Why? Because Christianity is subversive, and Advent and Christmas are particularly so. If calling Christmas subversive seems out-of-place, let me tell you a true story that emerged from the Ukrainian elections a few years ago.
You will recall that trouble was out on the streets as the result was being disputed. The regular evening TV news was on air, coming from the government controlled TV station. A presenter was reading the script. Another was ‘signing’ so the deaf could also ‘hear’ the news.
But the news was what those in power wanted to say, rather than it being an account of what was actually happening. No mention of the protests or challenges to the validity of the voting system, was being mentioned.
In a moment of madness, some say, the signer stopped translating the set script. And instead, started to give her account of all the other events that were happening. She said she knew she would be sacked because of her actions, but felt she could no longer put up with the government’s lies and propaganda.
Immediately following the broadcast, all the members of the news room came to her, not only to support her actions, but also to join the struggle against the government and its lies. So began a new and different story.
Now why tell this story of subversion? The rebellious news reporter was undoubtedly subverting the official government viewpoint that was supposed to pass for news? I tell it because it is an Advent story, for it sought to re-imagine new possibilities for the Ukraine, and it began when the deaf – the outsiders – were given the opportunity and the respect to ‘overhear’ what was really going on; to be able to perceive reality from a new perspective.
I read in The Age a few years ago about the “Baby Boom Blues.” There are a few of us Baby Boomers here, but most of you are from a previous generation. (In case you’re not sure, Baby Boomers are those of you who are aged between 59 and 73.) Since people of my generation are conspicuous by their absence from churches, I don’t get to preach to many. However, I do think that today’s readings are ones that my generation might want to hear.
The writer of the “Baby Boomer Blues” article referred to a sense of melancholy concern about the world we live in: a world that was born out of the active optimism of the 60s and early 70s; a better, more peaceful, more loving world, the vision of which has floundered amid the rampant, cynical pragmatism and economical rationalism of later generations.
I suspect that when you hear words such as those of today’s Old Testament reading, you are quite happy to enjoy them in an aesthetic and sentimental way, but if asked you to take them seriously, many of you would object on two grounds: it’s not real, it’s not reasonable. Everyone knows that in the ‘real’ world, a lamb in a wolf’s lair is lunch. Reason and reality assure us that a little child cannot lead a wolf or a lion by a leash without being a dead child. And we so want to be reasonable. We want to live in the real world, to face facts. In the face of Isaiah’s poetry, we say, “Come on, Isaiah, get real!” Be ‘reasonable’.
But this begs the question: Just whose reason is being applied here? Whose definition of reality is being used to determined the reasonableness of Isaiah’s vision? I ask these questions because what is real is considerably more contestable that most people would like to admit. What is reasonable is in the eye of the beholder.
Philosophers pretty much agree nowadays that there is no such thing as ‘reason’ that is detached, universally shared, innately available to everyone. Intellectual objectivity is fairyland stuff. We each think about the world from our own point of view, through our own filters, in some ideological location formed by our unique set of life experiences. When people claim they are being ‘objective’ and ‘reasonable’, it usual indicates that they are ignorant about the ways their ethnic, economic and political backgrounds have shaped their peculiar way of seeing reality. They naively assume that their view is reality.
Our thinking is determined by where we have been, what we have seen and what we expect to see. One reason (I hope) you are in church on any given Sunday is the pursuit of a never-ending effort to better see things God’s way, a way of seeing which is peculiar, odd, doesn’t make sense to everybody else, and takes the proverbial month of Sundays to get good at.
The reason some people continue to believe there is such a thing as a universally-valid reason, or that that reality is fixed and closed, is that their point of view happens to be so conventional in this culture that they assume everyone else sees the world just as they do. In fact, these people are not being reasonable or realistic at all; they’re just suffering, unlike the prophets, from a lack of imagination or from staying too long in one room. Vaunted claims of ‘realism’ are usually testimony to a severe case of ideological blindness.
Is it realistic to foresee a time when “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb,…the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them”? Well, it all depends on what kind of world we live in. If this world is destined for nothing but nature, tooth and claw, the survival of the fittest, and random acts of violence signifying nothing, then the vision of a day when lambs and wolves shall dwell together will seem stupid.
Fortunately, as I’ve said, there is no such thing as ‘reason’ appearing as some innate, universally shared human attribute. There are only different groups, with differing stories and therefore different ways of making sense of the world, describing what is and what isn’t. So be suspicious when people tell you, “Now be realistic,” or “Face facts,” because they are probably trying to con you. They are attempting, by claiming such confident knowledge of what is, to get around debate and stifle imaginative thinking. The ‘facts,’ folks, are not factual.
We are in desperate need of larger, more imaginative modes of thought, a kind of reason which is dramatic, capable of invention and imagination, and unimpressed by the alleged division between fact and fiction. Why do we need this? Because reduced thought leads to reduced lives.
“The wolf shall live with the lamb,…the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them”? The question at hand is not whether we ought to be realists, but what are the realities? Before you dismiss as unrealistic and irrational Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom of pacified wolves and lions and kindergarten-aged leaders, consider that the prophet may be inviting you into another mind-set, a different perception of reality.
The big problem is that people are trained by social scientists to define human beings as fixed entities, with eternal qualities of being. Isaiah the poet teaches us to define people in terms of what they desire, that for which they long. What are you waiting for, longing for, this Advent?
Will wolves and lambs dwell together? Is it possible for a little child to know more than the world’s political leaders? It makes all the difference what sort of world you believe we have, how far you are able to see, and, above all, what sort of God we have. Martin Luther King begins one of his most famous sermons with the assertion that, “At the centre of the Christian faith is the conviction that in the universe there is a God of power who is able to do exceedingly abundant things in nature and in history.” It will make all the difference in the world whether or not you believe that.
This Sunday, Isaiah’s poetry offers another world, a world ruled not by savvy politicians or tough generals or astute businessmen, but by a little child. All is at peace. Even our old enemy, the serpent, is soothed by the child. Unrealistic you say? Yet the world will never change for the better without a vision of something better.
It is ironic that our religion hands down to us a vision; the church is the keeper of the idealistic seeds of a better future, and yet the absence of the baby boomer generation from our churches probably has much to do with the church’s image as a bastion of conservative thinking, in which people fear imaginative idealism and grimly hold onto that which already is or, perhaps more accurately, that which was.
The church is chock full of people who believe that what we need are strong armies, moral regimentation, lots of things for Christmas, a fat superannuation account, positive results on our annual medical check-up, straightforward answers, a secure 2020 and the maintenance of a sense of reality. The only reality God offers, the only ‘reason’, is a baby, a lamb, to help us think things though again, so as to lead us to a new home. Subversive? You bet it is!