Did any of you hear that true story recently about a very aggressive Alsatian dog who met a goose? Somehow they made friends and became inseparable, and the dog stopped being aggressive. This story came back to me as I read our 1st Reading from Isaiah (11:1-10) about the wolf living with the lamb and the panther with the kid. Of course Isaiah is using these animal metaphors to help us hope for a world where violence and intolerance is done away with, but it is interesting that even in the animal world strange friendships can take place. It can happen to us humans too! Think how Nelson Mandela managed to forge friendship with his gaolers, and with the white people who had oppressed and tortured him and his people. He even invited his principal gaoler to his inauguration ceremony as President!
So though our Psalm response “In his days justice shall flourish, and peace till the moon fails” seems a hopeless dream, it is surely a dream that we have to keep on dreaming. As Martin Luther King said in his famous speech “I have a dream”, and we have seen how much that speech, as well as the life of Mandela, has changed the world, even though there is a long long way still to go.
St Paul has it in our 2nd Reading too (Romans 15:4-9) when he tells us never to give up the dream. He writes that “people who did not give up were helped by God.” And then, as if he knew about people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, he writes, “And may he who helps us when we refuse to give up, help you all to be tolerant with each other, following the example of Christ Jesus.” This dream of a world of love and kindness where we learn to get on with people who are different, even to care about them, is surely a dream given to us by God. Each time we find something to moan about, something to make us angry or despairing of our fellow humans, we have to remember this dream, this hope that we have in our hearts, that we are called to put into action daily.
Surely this is why St John in his Gospel goes to such lengths to describe the dignified encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. He wants to show us this supreme example of love where the condemned man is able to say, from the agony of the cross, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
You might think then that our Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12) strikes a different note, as John the Baptist attacks some of the Jews as a “Brood of vipers”. Well yes, he is fierce, but he doesn’t give up on them does he? Instead he clearly believes that even these, the worst of men, can repent, can change their ways, can be drawn into the glory and power of God’s love that he calls the baptism of the Holy Spirit; not just to be cleansed by water but to be purified by spiritual fire. We have to remember this truth, not just for ourselves, but much more for those who we want to dismiss as too evil ever to be forgiven.
Think then today of those you really dislike. Who is it to be? Those bankers with their enormous bonuses? Those people killing one another in the Middle East? Those politicians who seem only to be trying to get re-elected with their clever sound-bites? Those council officials with their petty bureaucracy? Those people who litter the streets or write horrid graffiti on walls? Or is it someone nearer home. Someone at work maybe, a colleague or a boss who is just a complete pain. Whoever it is, we Christians must never give up hoping and praying for a better world, and believing that God’s love is at work and can be effective in places and amongst people that just make us angry or afraid.
So repentance does not just mean us being sorry for our sins, it also means turning ourselves round and looking at the world in a different way. If we give up believing and hoping, then we are failing to recognise the power of God, the power of God’s love, to change people, to change situations, where all seems hopeless and dark at the moment. Light coming into the darkness is one of the great themes of Advent and Christmas isn’t it? As we will hear on Christmas morning, Jesus the Word is “the light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower….. and to all who did accept him he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:1-14) May it be so for us.