I’d like to share with you this morning a true story, told by writer Barbara Kingsolver, that seems to me to be a modern-day parable for Advent, one that could be straight from the mouth of the prophet Isaiah.
The story takes place in a cool October in the forested hills of Lorena Province in Iran, where a lost child was saved in an improbable and inconceivable way.
Kingsolver pictures it happening this way:
“The story begins with a wife and husband, nomads of the Lori tribe near Kayhan, walking home from a morning’s work in their wheat field. I imagine them content, moving slowly, the husband teasing his wife as she pulls her shawl across her face, laughing, and then suddenly they’re stopped cold by the sight of a slender figure hurrying toward them: the teenage girl who was left in charge of the babies.
“In tears, holding her gray shawl tightly around her, she runs to meet the parents, to tell them in frightening pieces of sentences that he’s disappeared, that she has already looked everywhere, but he’s gone.
“This girl is the neighbor’s daughter, who keeps an eye on all the little ones too small to walk to the field, but now she has to admit wretchedly that their boy has strong enough legs to wander off while her attention was turned to – what? Another crying child, a fascinating insect – a thousand things can turn the mind from this to that, and the world is lost in a heartbeat.
“They refuse to believe her at first – no parent is ever ready for this – and with fully expectant hearts they open the door flap of their yurt and peer inside, scanning the dim red darkness of the rugs on the walls, the empty floor.
“They look in his usual hiding places, under a pillow, behind the box where the bowls are kept, every time expecting this game to end with a laugh. But no, he’s gone.
“The search moves to the village, turning every box upside down, running the neighbors out in a party of panic and reassurances, but as they begin to scatter over the rocky outskirts it grows dark, then cold, then hopeless. He is nowhere. He is somewhere unsurvivable.
“A bear, someone says, and everyone else says No, not a bear, don’t even say that, are you mad? His mother might hear you.”
The next day the search widens, as people from other villages come to help comb the stony hills, venturing closer to the caves and woods of the mountainside.
“Another nightfall, another day, and some begin to give up. But not the mother or father, because there is nowhere to go but this, we have all done this, we bang and bang on the door of hope, and don’t anyone dare suggest there’s nobody home.
“The mother weeps and the father’s mouth becomes a thin line as he finds several men willing to go all the way up into the mountains. Into the caves. Five kilometers away.
“In the name of heaven, the baby is only 16 months old, the mother tells them. He can’t have walked that far, everybody knows this, but still they go.
“And then, at the mouth of a cave they hear a voice. Definitely it’s a cry, a child. Cautiously they look into the darkness, and ominously, they smell bear. But the boy is in there, crying, alive.
“They move into the half-light inside the cave, stand still and wait while the smell gets danker and the texture of the stone walls weaves its details more clearly into their vision. Then they see the animal, not a dark hollow in the cave wall as they first thought, but the dark, round shape of a thick-furred she-bear lying against the wall.
“And then they see the child. The bear is curled around him, protecting him from these fierce-smelling intruders in her cave.
“This is not a mistake or a hoax; this happened. The baby was found with the bear in her den. He was alive, unscarred, and perfectly well after three days – and well fed, smelling of milk. The bear was nursing the child.”
When I first read this story several years ago, I immediately thought of the Isaiah passage we heard this morning.
“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…The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
The holy mountain in Iran where the human boy-child snuggled in a cave against the mother bear fits right in with Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom.
But the similarities go beyond that imagery.
Isaiah’s vision of peace and harmony among all of God’s creatures comes at one of Israel’s lowest moments.
The image that Isaiah uses to depict Israel’s political circumstances is the stump of Jesse, dead and lifeless. Jesse was the father of the great King David, whose lineage was believed to be a sign of God’s goodness and faithfulness in the world.
But the great dynasty of David has now been reduced to a stump, humiliated in war by both the Babylonians and the Assyrians, sent into exile, and now returned to an Israel that is full of despair.
There is about as much hope for the future of Israel as there is that a dead tree stump will once again flourish and bear fruit.
But then the Spirit of God enters the picture, described by one commentator as a “life-giving, future-creating, world-forming, despair-ending power and wind that can create utter newness.”
That wind, which is beyond human control or predictability, has come to blow over the remnant of Jesse. The wind of new possibility blows over the stump of defeat and the wind prevails, giving hope of a new vision of harmony and peace.
As captivating as the modern-day story of the bear nursing the human child is, it becomes even more significant when put into context of time and place.
This event, a true story documented in newspapers around the world, happened in October 2001, weeks after the September 11th attacks whose impact almost two decades later continues to be felt not just in this country, but around the globe.
The story of the bear and the boy happened in a remote corner of the world, and it took time for the news to trickle from village to village until it reached a city where is was put in a local Arabic newspaper and then eventually made its way to the global press.
The news reached this country on the very day that American bombs began raining on Afghanistan in retaliation for the September 11th attacks.
Kingsolver describes it this way:
“I sat very still at the table that morning while my coffee went cold and my eyes scanned one sentence after another, trying to absorb the account of explosives raining from the sky on a place already ruled by terror, by all accounts as poor and war-scarred a populace as has ever crept to a doorway and looked out.
“My heart was already burdened by grief; only days had passed since I sat in this same place, and listened to a report that unfolded, unbelievably, numbingly, into a litany of unimaginable terror and assault on this country that holds my love and life. I could hardly bear more.
“But now my mind’s eye ran away to find women on the other side of the world who were looking just then from their children up to the harrowing skies. What would they make of this message, whose retaliatory import seemed so perfectly clear to us?
“My heart’s edge felt as dull and pocked as an old shovel as it scooped low to take on this new weight, the rubble and grief of war.
“And so when I came to this opposite page in the book of miracles, I cleaved hard to this other story. People not altogether far from Kabul – wrapping themselves in similar soft robes, similar hopes – had been visited by an impossible act of grace.
“In a world whose wells of kindness seem everywhere to be running dry, a bear nursed a lost child.”
Or as Isaiah might have put it, the spirit of God had blown, across the rubble of war, across the dead stump of human hearts torn by grief and despair, across the prevailing wisdom that the only way to match violence and death is with more violence and death.
And the wolf lies down with the lamb, the lion eats straw with the ox, the boy-child snuggles with the bear.
The Spirit’s breath reminds us that one day God’s dream for all creation will come about, and justice and peace will prevail.
This Advent God’s Spirit continues to blow. Will we trust its promise of hope in a new creation, or will we continue to place our faith in the dead stump that has failed?