Written by Steven Liechty
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Second Sunday of Advent
Vision of Peace/Hope-Filled Vision
Laboring God, with axe and winnowing fork you clear a holy space where hurt and destruction have no place, and a little child holds sway. Clear our lives of hatred and despair, sow seeds of joy and peace, that shoots of hope may spring forth and we may live in harmony with one another. Amen.
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
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 cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
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;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
All Readings for This Week
Isaiah 11:1-10 and
Psalm 72:1-7,18-19 and
Romans 15:4-13 and
1. What is your greatest hope? What are you moving toward?
2. What would a "detoxified" world look and feel like?
3. What powers-that-be exercise control over your life?
4. What is the "stump" that seems to sit squarely in the middle of your life?
5. How is God drawing up from that stump a hopeful shoot, new life, new promise, new hope?
Reflection by Kate Huey
A passage from the Bible is even more powerful if we read what comes before it: at the end of chapter ten, the prophet Isaiah says that God is going to cut down all the trees, and that's why there's "a stump" when this passage begins. It's not an accident, but the result of God's sweeping movement across the land. It's also not a pretty picture--the stump appears beyond life and hope. Mary Hinkle Shore says that it's "the result of the Almighty's plan for clear-cutting"; we know that clear-cutting looks ugly, but it's a good way for the prophet to get the people's attention. Then, just when things appear to be at their worst, Isaiah holds out hope.
We aren't sure whether this text dates from the time of the threat from the Assyrians (8th c. BCE) or from the Babylonians (6th c. BCE), but in any case, the political situation of the people of Israel is in total disarray. Into this setting, however, just when things appear hopeless and the future looks very bleak, the prophet promises that God will send a leader who will rule with justice toward all, and with mercy toward the most vulnerable in society. The little ones, the defenseless ones, the innocent ones will be protected and cared for. Isaiah urges the people to remember who they are as the people of God, reminding them that their power, their life, comes from goodness, not from greed.
The promises are astounding and perhaps even unbelievable: "the order of nature" that we all learned about in science class, the violence of predators that we came to accept as natural, will be overturned. The rules of life will be changed, bent in the direction of gentleness and peace, not just any peace, but shalom. "Shalom," Walter Brueggemann says, "is creation time, when all God's creation eases up on hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating." Things are going to go back to the way they were originally created, the way things were meant to be. "This poem," Brueggemann says, "is about the impossible possibility of the new creation!" We are told that "the old practice of the big ones eating the little ones is not the wave of the future," and we can actually look forward to a "detoxified" world, including nature itself, that will be "safe for the vulnerable." A "detoxified" world: powerfully striking words when held up next to the nightly news reports about pollution, violence and climate disasters. Can we even imagine such a world, or believe that it's "the wave of the future"? Clearly, the prophet can. It's thought-provoking, and very challenging, too, to read Genesis 1:30 alongside this passage from Isaiah, for we seem to skim over the part where God gives "every green plant for food" to "every beast of the earth." What, indeed, was the original plan for creation?
How will the great transformation, the great "making right of everything," happen? Shore says that the prophet is making a point about just how great the promised ruler will be, so "charismatic," so good, that even nature will be "transformed"; the ruler will possess the gifts of "knowledge and the fear of the Lord," but also "what is perhaps the most important characteristic a civil servant can possess: the recognition that he is not God, and that the One to whom he must give account never ceases to defend the widow and the orphan." (Another striking thought when held up next to nightly news reports of our current political struggles!) So, ironically, this leader who is so great and good that he up-ends the "natural" order of the strong eating the weak is himself full of humility. And humility will prove stronger than the military might of any empire. One is reminded of Jesus, who wasted no energy on the legions of the Roman Empire, but kept his attention on the sick, the marginalized, and the broken, and exerted his power on their behalf.
Disturbing the order of things
In fact, we read this beautiful text in the season of Advent and hear it with our minds on Jesus as One promised and longed for, One who was full of power and yet brought peace, One who was humble even so. We read it in Advent to connect the promises of God with the reality of Jesus. Perhaps, however, this image of Jesus as One who disturbs the order of things doesn't sit so well with the domesticated Jesus who consoles us individually but has little to say with the way we've ordered things in society, where the strong prey on the weak and are richly rewarded for doing so. The little sweet baby Jesus is going to ask hard questions as he inaugurates the Reign of God and the unfolding of the promises of God.
In his book, Peace, Brueggemann encounters these beautiful promises of peace very personally, at first rejecting them as "[u]nheard of and unimaginable!" precisely because they are "so abnormal," and yet he can't resist taking a second look, and coming to perceive what is truly "normal"--peace and unity and healing--while the strife and discord and suffering that surrounds us are "the real abnormalities of life, which we have taken for granted."
These are powerful words for this Advent season! Do we even dare hope that "the new normal" that we keep hearing about in this prolonged struggle with the economy could come to mean something very different from the order of things as they are now, that a very different world is possible? It's become normal to hear about the death toll in Syria and even, still, in Afghanistan and Iraq; to run a gauntlet of security measures just to board an airplane; to listen carefully for the description of the latest toxic toy (a "detoxified" world would definitely protect "the little ones" from our poisons)--so "normal" that we forget who we are, too, as children of God who have been promised better than this. Brueggemann helps us to draw this together, this vision that sustained the people of ancient Israel, our ancestors in faith, the same vision that sustains and inspires us, too, in this Advent season, "the song of the promises and the image of the poets, the voices of Moses and of Jesus, that a new world is about to be given, and we can trust ourselves to it and live as though in it."
Getting up in the morning to face another day
What makes you get up in the morning, and move through your day, and, at times, struggle against discouragement, injustice, and despair? If you could describe your greatest longing for your community, for this nation, and for the world, what would it be? What sort of leadership do the church and society and families long for? How does the image of a child in the Isaiah reading suggest vulnerability, peace, and gentleness? Instead of sentimentally romanticizing this child, how might we recognize with hope the upside-down, unexpected ways of the Reign of God, when the mighty, the violent, and the "worldly wise" are, surprisingly, eclipsed by the emergence of peace and justice and healing, of gentleness?
There is much to worry about in the world (just ask any parent or grandparent). And yet, God promises that the very last word will indeed be God's (God is not finished speaking yet!). The still-speaking God continues to speak a word of hope to each community of faith, in its setting, and in this moment of history, and calls us today, in our own moment in history, to shape communities of justice and healing. Isaiah speaks of natural enemies living peacefully in a place where there is no more hurt. What would this holy mountain look like, for us? Is your church in the city, in the suburbs, in a small town, or in a rural setting? What would it look like, there, where you live, if "they" did not "hurt or destroy" any more?
Natural enemies unite!
You may find it helpful to read the Gospel account from Matthew (3:12) for this Sunday, too: According to Douglas Long, the Pharisees and Sadducees were "natural enemies"--at opposite ends of the political and religious spectrum--and yet they united in common cause against the threat that Jesus presented to all that they wanted to protect. (Brueggemann says that we would be better off if we "spend a little time reflecting on the great promises. Perchance we shall find in them reason to loosen our knuckle-whitening hold on what we possess.") Isn't it ironic that there are two different images of natural enemies in the Isaiah and Matthew readings? In the first, those who were enemies are reconciled and live peaceably in the Reign of God. In the second, those who are enemies temporarily ally themselves to resist the Reign of God as it draws near in Jesus Christ. What are we protecting? What would cause us to join with those with whom we strongly disagree? How does the Good News preached and embodied by Jesus--and the repentance preached by John--threaten "our little world" and its values and systems, and the greater one as well?
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles and a sample sermon) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/december-8-2013.html.
For further reflection
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, 20th century
"Faith walks simply, childlike, between the darkness of human life and the hope of what is to come."
Nelson Mandela, 20th century
"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."
Edward Hays, 20th century
"Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace."
Paul Gauguin, 19th century
"I shut my eyes in order to see."
Ashleigh Brilliant, 20th century
"All I want is a warm bed and a kind word and unlimited power."
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