Growing Together

Growing Together

December 04, 2016
Written by Kathryn Matthews

Sunday, December 4, 2016
Second Sunday of Advent

Weekly Theme
Growing Together

Prayer
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.

Focus Scripture
Isaiah 11:1-10

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
Matthew 3:1-12

Reflection questions

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 Matthews

This week's passage from the prophet Isaiah is even more powerful if we read what comes before it: at the end of chapter ten, 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, just when things appear hopeless and the future looks bleak, the prophet promises that God will send a king, from the great and glorious line of Jesse, who will rule with wisdom, 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.

Can this really be?

The promises are astounding, almost unbelievable: the order of nature that we all learned about in science class, the violence of predators that we accept as natural, will be overturned. (According to Clark Williamson and Ronald Allen, this text "looks forward to a time when there will be no more killing"; they note, however, that "[t]his is very much a season of Advent rather than arrival.")

In that great day, the rules of life will be changed, bent in the direction of gentleness and peace, of 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, recalling the story of the Garden of Eden. Brueggemann calls this vision "the impossible possibility of the new creation!" We are told that we can actually look forward to a "detoxified" world, including nature itself, that will be safe for all, not just the strong and the armed.  

A "detoxified" world: powerfully striking words when held up next to the nightly news reports about pollution, violence and climate disasters, or the state of our political discourse today. Can we even imagine such a world? Clearly, the prophet can. It's thought-provoking, and very challenging, too, to read Genesis 1:30 alongside this passage from Isaiah, for we always 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 of God--perhaps, was creation meant to be free of killing? Could such a wonderful dream be true?  

Making things right again

How will the great transformation, the great "making right of everything," happen? Shore says that the prophet is making a point about how great the promised ruler will be, so "charismatic," so wise, so good, that even nature will be "transformed"; the ruler will possess the gifts of "knowledge and the fear of the Lord," but also, Shore writes, "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."

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. We think 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

We hear this beautiful text in the season of Advent, with our hearts longing for shalom, for peace and wholeness, healing and justice for all of God's children. We read it during Advent, looking forward to the fulfillment of the promises of God, a time of all things being made right. We read it as followers of Jesus, the One who was full of power yet extended mercy toward the most vulnerable and healing toward the broken, the powerful One who was humble even so.

The 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 about 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. Indeed, we read this poem from Isaiah during this time of waiting, reflecting on what we yearn for most in our hearts, and what we are doing to prepare for the fulfillment of those hopes.

What is "normal"?

In his book, Peace, Brueggemann encounters these beautiful promises of peace very personally, at first rejecting them as "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 surround us are "the real abnormalities of life" that we have come to expect and live with.

These are powerful words for this Advent season! We are wrestling in more than one arena of life with the meaning of what is "normal"--in politics, in the environment, in the economy, and we face the challenge of protecting the most vulnerable, those who are often voiceless, in each of them. Nation after nation faces division and unrest even after new leaders are put in power, and we face a new year feeling especially unsure of what is ahead. It's become normal, for example, to hear about the death toll in Syria, to hear that the last hospital in Aleppo has been destroyed and to wonder how many more children have been pulled from the rubble, dust-covered and bewildered in their pain.

The new normal continues to mean a gauntlet of security measures just to board an airplane, press releases about the latest toxic toy (a "detoxified" world would definitely protect "the little ones" from our poisons), lawsuits over miracle drugs gone awry and statistics about opiate addiction ruining our small towns--all of this so "normal" that we forget who we are, too, as children of God who have been promised better than this. In this Advent season, though, Brueggemann reminds us of "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, deal with discouragement, injustice, and despair? If you could describe your greatest longing for your community, this nation, and the world, what would it be? What sort of leadership do the church and society and families long for? The image of a child in the Isaiah reading suggests vulnerability and gentleness. Instead of sentimentally romanticizing this child, we might 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 in the littlest ones of all. Here, we hold in our mind's eye the little boy pulled from the rubble in Aleppo who touched the hearts of many around the world. Didn't the image of the little boy, rubbing his dusty eyes, have the power to inspire work for peace and the cessation of hostilities?

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, and continues to utter a word of hope to each community of faith, in its setting, and in this moment of history, calling 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? What would it look like, 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. 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?

Words of inspiration and hope from the worst of days

Just before the end of World War II, a Jesuit priest was executed on false charges connected with the plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Alfred Delp did participate, however, in the resistance movement against Hitler, and his writings from the terrible experience of spending years in a Nazi prison inspire us in this Advent season, seventy years later, in whatever difficult days we may find ourselves: "Advent is the time of promise," he wrote; "it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny. Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today."

It is happening, today. Dare we believe in "the eternal realities," and trust in the "radiant fulfillment to come," and step forward in faith, walking in the light of the promises of God?

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.  

For further reflection

Alice Walker, 21st century
"The most important question in the world is, 'Why is the child crying?"
and
"It just seems clear to me that as long as we are all here, it's pretty clear that the struggle is to share the planet, rather than divide it."

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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