Sermon Seeds: Stand as a Signal
Sunday ,December 4, 2022
Second Sunday of Advent| Year A
(Liturgical Color: Violet or Blue)
Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19
Stand As a Signal
Days to Come (Click here for the series overview.)
Cheryl A. Lindsay
What does harmony look like? Of course, traditionally, harmony is considered an auditory attribute. In practice, however, it often serves as a metaphor for cohesive and affirming relationships. In harmony, everyone sings their same note. It does not remove distinctiveness, it just ensures that everyone moves in ways that maintain their relationship to the whole. Harmony flourishes with complexity and creates something wonderful. Harmony doesn’t just happen; it takes care and intention, planning and rehearsal, commitment and correction. That beautiful creation of seeming effortless flow takes work.
I’m not a professionally trained musician, but I have sung in choirs for decades and have led worship. I once had to stand in for a choir director during Sunday morning worship. In my crash course in directing, I learned that one hand was dedicated to keeping time…making sure everyone was playing and singing at the same pace. But the other hand guided the movement of the piece. That hand beckoned those singing a particular part to join or subside. The direction of that hand changes the intensity and feeling of the music. Both hands moved at the same time in different ways, but each transmitted signals to those participating in creating the musical moment.
Isaiah sees the Assyrian forest being felled. He sees it only in vision; it won’t happen for another century. Maybe he was disappointed not to see it fulfilled in his lifetime. But he has the vision, and hope depends on a vision. Likewise he can see the felling of Jesse’s tree—that is, the fall of David’s dynasty. This fall he can also see only in a vision, but he can also look beyond it and see a new shoot growing from the felled tree. Earlier he applied the imagery of felled tree and new shoot to the destiny of the people as a whole; here it applies to David’s household. The new shoot will lack the weaknesses that the Davidic kings have usually shown; he will realize the Davidic ideal in showing both compassion for the weak and toughness toward the oppressor. The context thus suggests that the picture of killers in the animal world being turned into pets is another image for the same deliverance.
Part of the tension in this story is the timeframes that the reader has to negotiate. The prophet receives the vision generations before the events while the story of the vision is told from a distance:
Redactors of Isaiah 1–39 skillfully inserted new material into Isaiah’s original proclamation of judgment in order to add the message of hope. These new interpretations had a larger theological vision than Isaiah’s original message. They embraced God’s salvific plan not only for Israel but also for all the nations and the entire cosmos (Seitz 1992, 487–488). Their purpose was to show that the ultimate goal of God’s judgment was not to destroy but to purify and impart new life. It is primarily these later reinterpretations that make Isaiah’s prophecies a message of hope.
Isaiah’s vision foretells liberation, freedom, and deliverance. It also presents a reordering of norms in society and the natural order. All of creation, including natural adversaries, have been transformed. They don’t look different. The lion is still a lion, for instance, in all the ways that make it a lion. Its physical characteristics have not been altered, but its behavior has dramatically changed. The lion, known as a hunter, does not have to hunt in order to be a lion. Our behaviors and actions often are used to identify us, but they do not truly define who we are…just what we do. Behavior can be disrupted without dismantling who we are.
The vision begins with imagery of a stump and roots. Those are remnants of a tree that has been cut down. Perhaps the bulk of the tree was cut to be used for a construction project or to fuel a fire. Alternatively, the tree may have died and was cut to avert the unpredictable and inevitable fall of the tree. In this case, the metaphor speaks to a kingdom that had fallen. They fell into Assyrian rule (behavior) but more significantly, they fell away from the Holy One (identity). The latter is far more significant than the former.
Isaiah 11 was more likely written in the time of King Josiah of Judah (640–609 BCE), who was known for his program of religious reform and national restoration. The reign of Josiah saw many editions of the narrative and prophetic books, such as Joshua–Kings, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and portions of Jeremiah that were edited to support the Josian reform. Isaiah 11, with its vision of a child king who would reunite Israel and Judah to bring home the exiles from Assyria and Egypt, is an example of such work.
Marvin A. Sweeney
King Josiah, though his reign was brief, led to transformative action. During his tenure, the Book of the Law, which had been lost or set aside (cut off), was rediscovered, and the life of the nation was reordered to align with the vision found in the Book. What would happen if we were similarly compelled to pursue God’s vision of harmony found in the revelatory narrative of our sacred Book?
The kindom of God is not a difficult concept to envision. We’re familiar with what it should look, sound, and feel like. We have imagery from the creation narratives and the Revelation of John. We have those precious encounters in our own lives when all seems right with the world that provide a glimpse and demonstration of the realized kindom. Authors and filmmakers have employed fertile and expectant imaginations to craft fictionalized versions of paradise, in this world and beyond. There is no shortage of vision, imagination, and dreams.
Directing that one song took all my concentration to the point that, at first, I could not even enjoy the song. I was so intent on not messing up, bringing in each section at the write moment…keeping time. The choir members extended a great deal of grace and encouragement, but that rehearsal was terrifying. After, I practiced directing the choir by myself…until what had been confusing and awkward began to flow for me. That Sunday morning, I was a new director…a better director because I had put in the work. Folkx in the congregation assumed that I had prior experience in directing. They had no idea how much work had gone into my ability to signal the movement of the song…even one so familiar to everyone involved.
See, it was not my role to teach a new song, but to ensure that we were all performing a known song in harmony. It all came down to the signals that I conveyed as I stood before the choir, musicians, and congregation. At one point, I remember, turning around and signaling to the congregation to encourage them to join the chorus.
This story is not written about Jesus, but as Christians, we can perceive Jesus in the story. We recognize the story of new life coming from fallen and dead spaces. The stomp no longer has capacity to grow, but it makes room and creates a hospitable environment for life to spring forth. It reminds us that what seems unlikely and even impossible can be realized just like the harmony experienced between the wolf and the lamb.
The stump, the roots, and the reordered creation is the signal of the coming kindom. In Advent, we look back to the Incarnation but we look forward to the kindom on earth as it is in heaven. We look forward to this vision of everlasting peace, of harmony and flourishing, and of beloved community. As we look forward, we are called to stand as a signal of that coming reality, to present the signs and to direct movement toward that glorious and hopeful future.
Stand as a signal.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Dreams” — Langston Hughes
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
For further reflection
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” — Anne Frank
“I like the night. Without the dark, we’d never see the stars.” — Stephenie Meyer
“In many people Christ lives the life of the Host. Our life is a sacramental life.
This Host life is like the Advent life, like the life of the Child in the womb, the Child in the swaddling bands, the Christ in the tomb. It is a life of dependence upon creatures, of silence and secrecy, of hidden light. It is the life of a prisoner.” ― Caryll Houselander
Goldingay, John. Isaiah for Everyone, Old Testament for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Sweeney, Marvin A. “Isaiah.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Zinkuratire, Victor. “Isaiah 1-39.” Daniel Patte, Ed. Global Bible Commentary. Nashville: Abington Press, 2004.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the gathered community to sign up for the Abolition Advent Calendar curated by Join the Movement.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=2