Sermon Seeds: Vision of Peace/Hope-Filled Vision
Second Sunday of Advent Year A
Sample sermon on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
Vision of Peace/Hope-Filled Vision
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
These words from the prophet Isaiah are even more powerful when read in their setting. At the end of chapter ten, the prophet says that God is going to cut down all the trees; that’s why there’s “a stump” in the first place. It’s not accidental, or random, and it’s not just sitting there; it’s the result of God’s sweeping movement across the land. Walter Brueggemann casts the scene as a great struggle, a “deep conflict and contest” between the stump (Israel’s political situation), and God’s spirit, the power beneath “the religious yearning of Israel” (Texts for Preaching Year A). It’s also not a pretty picture – the stump appears beyond life and beyond hope. Mary Hinkle Shore says that “the stump in Isaiah 11:1 is the result of the Almighty’s plan for clear-cutting,” but the prophet is “trying desperately to get people’s attention” to offer both warning and hope, for “a shoot will grow out of that stump” (New Proclamation Year A 2007-2008).
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” (Peace). 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” (Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion). It’s thought-provoking, and very challenging, then, 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” (New Proclamation Year A 2007-2008). So, ironically, this one 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.
Of course, we read this lovely text in the season of Advent and hear it with our minds on Jesus as the One promised and longed for, the One who was full of power and yet brought peace, the One who was humble, even so. The lectionary gives us this particular reading on this particular day for a reason, writes Andrew H. Bartelt, to help us see in Jesus Christ “the greater and final David who came both as David’s son and David’s lord” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). This is a somewhat different sense of Jesus than many of us were given from childhood; as Brueggemann notes, this text teaches us “that Jesus cannot be reduced to privatistic salvation or to sacramental operations, but that Jesus was received, celebrated, and eventually crucified precisely for his embodiment and practice of this vision of social possibility” (Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion). In what ways have we as individuals and as the church allowed ourselves to “privatize” Jesus, or attempted to “contain” him in our sacramental practices? What would happen if Christians everywhere, for example, united to bring to reality Jesus’ vision in our shared, public life?
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.”
What is your greatest hope? What makes you get up in the morning, and move through your day, and, at times, struggle against discouragement, injustice, and despair? What are you moving toward, and what carries you toward it? What is your congregation’s greatest hope, and what are you, as a community, moving toward? What is the “stump” that seems to sit squarely in the middle of your life together? How is God moving in your midst, drawing up from the stump a hopeful (and perhaps surprising) shoot, new life, new promise, new hope? What would a “detoxified” world look like? How would it feel?
What powers-that-be exercise control over your life? 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? Perhaps the image of a child in the Isaiah reading suggests vulnerability, peace, and gentleness, but we need to turn away from sentimentally romanticizing this child and instead look with hope toward the upside-down, unexpected ways of the Reign of God, when the mighty and 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, if “they” did not “hurt or destroy” any more?
Lectionary note about the Gospel reading: According to Douglas Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion), 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. (In Peace, Brueggemann says that we will 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 as preached by Jesus – and the repentance preached by John – threaten “our little world” and its values and systems, and the greater one as well?
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.”
I never really used to like John the Baptist very much. First, I found it difficult to relate to the whole wilderness, locust and wild honey, wild-eyed prophet-of-doom thing. Second, his message is, to put it mildly, frightening. Any time a religious voice talks about “the wrath to come,” I’m thrown back to my not-so-childhood fears of a harsh, judgmental God, sitting on a throne, just waiting to send me into that “unquenchable fire.”
Compared to this reading from the Gospel of Matthew, our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, is clearly the preferable one to preach on. The lovely image of the lion and the lamb is one of the most beautiful and comforting images in the Bible, and I have sixteen different versions of it on Christmas cards just to prove my point. It is a symbol rich in meaning that no one has to explain to us. Deep in our hearts, we already long for such peace and gentleness in the world that surrounds us.
It’s not just a pretty Christmas card picture, though. Isaiah promises a time when the world will be ruled by justice and righteousness, and the poor and the meek of the earth will get their due; in fact, all of life will be transformed so that peace will reign and there will be no more hurting, on God’s holy mountain and throughout all of God’s beautiful creation. See? Not only will the lion and the lamb lie down – no longer predator and victim – but a baby, the most vulnerable among us, will play happily right next to a den of snakes. Can we even imagine such a thing?
For Isaiah’s people, our ancestors in faith, this hope rests in a ruler who will be a surprise, “a shoot from the stump of Jesse.” How can a stump, a chopped-down tree, produce such life and hope, such promise and power? In the passage right before today’s reading, at the end of Chapter 10, the prophet describes God as a kind of divine forester who chops down “with terrifying power” the tallest trees of Lebanon, the most beautiful of that part of the world. Those magnificent trees, however, often represent the mighty rulers of the empires and kingdoms that surround the vulnerable little land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem. God will just take them down, Isaiah says, just mow them down. God is really powerful.
But then Chapter 11 addresses the situation of the people of Judah, and begins with a poetic promise of a shoot that will come from what they must have experienced as the lifeless stump of their own chopped-down tree. Jesse was the father of David, the great king, who represented the glory days of Israel, the zenith of their power and prestige, the moment they most loved to recall and the way they loved to think of themselves, and the hope they held onto for their future. But all of this glory and security and success had been cut off, cut down, taken away. The great empire of Assyria, which had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, marched right to the gates of Jerusalem. The descendants of David’s glorious kingdom knew the bitterness of conquest and exile, of constant threat and war. Life was violent and unfair, the people were suffering, and they had to wonder if God had left them on their own.
Now, the prophet Isaiah did see mighty Assyria, breathing down their necks, as God’s instrument against a faithless people, as punishment for their sins. Still, in the midst of this fear and judgment, Isaiah speaks a word of hope. No, the prophet says, God has not forgotten you. In this worst of situations, there will be an amazing turn of events: there is one who is to come, a great ruler who will have the Spirit of the Lord upon him, just like David did. This ruler won’t rely on hearsay or appearances but will have such a powerful spirit of wisdom and understanding that he will judge and rule in a way that all of creation will be transformed. That’s how we got to that part about the lion and the lamb. Someone is coming, says Isaiah. Justice is coming. Deliverance is coming. Peace is coming. Hold on, he says, hold on to the dream of peace.
Another prophet strides onto the stage. I said I used to not like John the Baptist very much, but I can’t turn away from this reading from Matthew, paired as it is with the lovely, hopeful text from Isaiah. John the Baptist speaks to us about the nearness of God’s reign, and about the One who is to come, and it might sound, at first, as a harsh message that only contains fear and judgment. In fact, from the way John speaks to the obviously pious religious types, no one is safe from “the wrath that is to come.” He even calls them “a brood of vipers”! Can you imagine religious leaders speaking to one another that way today, in our society? John warns the Pharisees and the Sadducees not to think they’re safe because they’re in the right group or because of “who they are”– descendants of Abraham. If God wanted to, God could raise up children of Abraham from these stones, just like that – snap! God is really powerful. But – what you do, matters. There will be accountability. Even now, he says, the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Even now, he says. Even now, repent. Someone is coming. Get ready.
As I said, it’s a little bit scary.
But I go back to the way Matthew refers to John at the beginning of this text. Do you know whom the Gospel writer quotes to describe John the Baptist? He quotes Isaiah, but a different part of Isaiah, from Chapter 40, which begins, “‘Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins,'” and it continues with the line that Matthew quotes: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'”
Now I’m not saying that the ordinary people who were streaming to be baptized by John were somehow pure and innocent, and the religious authorities were the only sinners. John preached repentance, as Jesus would, for the reign of God was at hand. But I find it significant that John is described as the one who brings good news, who calls us to prepare the way of the Lord. Someone is coming, he says, and what you do, matters. Get rid of everything that’s blocking the way of the One who is to come. Get rid of greed and selfishness, of hostility and resentment, of doubt and despair. Reshape your lives and the life of your people so that the poor and those pushed to the margins are brought back into the life of the community. Strive for peace by working for justice. What you do, matters. There will be an accounting. Oh, yes, there will be an accounting.
John is recalling for the people the dream of peace that Isaiah promised, including the promise of One upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, Jesus, who will indeed judge in righteousness and wisdom, Jesus, the Prince of Peace. This is the season of Advent, and we too are waiting for the One who is to come. Not just waiting for Christmas to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, but waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of that beautiful dream of peace from so long ago. But what we have done will matter, and isn’t that a wonderful thing – to know that we can participate in God’s dream of peace for us? That we can repent, turn toward God and away from everything that keeps us from God, that keeps us from the peace and wisdom and righteousness of God? That we can radically re-orient our lives, clear a path, prepare the way of the Lord? That we can re-shape our lives and the life of this community, and we can reach out to the world beyond these walls, beyond our city, even beyond our nation, and speak, and live, words of peace?
Even now, each one of us stands in need of repentance, of conversion, not just once in our lives, but every day of our lives. Of course, we don’t experience conversion or repentance in order to make God love us. No, we turn toward God and away from everything that keeps us from God, so that we can come closer to experiencing the breadth and height and depth of God’s love for us, of God’s amazing grace at work in our lives. Yes, there is accountability, and what we do, matters, but there is grace, too, always grace. Even now, grace.
You might say it in this way, in these days when shopping and materialism seem to have pushed the deeper meaning of this season right off our radar screen: our possessions, our toys, our stuff – worth a lot; our careers, our schedules, our agendas – really important; our power and place and security – very valuable; pushing all those things aside and making a way through the wilderness, a straight, clear path for God to come into our lives – priceless.
Whether we’re struggling with illness or addiction, financial setbacks or uncertainty or oppressive debt; whether we are unhappy in our work or our relationships, alienated from our family or friends, grieving a loss, or feeling broken inside; whether we are depressed or anxious, worried about our children, our partner or spouse, or our parents; whether we have suffered from violence or injustice, loneliness or despair, God is still speaking to us today, for God has not forgotten us or abandoned us – no, even now, the dream of peace is for us, too. It reminds me of Henri Nouwen saying that we are not loved by God because we are precious; we are precious because God loves us. And so, underneath the call to repent is a call to return home to the God who loves us and longs for that dream of peace to become our lived reality, not just as individuals but as all humankind, all God’s children, and all of God’s beloved and beautiful creation.
One of my favorite bumper stickers says, “Jesus is coming – look busy!” I guess that leaves a lot open to interpretation, but I believe that here at Pilgrim Church and in the United Church of Christ we hear these words, even now, as an urgent call to continue to imagine and trust and give ourselves to the dream of peace. Even now, we will not give up in the face of any setback or challenge or discouragement, for the dream of peace is promised to us, and it is promised to every single person who comes through these doors. It is promised to those who may hear about this community of faith and its deepest longings for all of God’s creation to be healed, and reconciled, and welcomed home. That is why our extravagant welcome and radical hospitality are at the heart of who we are as a church.
That is also why we do more than just open these doors and invite folks in, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey. We believe that there is still so much more to be done in the days ahead, and even now. We believe that the ministry of this church is a blessing in this neighborhood and in this city; we have given ourselves to God’s mission; we proclaim and strive to live the Good News that we preach here. We invite all those who come through these doors to find a home here, and to build with us the dream of peace.
Each day in our work at the national offices of the United Church of Christ, we think about ways to reach out to people who have no church home. Maybe they’ve been hurt by a church and think there’s no community of faith that will welcome them or that they would want to be part of. Maybe they’ve never been to church in the first place or heard the good news about the dream of peace that is for them, too. One way the United Church of Christ has reached out, as you know, is through our advertisement. It’s like a messenger in our modern world, telling Good News about the radical welcome waiting here for every single person. The messages that are pouring into our website – already – have thanked us for the good news that a church that welcomes everyone even exists. The need is so great, and the work before us may seem overwhelming. But God is powerful and can do all things. God can work through us, even through us, even now.
For we ourselves are messengers, too, prophets, even, in the way we live our lives – in peace, in justice, in caring for the one another and for God’s good creation. God is still speaking, and we listen, and prepare the way for the One who is to come. Even now. “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.” Can we imagine such a thing?
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.
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Give the ruler your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a ruler’s heir.
May the ruler judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May the ruler defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
May the ruler live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May the ruler be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In the ruler’s days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
Blessed be the Sovereign, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be God’s glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with God’s glory.
Amen and Amen.
Amen and Amen.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
As it is written,
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”;
and again he says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”;
and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent and Christmas
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)