Sermon Seeds: Choose a Better Way
Second Sunday of Advent Year A
Worship resources for the Second Sunday of Advent Year A are at Worship Ways
Choose a Better Way
by Kathryn Matthews
This week’s passage, or poem, from the prophet Isaiah is even more powerful when read in its setting: at the end of chapter ten, the prophet Isaiah says that God is going to cut down all the trees; that’s why there’s “a stump” when this passage begins. 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 A).
Not a pretty picture
It’s also not a pretty picture–the stump appears beyond life and hope; Mary Hinkle Shore calls it “the result of the Almighty’s plan for clear-cutting.” We know that clear-cutting looks stark and 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 by speaking of a new shoot from that forlorn, pathetic stump (New Proclamation Year A 2007-8).
A time of total disarray
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 utters a most amazing promise, 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 Isaiah speaks 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” (Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentary).
In that great day, 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, recalling the story of the Garden of Eden. Brueggemann calls this vision “the impossible possibility of the new creation!” We are assured, he says, 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 (Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion).
A “detoxified” world: striking words when held up next to the nightly news reports about pollution, violence and climate disasters, or even the state of our political discourse today. Can we 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 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,” bringing a world that is so good “that the animal kingdom is transformed….With knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the ruler will have 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 2007-8).
So, ironically (and yet fittingly), 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, of course, 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.
Making the connection to Jesus
The lectionary gives us this particular reading on this particular day for a reason, writes Andrew H. Bartelt, to make “the Christological connection to the person and work of Jesus the 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, for “insofar as this text, with its clear messianic flavor, can be drawn upon as an illumination of Jesus,” Brueggemann writes, “it is a reminder 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).
What do we yearn for most?
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. That 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.
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?
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 even tolerate as just how things are.
These are powerful words for this Advent season, when 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.
How many more children, indeed?
It’s become normal, for example, to hear about the death toll of one mass shooting after another, the “human interest stories” of those who live and those who die, with our political leaders choosing to appear at the scene afterward, or at the funerals….but not one word of hope about doing anything meaningful to prevent such carnage in the future.
All of these victims are children of God, who have been promised better than this.
Crying out in protest
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 literally protect “the little ones” from our poisons), lawsuits over miracle drugs gone awry and statistics about opiate addiction ruining our small towns.
Remember the courageous protests at Standing Rock, in defiance of an “order” that found it acceptable to pollute the water and the sacred grounds of Native American people? A few years later, there are news reports of leaks in that pipeline that are indeed harming the land, God’s good creation and gift to us all – and to our children’s children as well. All of this is so “normal” that we forget who we are, as children of God who have been promised a future 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” (Peace).
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? What are you moving toward, and what carries you toward it? 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 our families long for? What is the “stump” that seems to sit squarely in the middle of our life together? How is God moving in your midst, drawing up from the stump a hopeful shoot, new life, new promise, new hope? What would a “detoxified” world look like? How would it feel?
Led by a child
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 (and in our hearts) the children being torn from their parents and placed in cages and holding pens at our border. We remember, too, the little boy pulled from the rubble in Aleppo, Syria, who touched the hearts of many around the world. Didn’t the image of that innocent child, rubbing his dusty eyes, have the power to inspire work for peace and the cessation of hostilities?
At the same time, we are forever haunted, stricken, by the image of the toddler whose body was washed ashore after he drowned on his desperate journey toward safety. (Sometimes, I confess, it’s hard to write these thoughts without my eyes getting blurry.)
Dare we hope?
There is much to worry about in the world (just ask any parent or grandparent). And yet, God claims the very last word 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, in that place?
Natural enemies unite!
We will 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 (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
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” (Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944).
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?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Dorothy Soelle, 20th century
“All true theology begins in pain.”
Blood-stained kindergarten leaflet with day’s prayer (when 4 girls were killed in church bombing in Atlanta in 1963)
“Dear God, we are sorry for the times we were so unkind.”
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 19th century
“Peace is always beautiful.”
Dag Hammarskjöld, 20th century
“In a dream I walked with God through the deep places of creation; past walls that receded and gates that opened through hall after hall of silence, darkness and refreshment–the dwelling place of souls acquainted with light and warmth–until, around me, was an infinity into which we all flowed together and lived anew, like the rings made by raindrops falling upon wide expanses of calm dark waters.”
Alice Walker, 21st century
“The most important question in the world is, ‘Why is the child crying?”
“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.”
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.
Give the ruler your justice,
and your righteousness
to a ruler’s heir.
May the ruler judge your people
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity
for the people,
and the hills,
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,
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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”