Sermon for the second Sunday of Advent
In 1954, the French sociologist and theological writer Jacques Ellul published the first French edition of his highly influential book, The Technological Society. In Ellul’s view, technology did not serve humanity by making our lives better, but rather technology was shaping us and in an increasingly technological society it was all but determining our future. At the heart of his argument was the thesis that once a technology is developed it will be used; that once plastic is invented, for instance, it will be used—and used and used—in spite of the fact that it poses enormous issues in the environment. In both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans there currently exist large floating “islands” of plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris. Recent research sponsored by the National Science Foundation suggests the area of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is roughly twice the size of Hawaii. Ellul would say, yes of course that has happened; once a technology is developed, it will be used.
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Recent statistics on abortion in New York City suggest that two out of every five pregnancies in that city are voluntarily terminated. Two in five. Ellul would only comment that we should not find this surprising, because once a technology is developed it will not only be used, but it will also change a society’s norms.
Yet what Jacques Ellul really had in view was the development of nuclear weapons. The English edition of the book was published in 1964, in the midst of the Cold War, just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and at a time when full-scale nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States was an all too real possibility. This was the era when school children were taught to “duck and cover” under their desks in case of a nuclear attack, and in which the school were I attended kindergarten actually had a bomb shelter.
In his preface to the Revised American Edition of The Technological Society, Ellul suggested that he was “in the position of a physician who must diagnose a disease and guess its probable course, but who recognizes that God may work a miracle;” that given that he was offering a sociological analysis of the state of our world, a divine intervention had to be bracketed off. And yet, he wrote, “If God decides to intervene, man’s freedom may be saved by a change in the direction of history or in the nature of man.” This is the one note of hope in his otherwise bleak and sobering book. “If God decides to intervene.”
Tonight we heard read aloud one of the oracles or proclamations of the prophet Isaiah, which began “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” What we didn’t hear was the material immediately preceding this image of new life springing up from an apparently dead stump; material which Walter Brueggemann suggest “leaves the listener gasping” in its picture of hopelessness and devastation. The united Israel of the great King David had long been split in two, and now during Isaiah’s time the Northern Kingdom was annexed to the Assyrian empire, while the Southern Kingdom centered in Jerusalem was maintaining a very unstable existence as a vassal state. With the glory days of David an increasingly faint memory, it was hard to see much of a future. Not only that, but in Isaiah’s view Jerusalem was as good as destroyed already; it would fall into ruin, because at heart the nation, its great city, its rulers and its religious practices were in a state of spiritual ruin already. In the verses immediately preceding what we heard read aloud this evening, Isaiah is at least as bleak and unrelentingly critical as was Jacques Ellul in his time.
And then this: “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Out of what seems to be a dead stump will come a new shoot, a new branch, a new tree. Out of Jesse’s line, in fact… Jesse being the father of King David and thus the “root” from which the royal household had originally come. For all of the hopes and dreams that had been attached to David, his dynasty had failed, and failed badly. Yet here the prophet envisions God going into the midst of that failure—going to the lifeless stump—and bringing from it new hopes and new dreams. “[W]ith righteousness this king shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”; things that David himself never quite managed to do. But now with this promised one, “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”
At this point Isaiah makes a remarkable move, and begins to sing not only of the promise of a restored people and society, but of creation itself being transformed.
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.
It goes on for several more verses, and ends with images of children playing near the entrance to the snake’s den, and yet not being harmed; images which should strike the parents of young children as being both poignant and a bit startling.
Why this shift into speaking of the created order? Partly, suggests Walter Brueggemann, because “the Bible knew… that adversarial human transactions foul the nest for all creatures.” “The poem is about deep, radical, limitless transformation in which we—like lion, wolf, and leopard—will have no hunger for injury, no need to devour, no yearning for brutal control, no passion for domination.”
“On that day,” Isaiah continues, “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” For all peoples, all nations… no more us and them, no more insiders and outsiders, no more divisions born of fear or of the need for domination.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” and we believe that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth it actually did. We believe that the birth in Bethlehem changed everything, and yet we must also confess that there is much that seems as of yet unchanged. We believe that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s “new thing” was definitively inaugurated; yet we confess that can only long for its completion. With Jacques Ellul we have to admit that so much of what humanity creates on its own steam and according to its own categories, divisions, wants and desires will turn around on us; a beast bigger and more powerful than we’d imagined possible. And with Ellul we must confess that in the end it can only be God’s intervention—God’s great and merciful gift—that can save us from ourselves.
Yet if that emphasis on God’s intervention begins to sound as if we can do nothing about the state of our world, consider these observations from the closing pages of Chris Hedges book Empire of Illusion; a book which is in many ways as troubling as that of Ellul. “I am not naïve about violence, tyranny, and war,” Hedges writes.
I have seen enough of human cruelty. But I have also seen in conflict after conflict that we underestimate the power of love, the power of a Salvadorian archbishop, even though he was assassinated, to defy the killing, the power of a mayor in a small Balkan village to halt the attacks on his Muslim neighbors. These champions of the sacred, even long after they are gone, become invisible witnesses to those who follow, condemning through their courage their own executioners. They may be few in number but their voices ripple outward over time.
These are the ones who dare to live now according to the promises and hopes of a fulfilled future. And in so living, they become now a part of God’s promised intervention. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” and some days I think it can’t come soon enough. But like Isaiah, like John the Baptist, and like the countless poets, prophets and peacemakers from across the ages, I’ll keep on singing. We must keep on singing, because we’ve been given a hope-filled and imaginative song, and to do otherwise is to either blithely fail to read the signs of the times or to capitulate to a bleak hopelessness.
Advent is the time to sing.