Sermon for the second Sunday of Advent
As we make the move more deeply into this season of Advent, the lectionary gives us two strong voices; the prophet Isaiah and that wild figure of John the Baptist. Out in the desert dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt, and eating a diet of locusts and wild honey, his very presence was meant to recall for his audience the prophets of old. And as soon as he opened his mouth and proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” that prophetic identity as a tough edged truth-teller was even more in evidence. When some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to receive his symbolic baptism of repentance, he accused them of being a “brood of vipers.” “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he demands of them “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Its all pretty uncompromising language, reflecting John’s clear expectation that the world as it had been known was about to get tipped on its head, and that anyone who did not have their life in order would not be prepared for the coming age.
We will bump up against John the Baptist again in next Sunday’s readings, and listen as he wonders if in fact he’d been right in believing that Jesus was the “one who is to come,” so for this week all I’d want to observe is how different his tone is from that of the prophet Isaiah. Not that Isaiah doesn’t also offer some pretty strong words in this passage— “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,” Isaiah writes, “and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Yet those words are set in the midst of a song in which he keeps striking chords that evoke not fear, but a deep and exuberant hopefulness.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse /and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” When Isaiah first offered this image, his intended audience had very little reason to be hopeful. The united Israel of David’s time had long been split in two; the Northern Kingdom annexed to the Assyrian empire, while the Southern Kingdom was maintaining a very unstable existence as a vassal state. The glory days of David seemed so very distant, and the present day so precarious. Not only that, but according to the prophets this was all connected to Israel’s failure to remember the covenant. The collapse of the Northern Kingdom and the political fragility of the South, those prophets said, were the consequences of the nation forgetting their fundamental identity as the covenant people of God. The existence of poverty and injustice in the land were not the problem; they were a symptom of the problem, namely that the nation had lost its way and was no longer living in faithful relationship with God.
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,” sings the prophet, “A branch shall grow out of his roots.” Out of what looks like the dead stump of a felled tree, new growth will come. Now it is entirely likely that when Isaiah first proclaimed those words, he was dreaming of a new heir to the royal line of David: a king under whom Israel would be re-imagined and reclaimed as God’s people; a figure filled with wisdom and knowledge, and one who with righteousness and equity would offer new judgments on behalf of the meek and the poor.
As Isaiah continues to sing, he uses increasingly audacious imagery to describe how life would be under that king.
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.
He gives us a grazing bear, a lion that eats straw like an ox, and children safely playing by the dens of venomous snakes. “The poem,” says Walter Brueggemann, “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.” The imagined transformation, Brueggemann continues, “is vastly public and intimately personal.” It is among other things a deeply political vision, of a politics that will transform the lot of the poor and vulnerable by way of righteous judgments rendered by one on whom the spirit of the Lord rests. And it will transform the lives of the wealthy and the privileged, by calling them back to covenant accountability. Those who have profited at the expense of the poor and vulnerable will need to set that right, or they will find themselves outside of this new kingdom. “It is of course not possible,” Brueggemann comments. It is not possible, “except that the sprout comes from the stump by the spirit!”
I hardly need to remind you that in the Christian interpretive tradition, a connection is made between this image of the shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse and the birth of Christ. Or perhaps more accurately, between all of the promise and hope of which Isaiah sings here and the culmination of all of time and history in the promise of Christ’s final Advent. For the wolf and the lamb do not yet live peaceably, and the leopard has not lain down with the kid. We have seen glimmers of it from time to time, something like sacramental foretastes in which something happens this side of history’s culmination that speaks of such a possibility. I think, for instance, of a story told us by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove when he preached here a couple of years ago. Along with his wife and other companions, in 2003 Jonathan was in Iraq with a Christian Peacemaker team when the bombs fell. The next day as they made their way out of Bagdad and toward the border, one of their cars was in an accident and one of their group quite seriously injured. A car of Iraqis stopped to help, and took the injured person to the hospital in the nearby town of Rutba. There the Iraqi doctor told Jonathan and his friends, “Yesterday your county bombed us, but today we will help your friend.” Refusing any payment, the doctor asked only that the group go home and tell the story of what they had seen and experienced. In the midst of a complex political and military crisis, a foretaste of a deeper peace.
But truly there is no peace on earth, and judgments of righteousness are not often rendered on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. These Advent longings point us far beyond the story of Christmas, and to forget that is to render our talk of “peace on earth, good will to all” very thin indeed. I think that is why the traditional practice of observing St Stephen’s Day on December 26 was so very wise. On the first day of Christmas, the church was called to celebrate Christ’s birth; on the second day, as the story of the first Christian martyr is told, it was called to consider the cost of that birth, and to confront the reality that the lamb and the lion have yet to lie down together.
That’s why Advent is such an important counter-practice in a society quite drunk with its own particular version of Christmas. Yes, we will raise our glasses, sing our carols, and feast at Christmas when it comes. That’s good and right. In the meantime, though, our call is to wait expectantly, wakefully, and with hands open to this basic claim: God is not finished with us; there is a horizon to which the whole of creation is being drawn.
Who can believe that? “It is of course not possible,” as Brueggemann said of Isaiah’s vision. It is not possible… except. Except that we say it will only comes by God’s work, and not by our fumbling attempts at creating a good society and a peaceable world. Still, those fumbling attempts are not unimportant, for like the hospitability and kindness of that Muslim doctor in Rutba, they can speak powerfully of that other, deeper vision of how things should be… how things shall be, as again God brings life out of the root of the Jesse Tree.