One would think that the older I get, the more sermons and Bible studies I have under my belt, that the more routine, the more "been-there-done-that" response I might have to reading some of the same old texts year in and year out.
But I have found that the opposite has happened as I have gotten older. There are certain Bible texts that I can hardly read without weeping. This passage from Isaiah 11 is one of them. One would think that every Advent I would read it and realize that we're still far away from the kind of vision Isaiah is pointing to, so they're just words. But my lachrymose response is getting worse, it seems, and not better. And I think I know why.
The longer I live, the longer I am in ministry, the more deeply this particular promise of God touches me; and I think it is because I see in so many lives--and in my own life--how overwhelming is the longing for this vision, this sense of shalom.
Life is tough, and even though many of us live what might be called privileged lives, we still have to go through tough patches--those times when we are sure our lives as we know them are over for all intents and purposes. Sometimes there are terrible blows--the loss of a spouse or a child, the ending of an important relationship, a sudden pink slip, a deep betrayal, a loved one's diagnosis of...you name it...cancer, Alzheimer's, ALS. Eventually we make it through, unless we are the ones whose lives are threatened with a terminal illness or injury. But for a time, life seems impossible: The joy is gone, the relationship is gone, the loved one is gone, the way of life is gone, the sense of purpose is gone. Sometimes all at once.
And after over thirty years of serving as a pastor in local churches, I just know that though I cannot see you or know anything about those of you who are listening today, I just know that many of you have gone through that kind of anguish. I also know that there are many sorrows and burdens that I will never know even from folks in my own congregation, borne in silence, hidden in hearts, some of which I sense and pray about.
But it doesn't even have to be that kind of dramatic trauma that leads to such a deep yearning for peace and wholeness. I have such a blessed life; until my mother died this past year, she and my father enjoyed over 60 years of married life, raised four children, three of whom are ordained ministers. I have a wonderful wife (in my unbiased opinion) and two children who are healthy and happy. I also pastor a church that I know I don't deserve. I have friends and colleagues that care for me. But even with a life like that there are times, aren't there, when just getting through the day is difficult. We are so bombarded with images of violence that we feel beaten up just by living in a world which is so full of death and destruction, so denying of what we believe to be important.
Certainly, the two wars that we have been fighting for nearly a decade have had that effect on me. At our church we host and feed well over 125 homeless or working poor folks every Thursday night, and through that I have met veterans of those wars who are already on the street reminding me of the costs of war that no one seems to count. Though the mid-term political elections are now over for another two years, who can help but be tired and discouraged by the partisan bantering and fighting among those we have elected to serve us.
So in the long dark nights of Advent, the prophet's articulation of the ultimate purposes of God seem so poignant and the longing for their manifestation so deep, that these images touch our souls.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon the One [who is to come]...
...the spirit of wisdom and understanding...
...the wolf shall live with the lamb...
...the lion shall eat straw like the ox...
...and a little child shall lead them...
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
For the earth will be filled of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.
These words from Isaiah were not spoken in a moment of reverie when the beauty of the mountain brooks and the serenity of the quiet pasturelands made the prophet aware of where it was all leading. He was not watching a dazzling sunset. He was watching the dazzling swords of the great and overpowering Assyrian army as they sliced their way through his native land of Palestine, leaving nothing but a trail of blood and agony. He was living through what has been called the first holocaust of the Jews. It occurred between 740 and 700 B.C.D. Five times during these 40 years did the Assyrian army, the vast and superior Assyrian army, stampede through the hill country of Israel working terror and destruction wherever it went.
With no regard for anyone's culture, with no regard for anyone's religion, with no regard for anyone else's life, they came like a scorpion plague, devouring everything and everyone in their path. Over and over and over, the people of Isaiah's Judah had been ravaged. The horrid sounds of war were ever familiar. The cries of pain seldom ceased. Who could plant a field and have any hope that it would survive to the harvest? Who could bear a child with a confidence that it would reach maturity? It was a horrible forty years, those years in which Isaiah lived.
But the prophet spoke. "Even though the world has become a living nightmare," he was saying, "even though there is no sign anywhere that peace will ever come, even though human greed and destructiveness are running rampant across our world, hear this: THE PROMISE OF GOD IS MORE POWERFUL THAN THE DESTRUCTIVENESS OF HUMANITY! Let me say that again: The promise of God is more powerful than the destructiveness of humanity! The wolf shall dwell with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid.
These images don't make me weep because I don't believe in them. If I didn't believe in them, I could dismiss them as I have learned to dismiss the cheap promises of hucksters on infomercials or those selling "all you can eat" diets or those prosperity preachers who say the rewards of faithfulness are cascades of dollar bills flowing down. No, I don't weep because I don't believe in them, but because I do.
The same vantage point I have as a pastor amidst tragedies and losses is also a vantage point on the new life which so often comes after. Every now and then I see a little shoot of life bursting forth from a dead stump. What seemed like the end of everything worth living for is being transformed before my eyes, in little tiny ways, to be sure, even to the person it is happening to. But then, he or she does notice--and though still hurting--begins to take a step towards healing.
- A man who thought he could never risk loving again finds himself able to overcome his fear and open himself up in a new relationship.
- A woman who has always equated "security" with a spouse discovers after a broken heart that she can make a home by herself and enjoy it.
- A man who cares for his invalid wife for a number of emotionally difficult years finds after her death that he has energy for the pursuits and interests he had almost given up.
- A woman, who thought she could never enter a church again after her pastor told her to stay in an abusive relationship because "that is her cross to bear," not only enters a church, but comes alive in its worship and mission.
- A couple that tried and tried and tried to have a baby with no luck. And then tried and tried and tried to adopt, with no luck. And then there's a baby...in Peru, and then several years later another baby from Nepal. I know this first hand, my listening friends, for my son, born in Peru, is now in his second year of college. My daughter, born in Nepal, is now a senior in high school.
You get the picture. I could go on and on. Lives being lived out through these Advent days of darkness and of unexpected light, these days of endings and of unexpected beginnings, these days of death and unexpected life. And the signs of all of these are not much...a shoot out of a stump, a branch out of the roots, a step forward, a smile...not much, but they are enough for me. For every now and then, peace breaks out in a place where I never would have believed it possible. Every once in a while, the deepest, oldest wound you can imagine actually heals. Every now and then, a hatchet gets buried so thoroughly that it is never dug up again, and I have no way of accounting for any of it except to say that it must come from above, Isaiah's vision--the light, the peace, the healing, the calm.
What is it that makes us weep when we hear Isaiah's incredible images for God's purposeful future? We try to hold ourselves together with string and baling wire, keeping a stiff upper lip and carrying on. We dare not show any vulnerability. But Isaiah's words cut through all our false bravado and reveal us for what we are at our core--God's embattled children who long to be gathered up and loved and told that we are safe and that, despite the pain and the loss and the anguish of this world, there is something better coming for us, something better coming from us, if we will only keep dreaming.
And best of all, someone better coming to us--if we will only live toward a reality that so far is only promised, but which, in the power and mystery of God, is sure.
A shoot from a dead stump. A smile from a long frozen face. A step into a church after years of hurt. A little baby crying in a manger.
It's not much, is it? But it's enough for me. And I hope and pray it will be enough for you.
Let us pray. Lord, you know all too well that to be human--to be able to feel joy and delight--is also to be able to feel pain and sadness. So come to us all this Advent, O God, bringing glad tidings and good cheer, comfort and hope, for we celebrate that marvelous mystery we call incarnation--when you became one of us, born a baby, who grew up and lived and breathed, seated and cried, ate and drank, lived and died.
Through him, bring us hope, bring us joy, bring us healing and wholeness, bring us a sure refuge in the darkness as we await for something new to be born in us, something small and bright, a tiny flame that will carry us into the future. In the name of that light which sure came to save us, even Jesus the Christ, Amen.