(a sermon for December 8, 2019, the 2nd Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Romans 15:4-13)
Along the edge of our backyard at the parsonage is a fairly straight row of four or five very small pine trees.
Now, I don’t know if those trees had been intentionally planted there, either by our neighbor or perhaps one of the previous residents of our home, or if they’re there simply by virtue of nature’s own gracious silviculture; but I have to tell you that those little pine trees have long been an endless source of fascination for me. For you see, when we moved in to the parsonage seven-plus years ago now, those pine trees were just the tiniest of saplings barely poking out of the soil; and I’ve been watching them grow ever since.
And the thing is, by my reckoning not a single one of those trees should even exist, much less continue, as it has, to grow taller and stronger from year to year! To begin with, the soil isn’t all that great out there, and that particular spot doesn’t get a whole lot of sunshine; we’re barely able to make grass grow because it’s usually overrun by moss, not to mention surrounded by a fair number of other trees and the random incursion of an invasive plant species. Moreover, whenever it rains to excess around here, especially when snow melts in the spring, that whole area floods quickly and easily; and I can personally vouch for the fact that over the years those trees have, however unintentionally, have nonetheless pretty much been mowed, raked and leaf-blown to within an inch of their very lives! Simply put, there’s not a single reason that any of those little pine trees should even have survived (!) this long given everything they’ve been through; but in fact, they’ve thrived and much to my surprise little by little they just keep right on growing! And yes, I must confess here that I do find myself wondering what those trees might look like in another, say, 10 or 20 or even 50 years or so; because if those trees are growing this well now even as they’ve been forced push their way through all manner of environmental adversity, just imagine how tall and strong they’re going to be when in fullness they become all that God has created them to be… I mean, life being what it is I might not see it come to pass, but someone will; and when it happens, won’t it be amazing?
I’ve been reminded of those pine trees this week as I’ve been thinking about that opening verse of our Old Testament text for this morning from the 11th chapter of Isaiah, one that’s often heard especially in these days of Advent: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.”
On the face of it, it’s an image not unfamiliar to those of us who dwell in this part of the world: a tiny seedling pushing out into the sunlight through the twisted rubble of blown down trees out deep in the woods; or else winding in and out of the crevices of old stone fences and glacial rocks. Isaiah’s image of a green shoot sprouting out of an old, dead tree stump paints a perfect picture of life defiantly carrying on amidst all manner of adversity; it represents the good news of a promise made and how that promise will be, in due season, fulfilled. But as Isaiah puts forth the vision, that’s only the beginning: Isaiah then continues on with all those beautiful and oh, so familiar images of wolves living with lambs, bears and cows eating side by side, “the calf and the lion and the fatling together, [with] a little child [leading] them;” the same child, presumably, who now can safely play around venomous snakes!
This is the vision that’s long been referred to as “the peaceable kingdom” and it’s the stuff of many a Christmas card; but let’s be honest here: as we understand “nature’s way,” friends, it’s also a pretty unlikely vision! Let’s face it: in this real world in which we live predators and prey generally do not co-exist all that well, lions are anything but vegetarian, and by and large there’s no toddler who has ever or would ever be allowed to “play over the hole of the asp.” To quote the Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor and blogger out of Illinois, the truth is that in Isaiah’s vision, “the stakes are too high. The consequence too great. It is in the very nature of the snake to strike, the wolf to feast, the lion to enjoy a regular meal of red meat… like it or not, it is the natural order of things for the menagerie Isaiah describes.” It’s one thing, after all, to suggest that there might be a fresh branch or two growing out of a composting stump, bringing forth at least a modicum of hope amidst adversity; but a world where life should utterly prevail against every possible peril, to say nothing of a triumph over that so-call “natural order of things” that regularly seems work against its very survival? To live in a world so radically upended that love and care is the first order of all things…
…well, that’s just… that’s just… the Gospel (!)… which, by the very definition of the word, is good news, indeed.
Or, as it’s expressed in the words of the song, “Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace.”
Actually, there’s much more to this vision of a “peaceable kingdom” than just the idea of lions and lambs sharing the same living space; and it begins with realizing that just prior to where we started reading this morning, we’re told that God, with “terrifying power” will have cut down the tallest of trees and that “the lofty will be brought low.” (10:33) “He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax,” says Isaiah, “and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.” So immediately there’s some context for the kind of natural growth that’s described in what we’ve read today; but there’s even more happening there than just that.
Historically speaking, you see, the nation of Israel had already been split into two kingdoms; the northern kingdom, which had been captured by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom of Judah which had been defeated by the Babylonians with the people taken into captivity. For the most part, both Israel and Judah were now being led by ineffective and often corrupt leaders; any sense of equity or justice (if you could even call it that) was selective and arbitrary at best; and there was little conviction toward personal righteousness, nor any commitment to their faith or of worship, for the people had often and repeatedly turned from the Lord. It was for God’s people a time in which there was no true awareness of God’s shalom, that is, the whole peace of God (and by that we’re not merely referring to the absence of war but also the wholeness of life and living – health, prosperity, companionship, joy, and on and on – all of which is borne out of a deeper relationship with God. So without that it’s most certainly a time of hopelessness and deep despair… and yet it’s in the very midst of this agony – with the nation of Judah left in ruins, the land and forests devastated and gone – that Isaiah’s vision is proclaimed: this soaring, wonderful vision of what God was about to do; a sure and certain promise of a bright future and of true peace.
And it’s a promise that starts with a ruler: one on whom “the spirit of the LORD shall rest,” and one who will most certainly be of the house and lineage of King David. He will have “the spirit of wisdom and understanding… of counsel and might… of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” “With righteousness he shall judge the poor.” As The Message goes on to translate it, “He’ll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth’s poor with justice…” – and I love this – “…each morning he’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” He will be Israel’s true Messiah – the one who, as Isaiah reports elsewhere, shall be named “Immanuel,” (7:14) which means “God with us” – who alone will be the one who is able to bring forth this “impossible possibility” of a peaceable kingdom to the world. In him, says Isaiah, this vision of “the earth [being] full of the knowledge of the Lord” will in due season become reality.
What we’re told here, you see, what we’re promised, is that in the end life… and true peace… will prevail.
Of course, we’re still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled… but then, I didn’t need to tell you that, did I? The fact is that you and I live in a world that’s far removed from the vision of a peaceable kingdom, and in a time where on any given day, there’s news of yet another shooting, another act of terror, another episode of abuse and degradation, another example of neglect for the least and lowest in the world, and yet another instance of those who would employ the rhetoric of love only to justify attitudes and behaviors that are rife with anger and hatred. Isaiah’s vision of the world dwelling in a true and living knowledge of the Lord remains as hopeful as it is glorious, but the sad truth is that it just doesn’t exist in our reality; or at least not yet.
But then that’s kind of the point of this advent season, isn’t it: an understanding – a lamentation, if you will — that all that we hope for in this world hasn’t happened… yet… but nonetheless continuing our hope-filled proclamation that it will in due season, because the Lord has promised it will be so. And so we wait and watch and get ready for its coming.
This is what makes us “advent people,” beloved; this inner knowledge that the reality we are experiencing all around us is not the final reality of things. I’m reminded here of a wonderful piece from a few years back written for the Christmas season by Garrison Keillor, in which he lamented the sorry state of the world but then added that faith was now more important than ever. “What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time?” Keillor asked. “When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect… to walk on fences and sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing they hear is not the last word.”
I love that; because as “advent people,” we faithfully affirm that the current reality we see and hear around us – all the tragic woofing of warfare, hatred and rampant injustice – is not the last word, but rather we proclaim, boldly and joyfully, that the final word belongs to God in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who has truly taught us to love one another, the one whose law is love, and whose gospel is peace. It’s also a reminder to us, I think – as we heard in our Epistle reading this morning, from Romans – that since “by steadfastness and the encouragement of scriptures we… have hope,” it follows that we should live out of that same kind of steadfastness and encouragement, living “in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, if his law is love and his gospel peace, so it should also be ours as well: seeking to live our lives with the spirit of true wisdom and understanding; letting the decisions we make for ourselves and our world be girded with the benefit of good counsel and loving strength; and letting ou first priority be that we welcome one another – no matter who that “other” happens to be – as we ourselves have been welcomed: peaceably, with all the wholeness of God’s peace and of his grace, and ever and always after the manner of a child.
In one sense, I suppose, it might seem like kind of an inconsequential effort when measured against the overwhelming nature of the world’s realities. Then again, as we’re already noticed in the advent candles, every newly lit candle adds just that m 2019 uch more light into the room. Likewise, as you and I seek in anticipation of Christ’s coming to live unto his gospel of peace, suddenly we begin to experience how the old realities give way to a new and living vision, a marvelous and miraculous foretaste of how the future will be by God’s promise and plan. That makes all the difference as we move forward, beloved, because then we will be living “as if” it’s already come to pass… until that blessed moment of triumph when it does!
And that… will be amazing!
So, as our Advent waiting continues and we keeping making our way, ever closer, to the Holy Night of Bethlehem, let our prayer be the same as that which himself prayed as a blessing unto the Christians at Rome, “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.”
And, always, may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry