Isaiah 11: 1-10
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 these same old Advent texts year after year after year. But nothing could be further from the truth. There are certain poems, certain phrases from favorite books, certain pieces of music, and yes, certain passages of Scripture that inspire me every time I read them. This passage from Isaiah 11 is one of them.
My dad is preaching on this same passage today and we were discussing it the other night. He pointed out that this text isn’t as simple as it may seem. When you consider the context, the world of the first writer of Isaiah, it becomes apparent that for him peace was far more than just a set of flowery symbols. Upon a closer reading, it becomes apparent that this text is an attempt to articulate God’s promise of peace. An abiding peace. A peace that starts deep within our being and somehow finds its way into our words and actions. Isaiah’s peace is that profound, lasting, sense of shalom that so many people, myself included, are longing to find, to feel, and to extend.
So… what was Isaiah’s world like? Well, it was anything but peaceful. The Assyrian army had sliced their way through Isaiah’s 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 bce. Five times during these 40 years the Assyrian army, the vast and superior Assyrian army, advanced on the hill country of Israel leaving behind death 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, devouring everything and everyone in their path. Over and over and over, the people of Isaiah’s Judah had been ravaged. Like Syria today, 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.[i]
With this as a backdrop, one might think Isaiah would pen and long and sorrowful lament. That he would wail and tear this clothing in despair. But he didn’t. Instead the prophet spoke, saying in essence: “Even though the world has become a living nightmare, 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 humankind.” Let me say that again because it’s just as important today as it was in Isaiah’s time. “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. There’s no “maybe” in there. These images that Isaiah used are meant to inspire us, to challenge us, to motivate us, to call us to action. These are not passive words. Peace shall come!
The elephant in the room of course is the word “shall.” How far off is this “shall”? When will peace finally come? And when it does come, what will Isaiah’s peace really look like? Well, as I pondered these questions this week, my mind wandered a bit. It tends to do that. But in my wandering I thought about a missing button on my coat. It turns out that if you’re going to sew a button on your coat, there are no shortcuts. I guarantee it. You must take the thread and put it through the eye of the needle; you need to tie it, the who thing, or it simply won’t work. There are no shortcuts. Believe me, I tried all the shortcuts. I tried using tape. I tried wads of tap, masking tape, two-sided tape, everlasting tape and none of them worked. And I tried glue. That didn’t work. When I put my button through the buttonhole, it fell off. There are no shortcuts when it comes to sewing on a button. Likewise, there are no shortcuts to God’s peace.
God isn’t going to do all the heavy lifting for us. Peace is the result of hard work, trial and error, and persistence. Beginning to find this sense of peace may mean putting your ego, your pre-judgments, your need to be right… aside. Remember, the promise of God, as articulated here by Isaiah, is more powerful than the destructiveness of humankind.
Father Alfred Delp was a German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned and martyred by the Nazis in a Nazi death camp in 1945. He too was a firm believer in the power of God to overcome human destructiveness. At the time of his arrest, December 1944, Father Delp didn’t lament his situation. Instead he wrote: “Advent is the time of promise, it is not yet the time of fulfillment. 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.”[ii].
And this is where the witness of the church comes into play. Sometimes coming to the realization that peace comes through compromise and conversation and not hateful words or violence takes a kind of dying to oneself. Or at least a dying to one’s self-centered attitudes. But once that happens, as Father Delp points out, “there shines the first mild light of fulfillment.” And maybe that’s the point of all this. Maybe that’s the point of Advent. Maybe that’s why this passage from Isaiah is so inspiring.
Just before the text we’ve been looking at, Isaiah says that God has cut down all the trees. Nothing left but stumps. This is an image of the exile. But, as we’ve seen so many times, God is steadfast and faithful. And by God’s hand, a shoot arises from the dead stump. The first mild light of fulfillment creeps across the horizon. When we, as individuals or as a community of faith, reach out to someone in need, we begin to catch a glimpse of this sunrise. When we make loving God, loving our neighbor, loving our enemy, loving all of God’s people, not just those who are like us; when we love from the center of our being, the results can be amazing.
My friends, we are surrounded by all kinds of “stumps” but we can make a difference. To extend Isaiah’s image, It’s God who causes the shoot to grow, but we can nurture it. Through our loving-kindness, we can bring a smile to a long-frozen face. With our resources, we can house, feed, clothe and vaccinate a child, who, reenergized by restored health and a hearty meal, begins to run and play. We have the capacity to share the healing and wholeness that comes through a deep and committed faith, a healing faith that reaches out to an estranged person, inviting them to take that first step back into the church after years of hurt and absence. We can do this.
My dear friends, Advent is the invitation. It’s an invitation to share the love of Christ. It’s an invitation look outward beyond our own interest. It’s an invitation to be a living, breathing reflection of God’s grace. It’s an invitation to hope. It’s an invitation to peace.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Rev. Dr. Stephen R. Montgomery. Not Much but Enough for Me. A reflection on Isaiah 11. DayOne.org. 2010
[ii] Fr. Alfred Delp. Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings. Ignatius Press. 1944