I am grateful for this season of advent.
When all around we hear “buy, more, now” and “cook, bake, eat”
it is a relief to come to church and hear “wake, wait, watch.”
It is not that here we are asked to be selfish.
It is not that we are encouraged to be inactive.
It is that this season in worship, in this place of simple beauty,
we are given space to look around, listen, observe,
be alert – rather than numb ourselves with more activity.
Advent invites us to wake, wait, watch for signs of the kindom,
right here, right now, right in front of us.
Advent is a time to practice so that we recognize the coming of the holy,
even when it comes in the strange form of a baby
born to traveling parents without a place to sleep.
So, let us sit with these texts from Isaiah and Matthew, awake, waiting and watching, as we try to make some sense of them. (I invite you to check the pew bible for these texts. It’s page 558 for the Isaiah and page 784 for the Matthew. And of course there is the phone app.)
I notice that in Isaiah there is a stump, the stump of Jesse. It has that, sometimes annoying, characteristic of other stumps. When you cut it down, a shoot grows out of it. Whether you like it or not, the roots go down deep and chopping off the trunk doesn’t necessarily mean that the tree is dead and gone.
I notice in Matthew that John the Baptist says, “Even now, the ax is laid at the root of the tree. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” This sounds like a threat from John the B. Does he know that even if the tree is cut down near the root, it might send out a shoot?
I notice that Isaiah describes a time, it seems so far off, when babies and toddlers will play right next to the holes of snakes.
I notice that John the B angrily calls the religious leaders a “brood of vipers.” In a mixing of metaphors, John calls the religious leaders vipers and tells them to be like trees and “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
I notice that Isaiah anthropomorphizes this shoot that grows out of the stump. The shoot becomes a person, a person that is powerful, but not with a sword. You shall strike the earth with the rod of your mouth, and with the breath of your lips shall kill the wicked. When we tell our children to “use your words,” is this what we have in mind?
I notice that John the B says that he comes with water to baptize and that the one coming after will baptize with water and fire. What is this fire that burns away the chaff? Is it “unquenchable” even by baptismal waters?
I notice that in the NRSV version of Isaiah 11, the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests is someone else, a mysterious “him.” But in the inclusive language version which was read, this one upon whom the Spirit rests is “you.” You will delight in obeying YHWH And you won’t judge by appearances, Or make decisions by hearsay. You will treat people with fairness. Is that “you” the people of Israel? the future ruler? Is that me? is it you? Are we all called to use our words, dress with a belt of justice and gird ourselves with faithfulness?
The first part of the Isaiah passage describes the political changes that will happen in this time, the time we all long for, a time when leadership will exhibit the gifts of the Spirit. The person will have wisdom and understanding, be strong and yet willing to receive counsel, be knowledgeable and yet humble enough to revere God. The description of this kind of leader is too good to be true. It is a vision of leadership that we still wait for, that we long for. This is a Messiah, a Savior, it certainly sounds beyond human. Though Jesus came 2000 years ago, now we wait again, along with our Jewish friends, for this kind of Messiah to appear in the here and now. Will we recognize it?
The second part of the vision, the description of a wolf and lamb together, cow and bear communing, lion eating hay, this is a picture of power so neutralized that even a child can lead these wild, carnivorous animals around. It is a hyperbolic hope, this illustration of the reign of God. Yet we hang on to it, for its poetic beauty and because of the possibility, however remote, that we might catch a glimpse of a small portent.
In this season, we are called to wait and watch and witness those small hints of what is to come, signs of strange things, impossible happenings. In our current cultural and political context, it is more important than ever to be awake, to wait and watch for the ways that the reign of God is coming into the world.
It may be as simple as what I observed this week: a plane load of people in Lincoln, Nebraska being removed from the plane because of a computer malfunction. No one yells or raises their voice. As remarkable as a baby not crying when delayed at the airport for two hours at bedtime. Who could imagine that an 8-month-old could learn to crawl on the carpet while his single mom tries to reschedule a cross country flight – and they both (mostly) smile? These shoots from the stump must be grow from roots of patience and love.
Or maybe the reign of God is complicated like the emergency call that went out to a few folks in the congregation this week. Last February some people from this congregation made a meal for four Afghan families who had recently been resettled in this area. Three of the families have moved away. But one family is still here and has become friends with some members of the congregation.
Because of complicated circumstances that I do not know, the family of three had to move out of their apartment at the end of November and did not have another apartment lined up until January. An HMC member reached out to several people to see if we had any ideas of places to house this family temporarily. Within a few hours, another member had graciously opened her home to the family for ten days, though in the end the daily found another option. Deep roots of hospitality and justice create shoots that grow into fruits of risk taking and compassion.
Or maybe we catch a glimpse of the reign of God in the thousands of US military veterans going to Standing Rock, in the frigid North Dakota winter, wearing their uniforms but bearing no arms.
Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, a contingent of more than 2,000 U.S. military veterans, intends to reach North Dakota by this weekend and form a human wall in front of police. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-north-dakota-pipeline-idUSKBN13Q53Y
“We want to offer them a moment of peace and, if we can, take a little bit of pressure off,” said Ashleigh Jennifer Parker, a Coast Guard veteran and spokeswoman for Veterans Stand for Standing Rock.
“We will be unarmed, completely prepared for peaceful protest,” (Parker said.) “We don’t even like the word ‘protest.’ We’re there to help the water protectors,” she said, referring to the phrase that has come to describe the protesters.
Matthew Crane, a 32-year-old Navy veteran (who arrived three days ago,) said the veterans joining the protest were “standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi” with the their plans to shield protesters. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-north-dakota-pipeline-idUSKBN13Q53Y
Really? Veterans standing with Native American water protectors and likening themselves to Dr. King and Gandhi? That is a shoot coming from a tree with roots I would never have imagined.
It would be nice to tell only these hopeful stories, alert for the good signs. And yet, as Dominique Chew writes in The Mennonite, (December 2016) there are also those who, when waiting, “consider time a weapon, a sharp weapon used against them. Let us not forget that the people of Bethlehem and Jerusalem are living under occupation – just as Christ lived under occupation. For them, waiting is a matter of fear and psychological abuse by their occupiers. In our time of waiting this Advent season, let us remember the families of those killed by police, waiting for justice. Let us remember the egregious number of families of those wrongfully incarcerated who have waited and continue to wait to be with their loved ones. Let us remember immigrants and refugees who long (and wait) for home and hope and comfort and acceptance.”
Wake, wait, watch. We are invited to catch glimpses of the reign of God, but that is not all. John the B is very clear that it is not enough to pride ourselves on the claim ‘Sarah and Abraham are our parents.’ I tell you, God can raise children for Sarah and Abraham from these very stones! (from these very military veterans!)
We wait and watch so that we can respond. All of us are invited to be part of Isaiah’s vision, to claim it for our own and to live into it in real and concrete ways. Maybe some of us are called to respond by naming the reality we observe. We can testify and speak up not only about the wrong that we see but also about the impossible breaking in of God. In this way we not only name, we amplify and spread the news of possibility and hope.
Some of us are called not only to speak the vision but to be part of helping this extraordinary vision begin to be implemented, in places where it seems most improbable – at Standing Rock, or on public transportation when someone is being harassed, in school when unkind words are spoken, finding a point of connection with someone we know disagree with, letting someone else have the last word.
In a time when dystopian movies, books and games flood the market, it is countercultural to claim a vision like Isaiah’s, where tyrants are struck down by words, lions are led by children and people flock to the mountain where peace is proclaimed and lived out. How impossible.
Wake. Wait. Watch for shoots from that stump of Jesse.