Saturday, December 15, 2018

“A Word of Hope” - December 2, 2018

Text: Isaiah 11:1-10

Last weekend I was watching the Iowa State-Kansas State football game with our cat Harry.  We were in our man-cave downstairs.  Harry was hanging out, settled in right beside me for this game.  I hope he was pulling for the Cyclones but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was secretly rooting for K-State, who after all are the Wildcats, and that is kind of the way Harry rolls.

At any rate, we were watching the game when our dog Rudy comes along and decides he wants to watch the game as well.  So he jumps up on the couch not knowing Harry is there.  And it wasn’t pretty.  Rudy had jumped up right next to Harry, who glared at him.  Rudy got very nervous and started whimpering.  You might start whimpering too if Harry glared at you – you do not want to see his evil eye.  It can be terrifying.  So Rudy very carefully made his way around and sat on my other side – so that I was a kind of buffer between the two.

Yesterday, we watched the ISU-Drake game and it was pretty much the same routine.  They both jump on the couch, there is an altercation, except this time Harry is the one who walks away and goes to a nearby chair.  And I think I saw Rudy wagging his tail when the Bulldogs took the lead in the third quarter.

I share this story because our scripture this morning asks us to imagine a time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb.  I don’t know about you, but I find that hard to imagine.  I mean for goodness sakes, the dog and the cat can’t even lie down together in peace.

The wolf living with the lamb?
Bears grazing with cows?
Children playing around poisonous snakes?

Come on, get real.  This is not the way the world is.

But you know what, I think that is exactly the point.  This is not the way the world is.  Isaiah is calling us to have bigger imaginations, to see a reality beyond our present reality, to see a time when God’s reign becomes real.  It takes imagination to grasp the width and depth and breadth of God’s will for this world, and it takes poetry to have any chance at all of describing it.

Isaiah lived in a time of turmoil.  He was a contemporary of Micah, whom we looked at a few weeks ago.  Both were prophets in the southern kingdom of Judah.  The nation had seen a procession of mostly lousy rulers.  Corrupt kings who turned their backs on God, who had no concern for justice.  The nation was now reaping the fruits of turning from the Lord.  It was a dark time.

But in the midst of all this, Isaiah has a vision--a soaring, wonderful vision of what God would do.  Isaiah was able to see beyond the immediate moment to a bright future.  It was a powerful vision of unexpected hope.

One reason it was so unexpected was that just a few sentences before, in the previous chapter, Isaiah had described what would happen to Judah as a result of its disregard for justice and Godly action.  “The Lord of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.  He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”

The fortunes of the nation were akin to a forest that had been wiped out.  Utter devastation. 

We have seen what that looks like with the fires that have ravaged California.  Nothing is left standing. 

When a forest has been clear cut, the devastation continues to compound.  During the last years of the Ottoman Empire, in the early 20th century, with the economy in a shambles, the government raised revenue with a new tax – not on production or consumption or property or income, but on the potential for production, the possibility of added value.  There was a tree tax.  Before fruit had been harvested or lumber cut or paper milled, or even shade enjoyed, there was a tax on trees.

If you wanted to evade this tax, what would you do?  Of course, you would cut down trees.  Large swaths of trees in Palestine and Syria were clear cut.  You don’t get over that quickly.  This led to erosion and eventually to a barren landscape that would not support vegetation. 

In metaphorical terms, this is what the nation of Judah was looking at.  This came to pass as Judah was conquered by Babylon and much of the nation taken into captivity.

But this was not the last word.  Isaiah had a vision of what God would do.  Jesse was the father of King David.  “From the stump of Jesse, a shoot shall spring forth.”  Out of this apparently good-as-dead people, out of Jesse’s descendants, there would come life. 

Isaiah foresaw a ruler who would be unlike any Judah had seen:  “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD…with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

At one of its lowest moments, Isaiah saw a glorious future that God had prepared, and at the least likely time, he shared a word of hope.  We read this scripture during Advent because we are reminded that at the least likely moment, in the most unlikely way, God broke into our world, giving us hope.  And even today, in unexpected places, at unexpected times, through unexpected events and people, God breaks in, giving hope.

Now, I realize that it can be hard to take such a word of hope seriously.  These are not especially hopeful times.  And let’s face it: our culture does not value poets like Isaiah; it values realists.  Our culture says, “Wake up and smell the coffee.”  If it is real, it’s there to see, right in front of you.

Those who have dreams, those who have ideals, those who hope for something better, can be seen as naïve and overly optimistic.  Isaiah – yeah, he had some pretty words that make nice Christmas cards, but what he needed was a reality check.  This was just hype that we might expect from a prophet – after all, that was his job.

That is one view.  But there is another.  William Willimon says, “It’s odd that those of us who are still able to dream of something better than present arrangements should be considered naïve…It’s those who are adjusted to the present, who feel no restless discontent with things as they are who are simple and naïve, believing that this is the best of all possible worlds. 

There is, in fact, a reality beyond what we can see right in front of us.  There are more possibilities, more alternatives, than what we can even imagine. 

Having such hope - can be a counter-cultural act of defiance.  The conventional wisdom may be that the poor will always be with us, don’t worry about it; but it is an act of defiance to believe that things can be better, that the world can be more fair, more equitable.  The conventional wisdom may be that people of different races and ethnicities and faiths cannot peacefully coexist.  It is an act of defiance to live with and work with and befriend those who are different.  The conventional wisdom may say it’s a dog-eat-dog world, only the strong survive, you have to look out for #1.  It is an act of defiance to put other values, like compassion and love and forgiveness, ahead of simply “getting ahead.”

Anne Lamott begins her latest book with the words, “I am stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse.”  That pretty well captures the state of our world and the way many of us are feeling.  She goes on and says, “The news of late has captured the fever dream of modern life: everything exploding, burning, being shot, or crashing to the ground all around us….  There is so much going on that flattens us, that is huge, scary, or simply appalling.  We’re doomed, stunned, exhausted, and overcaffeinated.”

This is the way she begins a book on hope.  This is in the tradition of Isaiah, who describes the nation as a forest that has been decimated, and then proclaims these powerful words: “From the stump of Jesse, a shoot shall spring forth.”

When our lives are going just swimmingly, hope is not such a hot commodity.  But when we are sitting on the stump of what had been and what might have been, hope is something we separately need. 

 “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…” Who could imagine anything growing as they sat on the stump of utter despair?  Well the thing is, most all of us have sat there at one time or another.  And maybe that is where you find yourself right now - at that place where you feel cut off from hope, where loss and despair have deadened your heart.  When you are in that place, you are ready for Advent.  Advent is about hope that starts as small as a green shoot from an old stump.

Anne Lamott wrote, “I am stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse.”  But she continued, “even as I await the blossoming of paperwhites on the windowsill in the kitchen.”

Sometimes, all it takes is a small sign, a small change, an opening of light, an opportunity for a glimmer of hope to get through.  Hope and renewal and transformation begin with small steps.  With a smile, a song, a sunrise.  A word of encouragement.  An inkling of an idea.  A loving gesture.  A small step toward healing and wholeness.  It begins with a child, as the prophet says.

We have all known people whose lives have been brought low by heartbreaking loss, by overpowering addictions, by shattered dreams, by terrible disappointments.  We have all experienced this to some degree.  But the thing is, when we hit that place of devastation, when we are sitting on that stump, that is not the last word.

In this season of Advent we celebrate the hope we have in Jesus.  The hope that we have in that child who came to show us that there is no situation and no person who is beyond the reach of God’s love and grace.  The loss of a dream, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, even the loss of a life is not the last word.

I heard a story recently about a church in Nebraska, an American Baptist church.  The church had declined to the point where it really couldn’t stay open anymore.  They only had a handful of members and the bank account was running down.  But they decided to go out with a bang.  They took their remaining funds and decided to hold a big barbecue for the neighborhood, kind of like a going away party.  They dropped off flyers, invited all the neighbors, and the extended church family such as it was showed up for one last hurrah.  It was advertised as a free barbecue for the community for anybody who wanted to come.

The little group of members were surprised when quite a few of the neighbors actually showed up.  Some hadn’t really noticed the church before, or hadn’t paid much attention.  The church put on a nice feed, people visited and had a good time, a couple of people sang for a little entertainment segment.  And some of the neighbors who came wanted to make a donation to help pay for the meal. 

“Oh, no, it’s free – we’re just glad you came,” church members said.  But people insisted.  It wasn’t just one person, it was a number of people.  So they reluctantly accepted the contributions.  It turned out that they made  more in contributions than they had spent on the food.

They decided to do it again.  I mean, they wanted to spend down their remaining funds so they could close.  The next week they put on another neighborhood barbecue.  Even more people came.  Everybody seemed to enjoy themselves and again, without asking for anything, people donated and they made even more money.

And some of the neighbors asked what time the church services were.  And a few showed up.  And they kept doing neighborhood barbecues, and money and people kept coming, and more of them started coming to church.

It had looked like it was over and the church had really made a good faith effort to close down, but they failed at it.  A shoot grew from the stump of that good as dead church, and there was new life.

Isaiah not only says that a shoot shall grow from the stump of pain and loss and broken dreams.  He goes on to paint a picture of a transformed world.  He speaks of a place where there are neither predators nor prey.  And if you are still thinking lions and lambs, you are missing the bigger picture. 

Isaiah foresees a world where there are no scam artists who take advantage of seniors, no pedophiles who abuse children, no drug dealers creating young addicts.  It is a world where bullets are not used to settle disputes and where the strong do not take advantage of the weak.  There will be no ill-treatment or corruption, and the vulnerable will not be in danger.  Those on the margins will be welcomed and included.  And the prophet says, a little child will lead them.

In this season we look to that child born in Bethlehem.  The one who came to bring hope and show us a different way of living.  The one who came to proclaim life even in the face of loss and death.

The vision may seem far-fetched.  It certainly runs against the way things are looking right now.  But you know what?  I’m betting on the child.  Amen.

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