Saturday, January 22, 2022

“A Righteous Branch” - December 5, 2021

Text: Isaiah 11:1-9


As teams went through the handshake line after a high school basketball game, a player on the opposing team sucker punched a Nevada player, hitting him in the abdomen and then the jaw and briefly knocking him out.  That student is facing felony charges.  The incident was widely reported on the local news and found its way to national media.  The video has been downloaded millions of times.  The very next night, there was an altercation after players shook hands at another Iowa high school basketball game.  Thankfully no one was injured or arrested at that game.

It is sad, but in a way those incidents are a commentary on the state of our society and really the state of our world right now.  We do not know how to deal with conflict in constructive ways.  We can have trouble dealing with differences.  This is by no means a high school phenomenon; our children learn what has been modeled for them, and this is what they see every day.  Hatred and division and violence are more or less in the air we breathe.  

The traditional theme for this second Sunday of Advent is peace.  We recall the angel’s song: “Peace on earth, goodwill to all people.”  How we long for that – for our children, for our community, for our schools, for our nation, for our world.  For ourselves.
In the chapter preceding our reading for today, Isaiah writes, “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 nation of Judah had seen a procession of mostly lousy rulers.  Corrupt kings who turned their backs on God, who had no concern for justice, and now the nation was now reaping the fruits of turning from the Lord.  It was a dark time.  The people were in captivity in Babylon, and the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.  Judah was like a forest that had been clear cut.  It is the stump of Jesse.  How is that for a national identity?  Jesse was the father of King David, and this is what his progeny had come to.  This is what the nation had become - just a stump of a tree in a once proud forest.

We were at my mom’s over Thanksgiving.  Whenever I am there I try to do some projects.  Painting or repair or yard work or whatever needs done.  Back in July, she had a lilac bush, a huge thing that had got to the point where it was about 1/3 lilac, 1/3 invasive vine, and 2/3 I don’t know what.  I know that adds up to more than 3/3, but that is what it looked like.  It was a mess.  It was beyond saving, so we got the loppers and a chain saw and got after it.

So we were there at Thanksgiving and guess what?  There was all kinds of new growth from that stump.  There were shoots from the stump of what had been.

The nation was like a stump of a tree, a stump of what had been, a mere shadow of its former self – but that was not the end of the story.  A branch shall grow from the roots.  And now the prophet is speaking more of a person, saying that the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding and counsel and might.     

This is one who will turn things around.  With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek.  Those who have no standing, no say, no power, no influence shall find a friend in this coming one.  
And then there is this amazing passage that we know as the peaceable kingdom.  It is an image of those thought of as predator and prey living in peace.

I was taking our dog Rudy for a walk last week.  Rudy is not a big dog - he is about the same size as our cat Harry.  We are walking along when suddenly this big dog – I mean a huge dog – comes running straight at us from across the street.  He is really moving and he is going right for Rudy.  I was afraid he would attack Rudy and so I tried to get between them, and I was a little afraid he would go for me.  I yelled at this dog and he backed off just a bit, and then a woman was yelling from across the street.  “Rudy!  Rudy!  Get back over here!”  It turned out that the big dog was also named Rudy.  She was training him, she said, but it appeared that Rudy had a ways to go in his training.

I share this because according to our scripture, the results of this shoot from the stump of Jesse, this righteous branch, this coming ruler who would be filled with the Spirit of the Lord, filled with wisdom and understanding and faithfulness - the result of his coming would be peace.  

The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear – they would lie down together in peace.  Lions would become vegans.  And there would no longer be predators and prey.

This is a bit hard to imagine, because in my experience, it is hard enough just for dogs to get along with other dogs.  And don’t even get me started on cats.

You have probably seen some of these videos on social media – where a mother tiger at the zoo adopts some orphaned piglets, or a Great Dane mother dog nurses some abandoned raccoon babies.  Or a young deer becomes friends with the family pit bull and stops by at the same time every day so they can frolic in the yard for awhile.  

These kinds of stories are sweet and endearing, but they can also serve to distract us from the really big issue: what about people?  The nation of Israel had been the prey, the Assyrians were the predator.  Now Judah was the prey and the Babylonians the predator.  Would things ever be different?   

We look throughout history and there have always been those who prey on others, who manipulate and cheat and abuse and take advantage of other people, other groups, other nations.  

Our scripture this morning asks us to imagine a time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the cow and bear shall graze together.  And we find that hard to imagine.  

Lions eating straw?  Children playing with poisonous snakes?  Come on.  This is not the way the world is.

And 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 breadth and depth 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.  A time when hope was in short supply.  But in the midst of all this, Isaiah has this soaring, wonderful vision of what God would do.  It was a powerful vision of unexpected hope.  And if there was anything the people wanted and longed for, anything they hoped for, it was peace.

This theme keeps occurring in Isaiah.  A vison of turning swords into plowshares.  Of studying war no more.  Last week we read of boots and bloody garments burned as fuel for the fire.  Garments of war were no longer needed.  

At one of its lowest moments, Isaiah saw a glorious future that God had prepared, and at the least likely time, he shared a vision of peace.  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.  And even today, in unexpected places, at unexpected times, through unexpected events and people, God breaks in, bringing peace where there is no peace.

To have such hopes for peace may seem naïve and even silly given the world we live in.  But seen another way, having such dreams and visions can be a counter-cultural act of defiance.  

The conventional wisdom may be that the poor may 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 family and making a real difference, ahead of simply “getting ahead.”

Isaiah 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.    

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.

As hard as it may be to imagine peace in our world, it may be just as hard to imagine it in our own hearts.  After many months of a pandemic that goes on and on, many months of exhaustion and anxiety and uncertainty and terrible loss, and with all of the heartaches and setbacks of life that we have to face, how we long for peace.  

How we long for the peace of Christ, a peace that passes all understanding.  How we long for the Prince of Peace to bring peace to our world and peace to our hearts.  How we long for there to be peace on earth and goodwill toward all people.

Such hoping and such longing may seem naïve.  But we remember that green shoot rising from a stump.  And we remember that child who came to bring peace.  Amen.  

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