Isaiah 11: 1-10
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 4, 2016
Maybe this has already occurred to you before, but that shoot that grows out from the stump of Jesse means that there used to be a tree there. In fact, there was a whole forest. God did a bit of clear cutting in the previous chapter of Isaiah: “Look, the Sovereign, 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. [God] will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”
Things look as though they are at their worst. We’ve seen photos, maybe we’ve even flown over an area that’s been clear-cut and it’s ugly, barren; how can anything good come from such devastation? And yet from the stump of the family tree of Jesse, the father of King David, there shall come forth a shoot, a tiny twig. And from this twig, from this small sign of hope will grow the peaceful kingdom, God’s Beloved Community.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God’s people are reassured that what they are seeing is only part of what is happening. God’s people are a remnant of what they used to be. They are descendants of exiles and captives and slaves—survivors. The Assyrians have laid waste to their home Israel and thus stolen their joy at their return. Imagine coming home to Aleppo or Mosul, Hiroshima or Nagasaki. All they can see is desolate wasteland. And yet God says to this remnant that from this weak, vulnerable people will come a leader unlike any other. And with this leader will come peace—the peace that was envisioned in the garden of Eden is still intended for God’s people.
But it won’t be easy, this peace. Predator will lie down with prey. Which means the predator will have to give up its privilege of power. And the prey will have to give up its self-preserving fear. Guess which one has to move first? Which camp do you suppose we’re in?
To a certain extent, most of us have a foot in both. We benefit from a system that rewards the powerful and keeps the weak in their place. And yet with one lost job combined with a healthcare crisis or loss of savings, we can become prey to that system. Most of us have white privilege, straight privilege, class privilege, able-bodied privilege, education privilege, even religious privilege, and with those privileges comes the ability to navigate that system with more ease than most. Those who don’t have those privileges call them human rights: the right to marry who you love, the right to healthcare, the right to a decent education, the right to move about our society without barriers, the right to a living wage, the right to worship freely, to be treated like any other human being no matter who you are.
It’s hard for those of us with privilege to imagine what it must be like to have an identity shaped by what others deem as less than, outside, or even antithetical to the norm. How many of us would trade places with a transgender person? Or a Muslim lesbian? Or a person of color? Or an illegal immigrant? Or someone in a wheelchair or an invisible disability? God’s reassurance that this weak, vulnerable reality isn’t all there is, is easier for a person of privilege to hear than for someone who needs to see a safety pin to know they can trust someone. We who can navigate the system can transcend our perception of it. How does someone who, over generations, continues to be trapped, wounded, scarred, often killed by that system change their perception of it?
God has been telling us for millennia that if liberation from this system called empire is going to happen, we’re going to have to disarm, disestablish, disempower ourselves, as well as give up our self-preserving fear. If we’re going to have peace, the peace of the privileged will be not only disturbed but disrupted. The peace of the privileged looks like security, safety, insurance, a wall, lines drawn, a pipeline, a heavy defense, a well-constructed bubble. We have made peace with what does not bring true peace. There can be no peace without justice. And so we have Mary who sings of bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty; John the Baptist proclaiming that every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low, so that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
This recent election has served to reinforce those who are another kind of predator and expose those who are their prey to further insult, injury and worse. The adder’s den is still no place for a child. Many of us feel as though we have been brought low, we’re walking away empty, and those mountains and hills are still there. We’re having trouble seeing the way forward. Haven’t we waited long enough for peace and justice? “In God’s time” sounds like a hollow promise.
And yet, as the Jesuits say, if God is also another word for everything, that the whole creation is where God is found, that God is in compassionate union with all that is, then peace and justice will come when we’re ready to no longer be hostile toward anyone or anything and to let go of our self-preserving fear. All flesh begins with us.
Jesus shows us the aching, painful, but companioned way forward. This is my flesh broken for you. This is my blood shed for you. Jesus allowed himself to be judged as a criminal and gave his life as a love gift. The tender truth of Christmas is this: the way to peace is to allow, invite, to seek out openings for one’s own peace to be disturbed and disrupted—as a gift, given without strings.
Here’s a gift God would love:
Holy One, you have blessed me with abundance. Please use me to bring kindness, even justice, to someone who needs it this day. Help me to know when and how and who and what is needed. Subvert my day for your purpose. I trust in your goodness. Thank you, God, for making me an instrument of your peace. Amen.