A little over a year ago a British politician (I don’t remember who) announced that, in the morass of the global economic freefall, there were now “green shoots” beginning to appear - after many months of financial devastation, a few sprouts of new life were coming up in the economic wasteland of grey brambles. It was a phrase that was picked up by many people in a number of countries - it was an idea that all certainly wanted to be true, but more so it was an image that resonated deeply in every culture. After a long, cold winter (or an extended rainy season, or a parched dry season, depending on where you live) green shoots do come up. They remind us that no hard season of weather or of life is ever the final one, the end. There is a next chapter, a next season, a new chance for life. The bulbs planted months before (where did we put them - over there? By the driveway?) - these poke out from the ground at last and show us where we had thought to put them. The heart laid to waste by a terrible loss begins to thaw, and even put forth a new little stalk of life. We think, “I can feel again - a little; I notice things again; I care again; I can be attracted to another again.” The person who has endured depression comes to realize that, yes - an old, torn page can be turned and a new chapter begun. And yes - in the bleakness of a global financial fiasco that wipes out livelihoods, plans, and well-beings of many, green shoots do come up, hopefully, the herald of a new season of better economic prospects.
The phrase “green shoots” came to my mind as I have considered “the shoot that shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” The stump - the royal lineage that brought such powerful leaders as David and Solomon - this mighty tree had been chopped to a stump, the sawed-down stubble of a once-mighty oak. But perhaps we were wrong to think it was dead - look, a green shoot is coming out of it. That old stump might still have some life left in it. Eviscerated as it has been, now it’s putting out new growth, even the beginning of a new generation.
The Jewish kingdoms would be eviscerated - first Israel in the north and then Judea in the south. Assyria was the foe, mighty and merciless. Isaiah wrote to his people who lived in great fear of Assyria, and his predictions did come true, although after his lifetime. He prophesied the trampling of his people, their dispersal, then their return to their homeland. And he prophesied of a shoot to come from the stump of Jesse, Immanuel, who would rule with wisdom and powers of discernment, with counsel and might, with knowledge, and with fear of God. “Assyria threatens,” said Isaiah, “but do not fear it; fear God instead - in that is your salvation.” That’s a difficult message to hear in any age - “there is a major threat to our national security, but the answer lies in devoting yourself to God.” The pragmatic ruler says, “Yeah, well I’ll say my prayers while I deploy troops along our border.” Isaiah isn’t telling his contemporaries - or us - to not defend ourselves or not to use common sense in our self-preservation. He is saying that the security and peace for which we long ultimately isn’t about the might of our nation but the depth of our faith. The peace that we find in the depth of our faith we retain always, even when we have been trampled, especially when we have been eviscerated. The peace for which we long can never be found at the end of an AK-47 or in a national treasury bursting with gold, but only in the soul that glows with love for God.
Isaiah prophesies such a wonderful restoration after destruction - a society of goodness, stability, and security, a time of true harmony and of real peace - political peace, social peace, peace with the natural world, and the profoundest spiritual peace. But he does not say that Immanuel will make all this happen - not by himself. Immanuel, God With Us, will judge with righteousness and faithfulness, He will bring equity at last to the meek of the earth. He is the ruler and we are the citizens. To us comes the task “not to hurt or destroy” because we are so filled with the knowledge of God. We are to testify to this promise until it comes. Wolves lying down with lambs? We don’t tell the animal kingdom what to do. The calf and the lion and the fatling together? We’re not lion tamers in a circus. And we’re not expected to be. But we are expected to show hospitality to those we consider enemies, even predators. Weextend a hand. We end the cycle of mistrust, badmouthing, loathing, fear. Wedare to make ourselves vulnerable even to those who may have the strength to harm us. This takes great courage. This takes unshakable conviction. Where do those things come from? From our belief in Immanuel, the Messiah of God, who rules for his part with justice and equity. Hospitality to our enemy - sharing what we have with the person we think would wrench it from us if they could. Who do you think of as a predator in your life? Or if that image isn’t right for your context, who is it that challenges you most? Is it a fellow student, a colleague, a teacher, a boss, a relative, a neighbor? Who makes you feel very vulnerable? What hospitality can you show them - what can you share with them - that will turn the tables on how you relate to one another and make you respectful, trusting equals? I’ve just been speaking of us as the lamb vis-à-vis the wolf, and the calf vis-à-vis the lion. Let’s turn that around: to whom are you the predator, to whom are you very challenging, and why? Who might you make feel very vulnerable? Who might not feel safe with you - who fears you? Who feels subordinate to you? Who mistrusts you? Who wonders if you will deal fairly with them? Wolves and lambs can only live peaceably together if they both are committed to it - one not to use its predatory strength and the other willing to trust and be vulnerable. For people of might and power, an equally profound faith is necessary - the faith that realigns priorities and reframes how we see other people - not as people of low esteem but people of radically equal human value. So many countries around the world experience the United States as the wolf. We have economic and military power far beyond our daily understanding of it. How can we who are citizens of this great country change the ethics and practices that leave others feeling vulnerable in our midst, threatened, preyed upon?
What courage it would take to, as Isaiah says, leave our children vulnerable to those who could hurt them. What courage would it take to say that a little child could lead us - literally, serve as the shepherd to all the former enemy animals now cohabiting in peace. We read these words and think of the baby Jesus, so soon to come, and we are certain of his ability, the Lord of Lords, to control those who are violent. Isaiah is simply suggesting a scenario in which we are so trusting of one another that we could put our welfare into the hands of a little kid. What courage it does take to let down our guard and truly trust. What courage it does take to live out of our hope rather than our fear. It is a courage that can’t be achieved by thinking it through – by rationalization. It isn’t a courage that can be achieved through negotiations with the other. It’s a courage that can only be achieved through faith, faith in God and Christ that transcends all human realities, upends all human wisdom, and common sense, and gives one the conviction to dareand to act and to be that can come from no other source.
The world that we live in today is not the kind refuge that we read of in Isaiah - but it wasn’t in his time, either. The ridiculous, dangerous instruction that he gives to us, he also gave to his contemporaries so gripped by a realistic fear of Assyria’s political and military ambitions. “Live out the peace for which you long,” he says, “because that is how you will usher it in - that is how you will make it real. Live the alternative to what we have today until it takes over, until it becomes the way we do live together. Testify to the promise until it comes.” That takes a lot of guts - it takes great courage, and underneath that, great faith, to keep anyone from making us hate another, to keep anyone from making us live out of our fear of another. It takes great faith to live out of our hope rather than our fear. The middle school that my children attend has the motto “Be the change.” It’s trite, but it’s true, and it’s exactly what Isaiah says to his fellow citizens and to all of us. And it can only be done if one has the faith that God is God, that the reign of God is breaking into our midst in the person of Immanuel, and that from him flows the strength to testify to the promise until it comes. Live the alternative until it takes over.
If you have been baptized, then you (like our brother Jesus) are a descendant of the wild man John, standing in the river, dunking people in the cold water and imploring them to repent of their sins, to make a radical change in the way they live. If you are a descendant of John, how are you preparing the way and making the path straight for our God? How are you preparing our world for the coming of the Messiah? I think that Isaiah teaches us one crucial way to do it: to live audaciously out of our hope rather than our fear, to risk living compassionately and vulnerably both with those we fear and those over whom we have power, to live into the promise of goodness, stability, security, to have the faith it takes to throw ourselves into the arms of God, who makes this way of life possible for us. Friends, it is Advent, the time in the Church year when we are called most pointedly to live out of our hope. We know the end of the story - the Messiah will be born among us soon. Let us live that way! Let us live in daring testimony to that fact. Yes, we will wake up on December 26th and the world will still be this mean, but it will only stay that way if we let it, if we cannot summon the courage to live out of our hope and not our fear, if we will truly dare to live out our hope of the peace for which we long.
Ben Witherington, Mt. 3:1-12, www.workingpreacher.org, Dec. 5, 2010.
Anathea Portier-Young, Is.11:1-10, www.workingpreacher.org, Dec. 5, 2010.
Fred Gaiser, Is.11:1-10, www.workingpreacher.org, Dec. 9, 2007.