A couple of weekends ago New Community had the chance to host, along with some other neighborhood churches, my friend Ed Gilbreath. I reviewed Ed’s new book, Birmingham Revolution, a few months back. For the Chicago Revolution conference Ed spoke about Rev. Martin Luther King’s time in Birmingham, paying special attention to his time in jail and the resulting letter that is now so well known. He then traced Rev. King’s time to Chicago and pointed to the challenges he faced here. The entire conference was thought-provoking, challenging, and encouraging and I’m including Ed’s talk here because I think it’s very worth your time.
The Church is dying. Or maybe it’s the churches that are dying. I’m not sure which it is, but a consistent and dire theme within the literature written about church would have one believe that it’s all but over: Churches are closing their doors; Young people are choosing vague spirituality over congregational identity; Christian Faith can’t keep pace with the rapid change that defines our culture. And on it goes.
Surely some of this is true. But what is patently false is the idea that church is somehow on shakier ground today than it was during some idealized time in the past. Not only that, there is plenty of life within the churches in our towns and cities- if you know where to look.
Over the past few days I drove around our corner of the fly-over states visiting some of these churches. (Maybe that’s part of the problem. Some of the naysayers need to cease with the flyover pronouncements, walk away from their statistics for a minute, and visit some real live churches.) I sat in on a pastor’s meeting where a Hispanic pastor talked with his white colleagues about the many opportunities for ministry in their state. I had dinner with a couple who live in the city that had the country’s last documented lynching; they hope to start a multi-racial church in this segregated place. I met with a Kenyan pastor in St Louis whose church welcomes new immigrants who know almost nothing of the country they’ve landed in. The next morning I had breakfast with a bi-vocational pastor- he does construction work part time and pastors a young congregation of university students and professors with his remaining hours. From there I drove to Champaign where I was given the opportunity to preach at an African American congregation whose ministry to the marginalized has caught the attention of the city’s politicians. My trip ended in Bloomington, in the small sanctuary of a 2-year old church. On Sunday evenings they turn their space into a warming center for their neighbors who don’t have homes. I watched and listened as these men and women talked, laughed, and slept before moving on to the night shelter.
The Church is dead? I don’t think so. Long live the Church. Long live the churches.
Here’s a lightly edited version of the sermon I preached at New Community Covenant Church on Sunday. Unlike most of my sermons this one was written quickly, after the news broke from the Michael Dunn trial on Saturday evening.
In November 2012, 17-year-old African American Jordan Davis and his friends were parked outside a convenience store in Florida when an argument broke out with the white man parked next to them about the volume of their music. The argument ended when the man, Michael Dunn shot 10 rounds into Davis’ car- some of those bullets hit and killed Davis. At his trial Dunn claimed he felt threatened, that he had to stand his ground. No gun was ever found in the young Jordan Davis’ car. Last night a mostly white jury found Dunn guilty on lesser counts of attempted murder- but for the actual murder they couldn’t agree. And so again, a young black man’s life is taken and it’s not called murder. Again, as the trial proved, the responsibility was placed on the dead man’s life to show that he didn’t deserve to die.
As Joshua DuBois wrote on Twitter last night, “Unbroken line, Emmett Till to Jordan Davis. Deadly to whistle, to play loud music. Deadly to be a young Black man in America, 2014.”
So today I want to talk about justice.
As it relates to yesterday’s verdict, I assume there are at least three groups of people here this morning: the distracted, the despairing, and the discouraged. Today I want to talk about justice by giving a word of conviction from Jesus’ life for the distracted, a word of comfort from Jesus’ death for the despairing, and a word of challenge from Jesus’ resurrection to the discouraged.
Conviction for the Distracted: Jesus’ life.
We begin with one of Jesus’ most well known parables from Luke 10:25-37.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
We tend to focus on what the priest and Levite didn’t do and on what the Samaritan did. The first two walked by while the Samaritan stopped and cared for the battered man. But the passage records something in common between the three: they each saw the suffering man. The priest saw and passed by. The Levite saw and passed by. The Samaritan saw and took pity.
Which says to me that there is seeing and there is seeing. You and I see injustice everyday, but we don’t really see. We don’t see the humanity behind the suffering. We are too distracted to see. The priest and the Levite had places to be and people that were counting on them. Heck, they had God’s work to do. We understand this. Your life is busy. Your job is demanding. Your family is chaotic. But there are a whole lot of busy people with chaotic lives who are deeply aware of the injustices facing themselves and those they love.
What is distracting you? Please don’t blame your busyness. There are a whole lot of people who would love to trade their suffering for your busyness.
Justice begins with seeing. Jesus’ entire life was about seeing those whom others overlooked: the woman at the well; the bleeding woman; the tax collector in the tree; the daughter of his country’s oppressor. The Samaritan was able to get off his donkey and care for the beaten man because he saw him. He saw, on the side of the rode, another image-bearer of God who was created for God’s glory. He saw one whose dignity and worth had been violently undermined.
Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t a pep talk how important it is to notice people. In fact, seeing is fundamental to our Christian faith. To begin with, our very salvation is precipitated on the fact that God saw us. We are like the Hebrew Children suffering under in bondage to whom God said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.”
Our place within the Kingdom of God; our identities as children of God; our rescue from sin by the hand of God… all of these exist because God saw us. He saw our plight. He saw sin’s oppressive hand on our backs. He saw us and he came down to rescue us.
And there’s more: Jesus’ life was about making blind people see. In Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:19-19 he quotes from Isaiah to lay out his agenda: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Now Jesus certainly came to with good news for real poor people and real prisoners and real blind people and real oppressed people. But as the Gospel’s also make clear, every one of us suffers from spiritual poverty and blindness. And Jesus came to heal that blindness so that we would no longer be bound within our own small worlds like the priest and Levite.
Listen: Jesus came to save you from your selfishness. He came to make it possible that you love your neighbors; really love them- as much as you love yourself. Jesus came to rescue you from the petty distractions and idols that have consumed your devotions and attentions so that you might actually see this world in all of its ferocity and pain and wonder. So to the distracted there is a word of conviction: Wake up! Jesus came that you might see.
Comfort for the Despairing: Jesus’ death.
For those who are not distracted, the murder of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and Haydiya Pendleton and the Dunbar High School student earlier this week cannot help but weigh heavily. These injustices, along with the lies and systems that seek to legitimize them have begun to grind you down.
It’s not that you don’t want to have hope it’s just that it always seems misplaced. Regardless of who the mayor is or police chief is or schools CEO is it’s the same story. Some of you hear the news of Jordan Davis’ demise and you immediately think of your own sons and daughters. As Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote in The Atlantic last night,
Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.
The Psalmist could be praying on your behalf when he asks of the Lord in Psalm 94:3-7,
How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant? They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, Lord; they oppress your inheritance. They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless. They say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.”
To the despairing and the doubting I can only hope to point to the one who well knows your grief. He is the one the prophet spoke of in Isaiah 4:3-5,
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Here is the Bible’s seemingly impossible claim: God’s justice was accomplished when the universe’s injustice came crashing down onto Jesus’ innocent head. That is, on the cross where Jesus hung the monsters of evil and wickedness and destruction that have wreaked havoc on our world and in our lives turned the full force of their violent fury onto God’s perfect Son.
And it was here at the cross, despite our complicity with the very evil that crushed Jesus, it was here that our salvation was accomplished. It was here the poor heard the good news that the kingdom of heaven was theirs; it was here that prisoners learned that their jailer would answer to a higher authority; it was here that scales fell from blind eyes; it was here that oppressed bodies were unshackled and ushered into freedom.
So despite the despair and doubt that some of you carry, the cross of Jesus compels me to speak to you boldly this morning. The cross does not allow me simply offer my sympathy or my empathy, as important as those may be. The cross does not allow me to offer small words of comfort; little bandages for gaping wounds. The cross does not allow me to explain away the ugliness of last night’s verdict with catchy phrases or spiritual slogans. And while we must acknowledge the despair and doubt; while we must lament together another act of justice- what the cross does not allow us to do is to grant more power to these unjust acts than they actually posses.
You’ve heard me say it many times and I will say it again from the shadows of Jordan Davis’ un-vindicated death: What the forces of evil meant for our destruction, God absorbed for our salvation. What was meant to kill us, God bore so that we would live. What appeared to the entire world as God’s defeat was, in fact, the place where God’s victory was accomplished.
And while the cross has profound consequences for our salvation and God’s restoration of all things- the cross has equally profound consequences for every single place in our world where it seems that evil is winning. Within the reality of God’s coming kingdom, there is not one tragedy that cannot be redeemed.
Does this sound callous or like a shallow cliché? I promise you, it’s not. The cross of Jesus signals to every power and principality of evil that their days are numbered. It is a reminder that their power is finite and their end secure. It is a proclamation that God is holy and just and not to be trifled with.
I know this requires faith. But consider again in whom we place our faith. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So let me nudge the despairing just a bit more. If indeed God has overcome the troubles of this world through the suffering and broken body of Jesus – one who knew the face of injustice and oppression – then there is no situation of injustice that is beyond hope.
Challenge for the Discouraged: Jesus’ resurrection.
Finally, many of us this morning simply feel discouraged. You’re not distracted. In fact, you’re profoundly aware of the harsh realities surrounding us. You know that although white kids are more likely to use drugs, black kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for it. You know that while the USA has 5% of world’s population but 25% of its prisoners, with a disproportionate percentage being people of color: 1 in every 106 white men; 1 in ever 36 Hispanic men; 1 in every 15 black men are imprisoned. You know that since the 1960’s the unemployment rate for African Americans has consistently been double that of whites. You know about the impact of redlining, housing covenants, and state-sponsored segregation enforced by bank lending policy. You know about the bamboo ceiling in the workplace that encourages the model-minority myth for Asian Americans while excluding them from top levels of leadership. You know about Hispanic immigrant churches that today are gathering in fear, wondering who will be deported next, what child will be left without a parent.
No, you’re not distracted. And You’re not despairing either, though you can imagine getting there. No, many of us feel tired, worn out, and discouraged. We relate to the disciples, walking home after the crucifixion. Not sure what happened, but sure that it wasn’t what we’d hoped for. And it’s not wrong to be discouraged; this life provides plenty of fodder for discouragement. But, even in moments of profound disappointment, discouragement can never be the only word.
If the Distracted are convicted by Jesus’ life, the Despairing are comforted by Jesus’ cross, then you – the Discouraged – can be challenged by Jesus’ resurrection.
One of the great surprises of the story of the early church is how the disciples could morph from a discouraged group of people returning to their homes after Jesus’ death to a bold community after the resurrection that is unafraid of the very same individuals who killed their Messiah. The key to understanding this transformation comes in the closing lines of Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2:36. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” In other words Jesus’ death and resurrection are not only the surprising way through which God rescues us; they were also God’s strategy to accomplish victory over all of God’s enemies, over every source of evil and injustice.
Peter, the same disciple who once told Jesus to quick talking about going to the cross because would-be Messiahs who die on crosses are failed Messiahs; that same Peter now acknowledges that it was through Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection that his kingdom has now been inaugurated; it is coming; it is breaking in.
Earlier in his sermon Peter says that God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a magic trick. It wasn’t an amazing miracle to convince us that he really was God. His resurrection is a victory; a victory over death itself; a victory that establishes his authority as King and Lord and Messiah. His resurrection is, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, like the first fruit of a harvest- it is evidence of what is to come in a world that still rejects his reign, where death still demands our fear and submission. But this king, Paul goes on to write, will rule until that day- when he “hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “[1 Corinthians 15:24-26]
What does this mean for the discouraged among us? It means that when Jesus sent out his disciples after his resurrection to represent his kingdom, he did so a conquering king. When Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he is reflecting the authority that comes from accomplishing our salvation on the cross and rising victoriously over God’s enemies – including death – at the resurrection.
Jesus’ resurrection calls us to action. Not in some vaguely spiritual way where everything is going to be OK. In fact, earlier in Matthew Jesus says to his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” [10:16] No, the resurrected and victorious Jesus has sent those who confess him as Savior and King into the real world. The King has come to the world and we are sent as his representatives, his ambassadors, and his witnesses to proclaim with our words and our lives that a new kingdom is coming. We are sent to show that the powers of evil that seem entrenched, insurmountable, and irresistible have, in fact, already been defeated. Their thin power is based solely on uncreative lies and systematic deception.
The resurrected Jesus has sent us with words of life on our lips and the power of the Holy Spirit in our bodies. We have been sent to the young men who heard once again last night at the verdict of Jordan Davis’ killer: your life is cheap. We have been sent to underfunded classrooms that reek of lowered expectations to demonstrate a dignity and value that cannot be bought. We have been sent to courtrooms, newsrooms, boardrooms, and political backrooms and other places of power to remind they powerful that there is a King to whom they will answer. We’ve been sent to family members and neighbors who tacitly approve of systemic racism.
You see, followers of Jesus are like the Samaritan- we are called to acts of compassion and mercy when we come across injustice. But there’s something else. At some point we have to ask why it is that innocent travelers keep getting beat down on the Jericho road. Yes, we’ll patch you up and pursue your healing, but followers of Jesus are called to travel further up the Jericho road to find the source of these travelers’ misery. This is the work of justice. We are called to those places in the world where God’s will for humanity’s flourishing is opposed; we are called there to invest our lives, to pray with our hearts and our bodies- God may your will be done here as it is in heaven!
Last Sunday I preached from the lectionary passages for the second Sunday of Advent. A couple of days before preaching our church learned of a tragic car crash in Malawi that claimed the lives of three people. These three had become incredibly close with members of a youth group and leaders that we sent to Malawi this summer to help at a youth camp. This was at the forefront of my mind as I wrote this sermon.
We have said that Advent makes plain the gap between how things are and how they will be. After the tragic news this week from Malawi we remember how large the gap can seem.
In Romans 15:4-13 we hear three words repeatedly that we in-between people should pay attention to: endurance, encouragement, & hope. The passage begins, For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
This week Nelson Mandela was rightly remembered as a man who embodied these three words. He was a man who endured, who encouraged those around him, and who maintained hope. We rightly celebrate this man and these traits but, as we’ve seen, it can be easy to forget the extent of the hurt & wickedness that called forth these traits. In order to endure, there must be opposition. In order to be encouraged, there must be reason for discouragement. In order to hope, there must be despair in the atmosphere.
At first glance, our passage seems seems devoid of such opposition, discouragement, and despair.
7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed 9 and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
It’s an amazing claim Paul makes: Jesus Christ becomes a servant to God’s people. That is, he takes onto himself Israel’s vocation to bless the world as well as Israel’s sin, rebellion, and exile. By fulfilling Israel’s vocation, Jesus completes the promises made to Abraham that his children would be God’s way of rescuing the world. Paul says that, because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the Gentiles – the nations – have been included in God’s family. They too glorify God for his mercy. It’s an amazing summary of Christ’s accomplishment, worthy of the praise, rejoicing, and exultation Paul quotes from the Old Testament.
So why then does our passage begin with the focus on endurance, encouragement, and hope? And why does it end with a double reminder of our desperate need to hang onto hope?
For Paul the reason to press the Roman church toward endurance has to do with the very real stuff of life:
5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, 6 so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
It may be true that Jesus fulfilled God’s promises of rescue and redemption, but the women and men of the early church in Rome are in the middle of living out these promises. It’s a beautiful thing to talk about enemies being reconciled until you are faced with living alongside your former adversary. It’s nice to talk about cultural diversity until you can no longer assume that your culture is valued and accepted. It’s well and good to aspire to reconciled relationships until we experience what it’s like to give someone else a voice in our life.
So here it is: at the center of the passage is the glorious vision of God’s rescue of humanity; of the Son of God reconciling all things; of the sinless Savior becoming sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. And on the margins of the passage is the acknowledgement that we live in a world that pulls against God’s love; is an acknowledgement that we live in a city with division in its DNA; is an acknowledgement that relationships – every single one of our relationships – are sometimes hard, and bent toward separation; is an acknowledgement that opposition, discouragement, and despair are closer to us than we’d like to admit.
To come at this from another angle: Advent reminds us that we live between the Messiah’s victory and his vindication; we live between the resurrection and the return; we live between the empty grave and the end of all graves. We live in between; in the gap.
We, of all people, are in need of endurance, encouragement and hope. We have been rescued by a Savior who calls us to follow him. Our following – our discipleship – takes place within the real world- the real messy, confusing, beautiful, tiring, world. Ours is a Savior who went to the poor, to the sick, to the forgotten, to the oppressed, to his enemies.
So, following this Savior in this world means that Christians will regularly come face to face with corrupt government policies; with students with the least amount of support and resources; with hungry people, tired people, thirsty people. Following this Savior in this world means honoring all people as integrated image bearers of God regardless of how naïve a notion that sounds to our neighbors. Following this Savior in this world means choosing to stay in the neighborhood when others move out. Following this Savior in this world means identifying with the invisible members of our society: the child struggling to read; the sex worker; the widow in the apartment down the hall; the young man in prison; the newly arrived refugee family with no possessions and no English. Following this Savior in this world means stewarding our privilege and power for the good of others. Following this Savior in this world means choosing quiet generosity over identity-forming consumerism.
Following this Savior in this world might mean traveling to Malawi to serve young people only to be trapped on the other side of the world when you learn the worst possible news.
Do you need encouragement? Endurance? Hope? If you are a disciple of Jesus following him within a broken world the answer will always be yes. Yes!
We can’t be surprised when we feel tired, discouraged, or even on the edge of despair. There are those well-meaning people who will tell you that your faith in Jesus is meant to protect you from these hard experiences and emotions. I get this. In the face of the deaths in Malawi this week I am tempted this morning to say things that sound good. To say that tragedy is the exception. To say that bad things don’t generally happen to good people. To say that your lives moving forward will be marked mostly by happiness rather than the sadness that cloaks your hearts today.
These are the moments – death, layoffs, abandonment, and betrayal – that have us looking around for a soothing dose of spirituality. Something to numb the pain that has our stomach twisted. A mantra we can repeat when we can’t sleep. These moments have us looking for a distraction of some sort.
But let’s not get it twisted. Following this Savior in this world requires endurance not distraction. Following this Savior in this world requires hearts and minds that are en-couraged not numbed to reality. Following this Savior in this world requires robust and clear-eyed hope not wispy spiritual clichés.
If our Savior cried out from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – than we must know and expect our faith to bring us to the very edge of the cracks and shadows of this world. Our Savior went to the depths of Hades for us and our salvation. Should we not expect our crucified Savior to lead us to the hells on this earth, bearing cups of cold water and words of life?
Here is a hard word: a Christian’s life will be characterized by pain, suffering, and tragedy. Not only these, of course. And not always. We worship a resurrected Savior who will return. There is faith, hope, and love running through our veins. But in these days, in this world, following this Savior, we must expect to confront and be confronted by the weight of a groaning and suffering world.
Do you need encouragement? Endurance? Hope? Like the early church in Rome, the answer is Yes. Of course. For the encouragement and endurance they desperately need, Paul points to the Scriptures.
4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
More specifically, Paul points the Roman church to a well-known passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.
[Isaiah 11:1-10] 1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— 3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. 6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
At first this passages sounds too fantastical for the real stuff of discipleship. Why does Paul point the Roman church here for endurance? What does a world where wolves and lambs get along have to do with our very real disappointments and grief?
We must remember that Isaiah is writing to a frightened people; Israel had fallen in 722; Judah stood vulnerable among competing superpowers; Jerusalem was besieged. In other words, Isaiah was writing to a people with no tolerance for fantasy or empty promises.
Our first clue of this is that Isaiah refers to the once proud Israelites as a stump: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse. Their former glory had been squandered; idols and nationalism had captured their hearts. The vocation to bless the world had been traded for self-interest. Referring to Israel as a stump is no metaphor for something that looks bad but is actually good. No- this is just bad. Where there had been life there was now death. A stump serves only as evidence of the past, of what once had been.
But the image quickly shifts. There is life here. A shoot rises; roots descend; a branch bears fruit. What had seemed to be the end proves to be a new beginning. There is salvation. Or, rather, there is a Savior.
This Savior will be marked by the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament the Spirit was given occasionally, for specific assignments. But here – 4 times – Isaiah makes plain that this Savior cannot be separated from God’s Spirit.
We begin to glimpse a Savior unlike any other the world has known. And then we hear that “he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will want what God wants. He will love what God loves. He will desire what God desires. He will be the one who one day would tell his disciples,
[John 5:19-20] Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.
He would face the suffering of the cross and abandon himself to the Father’s will. He would face the unthinkable choice of betrayal, abandonment, injustices, and suffering on the cross by relinquishing himself to the Father: Not my will but yours be done.
What sort of a Savior is this? Isaiah calls him a judge. But he will not judge by superficial evidence: not by what eyes see or ears here. He will not be swayed. He will fulfill the vocation of a just and righteous king. Like ancient kings were meant to do, he will represent the poor and needy. He will be free of politics and favors.
He will speak with power; a power that one day would cause the crowds to be “amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority.” He will be known for righteousness – doing right in all circumstances; and faithfulness- dependable and true.
Clearly this Savior could not be an ordinary king: He would be born by the Holy Spirit; new life in a barren wilderness. He would perfectly represent God the Father. If you could but see and know him you could know the transcendent Creator God. He would be a righteous judge; beholden to no special interest; no campaign contributions; no powerful lobbyists. The poor and needy would find dignity and relief under his rule.
His words would bring life. He would be the Word become flesh. In him would be righteousness and faithfulness come to life. His life would make righteousness possible for unrighteous people; faithfulness a characteristic of faithless and unfaithful people.
Isaiah shows us what this Savior is like; he shows us what he does; then – in this otherworldly poem – he shows us the results of this Savior’s arrival. Eugene Peterson translates the passage like this:
The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them. Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent. Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.
Here, under the righteous and faithful rule of Root of Jesse, is a world without fear: the wolf and lamb; leopard and goat; calf and lion; cow and bear together. Here is a world where you Come home alone at night without fear. You have that conversation with your dad without fear. You Look toward your children’s’ future without fear. You walk down that street to school without fear. You visit your aunt in the hospital without fear. You sit alone in silence without fear.
But there is a particular fear that Isaiah has in mind in these stanzas: The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. I viscerally recoil from this image because I know the result: death. The images of predator and prey and children play near poisonous snakes are images of death. Yet even this fear – humanity’s greatest fear – is neutralized under this Savior’s reign.
It comes down to this: As a result of this Savior’s victory, death will no longer have the final say. This is why Paul pointed the Roman church to Isaiah.
Here they were reminded of the time before their Messiah’s birth when the people longed for his arrival and liberation. They were reminded too of the one-day culmination of his victory on the cross- a day when death itself will be vanquished.
But maybe even this sounds lacking when we are facing opposition, discouragement, or despair. Are we meant to simply take comfort in the fact that one day things will be better? Is a one-day hope as good as it gets?
Listen to the last verse in our passage:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is not a one-day hope. The call is not to endure because eventually things will be better. We are not to be encouraged only because of what the future holds. Yes, our future is bright. Yes, we endure the present like our Savior did, for the joy set before us. Yes, we can hold onto courage knowing how the story ends. But the hope we see here is a present hope. A hope that overflows.
The almost unbelievable hope that is available to us now is that though we live in-between; though we live in the gap between how things are and how they will be; our audacious hope is that we can live now without fear, including the fear of death.
It is the hope that sustained Paul through all manner of opposition. It is the hope that has sustained the saints over the generations who lived outside the long shadow of death. It was the hope of those who died in Malawi.
It is our hope.
About this cruciform hope J. Heinrich Arnold wrote,
Jesus’s life began in a stable and ended on the cross between two criminals. The Apostle Paul said he wanted to proclaim nothing but this crucified Christ. We, too, have nothing to hold on to except this Christ. We must ask ourselves again and again: Are we willing to go his way, from the stable to the cross? As disciples we are not promised comfortable and good times. Jesus says we must deny ourselves and suffer with him and for him. That is the only way to follow him, but behind it lies the glory of life — the glowing love of God, which is so much greater than our hearts and our lives.
Following this Savior in this world requires facing our greatest fears. But only by following this Savior can we live without fear.
Following this Savior in this world will lead us into tragedies and frights and disappointments. Following this Savior in this world will lead us to opposition, discouragement, and at times to the very edge of despair. Yet, it is only in following this Savior that we know freedom from fear, even the oldest and deepest fears, including death itself. We will follow Jesus through the tragedies and find that the tragedy cannot claim us. We will follow Jesus through the dry wilderness and find the river of life. We will follow Jesus through death itself and find that he has already gone before us, that there is abundant and eternal life on the other side.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’ve seen very few new movies this year but I suspect that even if I’d seen a bunch more I’d still think 12 Years A Slave was the year’s best. Here’s a short reflection provoked by the film that I wrote last week for our church newsletter.
“Daddy, are we getting close?” I won’t even try to guess how many times Eliot asked me some version of that question during our nine hour drive to (and from) Tennessee for Thanksgiving. Waiting is hard for active little boys.
Of course, much waiting is far harder – more painful – than a long card ride to visit people who love you. On Monday I was finally able to see 12 Years A Slave. Of the film’s many powerful themes I was especially struck by the pervasiveness of waiting, of enslaved and oppressed people who had little recourse but to wait. Their waiting was overseen by lying preachers, paternalistic plantation owners, and sadistic overseers. But more than the unimaginable waiting, what overwhelmed me was the presence of hope among many of the enslaved women and men. Despite the attempts by those who claimed ownership over their bodies to dehumanize them, these individuals anticipated an end to their suffering, to their waiting. A shared cup of water, a song sung in the field, a letter written in secret all pointed to an end beyond the waiting. In so many different ways they bore witness that the insufferable waiting would not have the last word, that their lives could never be defined or reduced by the so-called master.
Thanks be to God that we are not forced to wait in similar ways. The longings and anticipations most of us know are so far removed from those portrayed in 12 Years A Slave we could almost overlook the places of waiting in our own lives. That would be a mistake. Waiting is a trait of our cracked humanity within an unjust word. To ignore our longings for restoration, completion, and fulfillment would be to miss something essential about our lives… and our futures.
The Advent season is the reminder that we wait. The world portrayed in 12 Years A Slave may have changed, but suffering and injustices are as pervasive in our world now as they were then. On Christmas we celebrate the Messiah’s coming; during Advent we remember that we await His return. We remember that we live in the gap between how things are and how they will be one day. We remember that we are a waiting people and that our waiting has an end, that a day will come when waiting no longer has a place in our lives. Until that day, let us live as hopeful people whose lives – even during the waiting – are claimed and defined only by the God who who patiently waits for us.