Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 12/4/2016
Advent: Year A: Week 2
“A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
a branch will sprout[a] from his roots.
The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent[b] with the rod of his mouth;
by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed[c] together,
and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young will lie down together,
and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
just as the water covers the sea.
On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:1-10, CEB)
I’d like to talk about peace today. What is peace? This past week, I posted a status on Facebook simply asking “What does true peace mean to you? What does it look like for you?” I did the same with hope for last week’s sermon, and I think I’m going to do it more often because I get some great answers.
As I read through all the replies to that question, one idea or concept kept returning, and that was the concept of shalom. Now, shalom is a Hebrew word that shows up a lot when you read the Old Testament – and if you follow the Daily Scripture Readings you have in your bulletin, you’ll be diving pretty deep into the Old Testament – and it’s a word we absolutely cannot ignore if we’re going to talk about peace today.
Now, I could define shalom and talk about everything it might mean. But the passage from Isaiah that we read earlier is actually a perfect illustration of shalom. The vision proclaimed by Isaiah here is the definition of shalom. The wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the goat, a toddler reaching right over a serpent’s den. This is shalom. This is true and perfect peace. There is no violence, no killing, and the toddler is even safe from harm. Everyone is in right relationship. Everyone and everything is whole and complete. This is shalom. This is what peace looks like.
But, you know, when I read this, I can’t help but think…is this too good to be true? Is Isaiah being for real here?
I think of what our world is actually like, in reality. Think of all the violent tendencies in our world today – it’s the opposite of peace. Think of what violence has taken from us – the violence of disease, the violence of car accidents, not to mention the typical picture of gun violence and assault. It’s taken away our sense of peace and safety in the world.
After hearing about the violence of a school shooting, how many parents were worried about sending their kids to school the next day? After the violence of the 9/11 attacks, how many people were afraid to go outside, or to fly in a plane?
I remember in 2012 hearing about the mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. And ever since I’ve heard about that, I’ve been just a little on edge when I go into a movie theater. Now, I don’t think about it all the time. But Lauren and I went to see the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them last week over in Ada – great movie by the way, I recommend it – and I remember that when the movie started and the theater got dark, for whatever reason, the memory about shooting in the theater in Colorado popped in my head and I just got nervous and tense for the first five minutes or so of the movie – what if that happened here?
In our world that’s so full of violence, how can we take Isaiah’s vision seriously? That’s the question we have to ask of this text. Isaiah proclaims that this day of beautiful glorious peace is coming, this shalom is coming. But how can we trust in a vision like this that simply doesn’t make sense in our violent world?
You know, if we read closely, this whole passage is actually about trusting something that doesn’t make sense. It’s all about a reversal of our expectations, our fears, and our worries.
Isaiah talks about a shoot or sapling growing up from the stump of Jesse. The stump of Jesse – that’s Israel. Jesse was the father of David, and David was that great king of Israel, the one against whom all future kings were measured. And here’s the picture that Isaiah draws here: Israel was once a mighty forest. Once, they were a strong nation. But now they’ve been chopped down and are just this old, gnarled stump.
Israel was just a stump – they only expected death, no life, but Isaiah proclaims that a new sapling will spring up from the stump of Jesse. New life springs up from where you least expect it. And when this metaphorical sapling comes, it will bring about that vision of peace we talked about, where little children play with poisonous snakes and aren’t bitten.
Church, we long for this day of peace and shalom, don’t we? The world gives us any number of reasons not to expect this world. But we still long for that day when true peace shall reign in the world – we want that.
Those of you who are present on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever social media – I don’t know about you, but Facebook and Twitter feed are constantly filled with pictures and videos of animals doing all these cute things. There was a video I saw the other day of a grown tiger – terrifying – playing and cuddling with its handler and being absolutely harmless. There was another video of a grown wolf doing the same thing. There are all these videos of animals who are supposed to be harmful but are actually, at least for the video, living and playing and cuddling with each other and with humans. It’s precious and cute and it just makes your day, right?
Now, I think these videos are spread around everywhere for a deeper reason than just our love of the cute. I think we recognize something in those videos. They show hope. If even predators like tigers and wolves can override their violent instinct that they’re simply born with – then maybe humans can live like that too.
Church, isn’t that the good news of this passage? The good news that we read about here is that this day of peace that Isaiah talks about, that we see expressed in those videos of animals, is actually a possibility. It could actually happen.
And Jesus Christ leads our world into this day of peace.
As Christians, we read this passage as a prophecy of Jesus. Jesus is that shoot growing from the stump of Jesse. Jesus is the life growing in the midst of what we thought was dead. And Jesus will bring about this day of peace so that it’s not just a dream but will be a reality. Jesus is currently, right now, working to bring about this peace in our lives at this very moment.
How do I know that?
Because I get glimpses of this peace every once in a while. Let me tell you a story.
In the summer of 2014, my family was getting ready to move from Circleville, south of Columbus, to Findlay, which is where my parents now live. Now, there was so much about the move that was not peaceful at all: the house we moved into in Findlay wasn’t what we expected at first; Mom had some health problems for a couple of weeks that slowed the packing down; there was the tension of packing all of our worldly possessions into endless boxes.
And, of course, there were the normal difficulties of moving. We had a lot of strong emotional ties to the people in Circleville and to our church there. We were leaving a lot of good people and a lot of memories behind.
But there was this beautiful moment in the evening of moving day. My parents, and my three sisters and I had been working since 7 that morning finishing up packing and cleaning the house. The movers had finished putting all of our earthly possessions into the moving truck and had left – they would meet us the next day at our new house. Our now former home was empty, the doors were locked, the cars were packed up, and we were ready to drive up to Findlay. And the six of us were just left standing there in the driveway, looking at our empty house, not really sure what to do. The only thing we could think of to do was to pray together. So we all held hands and my Dad said a prayer.
Now, I don’t know how my sisters or parents felt at that moment – they may have had a different perception of this. But for me, at that moment it was like a veil was lifted and heaven touched earth for the briefest moment.
And there was peace.
For at least those moments we spent praying together, we as a family were together and in shalom. There was no arguing or bickering. And it wasn’t just a cease-fire – it wasn’t just a pause in the arguing and disagreeing and tension, knowing that we would pick up the argument later.
For that moment, none of us had a problem with any of the others. As I felt it, we experienced true love for each other in the ideal way a family should, and we found peace, even if it was only for those moments where we paused to pray in the driveway of our now former home before driving to our new home.
That is the good news of this passage. This vision of Isaiah’s is not just a pie-in-the-sky picture about the peace we’ll experience in heaven. Jesus Christ is right now leading this world toward that peace.
It all began 2,000 years ago when a baby was born in a dirty little manger in a stable in some town called Bethlehem. It all began 2,000 years ago when the God of the cosmos who created every pebble on earth and every star in the galaxy came into our planet as a human baby they called Jesus to begin this day of peace, to show us the way of peace, and to call us to this work of bringing about this peace on earth more and more each day.
And isn’t that our calling in this passage – to make this vision of Isaiah, where the metaphorical wolf lies down with the lamb, and the leopard lies down with the young goat – isn’t it our calling to make this vision into some kind of reality? We are called to pay attention to those brief moments in our lives where the veil is lifted and we experience this peace for ourselves. Then we are called to work to bring our families, our community, and our world into that peace.
[Online-only readers: my congregation had been given sheets of paper entitled “Advent Home Worship” that gave concrete steps for how to go about the work of partnering with Jesus to bring about this day of peace. They were adapted from an article published by UMC Discipleship Ministries that can be found here. Check it out, and let us all be about this work together.]