At Hand, All Around | December 8, 2019

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Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-11

Speaker: Mark Rupp

The end of the year and the beginning of the new year--whether you measure liturgically or by the 12-month calendar--is a time of looking back and looking forward.  This past week, I was reminded that it was almost one year ago I decided that one of my new year’s resolutions was going to be getting more houseplants.  Of course, “more” wasn’t hard when you start from zero, but on January 1, 2019, I walked out of Giant Eagle with a beautiful, fuschia-colored orchid. 

Thus began a journey that has blossomed--pun intended--into, at last count, 27 different containers of plants.  We only have one room in our house that gets adequate light and doesn’t allow access to meddling felines, so nearly all of those 27 plant-babies live in that one, southern-facing sun-filled room. 

Lately I’ve taken to calling this room our sanctuary.

This sanctuary is also home to my desk, so the plants became my companions this week as I sat with the lectionary texts.  Isaiah’s vision of a tender shoot springing forth from the stump was made even more vibrant as I looked around and could see new shoots and leaves springing forth around me.  A spider plant that I brought home from the CMC plant sale recently put out a spiderette on a long, slender shoot that positioned itself in such a way so that it could peer over my shoulder while I work, offering silent commentary to my readings of the scriptures.

I am certainly still a novice when it comes to plants, but to my credit, none of them have been reduced to mere stumps so far; however, when I think about Isaiah’s vision, I can’t help but think of one of my plants in particular.  When I mentioned to Sarah Werner about my resolution, she offered to propagate a few for me from her own stock of houseplants.  One of the ones she chose was a hoya, which I later found out was from a cutting from her grandfather’s plant that is at least 30 years old. 

Once the cutting she had done for me was ready, she dropped it off and I excitedly welcomed it into my home.  I trusted that Sarah knew what she was doing, but as the weeks went on, I started to become dubious, thinking maybe something had gone wrong, probably on my end.  What she dropped off to me wasn’t quite a stump, but it also wasn’t much more than a fragile-looking, 3-inch twig with two small leaves.  When I nudged it, it didn’t seem to be very rooted or steady, and as the weeks rolled on into a month, I began to suspect that all I had was a twig in a pot because nothing seemed to be happening. 

I continued to water it.  I moved it to a couple different spots thinking it might like more or less sunlight.  But nothing happened.  Just a twig in a pot and me, feeling like a fool caring for a twig in a pot. 

I was nearly ready to give up on it and ask Sarah to try another cutting.  But then I went away on vacation, and when I came back there was suddenly a whole new leaf.  When I first saw it, I did a double-take because it seemed to have come out of nowhere, as if the twig finally decided it was ready to be a real plant.  From that first leaf grew more a bit more branch, and another leaf, and another and another...

From a twig that I was convinced would never be anything other than a twig in a pot, has come what is now the vibrant and growing little plant that it is today.  This week, I even noticed another new shoot coming out near the base, ready to start a whole new branch.

Just like Isaiah’s vision of a shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse, this plant reminds me the importance of hope, especially in situations and places that feel hopeless and desolate.  Make no mistake, when Isaiah references the “stump of Jesse” he is pointing not just to a cute sermon illustration but to the near destruction of the house of David and the deep grief this represented for the people of Judah.  Hope carries us through these valleys of grief. 

This Advent we are exploring the four virtues traditionally represented by the Advent candles.  Last week our poster focused on hope, and the image of the tender shoot would have been just at home there.  But just like last week, we hear the stories of those who say “yes” to the invitations of God, and we know that we must be clear about the content of our hope. 

Today we narrow in on “peace,” and the passage from Isaiah movies quickly from the image of hope to a vision of peace.  The temptation may be to jump straight to the second half of this vision with the wolf living with the lamb, but we must not overlook the first part, even if it might make us a little uncomfortable. 

The shoot in the stump quickly grows into a vision of a coming ruler, one on whom the Spirit of God will rest.  This Spirit empowers the ruler with wisdom and understanding, and the chief function in this prophetic vision is one of judgement, specifically the arbitration of justice and equity for the poor and the meek of the earth.  Despite the attempts of the wealthy and the powerful, this ruler will not be bought or swayed by surface-level manipulations, propaganda and deceit that bombard the eyes and the ears.  This ruler’s very clothing, that which is kept closest to one’s very person, will be righteousness and faithfulness.  These shall be the basis for the judgements that are handed down.   

Judgement probably makes us squirm.  We don’t like smiting, and certainly slaying should be completely off the table.  And there are lots of good reasons for this because these things have been used in ways that have no place in the peaceable kin-dom. 

But in the poetry of this vision, we must not lose sight of the necessity of discerning what is good and judging what will make for justice and peace or else the second half of the vision becomes a meaningless fairy-tale, an opiate for those who are happy to remain sleepily neutral in the face of evil and injustice. 

Walter Brueggemann appeals to readers to keep these two parts of Isaiah’s vision together and to recognize the interconnections between the distortion of human relationships with the distortion of creation.  He writes: “Human avarice and greed, implemented with limitless and shameless technology, now drive the animal kingdom to bizarre forms of devouring and destruction.  Peaceableness in the created order requires, first, the enactment in the human community of a conciliation that is fundamentally economic.”  These two parts of Isaiah’s vision cannot be separated because economic justice is inextricably tied with ecological justice. 

The full liberation of one requires the liberation of all.

The content of our hope may be this kind of peaceable kin-dom, but let us not make the error of believing that peace means making everyone comfortable.  We need not get bogged down by the practicality of a vision where predators and prey intermingle or tripped up on the biology of carnivores digesting food that is utterly foreign to them.  Isaiah’s vision of lambs and wolves, toddlers and snakes, and straw-eating lions reveals that not everyone gets to be comfortable in the peaceable kin-dom when that comfort is rooted in domination and violence. 

The lions and the wolves still get invited to the party, but showing up means life is fundamentally altered. 

It is in this same spirit that John the Baptist preached his message in the wilderness.  John -- who I believe would go on to become the Patron Saint of Church Welcoming Committees -- greets the Pharisees and Sadducees with little interest in keeping them comfortable.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee?” 

To these groups, John’s baptisms in the wilderness represented a threat to their power, a decentering of theological control from the center to the margins.  He greets them with harsh words because he knows that they oppose his message.  He knows that they have aligned themselves so closely with the powerful that his message of the kin-dom at hand and all around will be near impossible for them to hear. 

Yet despite this harsh beginning, his message to them is essentially the same as to everyone: Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand, and bear fruit worthy of that repentance. 

The word repent is translated from the word metanoia, which means to completely change one’s mind, to go in a different direction.  John doesn’t turn away the pharisees and sadducees but he does invite them to turn around, to go another way and lead lives that move the world toward true peace where righteousness and faithfulness are the foundation of all relationships. 

John reminds them and us that access to the kin-dom is not about status, or inheritance, or privilege.  It is about a willingness to repent, to turn around and go another way.  It is about a willingness to say yes to the hope of a peaceable kin-dom so strongly that your life simply cannot stay the same. 

The Pharisees and Sadducees get invited to the party, but showing up means life will be fundamentally altered. 

The good news that John preaches is that the kin-dom of God is at hand, available to all who turn toward hope by preparing the way for peace and justice to reign.  It is not something we inherit once we die if we somehow manage to make the cut, nor is it something that is tied to any one specific time and place.  Rather, the kin-dom of God is always at hand, it is come near, it is a reality we can be awakened to every time we turn in hope toward a vision of peace where justice reigns. 

The baby Jesus that we wait for during Advent may have just been a reality for a short thirty-some years almost two millennia ago, but Christ has been and continues to be an eternal reality that we can know at all times.  This is why Advent is just as important as Christmas, why the patient preparations are just as meaningful as the hoped for celebration to come.

Our Advent waiting makes this Christ known and brings the kin-dom of God into our hands when, with John, we turn our waiting into preparation.  When we “prepare the way” in both big and small ways, we begin to realize that this is the point.  When we live every moment as if Christ is already come near, we begin to realize that this journey of constantly preparing the way, this journey of constantly choosing hope, peace, joy, and love was the whole point all along rather than simply some prelude to the main event.   

Our poster this morning includes an image of Joseph, and just like with Mary, he is invited into this story and he says yes.  He says yes to faithfulness and no to turning Mary away in shame.  He says yes to welcoming this baby into his life and giving him a name.  He says yes to fleeing his home to protect his new family.  And with each yes comes another invitation, another opportunity for yes to God, yes to protecting the tender shoots that show up in our lives and doing all we can to water them, find just the right sunlight, offer them nourishment so that they can grow and change the world with their own yes’s. 

You and I, all of us get invited to the party, but showing up means life will be fundamentally altered. 

And so my wish for us, my friends, is:

  • That we would never forget the content of our hope is an impossibly peaceful kin-dom that compels us to do whatever we can to make it a reality.
  • That we would remember that working toward peace does not mean that everyone must be comfortable, least of all ourselves as we do the work of being peacemakers.
  • And finally, that we would hear the invitation that echoes in every moment, begging us to say yes to a kin-dom that has come near, that is at hand, and that is all around.