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Un/reasonable expectation

Advent 2, Common Lectionary Year A

Isaiah 11:1-10

©2013 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones 

It is hard to let John the Baptist go back to his sour grapes and brood of vipers without trying to soften the blow of his passing, but today we shall. He’ll be back next year.

This year, we let Isaiah the poet speak.

For once, an ancient text leaps seems to have been written just for us and our time, with its images of an ideal leader about to appear over the horizon, better than those currently making their salacious headlines ….. But of course it is an ancient text, written to a people suffering under the ineffectual vacillations of a puppet King Ahaz, more determined to hang on at all costs than rule with wisdom, or courage.

Isaiah’s vision of a just king, courageous, fair, just, honest, and wise, was, and surely is a reasonable expectation; if God is in heaven and all is right with the world, then the human community deserves to be governed well, for the good of all, surely?

But just as we settle in to thinking that what we are dealing with here is humanly possible, given the right circumstances, the poet describes the community of creation under the leadership of such a wise ruler…. and all bets are off!

“The wolf shall lie with the lamb, the leopard with the kid of a goat, grazing domesticated animals will keep placid company with creatures that rightly would eat them for breakfast, (recall those sharks in finding Nemo… “fish are friends not food”) and toddlers will play in a snakepit without harm.”

Try drawing this  – *and you see how unreasonable it is,   how surreal. This famous painting by 19th Century Quaker, Edward Hicks. Not political or human news after all, nor normal, for “finally comes the poet!” This is a vision, an expectation beyond the naturally possible, beyond the logic of the brain that hurls us into the sacred realm of holy imagination. Finally comes the poet,  bringing the human soul into conversation with the  daring, unreasonable Dream of God.

If we think that this peaceable kingdom is where Isaiah went all poetic on us, then we missed the  first clue, in the first words “ A shoot from the stump of Jesse”

What we don’t see, from the way the lectionary breaks down the text, is that Isaiah in chapter 10 has only just finished declaring God’s just judgment upon the king, Ahaz and all his self-serving kind, saying  “the tallest trees will be cut down and the lofty will be brought low.”  So, how is it reasonable to expect a solution to come from the remnants of the problem?

That’s the gift of the poet, though isn’t it? The ability to capture the imagination, even with the seemingly impossible. This messianic promise, with its expectations just beyond the unreasonable, nevertheless has the ring of  such beauty, such goodness, that we hang on the words, alert to that tiny shoot of possibility. What might happen? We wonder….. if it were to come true?

This poet is good! With few words,  she gifts us with dreams apparently impossible, but sufficiently akin to the Dream of God that we let them play in our sanctified imaginations, we get to dream, like God, alert to possible, redeemed futures.

Edward Hicks, drew that painting 61 times! A dream of God that wouldn’t let him go until it blessed him. And how persistently do we hold on to the unreasonable expectations for goodness, wholeness, for peace with justice, because deep down, we know it is somehow a holy expectation? And so we sit up, alert to the signs God casts like stardust all around us, that such dreams are God’s to be given and lived in us.

Watch….. The stump from the shoot of Jesse,        the life that finds its way in the deadest of places:  (slides).

Or try this.  Where in life have we seen the impossible emerge from nothing more than an unreasonable expectation of something right and just? Do I need to say much more than “Nelson Mandela,” or Dr King, or Gandhi? Ordinary, complex, imperfect people captivated then transfigured by the unreasonable expectation of a peaceable kingdom, where  apartheid, colonial suppression, racial injustice might one day be overcome?

I know  for myself, that the juxtaposition of this text today with the news of Mandela’s death helps me to  grapple with the tendency we – I have – of getting caught up in the mystery of God’s dream, while failing to see the earthiness of it. God’s Dream is not about the sweet by and by, but about a world redeemed, here and now, and in the most unlikely ways. It’s about holding fast to crazy expectations, enough to believe that they can indeed be so, because they have been so in the far, and recent past.

For surely the notion of peace in the Middle East, from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, so seemingly impossible, is nothing other than a vision of wolves and lambs,  prey and predator sharing the same manger? Similarly, surely there has to be a way to forge a society that is inclusive, fair, just, that welcomes the contributions of stranger, foreigner and native born? One that will also cry out against corruption, or against the deformations of human nature that vilify and de-personify the other? How can this not be the Dream of God?

How can we not decide to be alert to the possibility that such Dreaming  by God involves ordinary complex people like us, in much the same way that it involved a young woman and a carpenter, a few shepherds, and even Zoroastrian astrologers, tax collectors and fishermen?

And of course, an infant, who never lived to see old age, crucified for a holy Dream of peace through justice; and infant-grown, who endowed though he was with the spirit of wisdom, expressed his power and might only and always in compassion, servanthood and love.

From the stump of Jesse, springs forth a shoot. Let’s expect nothing less in our own lives, for the sake of the world. Amen.


[i] A line from Walt Whitman, and used by Walter Brueggemann to describe the ‘daring speech’ best used to provoke encounter with the crazy expectations of the Gospel.

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