by Daniel Harrell
Isaiah 11, the Lectionary assignment for this Second Advent Sunday is classically Christmas—so much so that portions of it frequently appear printed on Christmas cards. Especially verse 6: “The wolf shall live with the lamb… and a little child shall lead them.” There’s peace on earth on earth and goodwill among the animals at least, and children are in charge, as if that were something new. That Isaiah seems to speak of a specific child—namely the baby Jesus—is what makes Isaiah 11 suitable for Christmas cards. Never mind that Isaiah really isn’t necessarily referring to the baby Jesus here. It could be any child. The prophecy reiterates what we read last Sunday: this is a preview of new creation where predation ends and the little children have come unto the Lord since to them does belong the Kingdom of God.
Of course Jesus did come as a little child to lead us, he is the shoot that springs from Jesse’s stump. He is the branch who grows to bear fruit of the spirit. With wisdom and might he executes justice. And then we read, “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Not something you’d print on a Christmas card. Though it would make a great Advent card. The kind of card you might send to the rude woman who shoved you out of the way fighting for Black Friday bargains at Target. If only I could get her address. If you were here last Sunday, you know that Advent, meaning coming or arrival initially shows up in church liturgy not as a Christmas ramp-up, but as a Judgment Day wake-up. By setting its sights on Jesus second coming instead of his first, Advent reminds the church of Christ’s coming to right the wrongs of injustice and restore the downtrodden. Advent counters the rampant despair and cynicism common to life in an unjust world, while at the same time fighting against the complacency and disobedience endemic to backsliding believers for whom Jesus has delayed too long. “Keep awake,” Jesus warned in the gospels, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. If the owner of a house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
While in college I served as the chaplain of my fraternity house, mostly because that was the job the religious guy always got pegged with. Ours wasn’t a Christian fraternity, but like many that originated in the South, it did have its Christian roots. Ironically, I endured a good deal of ridicule for my actually being a Christian. The other brothers felt that I cramped their hell-raising lifestyles, especially once I announced I was heading off to seminary after graduation. Nevertheless, the house chaplain was fairly powerful in that he got to determine who among the new pledges made it to the final initiation. Suddenly instead of being on the receiving end of ridicule, I was in the position to dish it out. So I did. I made those pledges miserable ordering them to do all sorts of silly and embarrassing tasks just because I could. Absolute power proved absolutely corrupting. Naturally the other brothers loved it. Maybe I wasn’t such a party-pooping Jesus freak after all.
Eventually, however, the pledges had enough. One night as I sleeping soundly in my dorm room bed, there came a gentle knock at my door. I groggily, and as it happened regrettably, said, “come in,” and before I could open my eyes completely, the light flashed bright as in burst 12 angry pledges who picked me up, tied me up and hauled me into the woods where they cast me into the outer darkness where there was no weeping and gnashing of teeth, but there were plenty of chiggers and ticks. I totally deserved it. It was my own little judgment day that came unexpectedly, just like Jesus said, like a thief in the night.
To read of Judgment Day just in the gospels is to read of deception, wars, famine, earthquakes, persecution, betrayal, hatred, and wickedness, the blackening of the sun, moon and stars and the mysterious “abomination of desolation” followed by the terrifying parenthetical note: “let the reader understand.” No kidding. Please “let the reader understand!” But Jesus doesn’t clarify. He says only that when you see it, run. And pray you’re not pregnant and that it’s not winter. All sorts of false prophets will herald false messiahs with all sorts of false promises in order to sidetrack you. So “watch out,” Jesus says, “I have told you everything ahead of time.”
No you haven’t. You’ve only scared me to death. Author Annie Dillard once wondered if her Sunday School teachers knew what they were doing when they bade her to consume great chunks of the Bible and commit them to memory. She thinks that if they had read it, they would have hid it. She’s probably right. I remember first reading these scary Jesus words and deciding I was definitely doomed.
It’s easy to get the idea that Jesus is coming back to jerk a knot in your life. But the Bible is more about Jesus coming back to undo the knots you’ve already made in your life. His intent is not to catch you doing wrong but to keep you doing right. Advent is not an expectation of terror, but the glad expectation of salvation and joy. The entire Bible bends toward God’s final victory over sin and evil—including our own. But it’s a victory already won through the death and resurrection of Jesus. For those who are in Christ, new creation starts now. Judgment Day is mostly a mop up operation.
In the book of Revelation this mop up operation features a fiery Jesus galloping in on a stormy white stallion, making war on evil with a broadsword protruding out of his mouth. We read “he strike down the rebellious nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron.” You hear the traces of Isaiah. The triumphant Jesus is the fruitful branch sprouted from Jesse’s stump. Jesse was the father of the iconic King David, the one in whose image the longed-for Messiah would come. That the stump is the stump of Jesse, however, suggests that the Messiah to come would not be a King David clone. He would be kingly and victorious alright, but his crown would have thorns and his victory a cross. Jesse’s family tree had been reduced to a stump due to the repeated failure of King David’s descendants—another reason why a brand new branch from Jesse was needed. This new branch bears fruit of the spirit: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” “Fear” refers to that healthy respect for God’s authority that elicits obedience and loyalty.
Full of the Spirit, Jesus judges not by what he sees (that is, by mere appearances); nor by what he hears (that is, by mere hearsay). Jesus judges with righteousness and integrity as belts around his waist. The meek and the poor are vindicated while the wicked get served their just desserts. Justice extends to the well-being of all creation. Swords get beaten into plowshares and lions become vegetarians. Predator and prey, leopards and kids, infants and adders are reconciled so securely that a child can lead and they will follow. They will follow along with the nations about whom we read from Isaiah 2 who say “Come, let us climb the mountain of the LORD, that he may teach us his ways, that we may walk on his paths.” “No one will either harm (do what is wrong) or destroy (mar what is good) on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord, “for the earth will be full of a living knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”
Friend and author Danielle Shroyer describes her son’s kindergarten Christmas program: A host of five- and six-year-olds, fidgeting on risers and fumbling with their little Christmas collars, big smiles on their faces and unashamed voices booming forth, singing, “You be the lion strong and wild, I’ll be the lamb, meek and mild; we’ll live together happily, ‘cause that’s how it ought to be.” And yet, she writes, “As I watched that throng of kindergartners singing, something immensely powerful washed over me; it was like a monsoon of hope and sadness, all these children so certain the world ought to be this way, and me so certain of all the ways it isn’t. It moved me to tears, really; a jumbled mix of bittersweet tears—Advent tears—for that long pause between what is and what should be, what is and what we Jesus-followers believe will be.
Here’s the hard thing about Isaiah 11 despite all of its poetic beauty and hope: a little child did come to lead us but we have yet to make it to God’s holy mountain. Cows graze in feed lots waiting to be processed into cheap hamburger beef. The lamb gets shorn to make clothes that will last less than a few seasons. Lions and leopards fill endangered species lists, hunted for their hides and due to the loss of their habitats. Children don’t come anywhere near a snake’s lair because they don’t play outside much anymore. The smog can get so thick you can’t even see mountains. And as for righteousness and justice? On Friday I sat alongside a number of Twin Cities leaders whose various non-profits remain overwhelmed by relentless needs only exacerbated by Christmas: veterans who can’t get health benefits, homeless families that can’t find work, victims of torture who can’t find solace, job assistance programs that helplessly watch state budget deficits deepen and partisan politics harden, all the while fueling an unjust disparity between rich and poor.
Shroyer writes, “We are so drunk on the process of hurting and destroying one another that we can no longer see past the ends of our military-might-political-fight-I-am-always-right noses. Death tolls rise, wars rage on, hunger and sickness strike day after day. We have lost sight of the mountain altogether. The little child has come to lead us, did we simply not follow?”
This is an Advent question. A Second Coming question asked by Jesus himself. In one of those haunting apocalyptic gospel passages, Jesus describes coming back in glory surrounded by angels with the nations gathered before him. He takes his seat as judge then separates people one from another, like a shepherd separates sheep from the goats. He issues his final decree—the last word—the rod of his mouth with which he strikes the earth in Isaiah; the double-edged sword that protrudes from his mouth in Revelation. One edge is reward for the righteous, “Come my blessed and take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick and in prison and you cared for me.” But the other edge is “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was in need and you did nothing.” The response of both sides is identical: shock. They never realized. “When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty, sick or imprisoned? When did we see you?” Jesus, pronouncing his solidarity with the powerless, replies: “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did the same to me.” As the book of Hebrews explains, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Still, Advent is not an expectation of terror, despite the terrifying language. Isaiah writes that the fear of the Lord is to be our delight. Advent gets our attention in order to get us to take our grace seriously. Advent underscores two humbling realities: our sin is real—and in Christ, our sin is gone. New creation has already started. This is our delight. Judgment Day is a mop up operation. But until the last day, as new creations in Christ, we have to help with the mopping. To take grace seriously is to give grace to others.
As new creations in Christ, we live our lives as if the last day is today. On that day “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.” Isaiah makes clear that Jesus the branch not only bears the fruit of the Spirit, but is the Spirit himself. “I am the root and the branch of David,” Jesus says in Revelation, “the bright morning star” that shines as a signal to all nations. The green light. A little child come to lead us. A Savior come to save us. A Spirit that fills us with a serious taste of grace. As we come to the communion table, let us taste that grace anew, let us follow the child and make it to the mountain.