Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1). With beautiful words the prophet Isaiah describes his vision of a future king, like David, who rules with “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (v 2). We lay on hands and say these words to affirm our baptism to become members of this church. In some small way that makes each of you an answer to Isaiah’s prayer. We are tasked with fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of nonviolence and social harmony, building communities where the wolf, the lamb, the leopard and the kid live together in peace.
Soon after Isaiah wrote these famous poetic words, the only thing that would remain real was the stump. The story begun in Eden continuing through Abraham, Sarah, Moses, King David and the Prophets came to an end. The temple soon fell into ruins. The people killed or carted off in chains, neither their time nor their bodies would be their own. All was cut down, destroyed.
I am aware that I am grieving the decay of our civic life, the erosion of great institutions of government, education, and the church. I am anxious about the inability for all of us to agree even on basic facts. Yet nothing I am worried about today compares with the utter devastation people of faith have coped with in the past. It’s not that our worries and concerns aren’t legitimate and relevant. But fortunately, we possess the wisdom of our ancestors to guide us through times of doubt or unknowing when it comes to faith.
It happens more than we care to admit. The sense of being stranded in the midst of life can be enough to drain a person’s self-worth. Where did the joy go? Where did the feeling of self-confidence disappear to in the midst of this emptiness? Just yesterday life was clear and vibrant. Today it is endlessly bleak. The darkness is unyielding. Nothing helps; nothing takes it away. There is no light here, we think. But we think wrong.
The Old Ones whisper, there is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. “It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. That is the light that shines in darkness.” (Sister Joan Chittister)
Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into unknowing is just beginning. Without that, we are only words. We are false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.
The light we gain in darkness is faith. Faith is our light. United Church of Christ pastor Mark Longhurst describes how both light and dark are essential for transformation. The light and the darkness are bound up with one another. Periods of seemingly fruitless darkness may in fact highlight all the ways we rob ourselves of wisdom by clinging to the light. Who grows by only looking on the bright side of things? It is only when we lose our certainties that we become able to see past false images of God to discover the grace operating beneath all our self-serving fantasies and fears. (Mark Longhurst, “Beyond Light Supremacy: Let There Be Light *and* Darkness,” Patheos, 10-11-19).
The terrible, disorienting experience of Exile opened the hearts of God’s people wide enough some of them became able to recognize the Messiah even when hanging on a cross. It made some of them ready to live into the radical reality of God’s ubiquitous grace. One of them was John the Baptist. Like Isaiah, he also speaks to us today about a tree stump This time, it is God doing the chopping to make way for the kingdom. “Even now the axe is lying against the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10). What kind of kingdom you ask? The peaceable kingdom, like the one Isaiah described.
“John planted himself in the middle of nowhere. He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there…” and not just trouble, but plenty of danger too. (Barbara Brown Taylor) To hear him preach about repentance and baptism, a pilgrim from Jerusalem had to take that treacherous Jericho road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan. They had to trek through blazing desert, carrying all their own food and water, traversing hills and lonely canyons infested with bandits to Jericho and then beyond—to the wilderness beside the Jordan far away from everything.
Ask yourself. Who would make such a journey? Who would risk it? Who would be so desperate? Many who went out to see John had nothing left to lose. Their lives counted for very little. They had lost hope in building a life for themselves. They went to the desert in search of a little peace. They returned to become midwives of a new creation of impossible possibilities.
Often God’s little ones are the first to hear the angels or to follow the leading star. The people who flocked to hear John the Baptist were people on the margins, outcasts, thieves, and sinners—and right behind them came a second group of people—those sent out to keep tabs on the people who lived on the margins, to be sure things didn’t get out of hand.
That sets the scene of our gospel today. John announces the Lord’s coming. He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He speaks of fiery judgment, and of wrath to come. Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo about wishing everyone a very merry Christmas.
John’s Baptism of fire is bad news to those in authority and anyone peddling Christmas like a commodity, but good news to the poor, the grieving, the victims of violence, those who suffer injustice, and anyone longing for the kingdom of God.
Isaiah’s dream and John’s baptism are impossibly good news for everyone. Isaiah and John boldly declare God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize. The old ways are passing away. Even now, God is bringing something new out of the old, making what was impossible possible. A shoot is growing from the dead stump of Jesse. Death gives way to life. John and Isaiah expose the upside-down dreams our so-called common sense is built on and awaken us being part of God’s dream for this world following the light God has placed deep within us, the light only darkness can reveal, the light we call faith.