Why is the stump of Jesse taking so long to fill the whole world with the knowledge of God?
by Danielle Shroyer
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
For Sunday, December 5, 2010 Year A - Advent 2
Picture it: Sicily, 1928. (Golden Girls fans, you’re welcome.) Actually, the picture happened last year, at my son’s kindergarten Christmas program. There they all were, 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.”
This passage from Isaiah has always been one of my favorites. It illustrates many of the deepest hopes I hold, the ones where our world will be filled not with pain and destruction but with righteousness and justice, that day when a little child shall lead us up to that holy mountain because we are ready, finally, to turn in our damaging ways for the way of the Lord.
Can we raise the banners yet?
At Advent, we Jesus-types declare our bold hopes for the world to the world. Go tell it on the mountain, we say, over the hills and everywhere! “Let earth receive her King!”, we sing.
Indeed, the first two stanzas of our Isaiah text leave us no reason to hold back our enthusiasm. In Advent we proclaim that Isaiah’s words have been made manifest through the Christ child, the branch growing forth from the tree of Jesse. And those of us who follow this Christ child affirm that yes, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding and the fear of the Lord rested upon his shoulders. We affirm that he has judged the poor with righteousness. We know all too well how, through those convicting parables, the words of his mouth have assailed us in all our shadowed places. We say all of this with holiday cheer and merriment, even, because we believe it’s the best thing — he’s the best thing — that has happened to us.
But then we get to the third stanza, the part about the lions and the lambs and the child-friendly snakes. There is a chasm the size of Texas between those two stanzas. There is a black hole of despair just waiting for us, daring us to try to make the jump. It’s all death eaters and dementors down there, sucking the life right out.
Can we hurdle the chasm?
What do we do with this lingering prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled? What kind of time-space gap is lingering in that one, solitary break from stanza two to stanza three? Why is the stump of Jesse taking so long to fill the whole world with the knowledge of God?
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 this text in all its beauty: the little child has come to us — two thousand years ago and counting — and we have not yet made it to God’s holy mountain. The cows are still grazing in the fields waiting to be processed into cheap beef for our hamburgers. The lamb is still getting shorn to make clothes that will last less than a few seasons. Children don’t come anywhere near a snake’s lair because they don’t play anywhere outside much anymore.
And righteousness? Justice? 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…and we have lost sight of the mountain altogether.
The Hardest Question
If the little child has come, and shall lead us, did we simply not follow? Did we miss our chance? Did we get lost along the parade route and never realize the party broke up? ‘Tis the season to dream big dreams and hope big hopes. But the hardest question remains: Why is the earth not yet filled with the knowledge of the Lord?
Danielle Shroyer is the Pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, TX. She is the author of The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and blogs at www.danielleshroyer.com. Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.