The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


This Branch Is Slower than Christmas

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.

Losing Sight

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 Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.


  1. Dave says:

    Why is the earth not yet filled with the knowledge of the Lord?

    I simply think it is because the Second Advent has not happened yet. We can’t expect the earth to be filled before then. We can see a taste of it now but until the Messiah is back we will not see the earth covered with his peace. When he comes again he will set up his government in Jerusalem and progressively restore the earth to its’ rightful place of perfection. Kind of like it was before sin entered the equation, I think. The earth will progressively fill with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as His law goes forth through us under the leadership of Jesus to the ends of the earth after his return (Isa. 2).

    The hope of a passage like Isaiah 11 is exactly what we need. The anchor that this will be a reality on the earth one day. As followers of Jesus, we have been given the Holy Spirit as the down payment of what it will be like in the entire cosmos one day. God dwelling with man. We have a taste of what will be seen in fullness then. We will throw off corruption for the incorruptible on the day of his return. (2 Cor. 5:1-5; 1 Cor, 15:51-55). The anchor of our faith is the 2nd Advent. The 1st Advent made a way and established a hope to endure until the Second Advent. “…rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 1:13)

    The Messiah needed to suffer first (Lk24:26) but he will return in the same way he left (Acts 1:11) and begin the process of filling the entire earth with the knowledge of his glory.

  2. Why is the earth not yet filled with the knowledge of the Lord?

    First thanks for the question! I think I think it’s too simple for us to simply answer this question by pointing to the second advent of Christ. I would suggest that lets us off the hook. I find myself going back to the text from last Sunday in Romans 13 which declares the night is far gone, the day is almost here. Paul there calls us to live as children of the day… realizing the glow on the horizon is the promise of the SON who’s coming is already, but not yet.

    I also find myself reflecting on these wonderful words that paint a picture which seems beyond us, a picture that fits better on Christmas cards than in reality. Let’s face it lions eating straw? Impossible! It’s just about that time that I remember the words of our great God, “nothing is impossible with God!”

    Perhaps we need to embrace the dream we see in this passage instead of relegating it to our Christmas Cards!

  3. Danielle says:

    Stephen, I completely agree. Last week’s Isaiah text is not any easier (people turning in guns for shovels?!) but I found myself spending my entire sermon talking about how it’s our job to be the people who believe the impossible and make it happen.

    It’s the hardest, most challenging thing we do. But the only alternative is to fall into that chasm of despair.

  4. The problem with saying that it is because the second advent hasn’t yet happened is that implies we have no responsibility to work on building a peace-filled world. As Stephen said, “It lets us off the hook.” We must be preparing the way for the Lord. His coming will be the announcement of the completion of the building of the Kingdom of God on earth. Christ established the Church to lead the way in the building of the Kingdom. We must not sit back and wait for him to come and do it all at some distant future. He is doing it right now through us. When the work is completed, we will live in peace and in harmony with God, with one another, with creation and with ourselves. That’s a vision worth spending ourselves to accomplish.

  5. Dave says:

    “…our job to be the people who believe the impossible and make it happen.”

    First off, thanks for the interaction! I appreciate hearing from you. I would disagree that looking to the 2nd coming is a cop out. We must have our hope fully set on the day of the Lord and must still be fully present in the now. The writer of Hebrews called the resurrection the “anchor” of our souls. It what centers us in the midst of life. The only solution for the “chasm of despair” is the 2nd coming and making sure our lives are lined up with the culture of the coming king’s kingdom (Mat 5,6,7 sums this culture up maybe).

    I am familiar with “already not yet” (Goerge E. Ladd being the first to frame the Kingdom in such a way) but I, personally, find this a confusing way to put it and it confuses the Universal Kingdom (God on a throne enthroned over creation. Isa. 66:1) and the Messianic Kingdom (the son of David establishing peace over all the earth. Isa. 9) in my opinion. I think Isaiah 11 talks about the Messianic Kingdom when Jesus us here. There is only one Messiah. Only one is capable of running the show (and he will one day in the future) and if I get the idea that I can make things right by trying harder and fixing things then it will always end in disappear. The only hope that I have is that things will not always be messed up. That he will come again.

    I am called to witness to that coming reality both in word and deed. Here how Peter summed up the message:

    “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:19-21)

    I love Paul’s encouragement regarding living right now for that day:

    “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.” (1 Thes. 3:12-13)

    Anyway, just me two cents trying to wrestle with the Scripture. Thanks.

  6. Let me offer a different way of phrasing one of your statements. Rather than saying, “If I get the idea that I can make things right by trying harder and fixing things, then it will always end in (disappointment?)” how about, “If we allow Christ to work through us to complete God’s vision for creation, it will certainly end in victory.” If we are trying to build God’s kingdom on our own, it will certainly end in disappointment. If the church is guided and empowered by the Spirit of Christ, God’s purposes cannot be thwarted. It has and will take a very long time, in part because the church has often been unfaithful to its calling. Why doesn’t Christ just do it without us? Perhaps, in part, because a purpose of building the Kingdom of God on earth is to give us the opportunity to mature into the image of Christ as we take on the responsibility of kingdom-building. I think this is the sacrificial cross Christ has called us to take up.

  7. Danielle says:

    I think we’ve hit on the main difficulty of the issue of Christ’s return. If we just sit around and wait, we can become detached from the world and get let off the hook for our part in the process. If we think the whole thing hinges on our actions, we can become overwhelmed with despair when (inevitably) things don’t get better.

    Here’s my push back- why do we have to choose? Why do we think these are the only two options we have, and that we must pick sides? Theologians almost always just pick a corner and stay there, rather than discussing what I find to be the most important part of this- the interplay between the two. If we believe Jesus is coming, then we must also admit that nobody has any idea- or any control over- how, when, and in what circumstances that would happen. If we believe the reign of God is the best way to live, then we must also conclude that our actions are the one thing we can control, the one thing into which we must pour all our efforts. So how then shall we live? As people who hope, and who try to make the impossible happen in concrete terms in our world, through the help of the Spirit.

  8. Dave says:

    “through the help of the Spirit”

    That’s good, Danielle. I couldn’t agree more.

    Holy Spirit, help!

  9. Thank you for your helpful insight. The tension is between the need to take responsibility and the danger of taking too much responsibility. You have expressed it more elegantly than I can. The old timers used to say, “Work as if it depended on you and pray as if it depended on God.” I would say, do the work Christ is calling you to do and trust him to use the results of your efforts to build the kingdom. Not nearly as elegant, but easier for a nuts and bolts person like me to understand.

  10. Randy says:

    I enjoyed very much this conversation.

  11. Rebekah Eckert says:

    Hi, folks. I’m reading the comments and I can’t help but wish one of the women from the bible study I work with was here. As she said, what a bizarre fairy tale, and what a denial of the true nature of life. Lions do not lie down with lambs; they would not be lions if they ate straw.

    Although for Isaiah I can picture this as rhetorical emphasis – peace is so bizarre, so out of character, picture it! – as strange as vegetarian carnivores – I find if I don’t wrestle with the bizarreness I get out of touch with the rest of the text, too. It’s a great dream. It hasn’t happened, it ain’t going to happen. (To quote Fiddler on the Roof, “wouldn’t now be a good time for the Messiah to come?”) To me any talk of a second coming is just excuses.

    So I ask where is God in this picture? Really, shoots spring up all over, in faith and out of faith (I have some lovely social justice atheist friends). And yes, they are filled with the spirit of wisdom, etc. etc. just not anything they would call God’s wisdom (and please let’s respect them enough to not slap on the title “anonymous Christians!”).

    My question is how much of wanting to believe God will fix the world for us is simply our yearning for a bigger parent? Or is there really anything worth holding on to of the God-story at all in this?

  12. Danielle says:

    Great questions, Rebekah. Thanks for sharing them! Here are my thoughts. First, I try to be a person who doesn’t rule out anything as impossible. Lions would have to undergo a significant identity shift to become vegetarians, but we live in a world where we can change the sex of a person through medical operations. We’ve figured out how to travel in gravity-free space and how to convert cow poop into energy. I heard a podcast the other day talking about how theoretically it is possible for someone to create their own universe- not plausible, certainly, but the formula is there.

    I hold onto this openness not due to some sort of utopian desire but because believing things are possible keep me accountable for trying to make them so. Who says we can’t choose peace over violence? We can, if we will it. But we never will if we assume it isn’t possible.

    That leads me to your second question, about the point of the God-story. I completely agree with you that an escapist view of waiting for God to fix the world is a wasted life- unhelpful and certainly unholy. I hold onto God’s story because it is bizarre, because it stretches our assumptions about what could be, because it asks more of us, and not less. A bigger parent is definitely not the answer. But a messiah who commands you to take up your cross and follow to this place where lions become vegetarians and where broken humans beat their guns into shovels? That’s about the hardest thing I can fathom.

    (And dear heavens, I really hope this doesn’t sound awfully self-promoting to say, but the questions you raise are the reasons why I wrote my book. I worry that we have made the God-story far too small, rather than big and explosive and expanding and challenging. I think it’s high time we change that.)

  13. Jonathan says:

    Ah the resurgence of an eschatology that died two generations ago: the post-millenialist…

    “When the work is completed, we will live in peace and in harmony with God, with one another, with creation and with ourselves. That’s a vision worth spending ourselves to accomplish.”

    While I totally agree that it’s a “vision worth spending ourselves to accomplish,” and that’s what individuals and the church should be doing, it doesn’t follow that only when we’ve COMPLETED that work will we see Second Advent. Just read Christ’s words on the second advent, and on the kingdom: “The poor you will always have with you…” Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for justice and mercy – just the opposite. But also doesn’t indicate that we will finish the work before Second Advent. Also read his descriptions of the church age (some would say the ‘end times’): There will be wars and rumors of wars (i.e. NO PEACE on earth), there will be environmental disaster (earthquakes, etc.), there will be great suffering, etc., etc.

    In light of these teachings the “we build the kingdom” then Christ will return is insufficient.

    And I agree – why does this have to be such a dichotomy? Why do we want to make it so black and white? It’s a both and – Yes God uses us to build the kingdom, and we should be “spending ourselves” for the kingdom. Yet we won’t/can’t complete it, but Christ will/does.

  14. Danielle wrote: “Why do we have to choose? Why do we think these are the only two options we have, and that we must pick sides? Theologians almost always just pick a corner and stay there, rather than discussing what I find to be the most important part of this- the interplay between the two.”

    Yes! This Midrashic interPLAY (emphasis on the PLAY part) is exactly the kind of environment we’ve envisoned for [TheHardestQuestion]! Thank you all for furthering the spirit of this.

  15. Rebekah Eckert says:

    Hee hee hee…in reading your response, Danielle, I found myself thinking of Margaret Atwood’s book In the Year of the Flood, where apocalyptic Christians have created the genetically modified” liobam” to hurry the time when the lion will lie down with the lamb: these creatures, fusions of lions and lambs, terrorize the remnant left on the environmentally depleted earth. So the Frankenlion will lie down with the Frankenlamb?

    I think in preaching this I won’t want to touch on that piece of hubris. And, to be honest, nor do I think I want to preach on picking up crosses, which too easily becomes a hero-fetish. Real heroes don’t pursue heroics – and if I preach the cross I find people either pretty it up too much (“It’s just like getting out of our comfort zone! Look, I smiled at an ugly person, I am carrying my cross too!”) or deny the reality for themselves (“Jesus was so wonderful. Look at how he suffered! God-on-the-cross just so outsuffers everybody else”).

    But wisdom? Counsel? Might? Recognition that we are not God? Equity and righteousness? That’s the Jesus who eats with all and sundry, who has both compassion and judgement, and I think I can preach that.

    This has been fun and illuminating – thanks!

How do you read?