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.


Conspiracy of Unkindness

Are we too demanding of God’s delivery of peace when we’re so full of rebellion?

by Mike Stavlund

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 63: 7-9

For Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010: Year A – First Sunday After Christmas

This Sunday we will be sitting, the day after Christmas, with bellies full and socks fresh and (if you’re among the 20% of affluent Americans who account for 40% of holiday sales) with toys aplenty. The Advent candles will have been put away, and we’ll be doing our best to look ahead. And yet, and yet: our Advent waiting is over, but it is far from complete. We’ve got an Advent hangover, and utopic texts like this one from Isaiah seem to mock us.

Shiny, Happy, Isaiah?

Isaiah 63:7-9 might be the perfect fulfillment of our Advent longing: Compassion. Good deeds. Faithfulness. Redemption. Salvation. Love. Mercy and the alleviation of affliction. The famous hesed (“lovingkindness”) of God, splashed over all of creation. Concluding with the familial and parental image of God “carrying and bearing” God’s children.

Ah, it is the best Christmas gift, saved for last. Except that it’s not. It yet stands − through millennia and even through the life and death and promised return of Christ − as a reminder that the not yet of God’s kingdom remains painfully and pointedly unfulfilled.

Airbrushed Advent

This passage is so dissonant that we wonder if it might be the source text for that schlocky Footprints poem that hangs in the hallways of our homes and lurks in the darker corners of our lives. The one where we’re assured that we’re never alone — that when it seems so, it was actually that God was bearing us up. “When you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Admit it! When we raise our eyes unto the larger context of Isaiah 63, don’t we wonder if this plaque was hanging in the conference room where the cabal of Common Lectionariers determined this passage? For we note with interest that they ended this reading precisely where Isaiah takes a hard right. “…but they rebelled… …and God turned to become their enemy, and fought against them…” (v. 10)

This community lament has been transformed into a warm pat on the back. A pericope that indicts the people of God as being utterly unfaithful has been de-fanged to mouth pious platitudes about a God who now seems docile and utterly domesticated. With an editorial snip, we miss Isaiah’s inflammatory commentary on the unfaithfulness of God’s followers, who spend far more time proclaiming ourselves “God’s servants” than we do acting like it. Who pray for shalom while we make war. Who ask for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness. Who preach repentance while we quietly judge.

A Coup by Me and You

What about our unfaithfulness? What about our complicity in the disintegration of our world? What about our individual and collective offenses toward both God and God’s creation? It’s not a friendly question, or a sexy one . And it’s certainly not PC in our post evangelical/protestant/liberal/modern/whatever worlds, but there it is. It hangs over our lives, and we deftly ignore it most of the time. It is as though there is a conspiracy against us, and it’s being led by us. And it’s being covered up by us.

In all of our Advent longing– and particularly in our THQ wonderings of how we can we keep preaching these texts, year after year, and expect people to believe that peace is coming– perhaps we’ve intentionally overlooked our responsibility to enact the elements of God’s kingdom that we have within our grasp. We have, it seems, a relationship with God more adversarial than collaborative. We’re longing for God to carry us across some sandy beach when we’ve been dragging God’s lovingkindness through the mud.

The Hardest Question

Are we too passive in our expectations of God’s fulfillment of our Advent longings? Are we too demanding of God’s delivery of peace when we’re so full of violence?

My hardest question is: What about OUR rebellion?


Mike Stavlund writes from a 5-car pile-up at the intersection of his Christian faith and real life. A husband of over 15 years and a father of 4 children, he lives with his wife and 3 daughters in a small house outside Washington, DC. He’s a part of an innovative emergence Christian community called Common Table, a co-conspirator with the Relational Tithe, and a proud part of the collective called Emergent Village. He is the author of the manuscript “Force of Will”, and blogs at


  1. Appreciated your comments — the hard questions need to find voice — and not be ignored. One of the great challenges for ministry within the church for me has been speaking/living God’s compassion and at the same time encouraging people to not put blinders on agains the pain/evil of the world and within.

  2. Danielle says:

    Wow, Mike- I had read only the excerpt from the lectionary reading and not the verses that follow. Amazing what a difference that makes! Great questions, a needed punch in the gut.

  3. Harry Potter says:

    Thanks for this, helped me.

How do you read?