A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
One Christmas, many years ago, there was one thing I wanted more than anything else: I wanted to kidnap Santa Claus.
I must’ve been 7 years old when I decided it was time to enter the world of criminal activity and I began plotting my plan. At the time, my bedroom was in the basement just down the hall from the living room and the fireplace where Santa usually entered the house. For months I eagerly anticipated that hallowed night when we would leave out the cookies and the milk, when we would deck ourselves out in matching pajamas, when we would struggle to sleep with the excitement of the morning presents so close at hand, but this time I was going to be ready.
In the days that led up to Christmas, the time we call Advent, I went through every drawer and found items that could be used for my trap. I took every tie and belt that I owned and tied them together in one long rope. It wasn’t quite enough so I started collecting random bits of string I found around the house and added them to my dress clothes accessories. I carefully laid out the entirety of it from my bed, through my room, down the hall, around the corner, and right up to the front of the fireplace.
The key to the whole operation was the last piece attached to the last tie, my plastic Fisher-Price stethoscope. You see, with the stethoscope at the very end, it would functionally wrap around Santa’s ankle so that I could pull from my end in my bedroom and bring ole Saint Nick down to the ground.
And so I practiced. I set up the elaborate trap and forced my little sister to stand by the fireplace while I ran back to my bedroom, got under the covers and pulled as hard as I could. Over and over again I yanked on the line perfecting the angles and the force necessary to bring my prey into captivity. It was perfect. Now of course, my mother was very concerned when she discovered that all of my nice belts and ties were wrapped together and when she asked what I was up to, I replied, “Don’t worry about it.”
On Christmas Eve, we went to church with everyone else and I didn’t listen to a word. All I wanted was to get back to the house and catch the red-dressed man.
Why? Well I’m not entirely sure, but why not? After all, this guy shows up in homes every year and brings overwhelming cheer to so many. I guess I just couldn’t stand all the mystery, I wanted to know what compelled him to do what he did, and I wanted to know what he would say.
And so, after setting out the milk and cookies, after being tucked into bed, I waited until my parents went back upstairs and I set the trap. For minutes, which seemed like hours, I laid in bed with my hand tightly gripping the last belt. My focus was pure and unwavering. I listened for any sound that would indicate the moment to pull, I sniffed the air for the delicious smells of peppermint that accompany those from the North Pole, I held on for the slightest vibrations in response to Santa’s boot falling perfectly into the stethoscope.
And then I woke up.
Anticipation, expectation, patience, waiting: These are the words we can’t stand during this season we call Advent. Instead, we’d rather know what’s wrapped under the Christmas tree, we have lights hung up on the gutters before Thanksgiving, and we plan our holiday meals weeks in advance. We want to skip right to Christmas morning, and we can’t imagine it any other way.
And who can blame us? Christmas is all about the presents, and the songs, and the lights. The word “Christmas” conjures images of trees, and children ripping through wrapping paper, and squeals of delight. At least, that what Christmas means to the world.
Christmas is actually about Jesus. But with the advent of consumer driven commodities and the need for economic growth, Christmas has become the competition of corporations. Black Friday doesn’t even start on Friday anymore, but at 5pm on Thanksgiving Day. Americans will spend almost as much money on material goods from Thanksgiving to Christmas as we do the rest of the year combined. And we do all this to celebrate a homeless baby born in a stench-filled manger. Or, just take a drive around Staunton at night sometime this week, there used to be mangers and magi in yards, now you’re lucky it you can find a plastic baby Jesus behind Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and giant inflatable renditions of Santa Claus.
Advent, this strange and beautiful season in the life of the church, is all about our re-participation in the season of anticipation, expectation, patience, and waiting.
It’s like planning to kidnap Santa Claus for weeks and dreaming about what might happen. Advent is a time where we are forced to wait, like the Israelites did so long ago, for so long, to find out what would happen. While the world fast-forwards to the next consumer driven holiday, while retailers are already putting out decorations for Valentine’s Day, while the world rushes on and on and on, we wait.
We wait and remember how long God’s people waited for what we have: Jesus the Christ.
A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Peace comes from a stump. Out of something that appears completely and utterly finished, an object that others would gloss over comes the sign of new life – a green sprig.
This is how hope and peace begin – they emerge like a tiny tendril in unexpected places through the least likely of people. Like a child foregoing their Christmas presents so that other might rejoice in the celebration this year; hope and peace appear in this world in strange and beautiful ways.
From the line of David will come a child, and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear, will be his. He will not judge by what his eyes see or by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he will transform the world.
For centuries the Israelites waited for a child such as this. While new powers and principalities dominated their very existence, they prayed in anticipation of the Messiah who would come to turn the world upside-down, they proclaimed the faithfulness of the Lord in sending the shoot from the stump, and they dreamed about how reality would change.
In that day, the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
This is not what the world looks like today. There are no predators and prey lying sweetly together in the fields. Republicans and Democrats are not skipping hand in hand down the main streets of our communities. Children are not content with Christmas trees without presents bursting from the bottom. The protestors at Standing Rock are not dancing around the fires with the leaders of the Dakota Access Pipeline while snow falls from the sky.
Isaiah’s vision of a child leading the way to peace is strange because it is so different from what the Israelites experienced, and it is so different compared to the terror and brutality and greed that we experience.
We don’t know peace.
We know fear and violence and pain.
We see the images of fires raging through communities and leveling places like Gatlinburg to the ground. We hear the screams of children in Aleppo on the news as they run from bombs falling out of the sky. We experience the terror of ever-shrinking bank accounts when we feel pressured to fill this particular season with as many material goods as possible.
We are a fearful people. Even today, we are just like the Israelites waiting for a better day, a day of hope, a day of peace.
I failed in my attempt to enter the criminal world by kidnapping Santa Claus because I fell asleep. I was exhausted by the insatiable desire to get precisely what I wanted. Instead of patiently waiting for the mystery, instead of living into the reality of things unseen, I fell asleep on Christmas Eve with a belt tied around my hand.
Peace and hope come from unexpected places. But when we are so consumed by our desires, when we want to skip right to Christmas morning, when our sin stands in the way of God making all things new, we become the ax resting by the roots of the stump. We become the stumbling blocks that prevent God’s peace and hope from reining in this world.
Our desire for an answer to every question propels us into a place where we no longer consider the consequences of our actions.
Our desire for economic prosperity fuels our inability to remember those who suffer at the hand of our greed.
Our desire for material fulfillment prevents us from ever being the people God is calling us to be.
In my attempted Christmas Eve kidnapping, I wanted to have control over the one bearing gifts. But God calls us to relinquish our control and seek the will of the Lord.
In life we want answers to all our questions, but God calls us to be the answers to our questions. If we want peace, then we have to become part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
Advent is the time for us to wait and remember. We wait for the Lord and remember our brokenness. We wait for the Lord to do a new thing, and we remember that we are called to be people of peace. We wait and remember that through God’s help, we can destroy the ax that is our sinfulness, and instead we can bear fruit in the kingdom of God.
Isaiah promises the people a future of peace, a time we cannot yet imagine, though it will be so new and strange and wonderful that it will be like predators and prey lying contently with one another. This is a vision of God’s infinite future of reconciliation when we are brought into unity with one another, with creation, and with the Lord.
But’s Isaiah’s vision of a future of peace is also a promise of peace here and now. Peace from a stump. Peace from a baby. Peace from something like a loaf of bread.
For it is at this table, where bullies and the bullied sit together, where the weak and meek eat with the healthy and wealthy, that we catch a glimpse of the future of peace. This meal, the bread and the cup, are a foretaste of God’s heavenly banquet, this is the place where all divisions end.
God is doing a new thing whenever we feast together. It’s not just that we march up to the front and catch a glimpse of heaven only to return to our pews with thoughts of sugarplums dancing in our heads. No, we come to this table, we are consumed by that which we consume, and we are changed. The meal follows us when we leave, God works in us through the power of the Spirit and we necessarily become the people of peace that God promised so long ago.
Isaiah saw, with eyes wide open, a vision of the kingdom of God that we wait for every Advent. He had a vision of a baby being born into the world in order to transform the world. He saw the glorious dwelling of the Lord made manifest in the least likely of places.
And through this, he had hope. Hope for things yet unseen. Hope for old and backwards assumptions being lost to the sands of time. Hope for new vision and hearing to perceive the world through the power of the Spirit. Hope for peace. Amen.