The Incarnation Is More Radical Than We Care To Admit.
Advent 2A | Isaiah 11:1-10
A shoot shall come out from the stock 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.
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse”.
This isn’t a forest or the tall pines of northern Michigan or the California redwoods. A garden of purity and perfection or the humble boxwoods in our garden. A shoot, a small bit of something poking through the soil amidst the decay.
A chance at life. A chance when certain doom is expected.
A shoot from Jesse’s line. Jesse, the father of David. David, the runt of the family. And defintiely not the most powerful member of his own family, let alone Judah.
Certainly not that boy. No chance he could unite the tribes into a single kingdom. No way.
Still, in Isaiah’s day, a need for another shoot, another David. Not the king, conqueror, Messiah.
Someone else. To us, another boy.
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.
For Isaiah righteousness and justice are linked.
As is judgment and equality. It’s all of a tangle. We often pull these things out from each other and try to separate, isolate them. So they’re much easier to judge.
But hear how Isaiah’s speaking to an unbalanced and unrighteous world being changed and reformed. It isn’t the false equality of unrighteous niceness. It’s to bring equity to where there is inequity. It’s to bring low those powers of might which oppress and destroy. Not because things look fair. Or seem sound. But to match GOD’s sense of righteousness.
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.
Lions don’t want to eat straw.
We love this passage. I love Isaiah 11. I crave the sense of righteous judgment GOD calls for, but we have to be honest with ourselves and that sense of equality we are longing for; that sense of the Upside Down Economy Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.
Not only does equality mean naming righteous the ones we toss into our gutters, but it is to acknowledge that predators and prey aren’t equal. You can’t just claim they are. Put ’em in the field together and say, “now you two behave.”
Predators eat prey. And the only way they get along is if the predators stop attacking prey. It isn’t on the prey to be less appetizing. It isn’t on them to dress down and not give off anything that might trigger the predator’s carnal nature.
The Kin-dom GOD reveals is one in which wolves no longer feast on lambs, but instead, eat plants, like lambs do. Carnivores become herbivores. They are the ones who change.
Equality isn’t a two way street or survival of the fittest. Equality, Isaiah’s equality, Jesus’s Jubilee Kin-dom, GOD’s dream for creation is about a far more radical equality.
It means lions have to eat straw.
To be changed. We have to change.
So that we don’t fear each other. The different. The foreigner. We give up our bigotry. We change. Regardless of whether or not they do.
This is our background as we approach the birth story.
When a lion stalks a people.
The writer of Matthew gives us a short story of Jesus’s birth. The real action comes after, as the brutal King Herod hears of the newborn king and seeks to have him killed. When he can’t find him, he slaughters all the infant and toddler boys in the region. A heinous and despicable act.
Herod is no Messiah, no GOD-anointed king. He’s a bloody dictator and despot. And a frightened, paranoid, pathetic man wielding incredible power.
And yet, from this destruction, a shoot survives.
The baby saved in Egypt by his parents, Mary and Joseph. The picture of humility. Seemingly forgoing their royal status just to be together, to save this baby boy. Alone.
The contrast couldn’t be greater.
- Humility vs. arrogance
- Lowly vs. powerful
- Hope vs. fear.
Our present moment, this season, displays that same contrast.
We buy junk to honor the one who told us to give everything away.
Like a tsunami, we are thrown from our feet by a wave of consumption. Supposedly to celebrate the birth of a Messiah born in poverty. Our story really has been hijacked and is unrecognizable.
This time of preparation; this story of salvation; used to sell Coke-a-cola and Amazon Prime subscriptions.
We spend 450 billion dollars on Christmas. Every year.
To make clean water accessible to every person on the planet, it would take something in the ballpark of 10 billion a year.
This is just wrong. This is what’s upside down.
These are the righteous who Isaiah says will be treated with equity. The millions who walk miles for dirty water.
This Advent season, preparing for Christmas isn’t a time of going broke to have it all, it’s a time of spending less and giving more. That’s the story we’re hearing about.
Jesus came to turn the world upside down.
To help us see, not only that vision of the wolf and the lamb as an abstract idea, as the beautiful metaphor it is, but to see the way out of the rut we’re in. The rut of inequality; predators and prey, abusers and abused, monsters and victims; and to seek true equality.
An equality which requires changes in our world.
Changes to the way we treat each other and see one another. In our laws and our personal practices. Changes which help us see inequality and how we might be present to it.
The birth story we are preparing to hear isn’t just about the fact Jesus showed up, it’s about the way he came to us. In poverty, to outcasts hunted by a powerful predator.
So the story invites us to go far beyond buying stuff and spreading joy, but to also seek truth in our world and seek out GOD’s work in places we usually don’t look. Where the people we overlook reside.
Ignore the ways of empire, which destroy our souls and impoverish our lives. Don’t succumb to the voices of consumption who tell this story of revolution and transformation simply to enslave our minds to buy more junk. As they also blind us to the needs of others.
Instead, choose to spend less. And give meaningful gifts.
Spend less on those of us who have more than enough. And give more to those without.
If you are looking for ways to give meaningfully to those in need, I recommend:
- Episcopal Fund For Human Need – Our diocesan outreach fund.
- Episcopal Relief and Development – The Episcopal Church’s international ministry which is among the most effective outreach efforts in the world.
- Charity:Water – Which is an extremely effective organization getting access to potable water to people all over the world.
- And of course, our ministries – including Toys for Tots, our ongoing homeless collection, our health insurance ministry, and of course, the congregation itself.
Because celebrating Christmas this way, in spending less on the stuff we don’t need and more on those who are suffering, well…that’s about as radical an idea now as it was then.