The lessons for the Second Sunday of Advent are:
Old Testament Isaiah 11:1–10
Psalm Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19
New Testament Romans 15:4–13
Gospel Matthew 3:1–12
I’m willing to bet that when the prophet Isaiah pronounced this famous oracle of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-10), two overpowering emotions gripped his audience.
First was fear. Things were bad in Judah, and they were about to get worse. Scholars aren’t sure if it was from the original Isaiah, at a time of terror from the Assyrians, or from a disciple of Isaiah, decades later, under the Babylonian terror. But either way it was a time of burning cities, impalement of resisting soldiers, rape of women, mass enslavement and exile.
Both were times of great fear. Those who listened thought, “We counted on the Lord. He had promised to protect us with a king of David’s line—but now David’s family tree has been chopped down to the stump. Nothing is left to hope for.”
But the second emotion would have been shock at the boldness of the repetition of a single, stirring word, shouted out with such certainty: “S H A L L. A little word, but Isaiah hammers it home:
A shoot SHALL come out from that pitiful stump of Jesse.
A branch SHALL grow from his roots
Don’t hang your heads! Don’t fear the worst! Don’t even hope against hope. EXPECT IT! God’s checks don’t bounce, so take God’s promises to the bank!
God will send a leader, and the Spirit of the Lord SHALL rest on him.
His delight SHALL be in the fear of the Lord.
He SHALL be just and merciful. He won’t be moved by those with power and clout, but he SHALL be righteous with the poor, and equitable with the meek.
He SHALL speak with such truth and power that the earth will be moved and the wicked melt away.
The Day is coming when this righteous leader SHALL stand as a beacon and gather his people; and together they SHALL live and speak such truth and love that the whole world will be changed.
And then the earth itself—all nature SHALL be transformed into a peaceable kingdom. The wolf SHALL live with the lamb. The Leopard with the kid. The calf and lion. And a little child SHALL lead them.
If you are like me you can’t help being skeptical with Isaiah’s oracle. While you listen, those doubts and fears muddle your thoughts.
Covid, RSV, and flu are knocking at the door; not to mention Monkeypox and bird flu.
We might have dismissed talk of climate change, but barges and boats stuck in the mud of the Mississippi, Colorado, and Rhine rivers, and the fires and floods and famines all over the world have convinced us.
And we thought that that other horseman of the apocalypse, war, was a thing for exotic, faraway places like Yemen and Syria, but now it’s in Ukraine, helping to jack up our prices for gasoline and bread.
So how can we get past the sheer and utter pessimism? How can we possibly see any good coming out of this awful year we have been living through?
It’s the shock of the SHALL!!
Isaiah is saying, “It doesn’t matter what you feel. I doesn’t matter what the natural response is. It doesn’t matter what’s the rational thing to think—or what EVERYBODY is thinking. God is shocking you into seeing what God sees—the Truth of what’s happening right now, and what will happen in the future.
Then we can say together, “I believe, help my unbelief, O God!”
And Advent is the time, par excellence, when God gives us that shock. You see, it’s not really that WE light candles in the dark during Advent. God lights them for us.
And, finally, around the four Advent candles, God lights that fifth one–the big one—the Christ candle. Because it is when Jesus Christ shows us what God is like, and what we humans are supposed to be like, that we begin to see the rock hard Truth of everything. Then we know we do have so much that is yet broken and unfulfilled in this world, but there are signs all around that Christ is changing everything so that we can keep on keeping on.
God recently lit one candle for me. There was a moment recently when my wife and I once again said to each other, “If this election doesn’t go the way we want, we are going to move to Scotland.” Of course, we had talked that way several times before, and so it had become more and more a big joke than a genuine sentiment. However it was a way we had to express our foreboding. What is happening to our world?
Then, the very next day, I was browsing YouTube, and happened on what was perhaps the last episode of the Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour program. It was their last because they had woven into their singing and comedy a whole lot of criticism of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam war and racism, and the sponsors couldn’t back them anymore. But in this last show they ran a rapid fire video montage by Chuck Braverman: a retrospective of that horrible year, 1968. Here are just a few things that were highlighted:
In the Tet Offensive the North Vietnamese shattered American troops.
There were massive riots in American streets, and worldwide, over the war.
There were more riots over racism sparked by things like two black sanitary workers being crushed to death by a broken garbage truck in Memphis.
That was followed by the assassination of Martin Luther King
Later, Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was struck down.
Then more riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Okay, 1968 was a year maybe ever worse than 2022. But God lit this candle by making me wonder if 1968 was proof that life is irredeemable, so Jesus isn’t the Redeemer.
I was in college and becoming a young man in 1968, so I had to refresh my memory. Were there good things too? Were there green shoots of leaves growing from the stump of the tree of Jesse?
My mind went back to those days in my life. I was at Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Any signs of Jesus’ handiwork?
Fort Wayne was small, but the most prominent in Northeast Indiana. And our college had the best meeting place, so we hosted most of the presidential candidates. So I got to see that people cared about politics and cared about their communities; so they filled the bleachers to listen and think.
And the women’s movement! Half the human race under rated, underpaid, under-utilized for millennia—started to organize and make a big splash. Back at the all male Senior College we had a day of theological reflection with a bunch of visiting woman scholars. At one point I thought I was saying something to agree with them, but one woman turned and said I made her want to throw up. It hurt, but it helped wake me up. And a lot of men have been waking up since. So, 1968 was a big year as the woman’s movement did take shape and grow. Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to be elected to congress, winning the first of seven terms. And Yale University decided, after almost 300 years, to admit its first female undergraduates. Yes that didn’t happen until 1968!
And after the debacle of the Tet Offensive Americans woke up, pressured their leaders, and they turned the corner to resolving that endless war. Walter Cronkite stopped just reading what the Pentegon sent him, went to the front himself, and said to Americans “Vietnam is mired in stalemate.” Meanwhile, thousands of men burned their draft cards, returning soldiers told of the tragedies, Lyndon Johnson bowed to the criticisms and vowed not to run again. And the Paris Peace talks began.
And, before he went, Johnson managed a couple of outstanding things. Johnson negotiated and signed the the Fair Housing Act, barring housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. And he signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which to this day is the biggest things to reduce and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the world.
The Lord helped some very courageous people made stands in 1968—stands that have made our planet a better place. They made good trouble that has helped our nation, like 15,000 Latino high school students in Los Angeles, who walked out of classes to demand more equitable education. And like Czechoslovakian leaders who dared to disobey directives by their Soviet Union overlords and abolish censorship of the press. It triggered a Prague spring, then a Soviet backlash…but today the Czech Republic is healthy democracy. More good news in 1968 was the first Special Olympics held at Soldier Field. And to cap things off, during the Christmas holidays of 1968, Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon and return safely to Earth, taking that breathtaking “Earthrise” photograph along the way.
So, what about 2022? Has it all been about pestilence, war, climate change, and poisonous political divisions? God, in Christ, nudged me, and I looked back a bit more carefully and found this evidence that Christ is indeed changing everything:
In January we had over a million people a day falling ill to Covid, but today that number is down to less than 57,000. Christ has worked miracles through hard working, compassionate, and smart people. These people identified the cause of Covid in days after it surfaced. They sequenced it’s genome in weeks, and administered the vaccines within a year. And then the Covax program administered billions of Covid vaccines throughout the developing world. All of these miracles are happening all around us: Jesus worked through thousands of people who cared.
This year, for the first time ever, a woman was actually cured of HIV AIDS.
Congress passed the “No Surprises Act” that makes it illegal for people to get billed from doctors they didn’t choose and who won’t accept their insurance.
Maya Angelou became the first black woman to be pictured on a U. S. quarter.
A century ago there were countless lynchings of black men in the south, but this year the vigilante killers of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia were sentenced to life in prison.
Not long ago there were only 10,000 humpback whales in the world, but awareness and hard work has made it so that in 2022 there were eight times as many.
The war in Ukraine goes on, but the US and NATO and the UN keep united pressure and support and the Ukranians show amazing resolve under pressure.
The world is repenting of its past treatment of natives like the North American Indians, and investigations have started and the Pope apologized, 523 acres of California redwood foresta have been returned to them, and one of their own is now US Secretary of the Interior.
We are slowly learning new ways to promote renewable energy and ways to reverse some of our worst injuries to the planet God entrusted to us.
And this year, can you believe it, Congress passed, and President Biden signed, the most significant gun safety law in 30 years.
Yes, there are good things happening. Yes, there are signs that Christ is changing everything.
And how will Christ be changing things in 2023? How will new growth sprout from the branch of the stump?
God promised, and it SHALL happen. But what SHALL happen in 2023 that will amaze us, transform nature itself, and shake up the political world we live in?
Remember, most of the good stuff won’t appear in the papers, where if it bleeds it leads. It sure isn’t going to trend on Facebook or Twitter, because there are too many trolls out there who love to divide s by blaming everybody else.
But it SHALL happen when Jesus rules, even now, in people’s hearts; in both little and big ways.
And, John the Baptist warns us today, it SHALL happen in all kinds of people, even the non Christians. He warns, “Don’t presume to say you are children of Abraham.” And he means today, “Don’t presume to say you are a Christian. And don’t presume to think you have all the answers and see the world as it is. You need to repent. You need to open yourself to God’s surprising Truth.
So too all these good and great things that happened in the dark days of 1968 or in 2022 were done by Christ, even though they were often accomplished by people who did not wear the Christian label. They were done by people of all faiths, and by people who denounced faith, but nevertheless were moved by Christ to care. And even we good Lutheran Christians even missed much of the Good News happening right before our noses.
However, we may not have to wear the Christian credentials, but we do need Christ who opens us to the Truth–who shows us who God is and who we are supposed to be.
When you and I worship, we gather around the cross, and the font—the source of it all. You can’t care for others, in small or great ways, unless you can forget about yourself. And you can’t forget yourself until you know that you live in a world where forgiveness and love rule. And that rule is from the God who forgives, and who gives, even of himself, on the cross.
Christians are the ones gathered by God to learn to be ambassadors for Christ, calling all the other people to the source. We gather to once again let God light the our candles in the darkness around us. We gather so God can use us to point others to the font of God’s grace in Christ. Or to put it in the words of John the Baptist, when Jesus touches our hearts and we don’t simply presume to call ourselves Christians, or children of Abraham, we bear the fruit of repentance.
It’s not in any doubt. It SHALL happen. God’s prophetic checks don’t bounce.
This Advent we, together, will light candles in the darkness. We will understand that Christ is God’s Messiah, and is already changing everything. Yes, there is still darkness and brokenness. But we, and all the people Christ is inspiring with God’s love…we shall bear fruits of repentance, and so God will draw this planet towards the Peaceable Kingdom.
Yes. It SHALL happen.
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