We adults long ago learned that critical thinking was the way to go when it comes to managing our lives and world. Don’t believe everything you hear or read we learned. Plato and the great philosophers taught us that reason should be our guide. The heart just leads us into all kinds of trouble. The Romans taught us that power is the only path to peace and wealth and security. A lesson every empire since is still trying to teach the rest of the world. Critical thinking, reason, power….these are the tools of the adult…..these are the paths to mastery over our world and one another; they are the real world we adults inhabit.
Unless of course you’re a lover of poetry; or a lover of the scriptures of our tradition; especially the prophets of the Old Testament. One of the great preachers and teachers of our day Walter Brueggemann, preached it this way: Poet’s and Christians and Jews for that matter know that in poetry we can do things not permitted by logic or reason. Poetry gives us access to contradictions and tensions that logic simply must deny. Poetry doesn’t only remember; it proposes and conjures, wonders and imagines; it even breaks open what might be the future.
So when we look at our sacred texts, we find Miriam doing poetry when the people of Israel escaped Egyptian slavery. Deborah did poetry when it dawned on them that their neighbours weren’t so formidable. Hannah did poetry when Samuel was born. And of course Mary turned to poetry when she found out she was pregnant. All these mothers of Israel celebrated the impossible through poetry, even though they could explain none of it with logic or reason.
And into our hard world of relentless logic, reason and power comes this season of Advent and the poetry of one of our spiritual giants, the prophets of the Book of Isaiah. This towering achievement of the Old Testament, as complex as it is, is framed by poetry; poetry about the future that God will yet give us.
It starts in chapter two, there is this poem:
In days to come….
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more. ( Isaiah 2:4).
An image for a peaceful future out beyond our need for power and control over one another. . . a future without nuclear weapons and obscene military spending that keeps millions frightened and poor. And listen to this from the end of Isaiah, chapter 65, this poem:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
For I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
And its people as a delight.
The poet dreams, against all logic and reason, that there will be no more infant mortality and no more economic injustice:
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days…
They shall not build and another inhabit;
They shall not plant and another eat..
And finally, the great dream of a peaceful future:
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
The lion shall eat straw like the ox…
They shall not hurt or destroy
On all my holy mountain, says the Lord
A different world, a different future, promised, imagined and proposed! The prophets move from “not learn war anymore” in chapter two to “ not hurt or destroy” in chapter 65, a sweep of well-being that contradicts the facts of their day just as surely as it does ours.
And right in the middle of this poetry, in chapter 11, is the poem entrusted to our hearing this morning. It is a poem that refuses the facts on the ground, and invites us to watch for something new beyond our power, logic and control.
It begins with this remarkable news: “ Out of the stump of Jesse…,” Jesse you’ll remember was King David’s father. David’s line that ran out of gas along the way and ended in failure; just an old dried up stump. But, hold on says the poet, the stump will produce a shoot, a shoot of new life that was not expected. The poem that follows is about the shoot that logic couldn’t explain.
What a shoot it will be, conjured by the poet! This new ruler to come, only imagined here, will have qualifications like you have never seen, wisdom (not mere knowledge), understanding ( not just data and poll results), wisdom and understanding from the Lord, fear of the Lord, recognition of the holy mystery that is at the core of all creation. This new shoot will be glad to sign on for God’s promises.
Like every ruler he’ll sort things out and make economic decisions. He will decide with righteousness on behalf of the poor. He will break the monopoly of the power elite and will notice the other neglected public. He will rule for the meek, the ones who have no voice and no political clout and no smart lawyers. He won’t forget what his vocation is.
The poem requires us to take a deep breath, because it’s reality is defining in a whole new way. What we usually have is authority with knowledge but little wisdom, with data but no understanding, the kind of power that governs on behalf of the billionaire club, so that the rich get richer. In short our world of logic, power and control; and now comes along a poem of the new interjection of God’s spirit that will break our world apart.
But wait, there is more…. The poet takes a long pause….and then we hear:
“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” (Isaiah 11: 6-7).
Our old divisions, the old appetites of the food chain, our assumptions of the survival of the meanest, all of it subverted. The wild will not stay vicious, because the coming one, marked by righteousness and justice, will overrule raw power in the interest of new possibilities.
Finally the young child will toy with the snake; nobody will get hurt, because the poison will be removed from the world. The poison will be gone because the shoot will override all business as usual. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well:
“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” (Isaiah 11:9-10).
Can we dare to see, dare to hear, that the poem is about the Christmas baby who refuses Rome’s rule of force and religion’s rule of code and control, and opens the world to healing, freedom, forgiveness, and joy. The poem is an invitation to let go of our old logic, reason and lust for power and embrace the mystery of the Christ child and the poetry of his coming kingdom.
But a word of caution also comes this morning. Those who listened to John the Baptist, the poster boy of Advent, they loved the poem. They thought they owned the poem; it was just for them. It is the temptation of those who feel entitled; to think we have special privilege about the poem.
So John addresses them seething, slippery, creepy reptiles, low-lifes. And he says to them: Don’t just enjoy the poem. Do the poem. Sign on!
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” ( Matthew 3:8-10).
This is the bite of Advent. It’s not just marveling at the newness God promises. It is not all cozy, comfortable hope. It turns out that the poem is a summons to action. And so our old preacher, Walter Brueggemann, finishes….. Imagine if the poem is the true path and plot of our lives. What then?
Well, be a carrier of wisdom and not just knowledge;
Be an agent of understanding, and not just data.
Take on “the fear of the Lord,” a sense that there is an out beyond us who finally governs.
Watch for the poor and make a difference with them;
Watch for the meek and be a voice for the voiceless.
Embrace the lamb and summon the wolf to newness;
Enfold the kid and deal with the leopard;
Watch for the hissing snake and notice the end of the poison.
And watch for the child:
The little child will lead them…
Wolf and lamb,
Leopard and kid,
Calf and lion,
Cow and bear,
Lion and ox.
The nursing child will play over the hole of the asp.
The poem anticipates the child. And when he is born, we should not be preoccupied with our petty games of power, control, and critical thought. Because the child…and the poem…call for a leap beyond our control. It is a leap to another world that requires daily devotion. And it ends…the poem…this way…. Hear it once again….
“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. (Isaiah 11: 9-10)
The end of the poem is our promised beginning, a world beyond our reason, power, or control. It is a world that began in the Jerusalem temple, ran through the manger in Bethlehem, and that seeks to breaks open among us. Listen for the poetry, watch for the little child! A new world is at hand. Amen.
This sermon is largely based on a sermon preached by Walter Brueggemann on December 5, 2010 at Duke University Chapel, Durham, N.C.