We hear these words of Isaiah promising a beautiful future, one where predators and prey will befriend one another, but we must put this into context if we are to hear the fullness of this vision. It did not come to Israel during calm periods of peace, but during interesting times. It came to Israel during times when alliances with outside forces threatened the sovereignty of the state. It came to Israel during times when the economic systems promoted the wealthy and devastated the poor. It came to Israel at a time when, as Isaiah put it, “Your hands are full of blood” and there was no justice for the oppressed, poor and marginalized. It came to Israel during dark and frightening times.
I wonder if it might almost be heard as a parent comforting a child about to undergo surgery, yes honey, this will hurt, but one day you will walk again, one day you will play again, but yes, it will hurt. Our lectionary this year is insistent that we look at the darkness and brokenness within us. It’s terribly difficult to do and honestly, I was looking for a more upbeat and inspiring message today. One that would fill us all with hope, love and joy, But first, our scripture tells us, repent. The scripture from our lectionary that I didn’t read today was the one with John the Baptist yelling at the pharisees, repent you brood of vipers. I really wanted something more upbeat than that, but here it is again, Isaiah only a few chapters from yelling at Israel saying, God hates your worship, God won’t listen to your prayers, not when your hands are full of blood. We are reminded that advent is not only a time of anticipation but of preparation. Be gentle with yourselves this advent, but be persistent too. Take up your cross and be a part of the healing that this nation, this time, all of us, so need. We are the people who have been called to this moment, to be peace in the world, to bring healing, to speak the gospel word.
Oh, it’s a hard word today! A few days ago someone asked me how there can be so much darkness, so much pain in the world. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who became famous for documenting the stages of grief, once toured concentration camps in Germany. She was met there by survivors who had returned to the camp to tell their stories. Stories not only of loss, despair and death, but stories of redemption, of finding meaning and purpose in caring for one another, of finding hope in the midst of this most painful situation. As she toured the camp she began to notice that there were images of butterflies carved and scrawled in corners and over beds, in midst of these horrible living conditions, images of butterflies and she asked her tour guide about this. Her guide responded, “We knew we were in hell, that all we knew was gone and that everything was falling apart. Some of us believed that God was still at work in the midst of this, that God would triumph, even if we didn’t know how. We believed that God was remaking us and that in the end, God would be triumphant.”
So we turn to the hope, the promise, yes, the chrysalis looks like death, but something new is being born and we must stay faithful and stay present to this. Reverend Yolanda Norton, an assistant professor at San Francisco Theological, described it this way: “In Isaiah 11:1-10, the prophet finds himself in a season of despair. He writes in the interstitial space between destruction; a time that has seen and is anticipating devastation at the hand of the Assyrian empire. And yet, the prophetic speech of Isaiah is filled with a persistent hope that God will bring peace, order, and love in the midst of chaos and ruin.”
She goes on to remind us that while Isaiah is promising us that the end is secure and that God will not now nor ever abandon us, God does work through us and insists we participate in the healing of the nation. This is not a suggestion that God will magically make everything better even if we persist in tearing things down. Isaiah spoke truth to power, and that power was involved in tearing things down, in oppressing and hurting people. Get right with God, he said, do it now, but to the people he spoke words of peace, of promise.
This is the promise, that we have a savior and he will judge with righteousness, and his justice is restorative. Even the most venomous among us will be made whole, will be made well. Nature, red in tooth and claw, will become peaceful and a new paradigm will reign. And we are called to participate in this transformation. In the first chapter of Isaiah we are told what this will look like, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Christ is constant, God’s mercy and justice are constant, but we are not. So in the season of Advent we are called again to the paths of righteousness and of hope, of mercy to those who are vulnerable and justice for those who are oppressed. We are called to be a living witness to the hope we find in Jesus Christ. To live each day with the intention of lifting up those who are beaten down by life, who struggle and who are hurting. We are called to stay present to all the pain and loss in the world and to see it through eyes of compassion and not grow weary but abide in the promise, gain sustenance from the love and mercy of God.
Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who was interned at the concentration camps. He stayed present, he observed, and he noted what it was that made a difference, what it was that helped some survive while others, seemingly strong and healthy succumbed. He said later that what made the difference was the act of reaching out to others with love and compassion. In a vivid example of this a survivor recounts how, as a young man he and most of his neighbors were herded into a cattle car to be transported and on the way the cattle car was left on the side of the tracks in bitter, freezing cold. He noticed that one of his neighbors, an older man, was shivering violently and he went to him. He sat with this man all night, rubbing his freezing feet, holding him, keeping him warm and alive. When the dawn broke only the two of them were left alive, their act of solidarity, of keeping one another warm through the bitter night had saved them.
We are called to just such acts of solidarity. We are called to the audacious hope and conviction that even when things seem to be at their darkest, that God is still working a great good in us. We are called to righteousness, yes, but also a stubborn faith that even when the world seems to be tottering on its axis that God is in control, that God has good in mind for us and not evil. So we step bravely into this future, this incredible belief that we can stay present to the pain of the world, that we can have compassion for one another, and that love will win.