08 December 2013


William Strutt (1825-1915), "Peace" (1896).
Isaiah 11: 1-10 & Luke 1:46b-55

Second Sunday of Advent/ 8th December 2013

Perhaps you love poetry.  Perhaps you don’t.  Maybe it leaves you feeling empty, cold.  Or, maybe it’s the life-blood that feeds your soul.  It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet, the work of the poet has always been indispensable to the life of faith.  Why?  Because the poet, a master of metaphor, image, and symbol, urges us to move from the surface into the depths that surround and undergird us. 

Good poets, good poetry illumine reality and allow us to see the world and ourselves—even God—in new ways.  They open up the world for us. They open up our hearts.  They open our eyes and invite us to see, to pierce more deeply into the soul of all things.  They help us see what we can’t see on our own; they help us perceive what our senses are dumb (have become numb) to: they envision the world in a new way and then call us to join them in that vision, allowing us to participate in the world in new, meaningful, transformative ways.  The poet is an angel of light who helps us to see (we who are often blind) with new eyes—the world, ourselves, the future, God.  And once we capture a glimpse of their vision—once we see with their eyes—we can’t un-see it.  We've been changed.

            This is really what the entire Bible is all about: it’s trying to get us to see ourselves, our world, the future, God, from a different perspective; to see what we cannot see, will not see, on our own. The people who were most passionate about envisioning the world from God’s perspective were called prophets—they’re still called prophets. They were lone voices then, they’re still lone voices today.

            “Prophet” is a loaded word; it comes with a lot of baggage.  First, no one really wants to be a prophet or associated with prophets.  You don’t wake up one morning and say to yourself, “I think I want to be a prophet.”  It’s a reluctant calling.  And prophets are odd, eccentric.  You have to admit: John the Baptist is a little weird, living out in the wilderness surviving on locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). Who wants to be like him?  

Many equate a prophet with a seer, someone who predicts or foretells the future, maybe someone like Nostradamus (1503-1566).  The prophets are more than fortunetellers, however.  Walter Brueggemann, one of the leading Old Testament scholars of our age, prefers to think of prophets as poets. This is very helpful. 

Biblical prophets are really poets who have a different set of eyes.  They can see far off into God’s future and they call us to imagine with them “that day” when the world will be as God intends it to be.  Their bold, surprising, shocking, even ludicrous visions get our attention, they cause us to wake up, to pay attention; they startle and disturb us in order to stir us from our slumber in order to see what God is up to all around us.  Their bold visions reframe the way we understand our lives within God’s gracious providence.

            This is also the work of the poet.  Last Sunday, Dorothy Boulton shared novelist Salman Rushdie’s understanding of what a poet does: “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from falling asleep.”  We can easily replace poet for prophet here: a prophet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, prophets shape the world and stop it from falling asleep.  It’s no wonder that prophets are mistreated, imprisoned and silenced—think of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), for he was truly one of the great prophets of our time.  Sometimes the prophets are even killed—think of Jesus.  The nineteenth century art critic and essayist John Ruskin (1819-1900) makes the connection plain by tying all three together: “To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one.”

            And there’s no prophet—no poet—quite like Isaiah, whose vision of God’s future has left an indelible impression upon Christianity.  It’s not surprising that the book of Isaiah, which was written and compiled over several hundred years, is known as the Fifth Gospel, after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Isaiah impressed his vision upon the early Church and gave them the “eyes” to recognize what God was doing through Jesus of Nazareth.

Isaiah sees things that no one else does.  He imagines things that no one could yet imagine.  He envisions a future that seems shocking and impossible.  There will come a day when, “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” (Is. 11:6).  You’re probably thinking when you hear this: Really, Isaiah? Come on. When pigs fly.  

Is this just wishful thinking? Groundless hope?

Or does Isaiah know something we don’t?  Does he see something we can’t see?  And can we trust him—we who are skeptics and doubters, we who have been burnt too many times, been disappointed too many times, we who prefer to be cynics, who resist being hopeful because we don’t want to be disappointed—can we trust him? Maybe we’ve been wounded too many times that we’ve lost our capacity to imagine a different future, something other than the same-old, same-old.

            Several years ago an older member of my extended family, someone who was raised in the church but has no vital connection to a faith community today, said to me, dismissively, that Christmas is not a big deal for adults, “It’s really only for children.”  I didn’t say anything.  It was not the time or the place for a conversation on this.  I was stunned by the comment, though, on a number levels, as a Christian, as a minister.  She’s entitled to her beliefs and feelings, of course. But more than anything else I felt deep sadness when I heard these words, sad that she felt that way. Christmas was a thing of the past, of her past. “It’s really only for children.”

            Well, yes, to a degree.  But it’s not only for children; it’s about children, about a child—and about the life of the child who still lives in each of us.

            It’s telling that the prophet-poet Isaiah places right at the center of his vision of the new day God will bring for Israel, a child. The symbolism of the child is running all through Isaiah here.  The child will invite the wolf to live with the lamb.  Earlier in Isaiah 9, we find the divine-child motif emerging:  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6). His reign will yield peace and justice and righteousness from his time onward and forevermore (Is. 9:7).  It’s important to note here that the early Church saw Jesus as this child, but Isaiah didn’t; he didn’t give this child a name. As Christians we have to be careful about reading too much back into Isaiah’s vision.  What Isaiah sensed was that a child would pave the way.

            The appearance of a child is a deep pattern or archetype found in many religions.  The Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung (1875-1961) wrote extensively about the emergence of the child archetype at critical moments in the history of humanity or the emergence of the image of a child in dreams at critical moments of development, personal growth, even transformation.[1]  Personally, I put a lot of stock in this and can vouch that infants and children have emerged in my own dreams just prior to significant, positive changes that occurred in my life.  That’s because the image of a child, as Jung said, “…is potential future.”  The image of a child “signifies as a rule an anticipation of future developments.”[2]  Something new is being born.  A child represents the future, right?  Promise.  Potential. What is to come.  Development.  Growth.  A child paves the way for the future.

            Isaiah wants Judah to know that eventually the future, embodied in the child, will witness God’s original intent for the world: justice, righteousness, wholeness, compassion, a making right.  There is no doubt about this.  That’s why another prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), could say with confidence that while the moral arc of the universe might be long “it bends toward justice”—and by justice he didn’t mean “getting even,” that’s not justice.  That’s not the biblical view of justice.  He meant justice as making right, restoring, making whole.  That’s what Nelson Mandela knew. He modeled a biblical vision of justice.  After 27 years in jail, he said, “As I walked out the door toward my freedom I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind that I would still be in prison.”  He imagined a new future for himself and his people, which must have seemed ludicrous at the time.  But as Mandela said later, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”[3]  Sounds like Isaiah too.

            “A shoot, a living branch will emerge out of a stump,” Isaiah said—a stump of a tree, a stump of a dead tree, a tree cut down to its stump?—and a new living branch will emerge out of decaying roots.  It always seems impossible until it’s done. It will emerge from the tree of Jesse, a new seed, a child.  And “the spirit of Yahweh shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of Yahweh” (Is. 11:2).  “The ‘spirit of Yahweh’ is a force that enlivens, gives power, energy, and courage, so that its bearer is recognized as one designated, who has the capacity to do what the world believes is impossible.”[4] This child’s delight will be in the holy fear, the awe of Yahweh.  And because he comes in the name of Yahweh this child brings Yahweh’s future, he will bring a fresh set of eyes and ears to what he sees and hears in the world, with righteousness he shall care for the poor, he will pursue equity and fairness.  He will reverse the ways of the world. That’s what this child will do.  He will offer a new, never-before-seen future, an unimaginable future.  That’s what the announcement of the divine-child will do.

            And when Mary heard from the angel that she would have a child, a divine-child, she broke forth into song, poetry, really.  It caused her soul to sing because the birth of this child meant a new vision of the future had been cast, a never-before-seen future, an unimaginable tomorrow that will usher in the great reversal of every abusive power in the world.  The rich and haughty and selfishly powerful will be brought down; those on the bottom, those who have been at the bottom of society for a very long time, kept at the bottom, forced to stay at the bottom will be elevated, will be exalted, will be lifted up and given their rightful place in God’s world.  This is the future this child will pave, will lead us toward.  His way will mean good news for the poor, for the lowly.  His way will fill the hungry with good things; they will be fed and satisfied, content.  That’s what the birth of this divine-child will mean, that’s what it means. That’s what it always means.  This is what the birth of this child signals for us and for our children and children’s children.  This is what happens when this child is born in us and lives through us.

            No wonder Mary cried out, “Magnificat!”  “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Μεγαλύνει ψυχή μου….  The child she bears magnifies—what?  The child enlarges her image of God, enhances her understanding of who God really is.  The child allows her to see what she didn’t clearly see before: so, this is who God is! The child she carries will bear forth a vision of God, of God’s intent, God’s dreams, God’s plan for the world.  Not just for some, but for all—“to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:55b). That’s what this baby, this child means. 

The English psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott (1896-1971) once said, “There is no such thing as a baby—meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find that you are describing a baby and someone.  A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship.”  The same was true for Jesus. The promise of his birth, his birth is for all of us.  His birth is humanity’s birth.  His birth is our birth. His future is our future.  The promise is there, not for some but for all of us.  The impossible is possible.  The child paves the way.  The child announces and discloses God’s future.  And a child will lead us there all the way.

[1] C. G. Jung, “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 9i (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pars. 259-305.
[2] Jung, par. 278.
[3] Bono said this week of Mandela that he could see a future no one else could see.  
[4] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 99.

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