There was no king like David. He was the epitome of a good ruler, despite his many failings. He walked with the Lord. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” When this line was written, the Davidic dynasty seemed to be waning. War was rampant. Enemies were powerful. The royal house, the house of David, seemed to be just a stump of what it once was. Isaiah tells his people that from the stump of Jesse, from the father of David, shall come a new ruler, a green shoot springing forth from a dry stump.
The last dry stump that I saw, literally—was in Florida, Riviera Beach. A hurricane had come through; a nursing and rehab facility on the banks of the intercostal waterway had been flooded. Residents had been temporarily relocated before the storm. After the storm, the place reeked of mildew. The rooms were musty. There was no air conditioning. Gigantic fans were employed to dry the halls and cool the humid, fetid air. The bathroom toilets did not flush. There was no electricity. Instead, generators supplied limited power. That was inside. The residents and nurses made the best of it.
Outside, broken power lines lay severed on sidewalks, trees were snapped in half, and debris was scattered across a swollen, half-submerged lawn. It was an ugly, desperate sight.
Eventually, the waters receded. Power was restored, but not before the wealthier suburbs. Life inside the facility returned somewhat back to normal. Resident patients went about their daily routine and nurses continued their round-the-clock care. The place still reeked of mildew.
Here’s what I noticed: that this poor, primarily black neighborhood, was among the last to have its debris removed and its utility lines fixed. And I wondered about that—and still do.
A year later—I pulled into the parking lot of this nursing/rehab center and saw a stump of a tree out of the corner of my eye. Something green grew from that stump, something that made the rest of that bitter, hurricane-ravaged landscape less barren looking. A green shoot which defied all expectation. A green shoot that might have gone unnoticed, but did not.
The hurricanes and weather systems that tear at our world are often considered “acts of God,” but unfairly so. There are other hurricanes and storms that hit closer to home and their effects leave nothing but dry stumps in their wake.
Isaiah talks about the Coming One who wears a “belt of righteousness” and a belt of faithfulness. But little Matthew knew about a different kind of belt. It was made of dark brown leather and had a dull colored brass buckle that made a whistling sound as it sped through the air. It stung. His daddy hung it on a shiny silver hook for special occasions. Those occasions most often happened late on Friday nights when he’d come home with a wobble in his step and beer on his breath. On those nights, his eyes flashed and Matthew’s mother told him to keep quiet and pretend to be asleep. She too had felt the shiny buckle. When his daddy took it in his hand, he was a hurricane. He blew in and left nothing but a flood of tears and dry stumps in his wake.
In Isaiah’s vision, wolves and lambs shall live together. Calves and lions, leopards and kid goats, cows and bears shall share intimate space. A nursing child shall play over a snake pit. This is the peaceable kingdom. But in a world where predators do not know that they are predators, hurricanes will sweep through, and no amount of warning will stop them. In a world where predators do not realize that they are predators, families will break apart, nation will rise against nation, every person will be for himself or herself, and a flood of tears will flow. Healthy trees will snap, leaving nothing but dry stumps.
The Coming One does not judge by what his eyes see, nor does she decide by what she hears. His eyes are big enough to take in the poor of the world and her ears are sharp enough to hear the cries of the powerless. The Coming One, the anointed by God, has intimate knowledge of who is predator and who is preyed upon. Why? Because the Coming One sees that these qualities exist in the human heart of all. We are both predator and preyed upon—we are both wolf and lamb. We are both hurricane and gentle breeze.
We human beings cannot discern rightly between the choices before us if we do not first examine when we have discerned wrongly. And by what measure shall we decide if we are more apt to be a snake or viper than a nursing child? By what measure shall we decide if we are acting like a wolf than a lamb?
Our New Testament writers saw Jesus as the Coming One promised by Isaiah. They saw Jesus as the One anointed by the spirit of the Lord. Wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of God are all part of his essential being. When he speaks, predators are convicted in their hearts. When he speaks, the poor and marginalized are empowered. He can stop a hurricane of misery in its tracks.
What is our measure? How do we treat those most vulnerable to our aggression? Can we see that we are quite capable of being a lion at the dinner table and a bear in the bedroom? And those times when we are too gentle, too tame, and too much the little lamb, can we see those times when we have not roared as we might on behalf of others?
Six years ago, in 2010, two men were sitting at a local restaurant. I was in an adjacent booth. It is amazing what you overhear even when you are trying desperately not to overhear. The men were in their mid-sixties, just a couple of guys meeting over a pizza and beer. The conversation leaned toward current events. One of the fellas says that he gave to church missions recently. It was a mission for Haiti. He says that he heard that rioting Haitians had attacked aid-workers and peacekeepers in that ravaged country. “I gave money to them before, but if they can’t properly greet someone helping them, then let them all die.” This is what he says as he takes another bite of his pepperoni and cheese pizza. “It should be,” he says, “every man for himself. If that is what they want, then that is what they should get.” “Let them all die.”
Friends, at that moment, I nearly choked on my pizza. Since 2010, when that conversation first occurred, Haiti has been in the midst of a cholera outbreak. There is much difficulty and desperation in that country that we cannot even begin to understand but we now know that some of their terrible trouble—specifically, disease– was brought to the shores of Haiti by international aidworkers who failed to follow proper protocol. Fear, ignorance, and desperation can make a miserable situation worse; ignorance can also make predators of people and sometimes unwittingly. It can cause people to riot and it can also cause church going, pizza-eating, God-loving people to say things during Advent that would make Christ himself cringe when they fail to realize how truly connected we all are and how the most devastating of diseases—in this case, cholera—can travel with aid-workers to bring misery where help was intended. The point being that we should all be circumspect before we render our judgements and opinions, weighing carefully how easily it may be for some of us to stand at a distance and enjoy our pizza while our global and even local neighbors suffer and are expected to act reservedly, normally, obsequiously or subserviently, under terribly abnormal conditions.
The Coming One “shall not judge by what he sees, nor decide by what he hears. But with righteousness he shall judge the poor.”
Friends, the peace for which we collectively and individually yearn has layers. It comes with public apology such as the one the U.N. recently made to Haiti. It comes with speech that is circumspect and reflective. It comes with a compassionate understanding of how one’s reaction may be tainted by privilege and luxury. It comes with a greater awareness of how individuals may act one way and systems or institutions another. It comes when we take small actions like realizing that our enjoyment of pizza or any other lovely thing may come on the backs of someone’s suffering…It comes when we are willing and able to hold the tensions of the good that we are capable of with the terrible misery that we may also inflict. It comes when we realize that under certain conditions we are quite capable of being the wolf in the story, and in different circumstances, we may be the lamb. Peace has layers just as we do.
O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom our captive hearts. We need your presence to help us to discern rightly that we might speak and act as you would, wherever we are, whether in a bedroom or boardroom, whether we are shooting the breeze with our friends, or trying to understand what peace means for our lives and our particular context.
Are we wolf or lamb? We are both. Come, O come Emmanuel, so that we may have some holy mark by which to measure ourselves.