To look into an unsteady, often frightening future, and to see hope. This is the gift of the prophet. Isaiah wrote these verses nearly 3000 years ago, in a nation that seemed to constantly be teetering on the edge of nonexistence. Later chapters of Isaiah speak to Israel during its captivity, when the temple had been destroyed for the first time, and the leaders sent into exile. But these verses today are earlier verses, toward the beginning of the Book of Isaiah, written amidst the constant fear of a calamity that had not yet happened.
No time for brittle hope, then. No time for superstition; superstition will not be strong enough to see you through. This hope, this staggering piece of writing is the imagining of a way where there is no way. It is the poetic projection of faith when things are falling apart. It is a lesson in resilience.
Christians, by habit at this point, take these words as the prefiguring of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel goes of out its way to align Jesus’ life with the prophecies, to make sure the reader understands that Jesus is already folded into Israel’s history with God. But that, to me, takes the wind out of the text’s sails. What if the hopefulness of Isaiah 11 is not exhausted by the dawning of the Christian era, but instead is a wellspring, the advent of hope in every time, the refusal of God to give up on God’s people? I need hope right now. Isaiah speaks hope.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
God, in the prior passages from Isaiah, has been pruning, removing the parts of the world which will not grow, which have gone corrupt, rotten, fermented. Isaiah’s hope does not come in a magic fixing of everything, but in a difficult process of intentional shaping. Isaiah is not advising Israel to passively wait for something to happen, but is urging them to BE the thing that happens. He is urging them—and us—to be vigilant and self-critical. From a stump, a place that used to be—but is no longer—a tree, growth emerges, a new thing, one sent to lead us to a better world. That one is filled with the spirit of the Lord and wisdom and understanding, and can’t you almost feel what it could be like to be with this promised one, as though the distortions and destructions of our world could be seen clearly and even changed?
Hear the promise later woven into the beatitudes, as this one does not judge by sight or by hearing, but with righteousness, and in solidarity with the poor and meek. Blessings flow upon those we fail to bless.
But our concepts of justice, so focused on people and social structures, cannot contain the love Isaiah speaks of. Nor should they. Humans, people of the earth, of the dust, are but one part of the holy community that will, when God’s love is brought forth, delight in studying war no more and beating swords into ploughshares. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid. The need to kill and devour, and the need to recoil from the possibility of violence, both relieved. The things that make creaturely existence such agony, lifted.
The calf and the lion and the fatling together, cycles of vulnerability and predation disrupted by God’s righteousness.
And a little child shall lead them. The soaring, uncomfortably violent imagery of Isaiah, the maelstrom of divine restoration all at once rests lightly as a hummingbird on a leaf. A little child shall lead them. Our most vulnerable ones. Our most hopeful ones. The ones who call forth in us a love that I am still not sure I can bear. These shall lead us. For hope is not armored and monolithic. Hope springs from our tenderness, from our touch, from our love for one another and our admission, after so long, that we actually need one another if we are to be ok.
My hope is found here. I am riddled with anxieties, but I know this love. I know how light you feel when you put down the burden of needing to be self-sufficient. I know how long it takes to let your muscles unclench when you finally let someone simply love you. And I know the fear that accompanies realizing how vulnerable, how easy to hurt you have made yourself by opening up to love.
A little child shall lead this gathering, this creaturely collective, into a new time. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den, and there will be no serpent that strikes, or offers the forbidden fruit of the delusion of self-sufficiency. Our desire to control and to dominate will, in God’s reality, yield to our need to coexist. Harmony will emerge in a landscape scarred by conflict.
This is the hope of faith. The hope of Isaiah, of John the Baptist, of Jesus, of Saint Francis, of Dorothy Day, of Mother Teresa, of Martin Luther King, of Fred Rogers (he knew that a little child will lead us). Despite all appearances to the contrary, love can make itself known, and the world can change.
These are, astronomically speaking, the darkest days of the year, and this is the hope of the darkest times. All the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. If it was the desire to be like God that flushed Adam and Eve out of Eden, it will be knowledge of God’s love that will lead us back. Knowledge of an economy of grace and an ethic of love, and a deep equality among beings. There are no kings in this passage. Only creatures delighting in love.
The language of Advent is language of waiting and expecting, a contrast of silence and glory. Waiting for God to enter in like a great storm and a tender manifestation of love. A child in a stable. Advent leads us back to the hope of Isaiah, a hope which is very much alive today. And though we wait, we are also free to partake, to participate in the world this hope describes. It will take courage to resist the pull of selfishness and materialism, and to choose the way of love and conviviality, of living together.
But first you have to be ready. You have to put down your swords and come out of the defensive posture you hold against the world. These are the things God is pruning, the things that get cleared from the threshing floor. The way of God is vulnerability and compassion, not fortification and agression. It is found with hope, not with force.
So in Advent, remember that, as proud as you may be of your newly-minted adulthood, we are all also children. We are ones who need, who fear, who project ferocity and violence to avoid looking at our fears. And the one who came on Christmas, who is coming still, knows our fears, and comes with healing. Our wounds can heal and peace can happen. But we need to practice hope. We need to realize that our strength lies in our weakness, and we need to practice letting ourselves actually feel that. It is not our reflex. It is not the response to weakness that world has drilled into us. But when we let ourselves be vulnerable and when we let ourselves need, we open ourselves to the love that God pours out.
Christmas is the gift of weakness and love in a world that doesn’t see how powerful those things are. It is a busy time of year, and you don’t have time for foolish hope and greeting card sentimentality. You need grown-up faith, and here it is. The deepest gift of love is the ability to stand before an uncertain future and to, in spite of all the fears—maybe even because of them—to have hope. This dream of Isaiah’s cannot get here soon enough, and yet somehow, knowing that it has been dreamt will keep us going.