In the minds of many, we in America are living in an era of increased hopelessness. Many of us are experiencing a level of despair beyond anything we have ever felt before. The reasons for this sense of despair are many:
The gap between the wealthy and powerful and the needy and poor seems to widen year by year, in our country and in the world at large. Many of our citizens lack job security, health care, and a live-able wage. They face an uncertain future, while others have the power to indulge themselves in luxury and waste.
Racial, cultural and gender inequality still plague our society, despite long and hard-fought battles for civil rights, equality and justice.
Climate change threatens the earth and puts countless people at risk, and yet ours is the only country in the world to exempt itself from the planet-preserving recommendations of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Our political system seems to be dominated more and more by people of extraordinary wealth and privilege. Our leaders are hampered by rigid partisanship and cannot seem to agree on the common good. Those in power seem consumed with maintaining their power at all costs. As columnist Jeff Kirkpatrick notes, “Power supersedes morality, ethics, national security, logic, reason and sanity” in America right now.[i]
The threat of nuclear war is real and continues to put both our country and our world at risk.
Perhaps you are among those who have experienced or are experiencing a deep sense of despair about our country and our world. Or perhaps you are passing through your own valley of despair just now, arising from your personal circumstances. The causes of our despair may vary, but many of us find ourselves just now in need of a word of hope.
We have such a word of hope before us today in the words of the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah’s world, as in ours, there was good reason for despair. Israel’s young and inexperienced King Ahaz was completely out of his depth. He had foolishly rejected God’s clear instruction and firm promises, forming political and military alliances with the powerful Assyrians, only to see them backfire in the worst possible way. Now it was going to be death or deportation, as the Assyrians exerted their power over their weak and vulnerable ‘ally.’
Isaiah is sent with a message of hope. He acknowledges God’s judgment of the wayward nation and its leaders (Isaiah 10:33-34). The common people, as well as the royal house, have been cut down like a grove of trees and condemned to ruin. But, Isaiah insists, judgment is not God’s last word. Behind God’s judgment lies God’s purpose of salvation and God’s firm resolve to complete the work that God has begun.
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” the prophet declares. The image is a powerful one. The prophet sees Israel as a stump that had once been a living tree, but was now cut down. It appears dead and barren. Yet out of this apparent barrenness will come a small shoot, the promise of new life.
This new life will be embodied and symbolized in the person of a Messiah, a “second David,” a righteous ruler who will defend the poor and the meek, and vanquish the wicked (Isa. 11:4). He will be guided and empowered by the Spirit to do what is good and right. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,” says Isaiah, “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:2). He will not attempt to accomplish his goals by human means, but will be controlled by the Spirit of God. Everything this Messiah does will flow from his intimate connection with God.
First among his priorities will be to judge the poor righteously and to execute justice for the oppressed of the land. A nation’s integrity is reflected in the quality of its care for its weakest and poorest citizens, and this will be the Messiah’s chief concern. A new harmony will grow out of this pursuit of justice and peace, such that “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” (Isa 11:6). Under his guidance and rule, a peaceful kingdom will emerge. Every creature will have a place; each will be respected. The whole world will be brought into the condition intended for it by God.
For Christians, this promise has been fulfilled and this peaceful kingdom has been established in the person of Jesus. He is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the hope of all the world. The Gospels record how Jesus, at the beginning of his earthly ministry, chose the words of Isaiah to summarize his mission. Standing in the synagogue, Jesus read these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-3)
In the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, each person is valued, each person is free to become the person God meant them to be. The greatest see themselves as servants. The lowly are lifted up and the proud and haughty are cast down. These are signs of the coming Reign of God.
A popular Christian hymn echoes this theme:
“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, great David’s greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed, his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free;
To take away transgression, and rule in equity.”
By reason of our baptism, we are joined to Christ in this mission. We have been inspired by his word and example, empowered by the life-giving Spirit, and drawn into God’s work. We, too, are to bring good news to the poor. We, too, are sent to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. We, too, are to let the oppressed go free. This is God’s mission in the world. It is the mission of Jesus. And it is our mission as well.
And yet, we recognize that the dream has not yet been fully realized. And so in Advent, we rejoice not only in the coming of the Savior at Christmas, but we await his coming in glory. We look with longing for the establishment of God’s reign “on earth, as it is in heaven.”[ii] With the whole creation, we groan in anticipation for the day when justice and truth will prevail, when those who have been held down and stepped upon will be raised up, when the powerful and the mighty who have served their own interests will be cast down. Like Isaiah, we have a dream – of what can be, of what ought to be, of what will be, in God’s good time. Mary the Mother of Jesus captured the dream in her song of praise, the Magnificat (Luke 2:46-55). Martin Luther King, Jr. described it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When we join our lives to God’s, we commit ourselves to work and to pray for the realization of this dream.
It is so important to keep this dream alive – to keep hope alive – especially when there is so much cause for despair. Perhaps it will help us to keep this image of a stump in mind – to remember that stumps appear lifeless and impotent, but every once in a while, a miracle occurs and a stump sends out a fresh shoot, and death gives way to life. So don’t give in to despair, but listen instead for the voices of hope, listen instead to God’s dream. “With God all things are possible.”
[i] Kirkpatrick, Jeff; “American Despair,” from his blog – November 22, 2017.
[ii] see Romans 8:18-23
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