A Forest of Shalom
Isaiah 11:1-11 Matthew 3:1-12
December 8, 2013
So we have this brick sidewalk that leads up to our front porch. It was a gift from Jerry Demarinis, someone most of you don’t know. He put in the sidewalk because he was so excited about the wedding I had performed for his daughter several years ago. So excited that he just had to do something and giveus this wonderful gift .
Now one of the issues you have with brick sidewalks is that grass and weeds grow up between the cracks. I won’t use chemicals to kill the stuff and the only thing that seems to work is pulling out the grass with my own little blistered fingers. I always feel like I have accomplished something for the good of the neighborhood when I finish. But finish is a relative term. I can’t help but notice when I go out the front door the next day or two the little shoots of grass and weeds are already noticeable.
I am told that there are these people whose job is to paint the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. And as soon as they get done, they start again. My sidewalk feels like that sometimes. Fortunately I usually have my earphones in when I am doing it so I don’t really hear the comments of strangers and friends who like to offer their comments as they walk by.
Every now and again, though, I notice this really interesting thing in the sidewalk. A little plant will not be growing between the cracks, but a bit under a brick. And instead of that plant dying like it should, it makes a little crack in the brick and causes some of it to flake off so the plant can grow. You have probably seen something very similar with a little bit of grass or a weed growing up through the asphalt in the middle of a driveway or parking lot.
Think about that and also think about the landscape laid out for us from this morning’s reading from Isaiah 11. It is a place of desolation. Just a bunch of withered stumps. And the stumps weren’t really all that metaphorical. War after war had swept over the region. It seemed to be the end of Israel. In the previous chapter, Isaiah prophesied that the King of Assyria would one day get what he had done to Israel. This is what Isaiah writes, “The glory of [the King’s] forest and his fruitful land the Lord will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when an invalid wastes away. The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.”
Israel was on its knees. Those who survived saw nothing but destruction. There weren’t even any trees left. It’s kind of like that scene in the Lorax when the final tree is cut down.
Imagine that desolation. And then imagine what Isaiah sees. In the midst of that desolation there is a green plant growing. This is not the end of Israel after all. And it even gets better. But when Israel comes back, Isaiah says, it won’t be as an Imperial power. Instead when that shoot of Jesse’s stump become a branch, and then a tree, and then a forest, the concern will be justice and fairness.”He won’t judge by appearances, won’t decide on the basis of hearsay. He’ll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth’s poor with justice.”
And then Isaiah launches into this crazy notion of wolf and lamb lying together, cow and lion eating at the same trough. Little kids having rattlesnakes for pets. In that desolation Isaiah offers not just a vision of peace, but of shalom. “Shalom is creation time,” Walter Brueggemann writes in his book Peace, “when all God’s creation eases up on hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating.” Isaiah believes that will happen.
Now along the way when some of the early Jesus Followers were reading this passage about a green shoot growing up and spreading in the midst of destruction, replacing it with this vision of shalom they started saying, “Hey, that kind of sounds like Jesus.”
In his blog Process and Faith, Bruce Epperly writes this about the early Christian teachers. “They saw Christ as embodying Isaiah’s dream through healing, hospitality, and personal transformation. Christ’s evolving realm came to include all persons, the non-human world, and all creation in a circle of healing and creative transformation. What happened in Bethlehem and then in Galilee shaped human and world history alike.”
That green sprout in all the desolation, though, seems to be more. It’s not just about Jesus, but the movement that Jesus launched.
This is why John the Baptist, I think, comes off the way he does. A bit intense. You see, he wasn’t looking for Jesus to be some nice little preacher boy who told us to stop doing naughty things and be nicer. He was proclaiming that a leader of the God Movement was coming to help us create this world that Isaiah could imagine, that world of shalom where wolf and lamb live together and cow and lion drink from the same trough, that world where “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Nor was he looking to join forces with folk who had a different view of things.” And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father,” he screams. “Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming?”
It’s not enough for John for us to have mountain top experiences. He wants us to grab hold of this vision and follow Jesus in recreating the mountain. Isaiah has talked about this Holy Mountain before.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that God may teach us Godly ways
and that we may walk in God’s paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
So what does this Holy Mountain look like to us? What does it mean for us, for Peace Community Church, to occupy a space where they will not hurt or destroy anymore? Where they don’t learn war anymore? What are the shoots we sending out that are green and blossoming? How do we learn the lesson that it’s not what we destroy that shows our power, but what we create? How does this little plant become a forest that brings shalom, that brings renewal to a whole creation?
It seems like a pretty big task. But remember it starts with this little green shoot in the midst of the destruction, that may even have to push itself up beneath the bricks and the asphalt. That may be the destruction in this world, or the destruction in our lives. Yet every Advent we are reminded that grow it does, fragile but tenacious. This plant, this shoot of Jesse, grew up from the hard soil, and nobody gave it much of a chance. But eventually it pushed back a stone in front of a tomb.