Scripture reading for today:
Roots, Shoots and All Creation
In the eighth century BC, Israel found itself caught in the crossfire of a major geopolitical conflict. Neighbouring Assyria was expanding its Empire and thousands of captives from the Northern Kingdom of Israel were taken into exile. (A mere century later and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was to be similarly sacked.) The future for the people of God was bleak – and the promises of God, in the face of these circumstances, seemed shaken.
Yet it was into this context that the prophet Isaiah came with a word. Assyria – that insurmountable foe who was breathing down their necks with the power to destroy – would one day be cut down like a tree. (Isa 10:33) Israel, (though apparently herself a tree about to be ‘cut down’) was not without hope. For one day, a shoot would spring up from the dead stump and a branch would stretch forth from the roots. The line of Jesse (and with it, God’s many promises to our ancestors in the faith) would not be forgotten or destroyed.
And what would happen when that new shoot springs up? “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… and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 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.” (Isa 11:6-9). When the shoot springs up, empowered by the Spirit of the Lord, bringing righteousness and faithfulness, all of Creation is reconciled and at peace! What a vision! What a hope! What advent expectation this holds for us today!
This is a consistent thread that runs deep through Scripture, yet one that modern readers tend to overlook. When God comes to make all things right – the land itself rejoices! Humans violence and creation’s predation will cease. All will be made well. My eyes have become more finely attuned to these implications as I’ve spent the last 8 years working for A Rocha Canada, a Christian environmental organization with three sites across Canada and a host of partnered projects. We believe that the Gospel is good news for all Creation and we seek to embody a vision of transformed people and places through a wide range of hands-on environmental projects, place-based education, and offering centres of hospitality and care for those who are called to similar work.
If Isaiah writes on the edge of great unrest, we find ourselves facing something similar today. We needn’t look too far to find evidence of social and environmental injustice. And if we’re honest, our Churches often struggle to integrate these concerns into the work of Christian mission. I recently attended the Resurrect gathering here in Victoria, B.C. (co-sponsored by the New Leaf Network). At the core of our discussion was that to speak of the ‘death of the Church’ without anticipating resurrection – is bad theology! And yet, if we’re honest, the world around us often seems – for many of us, feels – governed by death. Consider such sobering topics as climate change, the rise of nationalism, missing and murdered indigenous women, and the opioid epidemic. What does ‘Gospel’ mean in a world facing these challenges? And what is a word of hope, anchored in the God of Jesus Christ, that we might proclaim in the midst of this broken world, today?
Advent is a time that we await the coming of Christ – of the promised one, the anointed King, the Emmanuel, God-with-us. And our reading for today in Psalm 72 gives a beautiful description of this coming King. “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy… he will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.” (v.12-14). This a King unlike any the world has seen or known. Not only are the poor cared for, but the land and its crops are also made bountiful. “May the crops flourish like Lebanon and thrive like the grass of the field.” (v.6)
The good news of our coming King isn’t just a private message we have to tell, but a reality we witness and embody in a shared life together. Because we profess this King has come (and is coming!) in Jesus, we pour out our lives, working towards God’s Kingdom right here and now. This is our act of hope – not idle waiting for God to fix things, nor an inflated sense that we’ll bring in the Kingdom on our own. But an active hope of the kind Paul prays for at the end Romans 15, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
I have encountered glimpses of this hope in my work with A Rocha. Of the Gospel written not just in the hearts of believers, but into the landscape itself as Christians worked together to care for God’s world. I’ve included two sets of these images below. The first is of one of the oldest A Rocha projects in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. What was a war-torn and desertified land has become, through the long efforts of a small network of Christians, a fruitful and life-giving place again. They perhaps haven’t seen “the lion lie down with the lamb” (and the threat of war still lingers in the region), but they witnessed something like another of Isaiah’s visions. “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.” (35:1-2). The good news that the King has come means that the whole Cosmos is being made new – reconciled and redeemed by the work of Christ. (Colossians 1).
The second set of images is of a former illegal dump site a kilometre from Heathrow Airport outside London, U.K. Some locals discovered that for all its garbage and toxicity, it was a fine birding spot and one of the very few undeveloped slices of land in that part of the city. A Rocha worked with a number of community partners over more than a decade (removing many tons of rubbish to be properly disposed of over and replanting thousands of native plants) to hand over to the city of London what is now called Minet Park. Examples of this could be recounted by the dozens in my time with A Rocha Canada. Something good is stirring – signs of renewal and hope springing up.
In all of this, we are neither in denial about the scope of our world’s problems (a new country park hasn’t fixed systemic racism in London, for example) but nor are we willing to abandon the efficacy of small actions in shedding a bit of light in the world’s darkness! We need these images and metaphors of renewal to remind us that what we await ultimately is not just an escape from this planet, but its cosmic and Christ-centered renewal. (Rom. 8, Rev. 21-22) Glimpses of that renewal in our daily life anchor us in Gospel hope and make tangible the meaning of ‘good news’ that we have to share (and that this world is so desperate for!)
What might it mean for us to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ in 2018? What small signs of renewal might we take part in? How might it change not just our lives but the lives of our communities and the very landscape in which we live, to anchor ourselves more fully in the hope that one day, “the whole earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord?” (Isaiah 11:9) God comes to us in the most unexpected ways – the shoot and root of Jesse, David’s heir, springing up from a dead stump; the world’s redemption arriving in a feed trough at Bethlehem.
May God grant us the courage to await with active hope, his coming.
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