Threads of Hope
As I’ve been reading this passage from Isaiah this week, I keep thinking, “Is this for real?” “Is this seriously true?” And the timing! I mean, come on, Isaiah!
These words about a new leader who would be defined by wisdom and understanding and a knowledge and fear of God, who would not govern at the whim of his senses and any distractions, but above all, no matter what, take care of the most vulnerable among us? Come on, Isaiah!
An image of the wolf and the lamb coexisting and not hurting each other, when racial tensions run rampant in ways that I have not seen before? Rub it in, Isaiah.
A child playing near the snake’s hole, when easy access to guns threatens all of our safety, especially our children? Come on, Isaiah.
The calf and the lion dwelling together, when Native peoples and allies have freezing water pelted at them in cannons while protecting as basic a human need as clean water?! Rub it in, Isaiah.
Is this scripture seriously out of date?
Well, actually, Isaiah lived and worked in tremendous political turmoil. He lived in and near Jerusalem in the eighth century BC, and at that time the Assyrians occupied a large empire to the east and north, and they wanted Jerusalem and the surrounding land of Judah, too. They were also after other small nations on their way toward Judah: Samaria, Ephraim, the Northern Kingdom. These small nations formed a coalition against their common foe, and wanted Judah to join them. But the king of Judah, named Ahaz, decided not to, probably thinking that the Assyrians would never make it that far.
But as the Assyrians conquered Samaria and Ephraim and the Northern Kingdom, King Ahaz became terrified for his country, and he threw a most unexpected Hail Mary. He asked the Assyrian king to spare Judah, for the sake of protecting Jerusalem, and leveraging the fact that he had never joined the coalition against Assyria.
The prophet Isaiah, who had the ear of King Ahaz, was furious at this move and deeply grieved, for he sensed that it would lead to even more violence. It would be the end of Jerusalem—the end of the house of David, the end of the world as they knew it. The family tree of Jesse, David’s father, would be cut down to a stump.
And it is in this context that Isaiah stares bravely into his grief and says, “By the grace of God, this ain’t over yet. A new branch will grow, mysteriously and surprisingly, on that old stump. A child will be born in the house of David and his rule will bring peace unlike anything anyone had ever seen.” With this, his listeners were able, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope”.1
Hope. They must at first have laughed numbly at Isaiah for suggesting such preposterous folly. They clearly were doomed to be taken over by the Assyrians like greedy wolves and vicious lions. But hope, in the words of liberation theologian Rubem Alves, is “the suspicion that…the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the present, and that miraculously and surprisingly, life is readying the creative event that will open the way to freedom and resurrection”.2
Hope, Isaiah says, is what we do—even when the facts and our rightful fears tell us otherwise.
Hope is not an empty word, to which we resort when we’re out of words. It is not for a Hallmark card. Hope is scrappy; hope is brave.
In Hebrew the word “hope”, tiqvah, originally meant rope or cord, suggesting that hope is the tension of a rope being pulled beyond what it thinks it can hold, a rope being pulled between bad and worse. To hope, sometimes, is literally to hang by a thread.
But the good news is that with your thread, and your thread, and your thread, and mine, we can weave ourselves together, stronger than ever before.
As we call out the injustice and falsehood all around us—as we act—we become sacraments of hope, outward and visible signs of the hope that is in us.
Another preacher once said, “Every human act, every Christian act, is an act of hope. But that means you must be men and women of the present, you must live this moment—really live it, not just endure it—because this very moment, for all its imperfection and frustration, because of its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities, is pregnant with the future, is pregnant with love, is pregnant with Christ”.3
We may bemoan, in the words of Madeleine L’Engle that grace our bulletin, that this really “is no time for a child to be born, with the earth betrayed by war and hate”4 but the 8th century Jerusalem under threat of destruction by Assyria was also no time for a child to be born, and neither was it eight centuries later under occupation by Rome when Emperor Augustus decreed that all people be registered in their hometowns and a man named Joseph and a woman named Mary went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.5
My friends, today may we believe that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant us to live in harmony with one another….and may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit we may abound in hope.”6
1 “I Have a Dream” Address, delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom
2 From Passion of Christ, Passion of the World by Leonardo Boff. Quoted in An Advent Sourcebook, Liturgy Training Publications, 1988, p. 84.
3 Walter J. Burghardt, Sir, We Would Like to See Jesus, 1982. Quoted in An Advent Sourcebook, Liturgy Training Publications, 1988, p. 81.
4 “The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973”, in The Ordering of Love: New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle, 2005, p. 155.
5 From Luke 2:1-4
6 Romans 15:4-5, 13