Hope in the Darkness

Image by Stephen Bowler (used by permission via Creative Commons)

Advent 2 2019
Katie Whitmire
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72, Romans 15:1-13, Matthew 3:1-12

You guys may be seated. It’s me that Isaac was talking about, the surprise guest speaker, but I’m excited to be here and get to share with you guys from today’s readings. In this Advent season, we will come face to face with darkness. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Tish Harrison Warren writes, “To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it.”[1] And yet, we are situated in this time between, between now and not yet, or what Fleming Rutledge calls the once and future coming of Christ, so we can be full of hope in the darkness, Christ in us and in all of creation, making all things new.

Over the Thanksgiving break, our family went to see the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It’s based on a 1998 article written for Esquire Magazine, highlighting heroes, and this piece is about Mr. Rogers. The story of the movie centers around the journalist Lloyd Vogel living out of his woundedness and wielding wounds. He battles the darkness both internally and externally. Internally, we get to see his struggle with anger and pride, and externally the darkness that is forced on him by death and the institution of family. But as the movie unfolds, we watch as Vogel’s life is changed as he encounters hope and that hope is made tangible in the person of Mr. Rogers.

Fred Rogers in the movie is depicted as living out of hope, seeing dignity in each person not based on the appearance or hearsay, but treating people equitably with charity and mercy. He carries the burdens of others and lifts their weight of oppression. Now, lest this sound too dualistic like good guy/bad guy, we also get to see that Mr. Rogers too lives with the tension of his own internal darkness, and he too is weighed down by the darkness of the world at large, but because of his hope, he bears fruit in the midst of that darkness and ultimately the same becomes true for Lloyd Vogel. It’s a story of darkness and hope, of the now and the not yet.

The readings this week are riddled with hope in darkness, hope that new life will rise up in the midst of what we might deem dead. Isaiah 11 opens with the stump of Jesse, what’s left of Judah’s reign cut down dead, and he prophesies of a sprout rising up from this stump, life emerging from death, a life that will bear fruit, a life on which the spirit rests. In the context of this writing, that’s the hope of a king, a coming king and Israel’s kings were God’s representatives on earth. The intention was that they would rule the earthly kingdom in a way that reflects the kingdom of heaven, and so we get a chance to see what the ideal king and kingdom would look like in the verses that follow in Isaiah as well as in the Psalm that we read responsively, Psalm 72, where we heard repetitive focus on justice and righteousness.

But not, I would argue exactly the justice and righteousness that is keynoted, at least for me, situated in our cultural context, where we think of justice simply as rewarding good and punishing bad, and we think of righteousness as being morally right as defined by our human systems. The justice of this ideal king and kingdom communicated in both texts is embodied in this Hebrew word mišpāṭ. I am not a Hebrew scholar, but I am a linguist and I really love what happens when we get to unlock meaning and symbolism of words that might lose depth and significance from our overuse by looking at how a concept is communicated in another language.

So I spent a little bit of time reading about mišpāṭ justice, and here are some thoughts that I came across. This justice is God’s desired state of affairs, treating people equitably, ensuring that every person is cared for, a justice that means giving people their rights. So if all punishment is implied in these definitions, which tends to be what justice leans towards in my mind, there’s so much more to it. In both texts, the justice or mišpāṭ of God’s kingdom, centers around the poor and the oppressed, ensuring their rights, that they are given their due, cared for and not just materially. We hear over and over again that they’re given a voice, their cause is heard and defended. Their oppression is lifted. What hope.

And the righteousness in this text, a word that my ear can hear as performance-based perfection, smug moral goodness, defined in human terms and by our human systems, is expressed by the Hebrew word Tzedakah, and what I found while researching Tzedakah righteousness is the meaning’s in sync with God’s way, embodying God’s will, obligatory charity, giving, abundant kindness, covenantal mercy. So much more than just being good, a righteous King gives mercy and kindness. In these texts in Isaiah and the Psalm, we have the hope of a kingdom where all are cared for, where oppression is lifted, a king who will judge based not on appearance or on hearsay, but with covenantal charity and mercy.

Isaiah goes on to describe a reordered creation in which peace will reign and the final hope of this king and kingdom that is prophesied in the text in Isaiah is acceptance and inclusiveness, a hope not just for Israel but for the Gentiles as well, but not yet. Then we pass years, hundreds of years, of silence, a long darkness. That brings us to the gospel reading today from Matthew three and the central figure of John the Baptist, crying out in the literal desert, but also what at the time would have been a spiritual desert. In that time of darkness, he points us to the hope of new life. He points us to that king and the kingdom that were prophesied in Isaiah and telling us that it’s at hand, that’s now.

John calls for repentance, bringing hearers out of their spiritual desert and their darkness into the hope of a new kingdom and a changed life. John marks this hope through baptism, an outward symbol of an inward change. I’m going to pull more Hebrew. In Hebrew, baptism is mikvah. It literally just means a collection or a gathering of water, but it symbolizes, much like our baptism, rebirth, hope, and new life. But it was a ritual of bathing that was practiced regularly to mark seasons of purification, repentance, and reflection in order to achieve purity or growth, so it might happen before a wedding, but the regular practice of it was in the days of all, which is the time between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year and Yom Kippur, which is their day of atonement or coming judgment.

And the idea was to practice mikvah in order to cleanse yourself with the hope that you would escape that judgment, that you would be made right before God by this process, and that would have been the context of this baptism that was happening in Matthew three during John’s time. And the danger is, with any symbol or ritual would be that people might depend on the action rather than the internal reflection, repentance, and life change. In Matthew, when the people who think they are or even want to be living according to God’s law enter the scene to take part in this ritual cleansing, John calls them out. Now, my temptation is to think that the Sadducees and Pharisees are kind of other, they’re the religious elite, hypocritical, moral and separate myself from them, but these are the followers, so I’d like to consider that this message is for me.

John calls them snakes, the brood of vipers, accusing them of coming only for that outer cleansing. He says, “Who warned you of the coming wrath,” much like this coming wrath of their high Holy day of Yom Kippur. He implies that they might be depending on this ritual rather than true reflection, looking at the darkness, moving toward life change that bears fruit that would mimic that of the coming kingdom. He also warns them about depending on their lineage or their status as sons of Abraham. He continues with the imagery from Isaiah. The ax, he says, is already at the root of the tree, set to cut down all that does not bear fruit. And in this inclusive kingdom that is coming, our lives are marked by the fruit of the king and not by our lineage or our status.

If I, like the Pharisees or Sadducees, depend on my current standing or status alone, I need to hear the hope that comes next. After sitting with this Scripture for several days throughout the week, I don’t consider what comes next from John as condemnation, but rather as a promise. John tells them that Christ is coming and that he will immerse us in the Holy Spirit, that he will change us from the inside out, and from that he calls us into repentance and change. Christ in us in the midst of our own darkness, bearing fruit and making all things new, that’s the promise we have that is the now. And then in Romans 15, it’s the same thing that Paul calls us to.

Paul is situated where we are, in the in-between of the now and the not yet, and he lays out the gospel thinking through the implications of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, both on the world at large and on the individual. And much like the king prophesied in Isaiah, Paul calls the reader to carry each other’s burdens. He calls us to unity, to acceptance, and to inclusion, just like the life of Christ. And we can be invited into this in the midst of our momentary darkness because of the hope of Christ and us. As we lean into the darkness this Advent, and as we experience that ache and longing for the not yet, may we also accept the invitation of the now, the Christ in us and that hope.

And I will leave you with two things. I think the song of ascent, I think it’s a beautiful picture of our crying ache in the darkness asking for the rod of Jesse to come to free thine own from Satan’s tyranny. From the depths of hell thy people save and give them victory or the grave, while at the same time the verse at the end of Romans, “Oh, may the God of green hope fill you with joy, fill you up with peace so that you’re believing lives filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit will brim over with hope.” Amen.


[1] Tish Harrison Warren, “Want to Get Into the Christmas Spirit? Face the Darkness,” New York Times (November 30, 2019) < https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/opinion/sunday/christmas-season-advent-celebration.html>

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