Advent 2 – A Child Shall Lead Them

This morning we continue our series on what it means to be a people of mystery. Later in the service we will add greens to our growing Advent wreath on the table behind me, and light the Peace candle. Those three elements – mystery, greens, and peace – all came together like pieces of a puzzle as I considered the Lectionary passage from Isaiah assigned for this second Sunday of Advent.


Isaiah 11:1-9
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 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. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, 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.

Chet Raymo: I have a friend who speaks of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. Let this then, be the ground of my faith: All that we know, now and forever, all scientific knowledge that we have of this world, or ever will have, is as an island in the sea [of mystery]. And still the mystery surrounds us.

Kevin Tarsa: The defining aspect of naturalism is the stance that nature is all there is. That there is nothing else, nothing that is not natural. It is to say that there is no super-natural realm outside of the natural world, “no supernatural agents, no supernatural means of knowing, no supernatural [seals of approval], and no supernatural [entities] (Hogue).” Which is not to deny all that is incredible about this world, and the marvelous, mysterious and unexplainable aspects of this universe! It is, rather, to say that all such awesomeness, mystery, extraordinariness, divinity, wonder and sacredness is part of this one natural world in which we live….and which we will never fully know or understand. It is to see everything in the world as holy. From a naturalist perspective, this includes us human beings, meaning that we too are completely from, thoroughly part of, and entirely held within this natural world. There is no part of us that isn’t. As Donald Crosby summed it up, for a naturalist: “Nature in some shape or form is all there is now, ever has been, and ever shall be.”

There is a lot of powerful imagery in the Isaiah passage – beginning with a green shoot growing out of an old dead tree stump, to wild animals coexisting peacefully together, predator and prey, led by a child. The shoot springing forth from the stump of Jesse is a reference to David, son of Jesse and grandson of Ruth and Boaz, who was the first King of Israel, and the branch that ultimately grows from David’s roots is considered by Christians to be Jesus (even though Isaiah would not have intended anyone specifically). We get the tradition of the Jesse Tree from this story. Is anyone here familiar with a Jesse Tree? A Jesse Tree includes, as part of the Advent journey, stories about figures who are part of Jesus’s family tree. Each day of Advent, those who follow this practice read a Bible story about someone who is part of Jesus’s family tree and hang an ornament symbolizing them on their Jesse Tree. It’s like the original, low-tech version of, tracing Jesus’ heritage – however that was not what Isaiah intended. Isaiah was painting the picture of a positive reign, harkening back to the days of King David, in the midst of the disappointing and current reign of King Ahaz. He was not prophesying about a coming messiah, but of a future leader who would rule justly and care for those who were most vulnerable, following the will and heart of Yahweh.

As is often the case with scripture, this well-known prophesy has been coopted with messianic expectations, painting a picture for Christ’s future reign – which ends up being utterly detached from the intent of Isaiah’s message. When you strip away the Christian traditions inappropriately associated with this very Jewish passage of scripture, you are invited to interpret the passage in a more “natural” way. The imagery in the passages before this one, in Isaiah 9 and 10, speak of destruction by fire and axe for the sins of the people. Prophets like Isaiah called out Jewish leaders for neglecting their duties when it came to caring for the least of these. As priests and leaders, they were supposed to be shepherds who would lead the people in the ways of the Lord and care for those who needed help the most. But throughout their history, those with all the goods and power just looked out for themselves, relishing and protecting their power and prestige, while overlooking the widows and orphans and strangers in their midst. Sound familiar? That’s why Isaiah spoke of the coming of one who would set things right, after the current power structure was decimated. So when I read about the shoot coming out of the stump, a splash of green coming from what appears to be a dead tree, I envision signs of life emerging after death and destruction.

Growing up in southern California, I’ve seen beautiful landscapes devastated by fire. Whether it was the mountains of Santa Barbara and Ojai, or the canyon road leading into Laguna Beach – it was always heartbreaking to see the blackened ground and decimated trees right after a fire. The smell stays on your clothes and in your nostrils long after the flames are quashed. Months later, my broken heart would swell when I saw tender shoots of green literally rising from the ashes. There is a spectacular beauty to that kind of rebirth – bright green against blackened earth, new life amidst so much seeming death. That is the image that comes to mind for me when I read of the shoot growing out from the stump. The origins of the word mystery point beyond the idea of a secret, hidden truth to an experience that renders us speechless. It comes from the Latin root muo – literally translated as “shut the mouth” or “to be rendered silent or dumbfounded” – it is also the root for our English word “mute.” I know that experience well.

From there, the rest of the passage from Isaiah becomes equally filled with mystery and wonder. The familiar imagery of the peaceable kingdom, where wolf and lamb, lion and calf, all co-exist together, gives us a sense of hope and promise for the future – that things will get better. And a little child shall lead them.

Perhaps we should do as Isaiah suggests and let children and young people be the image of the story of shalom for us as we anticipate the coming of the Prince of Peace during these remaining weeks of Advent.

Children like Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who is speaking out about climate change and its impact on generations to come. I recommend her Ted Talk to you.



In The New Yorker, Masha Gessen writes: “Thunberg developed her special interest in climate change when she was nine years old and in the third grade. ‘They were always talking about how we should turn off lights, save water, not throw out food,’ she told me. ‘I asked why and they explained about climate change. And I thought this was very strange. If humans could really change the climate, everyone would be talking about it and people wouldn’t be talking about anything else. But this wasn’t happening.’ Thunberg has an uncanny ability to concentrate, which she also attributes to her autism. ‘I can do the same thing for hours,’ she said. Or, as it turns out, for years. She began researching climate change and has stayed on the topic for six years. She has stopped eating meat and buying anything that is not absolutely necessary. In 2015, she stopped flying on airplanes, and a year later, her mother followed suit, giving up an international performing career. The family has installed solar batteries and started growing their own vegetables on an allotment outside the city. To meet me in central Stockholm, Thunberg and her father rode their bikes for about half an hour; the family has an electric car that they use only when necessary. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Greta says it gives her special sensitivity to be attuned to the world’s problems in a way that people who aren’t on the spectrum are not. She claims people with autism are more appropriately responding to crises like climate change.

Greta tells us, “We are at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilization – and the entire biosphere – must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be. We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility. Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” Greta is leading a global youth strike, where she invites students around the globe to join her every Friday lobbying and protesting instead of going to school. It began in August 2018 when Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish parliament every school day for three weeks to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis. She posted what she was doing on Instagram and Twitter and it soon went viral. Now #FridaysForFuture is a worldwide movement – students all over the globe skip school on Fridays to protest climate change – some join Greta on her school strikes back home in Sweden.

During the Reflection, a series of photos were shared on the screen:

13-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor strikes outside the United Nations every Friday and has done so since mid-December of 2018.

9 year old Zayne Cowie has been a regular climate striker outside City Hall in New York.

Nadia Nazar is co-founder along with Jamie Margolin and Madelaine Tew, of Zero Hour – all of whom at the ages of 16 co-founded Zero Hour, a youth climate activist group based out of Baltimore.

Here is Lilly Platt of Holland.  Since the age of eight years, she was involved in cleaning up plastic pollution.  At the age of ten, she heard about Greta and her strike, and immediately began striking too.

In a historic global day of action, on Friday 15 March, 1.4m young people from 125 countries took part in a coordinated school strike for the climate. Here are some of the 10K in Australia

Some local friends in uptown Normal IL in September

And there was a global climate strike just this past Friday, December 6, as world leaders gathered at the UN’s annual climate conference, millions of young people across America joined a national #ClimateStrike to take the momentum from September to elected officials’ doorsteps in December. These are from New York City.

These 14 young people were arrested Friday night for their #ClimateStrike sit-in at the Rhode Island State House – they were released after receiving a summons to appear in court and paying $50.

Fort Lauderdale


Des Moines


Washington DC


Half a million in Madrid Spain

And one in Uganda

And finally Jane Fonda, 81 year old actress and activist who moved to Washington DC for four months to raise awareness about the devastating challenges that are facing the Earth. She calls these protests “Fire Drill Fridays.” Jane has been arrested 4 times so far, including one overnight, in protest to address the climate crisis. On the day after Thanksgiving, she was joined by Iain Armitage, her on-screen grandson in “Our Souls at Night,” as well as her real grandchildren. She plans to be arrested again on the weekend of her 82nd birthday on Dec. 21.

Despair is solitary. Hope is communal. Hope depends on community and on compassion. We act when we feel and when we know we are not alone. And that’s when things begin to happen. As theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote, “Together, as a community, we can help ourselves in most of our difficulties.” In numerous interviews Greta Thunberg contrasts the despair she felt alone in her room with the hope she felt out on the street, even though she was the only one protesting at the beginning. But one by one, and then more and more, other students began to strike with her in Sweden and then in other countries around the world, as she began a movement of hope.

Our Advent series asks us to consider what it means to be “a people of mystery.” As we noted last week, science and mystery are not antithetical.  What we know – however daunting the information – can enhance our experience of mystery rather than competing with it.  The science of climate change – the physics of a fire that consumes a forest and the chemistry of CO2 and methane that warms our atmosphere – comes to us in tandem with the mystery of where such commitment and courage of young people comes from. In the face of political cynicism and so much willful ignorance, young people give themselves over to a sacred sense of obligation and resistance possessed of faith that destruction doesn’t have to be inevitable. That same sense of mystery that inspires someone like Greta calls us to similar mercy, to compassion, to cooperation.  A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 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. Amen.