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.
- Isaiah 11: 1; 6-7
In most churches there’s a matriarch or patriarch back in the sacristy washing out chalices after mass on Sunday morning or making coffee before the first hymn. They’re as faithful to their church as the sun is to the horizon. Maybe they married and buried their spouse before that very altar, baptized all three of their kids at that font and perhaps they were baptized there themselves. They’ve seen five or even six priest’s come and go and there is a time, perhaps thirty or fifty years ago, that they cherish as the golden era when their church was as it was meant to be.
Maybe that’s because the choir loft was full or perhaps it’s back when all of men wore suits and the children knew how to behave. This church elder has never said she measures every congregation against that one but she doesn’t have to. His lips are pursed when an acolyte doesn’t remember to bow at the altar, his eyes roll when the choir director tries out a Gospel song during the offertory that flops and when the new priest visits he tells her about better days.
Lots of people think of this church parent or grandparent as a living saint but she is less saint than gatekeeper because her faithfulness is to the past and to the dead.
On the third Sunday after Pentecost we hear Jesus say something unspeakable in church, as many things Jesus says are if you pay attention. When a man tells Jesus he will follow him after he buries his father Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60). Sometimes I think it would be good for churches to hand out shovels on that Sunday to anyone who misses the “good old days” and invite them to go dig a trench and throw their nostalgia into it.
Advent is the season of getting ourselves turned the right way, towards God’s future. If you can’t imagine a bright future in what feels like a bleak present, Isaiah is on his way to this Sunday’s readings to hop you in the behind. Crying out from one of the many times the people of Israel were scattered by war across the known world, when the temple and Jerusalem itself lay in ruins, Isaiah sings not about the good old days but from God’s promise of what is yet to be: the world made right, the world that has never been but is always just around the corner.
Church is not a weekly, historical reenactment of 1958 or 1858. At church, we carry the longings of Isaiah, Bishop Tutu, The Venerable Bede, Hildegard of Bingen and your Aunt Sally as we jump up and down with joy on the docks of our salvation, expecting to see the hopes of all the saints, who are alive in Christ and in us, fulfilled perhaps even today.
If you take Jesus at his word, there has never been a time more full of hope than now. Right now.
Your sister in Christ,