On Thanksgiving (while watching my beloved Dallas Cowboys put in another lackluster performance—this time against the Bills!), a Target commercial was aired several times with the wonderful news that Black Friday would start at 5pm. Mind you, this was on Thanksgiving. Banu and I were surmising how lucky those employees were to have the privilege of working on a holiday in order to make their corporate overlords a few more dollars. (Well, in all honesty, she said nothing about “corporate overlords.”)
But then there was more good news: twelve hours later, many employees had the privilege of opening their doors at 5am. Banu wondered who would get up that early just to go shopping!
Of course, that’s not the worst of it. Maybe you saw some advertisements proclaiming Black Friday sales running throughout the entire month of November? We invented a holiday dedicated purely to the acquisition of money (going from “in the red” to “in the black”), and predictably as these things go, it metastasized.
(Still, Black Friday has darker meanings. For example, there were the crazed crowds in 1950s Philadelphia who came into the city for the Army-Navy game on Saturday and did some shopping the day before. Many of them took advantage of the commotion and helped themselves to a “five finger discount,” to the extreme annoyance of the Philly cops.)
I asked Banu about her first reaction to Black Friday, and she described it as “suffocating” and “a black hole.”
Why do I start with Black Friday, since it has come and gone? It seems to me that it symbolizes the way we think of Advent—if we think of it at all. We too often fill our lives with that which really isn’t very important. Indeed, the very mention of Advent often elicits yawns and sometimes, actual irritation.
(There have been times in our ministry when, in the context of worship and other events, Banu and I have had—I’ll say—“snarky” questions posed to us, such as, “Is this Advent-y enough?”)
Here’s something from A Child in Winter, a book of devotionals by Caryll Houselander. It covers Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”
She speaks of those who fill up their lives with “trivial details.” She says, “They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support. They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death.” (Yikes! There’s a pleasant thought.)
I wonder how often we fit that description. We too often dread the things that make for peace. We run hither and thither (if not with our bodies, then at least with our minds). With all of our scurrying, we ignore—we are unaware of—the luminous holiness all around. Trust me; I am directing this to myself more than to anyone else.
The prophet Isaiah knows a little something about people scurrying around, turning from the things that make for peace. He is active during the last part of the 8th century BC. At this time, the Assyrian Empire is gobbling up much of the Middle East. The northern kingdom of Israel gets gobbled; the folks in the southern kingdom of Judah are nervous. They don’t want to be gobbled!
The way chapter 11 begins doesn’t seem to let us know of these things, that is, Assyria and its ambitions. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (v. 1). This business of stumps and branches and trees goes back to chapter 10, where God tells his people, “do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod” (v. 24).
The chapter ends on this note: “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall” (vv. 33-34). So there’s part of the background with Isaiah and the Assyrians.
Why get into this stuff about a shoot, a tiny little stalk, emerging from a seemingly dead hunk of wood?
When I was a teenager, my dad chopped down a tree in our yard. It was a hedge apple tree. If you’re familiar with those trees, you know the hedge apples they produce wind up being the size of softballs. You don’t want someone throwing them at you!
Anyway, I thought the stump that was left would behave like most stumps—just sit there and do nothing. However, within a couple of weeks, I noticed a little green sprig appearing just inside the bark. Soon, there were other sprigs, and they continued to grow. Eventually they became stalks, and in time, the stalks developed into little bushes. In a matter of months, the bushes had intertwined and kept reaching skyward, well over my twice my height by then.
If I was surprised by the way new life emerged from that stump, imagine the surprise generated by Isaiah’s poem. The biggest part of the surprise is that the shoot comes from the stump of Jesse. That is Jesse, mind you, the father of David—the David who would be king.
In the following verses, we see that this shoot, this branch, will be a ruler like none other. This ruler will possess and exercise wisdom like none other. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of this leader’s qualities (vv. 2-5): “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him… His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord… with righteousness he shall judge the poor… Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.” All of that sounds like expectations of a David-ish nature!
So what’s all this with Jesse?
Walter Brueggemann talks about this. “David’s family and dynasty run out in failure, no king, no future, no royal possibility, only a stump. But, says the poet [and prophet Isaiah], the stump will produce a shoot, a shoot of new life that was not expected… the new David, the new possibility of shalom,” a new kingdom, a peaceable kingdom.
Basically, the Davidic line has all but died. The lofty goals have not materialized. So let’s start from scratch, so to speak. Let’s go back to Jesse. And for the sake of fairness, let’s include David’s mother, who unfortunately, the scriptures leave unnamed. However, Jewish tradition says her name was Nitzevet.
This new David, this new sovereign, will reign in an era of harmony and serenity. What does it look like, this peaceable kingdom?
“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.” Everything in creation “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” (vv. 6, 9).
Here’s Brueggemann again: “The old enmities, the old appetites of the food chain, the old assumptions of the survival of the meanest, all of that is subverted. The wild will not stay vicious, because the coming one, marked by righteousness and justice, will overrule raw power in the interest of new possibility.”
As Christians, we see the coming one as the true messianic figure, the ultimate Son of David, Jesus the Christ. That’s what the Advent season is all about. Advent means “coming,” and so we celebrate the one who has come, the one yet to come, and the one who is always coming, who is always arriving, in our lives right now.
As for Isaiah, his message is one of assuring the people. But it is an assurance that will cost. “We must repent,” he says, “to turn around, and to hold on. The Assyrians are threatening. But stand fast. The peaceable kingdom is on the way. We will have to wait in the darkness before the light arrives.”
[“Holy Darkness: Formless and Void”]
We have a similar message during Advent. Our enemies might not be an invading empire, but we do have enemies, nonetheless. Perhaps it’s largely true that our enemies are within, the struggles we face—the struggles in which we engage. As noted before, we don’t like that uncomfortable space, that uncomfortable silence. We want to jump right over it, to get it in our rear-view mirror. But that’s not what Advent is about!
“This is the intention of Advent,” says Jonas Ellison. “It’s a sacred stillness in the darkness before the triumphant joy of Christmas. It’s where we sit in the ‘blueness’ apparent in this oft broken world and human experience. When we grow up, we become more attuned with the suffering in the world—and in our own lives. We can’t override this. When we do, it festers. Advent is the season [in which] we sit calmly in the darkness as we await the light.”
He mentions growing up. (“When we grow up.”) That fits with the title of his article, “Advent Makes Christmas Something that Kids Can Mature Into.” Ellison wonders about an idea I imagine we’ve all heard, that “Christmas is for kids.” He reflects on the surface-level and theologically shallow way we so often celebrate the season. Please don’t get the wrong idea—he treasures and finds joy in the festivities and gifts and mistletoe. (Okay, I added the “mistletoe”!)
Yet, he dreams for his daughter. “I hope to give my daughter a meaning of Christmas that she can mature into as she grows older and experiences the weight, depth, and density of life.” (I’m intrigued by that term “density of life.”) He continues, “I pray that Christmas isn’t an extended time of consumerism in order to attempt to cover up her wounds wrought from this oft broken human experience. I pray she can sit in the darkness with herself knowing she’s not alone. Knowing that others are sitting in that very same place and God is embracing us all even before the ‘light’ comes.”
We don’t like to wait—especially waiting in the darkness, even if it is holy darkness. The massive weight of our society and economy shout, “Why wait?” It’s hard for Advent to compete with that. There’s a tidal wave that would prevent us from pausing long enough to do the “Advent” thing of reflecting, and as Isaiah would hope for, of repenting. That means to stop, to look around, and to set ourselves on the path of active expectation. (Or perhaps more to the point, to allow ourselves to be set on the path of active expectation.) “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).
“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”
“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
[Here is the artist’s description of his work, “Holy Darkness: Formless and Void”]
This sculpture is number 1 of 3 in the חשך קדוש series and is based off of the phrase תהו ובהו (prounounced tōhū vābōhū) - which is translated as "formless and void" in Genesis 1. "תהו ובהו" is written on both side walls of the drawing in a mixture of acrylic paint and gel medium, with the name יהוה (the Divine Name of God in the Hebrew Bible generally vocalized as Adonai or HaShem) written in blue on the back wall. The very simple statement that the sculpture makes is "Even in the formless and void places of life, God is still there." The sculpture is meant to give the sense of being under water, with a bit of light coming through the surface of the 'water' from above.
 Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.
 Houselander, 9.
 Walter Brueggemann, “The Poem: Subversion and Summons,” Journal for Preachers 35:1 (Advent 2011), 33.
 Brueggemann, 34.