The lectionary readings are Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; and Matthew 3:1-12. I want to focus primarily today on the first reading, from Isaiah. This is a very familiar reading, the story of the wolf lying down with the lamb, the prophecy Isaiah made about the so-called “Peaceable Kingdom,” which would one day come to pass. Isaiah begins by saying, “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.” (All my citations today are from the Common English Bible.) Jesse, of course was the father of King David, so Isaiah is predicting a king in David’s line, or perhaps more broadly, a king in the mold of David. David wasn’t perfect, far from it. But David had received promises from God, assurances from God, a covenant with God. So this shoot, this branch that will rise up, will also be the recipient, or perhaps the bearer, of another covenant.
Isaiah continues: “The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. He will delight in fearing the Lord.” I don’t know what Isaiah originally had in mind when he wrote this. Certainly he wrote this to a people who were not experiencing this at all, as they continued in their exile in Babylon. But what did he expect? A ruler to rise up from the Israelites there? Did he expect to return to Jerusalem? As Christians, we of course interpret this as a prophecy about the coming of Jesus Christ. Christ is the shoot of Jesse who receives the Lord’s spirit. And it’s fascinating that in our own Baptisms, those who follow Christ are said to receive this spirit as well. In the rites of Baptism and Confirmation used in ELCA congregations, this same phrasing is used. We too are recipients of this same spirit, as we are called Christ’s body in the world.
Isaiah describes this king through a few more verses, and then he details what will occur when the new king comes: “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them. The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and a lion will eat straw like an ox.” And so forth. The message is clear: animals whose nature it is to devour one another will get along. Which, of course is a metaphor for humanity: humans, whose sinful nature it is to devour one another, will also get along. Warfare and oppression will be wiped out. It’s a beautiful image of a beautiful promise, which we certainly haven’t seen yet in our world.
We generally look at this as an external promise, but as someone living with a mental illness, I can also hear this as a very powerful internal promise. Because the voices of hatred and anger, the noises of violence and destruction, are not just outside my head. They’re also inside.
There are voices that some of us hear that are not real. People living with schizophrenia hear such voices regularly, and have a very difficult time discerning what is real and what is not. These voices don’t tend to be kind. They are often voices that lead to paranoia and anxiety. People living with multiple personality disorder actually speak with different voices. Each of their “alters” has a different voice, personality, and memory, at least to a certain extent. Multiple voices, manifesting themselves serially throughout their lives. People like me, who live with depression, hear a different sort of voice. I have a few, but the main one is a voice I call the Dark Voice. It’s a voice that attacks me viciously. It tells me that I am worthless, that I am useless. Whenever I make a mistake or hurt someone, it tells me that I should have known better. I know this voice is not outside me; I have no trouble telling whether it’s real in that way or not. My trouble is that I get it confused with myself. When the Dark Voice is speaking, I so often give it all my attention, because I think that it is me. And since it is indeed a part of me, it has access to all my memories, all my mental faculties. He’s very hard to defeat, because he knows all my tricks.
And so I see the promise Isaiah makes as one that could apply to me internally. The wolf will live with the lamb? The Dark Voice will live with me. We will lie down together, and feed together. Could this be a promise for someone with schizophrenia, or multiple personality disorder, as well? Could the promise be that our overactive and self-destructive minds will live in peace? Could the promise be not that we will somehow be free of the voices that wound us and attack us, but that we will live in peace with them? Could I imagine a day when I still hear the voice that I call the Dark Voice, but instead of berating me, he is encouraging me?
Isaiah continues: “They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, just as the water covers the sea.” The holy mountain, Zion, is the place where the temple of God was built. Paul tells us that we are the temple of God, so in a way, this promise is for us. I hear this promise like this: “They won’t harm or destroy within my precious child. His mind will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, just as the water covers the sea.” Oh, what glorious hope this is. I may never be free of my voices, but the hope is that the voices will know God’s holy Word, and live by it. Now that is Advent hope to me.
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