And a little child shall lead them

An Advent and Christmas Message

by Chris Ferguson,
General Secretary

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. —Isaiah 11:1-6

But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?” —Matthew 21:15-16

This year around the world we are all caught up in the true raw biblical meaning of advent. Not a gentle, expectant, prepared waiting for some inevitable good news that we must make space for in our crowded lives but rather a desperate sense of being overwhelmed by the weight of the world. For most people and for the planet itself the social, political, economic, cultural and religious realities are at best unsettling and in fact distressing.

The fact of war, violence, social turmoil, environmental emergency, racism and rising authoritarianism and religiously justified oppression is foregrounded for us all in our daily lives. This gives us a very receptive place to receive the world from the prophet Isaiah as the scope of unbearable suffering and injustice is dominating the life of the people of Israel. The current global situation opens us to feel the desperation of living in a world where the indicators are all pointing towards a worsening situation of inequality, fear and violence. The yearning for the situation to turn around. The straining for relief. The advent moment is not the expectation that help will soon arrive but the ever growing doubt that it probably won’t.

The climate emergency and massive human displacement and growing poverty and inequity frankly don’t look poised for a happy ending anytime soon. The rise of leaders fueling division and domination points to a polarized and prolonged struggle for justice and dignity. Leaders and majorities embrace intolerant positions that would have seemed unthinkable, and yet they receive seemingly massive popular support.

The Isaiah moment is not at all about easy assurance that this will all have a happy ending. Or the false hope of pretending it doesn’t matter how we suffer now because we will be rewarded later in heaven.

The prophetic imagination is enflamed not with promises of cheap grace and guaranteed outcomes but with a call to look elsewhere for hope. An invitation to see the present not in terms of a ready-made, better situation but as opportunity to see that God is offering possibilities in exactly the opposite places to that of the powerful rules.

Isaiah is not only foretelling what we already know about Jesus but also about how God works in our present times. Prophecy is as much as discerning God’s actions in the present as it is about the future.

God is at work not in the strong, powerful, dominant places. The green bud of hope comes from an infertile dry stump, not a robust tree. It comes from lives already shattered and put down. A shoot from a stump. Look around. Discern, detect. Where and who have been decimated and desiccated and there expect a surprise. Not shaped by what we see or hear as possibilities but by irrepressible justice.

Hostile and opposing creatures find harmony and join forces, not tamed by the mighty but led by a little child. It is hard not to absorb Isaiah’s prophetic vision when we see all the ravages of oppression, suffering and destruction and yet from very unexpected places opposing forces are being led by children. Jesus but in our own time and place, from places with little hope shoots of new life appear.

On the environmental front worldwide there is no doubt where real leadership for change is coming from. Imagine, it was only a year or so ago that Greta Thunberg started a solo school strike. Now school kids are literally leading the global environmental movement. And this advent moment leadership is not uplifting, gentle inspiration. It is the urgent voices of children saying, “I don’t want you to feel hopeful. I want you to panic.” The prophetic vision helps us to see that sometimes—such as in resisting gun violence or facing ecological catastrophe—children are the only adults in the room.

From Hong Kong to Beirut to Chile and involving more than nine popular youth-led protests reject the current political class in favour of the politics of life and justice.

Isaiah tells us where the spirit, the spirit of God, the spirit of Jesus is to be found in a desperate time. Among the brutalized and ignored. The children are among those filled with the spirit of wisdom and understanding. The spirit of the fear and knowledge of the God of Life.

In Matthew’s Gospel after Jesus enters into Jerusalem, the court of the temple is filled with street kids crying out, “Hosanna!” Save us. Rescue us. Son of David. Now. And the chief priests and teachers of the law were indignant and said, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” The answer is yes. In the advent moment from the expected voices of children we hear the call to join the Jesus movement. To save, to rescue life where it is at risk. Advent helps remember where to look to see God at work.

For a child will lead them.

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