Sunday’s sermon: An Illogical Hope


Text used – Isaiah 11:1-10

  • I’m going to start this morning by reading you a story.
    • That made sense, right? Totally rational? Completely logical? Easy to follow and 100% understandable? Right? … No?? Well, shoot.
      • Explain spoonerisms: a verbal error in which a speaker accidentally transposes the initial sounds or letters of two or more words, often to humorous effect → Or, in this case, not-so-accidentally.
      • But let me ask you this: Despite all the goofy words and the crazy phrases, did you understand what I was saying? Did you fall into a rhythm of listening that let you hear through the illogical to the message underneath?
        • Sort of like when you’re watching a movie when all the characters are speaking with an Irish accent or an Australian accent: takes a while for your ear to adjust to what you’re hearing, so you have to really pay attention for the first 15 mins. or so – by the end, you have no trouble understanding them
        • You see, that’s the thing about this time of year – the hope, the amazing in-breaking of God into our day-to-day lives in the form of this little baby, the story of Mary and Joseph and all their trials and tribulations that lead up to that night in a Bethlehem stable, and all the centuries of waiting and wanting that lead up to it. Centuries of prophecies. Centuries of expectations. Centuries of anticipatory hope. All for this one little child … who is, indeed, God With Us. Crazy, right? Totally irrational? Completely illogical? Difficult to grasp and 100% perplexing? Right? Well, shoot. … That sounds just about right.
  • Walking through Advent this year with the prophet Isaiah
    • Context reminder: prophet to southern kingdom of Judah during time of war, oppression, and betrayal
      • Judah compelled into shaky alliance with Assyria → Assyrian army turns around and attacks Judean capitol of Jerusalem
      • Isaiah speaks words of promise
        • Promise of God’s care
        • Promise of God’s guidance
        • Promise of God’s presence with the people of Israel
        • Promise of salvation to come
      • Isaiah’s words = words of anticipatory hope
        • Hope that cannot be realized in the here and now
        • Hope that must be held and cherished, sheltered and nurtured → Think of what it’s like to try to start a fire in a firepit. You’re outside, and sometimes, the elements are less-than-ideal. First, you have to make things ready – build the logs up, find some good kindling (somethings that’s dry and that will burn easily), and position everything just so. Then, you have to light the kindling. The flame is small at first, meager and vulnerable and liable to go out at the slightest hint of neglect. But you protect that little flame. You shelter it with your hands and your body so the wind doesn’t blow it out. You feed it more twigs and kindling, and you watch it grow. You watch it strengthen and intensity as it first catches the twigs, then the little sticks on the logs, then the bark on the logs, and finally, the entire log structure that you built is glowing with warmth and light. So it is with the hope that Isaiah presented to the people of Israel. It was tenuous and fragile when he first spoke the words. The elements surrounding them – the cruel and oppressive Assyrian army, the utter uncertainty of their future –threatened that hope. And yet Isaiah’s words continued to stir in them, to grow and flourish within their hearts as a flame grows and flourishes in a firepit – bringing light to the dark times, warmth to the desolate times, and hope to the times that seem utterly hopeless.
          • Anne Lamott: “Hope is not logical. It always comes as a surprise, just when you think all hope is lost. Hope is the cousin to grief, both take time.”
  • Today’s Scripture reading
    • Isaiah’s words of anticipatory hope this week seem especially illogical and absurd – text: 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. A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole; toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.[2] → Sounds. Crazy. Right?? I mean, this goes against everything in nature – predators gently and peacefully lying down with their prey, eating not the prey itself but what that prey is used to eating (bears munching on grass and lions scarfing down straw). And little children playing with snakes?
      • Not the happy, harmless little garter snakes that we all see in our gardens over the summer – Heb. = “cobra or asp” → Scholars have narrowed it down even further to a particular species: the Cerastes cornutus, the Horned Viper. This is a highly venomous snake that still lives in northern Africa and the Middle East.[3] This is not the kind of snake that the traveling zoo guy is going to bring to the summer library program! It is dangerous. It is volatile. And according to Isaiah’s prophecy, this is the snake that the “nursing child” and the “toddler” will play with. Logical? Not so much. The protective momma in me wants to say something a lot stronger than that … but we’ll leave it at “not so much.”
    • Craziness of Isaiah’s prophecy illustrates just how amazing, just how topsy-turvy, just how extreme, just how illogical hope in God actually is → I’ll tell you what, though: it’s a good thing we’re in church, and it’s a good thing we’re in the midst of Advent because nothing about this faith, nothing about this season, nothing about the birth of God in human form makes sense. So we’re in good company.
      • Hope in a God we cannot see or hear or touch → by today’s standards, a God we cannot prove
      • Hope in a tiny baby born not into power and prestige but into a stable and straw – hope that this baby will save us all
        • Words of the angels to come: For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.[4]
          • “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, it’s a title – Gr. “Christ” = “Savior” → So the one to bring salvation will be born into a position that couldn’t be more humble, more out-of-station, more common and ordinary. And yet, oh, how uncommon and extraordinary this Christ Child will be.
            • Is speaks to that this morning, too: A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. 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. He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.[5]
              • Words of audacious hope in Isaiah’s time – time of oppression and betrayal
              • Words of audacious hope in time of Jesus’ birth – time of injustice and corrupt leadership
              • Words of audacious hope in our time, too – time of serious social inequality and a whole new set of injustices, time of both extreme need and extreme greed, time of unrest, time of uncertainty
  • Today: inhabit a world that can sometimes be bent against hope
    • World that values reason and logic
      • Facts and figures
      • Scientific studies
      • Expert opinions
      • And don’t get me wrong, all those things have their place. If I find myself down at Mayo facing some sort of illness or medical problem, I want all of those things. I want facts and figures. I want scientific studies. I want whatever expert opinions I can get because I want to be informed to the best of my ability about what’s going on in my life and in my body. But I also want hope.
    • World that seems to place immense significance on soundbytes and shock value and sensationalism
      • News stories
      • Tabloid fodder
      • Internet sensations
      • Talk radio
      • There are all of these outlets that try to shock us into submission with the opinions and beliefs that they’re trying to sell. They bury us in words and word and more words about how terrible this person is or how criminal that person is, how scandalous this event was or how out-of-whack that situation is. The sensationalism dulls our senses until we find something to spark us back into ourselves.
        • Hope = that spark
          • Hope in humanity
          • Hope in God’s goodness and ultimate purpose in this world
          • Hope in grace
          • Hope in forgiveness
        • Cling to Is’ anticipatory hope: The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, just as the water covers the sea. On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.[6]
    • In the face of all that the world elevates and treasures, we celebrate a story that makes no sense – a story of ultimate power born into ultimate destitution, a story of people coming to pay homage not to a king in a fancy palace but a child in a feed trough surrounded by animals and straw and cow pies and camel spit, a story of angels singing and God With Us and incomparable grace and anticipatory hope. It’s a story that makes no sense … and thank God for that!
      • Madeleine L’Engle: This is the irrational season / When love blooms bright and wild. / Had Mary been filled with reason, / There’d have been no room for the child. → Sometimes, we just have to make room for the irrational, the unreasonable, the audacious and the uncommon and the extraordinary. We have to make room for illogical hope because there is no other kind. If hope were logical, it wouldn’t be hope. It would be reason. I would be planning. It would be check lists – something we could work through step by step in a sensible and intellectual way. But the beauty of hope is that it flies in the face of all that! It blooms bright and wild in the face of statistics that tell you things should be otherwise. Hope blooms bright and wild in the face of past circumstances that should teach you to expect loss or failure or fear. Hope blooms bright and wild in the face of naysayers and straight talkers who do their darnedest to keep your feet on the ground. Hope blooms bright and wild in darkness, in challenge, in fear, in uncertainty – in all those places when we need it most. Because in those places is God Emmaneul – God With Us. Amen.

[1] found at

[2] Is 11:6-8.


[4] Lk 2:11 (KJV).

[5] Is 11:1-4a (CEB).

[6] Is 11:9b-10.