Yr A ~ Advent 2 ~ Isaiah 11:1-10
It begins with a marvellous image of a shoot of new life growing out of a dead stump of a tree. Most of us have probably seen something like that. The stump in this case represents what seemed to them like the end of the line of Davidic kings. You see, when Isaiah was writing this passage the people of Israel were in exile and their kings were overthrown. And into that dark experience Isaiah prophesies a new branch growing out of the old roots. You can imagine how welcome such a word would be to these exiled and suffering people. A new king will come. In fact, it will be a messiah! And here’s what the messiah king will look like.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
There’s a lot in there. But I want us to notice what it’s all rooted in. Wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, good judgement, righteousness and faithfulness are the qualities of this coming messiah king, but all those qualities are rooted in two crucial things: The Spirit of the Lord, and the Reverent, Wondrous, Awe of the Lord. The English reads “fear of the Lord” but the Hebrew word means far more than just being scared or intimidated, it means to be awestruck. This messiah will be enfolded in the Spirit of God and will delight in being awestruck and reverent toward it.
(By the way, the word messiah in Hebrew is translated as christos in Greek which is where we get Christ from. It literally means ‘anointed one’, not king, and not Jesus’ last name.)
And what effect will someone like this messiah king, this anointed one, have on the world. Oh, nothing much – it’ll just turn the entire natural universe on its head!
6 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.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
Wow! That’s pretty spectacular! It’s a description of utter peace. This passage is sometimes nicknamed “the Peaceable Kingdom” where all God’s creatures live together in perfect harmony.
Predator and prey hang out happily.
The innocent and the dangerous play together with no consequences.
Lifelong enemies coexist in peace.
It’s a lovely dream.
What if this was being written today? We modern citified folk might not be so tempted to use animal and nature imagery. So what would the depiction of utter peace look like now?
How about if we spoke of Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, blacks and whites, refugees and citizens, the 1% and the 99%, the political left and right (republicans and democrats, conservatives and liberals)?
Could you even imagine that being possible today?
It would take a messiah, at least! And then some!
Consider this. What would happen if we got the messiah we’re waiting for right now?
Or if we suddenly had a political leader who fully embodied all these wonderful character traits and was filled with the Spirit and “fear/awe of the Lord”?
I’m not sure it would be the be all and end all. And I’m not sure our problems would all go away and everyone would suddenly see the light and fall into harmony with that leader, that messiah.
Let’s talk American politics for a minute.
Mr. Obama was president for 8 years – an unquestionably honourable man, Harvard educated, brilliant, eloquent, classy, thoughtful, and compassionate.
Did his country echo that?
Now how about Mr. Trump? Did his ascendancy create the xenophobia and negativity that surrounded his campaign?
Are they following the leader? Or was it there all along but somewhat beneath the surface?
Do you think the appearance of a messiah figure as described so wonderfully by Isaiah would suddenly transform the world into the peaceable kingdom we dream about? I don’t think so. Paraphrasing a comment made at The Porch bible discussion this week I’d say what we need is a million messiahs – or at least a million people who share Isaiah’s description of messiah’s vision and values.
The leader matters, but if the followers don’t also embrace those values the movement doesn’t move.
So we can look at this text, and we can see in it that the vision and values described fit Jesus to a T, and we can revel in the idea that Jesus is our messiah. And that alone is worth celebrating – that a person, a flesh and blood person, is the embodiment and incarnation of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, awe, righteousness, and faithfulness and that through him a new understanding of how to live in peace together is possible.
That’s wonderful stuff! That’s a dream come true.
But that’s just the beginning.
As fantastic as that is it goes absolutely nowhere and accomplishes absolutely nothing unless we, the followers of this awesome leader, also embody that same vision and those same values.
If we really dream of peace, the kind of peace where enemies learn to love one another, where Jew and Arab, Christian and Muslim, refugee and citizen, rich and poor, left and right can live in a peaceable kingdom with one another and pray with each other instead of preying on each other, if that’s our dream then investing all our energy in waiting for the messiah to come at Christmas is a waste of time.
Because the tiny baby Jesus is not a magic wand, and nothing will change until we change.
Instead of waiting for messiah to come and save the world we need to be inviting the Spirit of the messiah to incarnate each and every one of us and “save” us.
Waiting for the sweet little baby Jesus meek and mild is pleasant enough but it totally lets us off the hook and gives us an excuse not to do anything.
So I’m proposing a change in our language.
Instead of praying for the baby Jesus to be born TO us we ought to be praying for him to be born IN us.
“Be born in us today” goes the carol.
You are the new shoot growing out of the stump of Jesse.
You are the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests.
You are the one who shall not judge by what your eyes see or decide by what your ears hear.
You shall bring righteousness and equity to the poor and the meek.
You shall make a powerful difference with the words you speak and your breath, the energy and passion you exert, shall work to disempower those who would do evil.
You are the one who is intimately clothed in righteousness and faithfulness.
And until you claim that holy power, that incarnation of God’s Spirit in you, until you take the baby Jesus off the pedestal and put him in your heart, the lambs and calves of the world are going to continue to be thrown to the wolves and the lions.
But if we had millions of anointed ones, if you and me and everyone who ever stepped foot inside a church and called themselves a follower of Jesus actually incarnated his Spirit and embodied the character and vision and values he offers, and lived in the Spirit and lived awestruck, then maybe this far out dream of a peaceable kingdom wouldn’t be so far out.
If instead of waiting for baby Jesus to do it we actually became the ones who incarnated the light of the world and shone it on the whole earth such that it became as “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (v.9) then Isaiah’s prophecy would really come true.
If this body of Christ became Spirit-filled and awestruck and then mobilized the shoot from the root of Jesse would surely “stand as a signal to the peoples” – and the world would be transformed, and it would be glorious (v.10).
In this season of Advent we prepare for the coming of messiah, the coming of the light of the world. But we don’t wait in anticipation because we think in the coming all our problems will be erased.
What we’re anticipating is an incarnation of Spirit so awesome that as we draw near, learn from the anointed one, and become inspired by him we do nothing less than embody and incarnate that very same Spirit.
No, you and I are not the messiah – but we look just like him!
We act just like him.
We love just like him.
Enemies are at each other’s throats.
Predators are stalking their prey.
The kingdom, my friends, is anything but peaceable.
Isaiah showed us the dream. But if you look carefully he never actually says the word messiah or king. He just dreams of someone covered in Spirit and living awestruck. Because when a person like that, or maybe a few million, are unleashed in the world, it will turn the world upside down. And every person sitting here is no less likely to change the world than a helpless baby born in a backwater little town to a couple of peasants was.
We began this passage with a green shoot of new life emerging from something that appeared to be dead and lifeless. In Advent typically we see Jesus as that shoot and await his birth.
Maybe this Advent, in addition to that, it’s time to pray for another new shoot to emerge – not far away in the Holy Land, but right here in this place.
And if you’re thinking this is sounding all high-falutin’ and self-aggrandizing, like I think we should all have a messiah complex, let me remind you of two things.
First, Jesus’ mission was precisely to make disciples, to grow people just like him, who would do even greater things than he did, to experience and participate in the mutual indwelling of Spirit.
Jesus didn’t come to be idolized, he came to be imitated.
And second, being covered in Spirit and awestruck in the presence of God is not self-aggrandizing but profoundly humbling.
God’s Presence sends us to our knees.
Such people don’t have an ego problem.
Rather, they are so grounded that a new shoot can grow out of them!
These are the keys to the peaceable kingdom.
I guess that Christmas carol had it right all along: “Let there be peace on earth…and let it begin with me.”
It’s Advent, and the world is waiting………for us.