Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10 Commentary
Some people claim the theologian Karl Barth said that modern Christians should always have an open Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. It’s advice that remains as good today as when Barth first offered it. So those who preach and teach this Sunday’s Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints might take the time to share how that philosophy manifests itself out in our own work and ministries.
Of course, we first pay prayerful, careful and thoughtful attention to the Scriptures we preach and teach. We let the Holy Spirit sink them deep into our very bones and soul. We live with the Scriptures we preach and teach so that the Holy Spirit may speak through our efforts to speak of them.
However, thoughtful preachers and teachers turn next to the media. We look at the day’s headlines and read some of its stories. As I write this, some of those headlines read, “Minnesota Officer Faces Manslaughter Charges in Shooting,” and “Airstrikes on Aleppo Resume as Russia Begins New Offensive in Syria.” Isaiah 11’s preachers and teachers will want to add more contemporary headlines.
For Christians Advent is, as John Buchanan notes, “a season of dramatic contrasts” between society’s Christmas’ bright lights and Advent’s quiet, poignant hymns about things like lonely exile. Contrasts between our culture’s mad dash to finish everything by December 24 and Advent’s invitation to wait quietly for Christ’s return.
Perhaps, however, nowhere is the Advent contrast sharper than between Isaiah 11 and our newspapers’ headlines. The Advent contrast may be sharpest between Isaiah’s vision of peace and the reality of the world in which we live.
This week’s Old Testament lesson speaks of peace on earth, while soldiers stand in harm’s way in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The angels sing about goodwill among people, while Palestinians and Israelis fight each other. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, while gangs make our community’s streets dangerous.
Isaiah 11 describes a peaceable kingdom that’s so lovely that it almost makes us weep with longing for it. It’s, in fact, so lovely that it captivated the imagination of the nineteenth century American painter, Edward Hicks who painted more than 60 slightly different interpretations of it and was working on another when he died.
Hicks interpreted Isaiah’s lovely word picture of predators and prey living in peaceful harmony. The wolf lives with the lamb. Leopards lie down with goats. Calves and lions lie together. And a little child leads all of them. It’s no wonder, as someone has noted, that in Hick’s picture, the animals’ eyes are wide open, as though perpetually amazed.
God created you and me to live in peace with God, each other and the rest of his creation. The Lord meant for the foundations of peace – righteousness and justice – to fill God’s whole creation. God even calls his God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 11 reminds us that while we live in a violent world, God will not rest until peace captures the hearts and minds of all people and nations. God won’t stop making peace until all predators and prey, as well as all enemies live together in peace.
But in the meantime there is Iraq and Afghanistan, ISIS and Boko Haram. In the meantime internal strife threatens to destroy countries like Ukraine and South Sudan. In the meantime political turmoil roils countries as diverse as the United States, South Korea and Columbia.
It’s a landscape even the hopeful prophet Isaiah would have recognized. His prophecy begins with a scene of horrible desolation, perhaps of a battlefield. Isaiah’s Israel has no buildings left standing. Her enemies have stripped her fields bare.
So we can almost picture the tears welling up in Isaiah’s eyes. Rubble and rebellion surround him. The stark contrast between God’s peace and the tragic reality of human history seem to almost overwhelm the prophet. After all, in a world meant for life, he sees much death.
So where does the prophet’s hope for peace lie? In the midst of the violence that plagues the nations, our communities and, outside of God’s redeeming grace, our own hearts, from where will our own peace come?
From a poignant symbol of death and devastation, says Isaiah. For centuries Israel had placed her hopes in David’s family dynasty. God had, after all, promised David that his family tree would flourish, that one of his descendants would always sit on Israel’s throne.
As Isaiah writes our text, however, that promise looks shaky at best. The once towering, leafy family tree of David’s dynasty is dying. Armies and empires have essentially reduced it to a dead stump.
God, however, directs Isaiah’s eyes to a tiny, green branch growing out of that lifeless, rotting stump. God gives the prophet a vision of great life and hope. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. From his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
If God hadn’t revealed it in his word, we’d hardly believe it. A tender, green shoot sprouting out of a dead stump? Life springing out of death and desolation? A king coming out of David’s withering family?
Perhaps even more amazingly, however, this is no ordinary king who sprouts out of the stump that is David’s dying dynasty. Isaiah promises the Spirit of the Lord will so fill this King that he’ll delight not, first, to do not his will, but the Lord’s.
So this King won’t listen to his cronies and make judgments based on what’s politically popular. He’ll actually hear the cries of the poor and take up the cause of the meek whom the powerful so cruelly oppress.
Most kings wear swords or some other signs of royal power around their waists. Isaiah promises this shoot from Jesse’s stump will wear righteousness and faithfulness. And under this king’s reign, God promises, such peace will flower that former enemies, predators and prey alike, will live together with people in peace and safety.
Now, of course, Christians believe that shoot from Jesse’s stump, the great King Isaiah describes, is our Lord Jesus Christ. From the bleeding, dead stump of his crucifixion grows a tender shoot of resurrection life and power.
Yet what has really changed since that Son of David returned to the heavenly realm? Teenagers in our communities are killing each other in record numbers. Politicians bicker apparently endlessly over things like stadiums and roads. Even some Christians perpetuate the segregation that has always plagued America’s churches.
So what has changed? Isaiah’s vision of a stump is a good place to begin our search. After all, God’s work often seems to begin among the stumps of human failure and rebellion. After all, it begins in a garden human rebellion soiled. It continues in a flood, with Noah and the animals bobbing atop its watery grave. It continues with a childless couple named Abram and Sarah, with Isaac, the child of promise. It continues with a little girl and her fiancé, with the child Jesus.
Through the life, death and resurrection of that Jesus, whose birth we remember and whose return we anticipate, we catch glimpses of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom already now. Yet did the tender shoot Christ’s coming really change anything?
At the United States’ churches’ best, we don’t have to look much farther than the places in which we worship and serve. There the descendants of slaves sing with descendants of slave owners. The descendants of those who passed Jim Crow laws worship with descendants of Jim Crow’s victims there. Descendants of those who had to ride the back of our busses lead worship with descendants of those who shoved them to the back of those busses.
We’ve been in enough churches to know that they sometimes sound more like lion’s dens than the peaceable kingdom. I’ve seen a few leopards chase some goats around our Sunday School rooms and hallways. Our churches’ little children aren’t always the leaders. Sometimes the snakes still lash out at them.
If, however, you look closely, you’ll see a small glimpse of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom in some of our churches. In a world where wolves still eat lambs, at our communion tables we catch glimpses of wolves eating with lambs.
In a world where bears still regularly devour cattle, in our church committees you catch glimpses of bears and wolves working together. And, best of all, they’re lead by the little Child of Bethlehem, Jesus the Christ.
God’s not yet finished making all things new. So there’s still plenty of work to do, both in the Church and across God’s kingdom and world. You and I still must work to live at peace in our homes and families, listening and forgiving, bending and embracing. We still need to work for peace and reconciliation in our workplaces and neighborhoods, refusing to speak harsh or condemning words.
We still work for peace among the nations, praying for it daily, and calling our leaders to work for it constantly. We also see what God has made as living under our care as caretakers of God’s good creation.
Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom isn’t, after all, just a quaint old picture or a lovely Christmas card. It’s a picture of the future that God repeatedly says he has planned for his creation. That picture of the peaceable kingdom is a future that shapes the way we view the various stumps of our own lives. It also shapes the way we think about a treat each other and the world around us even now.
In the face of sin and among the stumps of our own lives, we cling to the vision of the way God created things to be, to Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom. The Baby of Bethlehem is a sign that God will keep his promise to usher in a new creation where peace will reign.
In his article, “Pray and Vote” in the June 14, 2003 issue of The Christian Century, Garret Keizer writes, ‘Even before the invasion of Iraq had begun, the cry went forth through and from the churches: Pray! Pray for the soldiers, pray for the civilians, pray for peace. So I preached, and so I did.
I wonder, though, if God didn’t answer our petitions with one of his own: Vote! Polls indicate that something like 96 percent of Americans say that they believe in a supreme being. More than 70 percent say that they pray at least once a week. Yet less than half of the nation’s registered voters participated in the  presidential election. Millions of others were not even registered.
It follows that among those praying now are a fair number who didn’t vote then, which strikes me as a bit like praying for employment without bothering to apply for a job. . . We simply have better things to do. For instance, we have to say our prayers. We have to continue our “faith journeys.” . . . The right of political self-determination is indeed a talent entrusted to our care, and prayer alone does not count as an exercise of faithful stewardship. Perhaps the most extreme form of taking the Lord’s name in vain is to say “God bless America” without a disciplined willingness to bless it ourselves.’
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