Christmas Cards from Isaiah
Note: Manuscript and Audio do not match, some thoughts come by way of the Spirit in the preaching time.
11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 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 for the poor and decide with equity for the oppressed 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. 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will feed 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. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. — Isaiah 11:1-10
Wow, what an image we have in front of us today. This passage appears to harken back to part of our theme from last weeks text, that theme of hope in what could be. Isaiah 11takes these images of violence and places them in contrast to images of peace, and in so doing turns even images that we associate with violence into peaceful unions with all of God’s creation. Make no differences about it, last week was fully about hope. It was diving into the imaginable understanding of God’s promise for humanity. Last week the front of the Christmas Card read “Swords into Plowshares,” and inside we may have seen an expounding on the verses surrounding that talking about being drawn into God and the promised hope of God’s salvation.
However, in the second week of advent we move from hope to a tangible and visible understanding of peace. Last week was about laying down our weapons, and today is about the act that unites us together, because yes, laying down our arms is an act of peace, but I would stand on the foundation that it is a hope of peace. Laying down our arms and allowing them to be transformed is a sign we are willing to work together…now comes the actual work, and in Isaiah 11 we not only get a promise of hope, but we get the very image of hope itself. That “lion and lamb” imagery we have in what has come to be known as “Peaceable Kingdom Theology.” However, lion and lamb? There seems to be several other animals interacting in this text and the lion and the lamb don’t even interact. My mind went there when I first read it, and then I read this in a commentary that sparked my imagination,
“Admit it, you thought it was the lion and lamb, didn’t you? Not sure how that became the prototypical image of the peaceable kingdom. But Isaiah says it is the wolf and the lamb and the lion and the calf. The fatted calf. The calf ready for eating. Impossible. Outrageous. Like Democrats getting along with Republicans. Won’t happen. Freedom Partiers and Gun Control Advocates. Can’t happen. Social conservatives and the live-and-let-live sort. Nah, unimaginable. Well, maybe if they were allowed to give each other a good swat first . . . No, no, bad idea. Our differences are too great, aren’t they? Our divides too deep—until someone comes and points to a higher truth, a deeper reality, then all those things that separate us will continue to have us drawing up battle lines. It is the nature of the beast.”1
I know folks dislike when things in church become political and think that pastors should stay out of politics from the pulpit, and my response to that is a social gospel is inherently political, because the Gospel defines our manners for living. However, I will mention that it is not political in the nature we often attribute politics when we talk about divisive political affiliations and dehumanize one another because of our beliefs. It is political in the nature because when we look at the basis of politics and go back to it’s original understanding we see that in its etymology from the greek politics comes from the politiká or ‘affairs of the cities.’
Politics is about our life together and inherently we should care about that as a church and as a faith because church’s play a large role in community and community building.
Why is this important to us then when it comes to unpacking this passage?
Because today our Christmas Card from Isaiah proclaims ‘A Reign of Peace,’ and not only does Isaiah call for it in a word from the Lord but he lays out the true goal of what that peace can and should look like. Isaiah lays forth, again in this Kingdom of God theological understanding, how we are called to coexist together.
We spend so much time as a society being broken down by variety of identifiers, and we judge one another based off of those identifiers. We look at bumper stickers on cars (or even license plates) and immediately make assumptions about the people in the car. We see a news story and immediately take a defensive posture trying to figure out a counter-attack, instead of trying to take the tangible step towards a lasting peace. We base these ideals off of political affiliation, social beliefs, and even religious beliefs.
However, you know what is being laid forth in this passage? Not an ambiguity of differences, but a coexistence of differences that sees harmony and peace even within those differences. The lamb knows what the wolf is capable of and yet lays down with it anyways, and reciprocally the wolf, knowing what the lamb offers lays down with it none the less. They have come to know more deeply one another that they can find a way to coexist. An understanding of trust that honors the created living-ness of both creatures in which neither seeks to harm the other.
We long for this work to come to fruition in our world. We look for leaders to lead us in this work (or at least I hope we do). We are reminded of Israel’s systemic oppression as a nation. A nation that existed through several occupations, with very few times of autonomous peace. However, we cannot, nor should we, necessarily define ourselves with Israel’s oppression. For the most part we experience quite a bit of privilege in our society. We are often more associated with the wolf than the lamb, more often associated with the snake rather than the child. We have already talked about laying down our arms, and now we look towards Isaiah to give us insight in how we associate with our ability to bring peace.
Isaiah and the Judean people long for this peace, and they are looking for a leader, a “shoot from the root of Jesse.” The Jewish people longed for this leader who could lead them in this prophecy of peace. A leader who could overcome the differences with warring nations and bring about God’s peace. Many biblical commentators believed that Isaiah’s writing, and Israel’s longing, was possibly looking towards the figure of King Hezekiah (that’s right this is not necessarily a prophecy about Jesus). The Jewish people looked towards Hezekiah, fulfilling this prophecy and desired for this shoot of Jesse’s Tree (the one talked about in verse 1) to be true and present. Hezekiah was in fact within the Davidic lines of Kings, and possibly one of the most prosperous kings of Judea. Even looking at Hezekiah’s resume he seemed to check the boxes, you can check out some of his reign in 2 Kings 18-20 and 2 Chronicles 29-33, but it includes gestures of peace and justice that sought to repair hate and harm built up thorugh generations of harmful decisions.2
Commentator and Professor Cory Driver notes,
“The words of Isaiah 11 seemed to confirm suspicions that Hezekiah would bring the world to peace and make war a thing of the past, to realize a time when the lion would lie down with the lamb. But it was not to be. Hezekiah instituted important reforms, to be sure, but did not bring an end to war and fighting.”3
Not even this hallowed and sacred King of Judah, so praised for his reforms, could bring about true and lasting peace. Isaiah struggles to consider what this means for the nation of Israel. By Isaiah 10, we are deeper into Isaiah’s prophetic period and while Isaiah has begun to see the cracks in the Judaic reign, there is an understanding of finding one who can not only embody this nature of Godly peace, but usher it in as leader as well. So if a well-praised leader of Judah cannot do it then who will?
Here I remind us that many of Isaiah’s prophecies are not understood in a Jewish Context to speak towards Jesus (because they do not inherently see him as Lord as Christians do). However, as Christian’s we begin to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures in light of our ultimate source and Word of God (that is Jesus) we begin to see anew passages like Isaiah’s that point us in a direction of God’s actions through the Spirit.
How would we come through if instead of looking towards one person we look towards the shoot that we see come forth. Yes, we can look at this branch of Jesse’s Tree and we can interpret it as Jesus (for we do believe that Jesus comes from the line and lineage of David). We therefore, interpret Jesus through the lens of Jewish history that gives birth to our own tradition. From that understanding we see the ways we grow forth from Jesus.
In the Gospel of John 15:5 we hear Jesus proclaim,
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”4
When I merge my understanding of these two passages together, my mind immediately wonders how Jesus is taking this idea of a leader ushering in an era of peace, falls less on the physical actions of God themselves, and more on the actions of the Spirit of God within each of us. That role of peace making is in our hands. If Jesus is the root, then we must be willing to come forth in the name of Jesus as peacekeepers.
Therefore, it is not just looking towards the promise, but embodying it as we live our lives here and now. The birth of Jesus that we are steadily moving towards is as much about what happened about 2000 years ago, as it is about what we are working towards in our contemporary world. We look as much towards Jesus’ return as we do reflect on his original birth.
How are we seeking to usher in this everlasting peace?
We couple it with our initial discussion last week of laying down our arms, the hope present in the action of offering peace. Now we look towards that peace-filled society and recognize our role in it. We open this Christmas Card with an air of suspicion because we have become skeptical of peace, skeptical when it is offered, because we see far too often an apathy towards reaching out to the other side of the aisle (as it were) and being that true beacon of coexisting.
We place ourselves in an understanding that if peace is going to exist it is “the other” that must reach out. However, peace is a 2-way street friends. We must be willing to do the work, and we must be willing to admit error and have compassion and empathy within the process.
The wolf and the lamb do not just put their differences aside and lay down without the lamb forgiving the wolf for trying to eat them, and without the wolf forgiving the lamb for the skeptical judgement the lamb offers. Both must lay aside differences and willing to see each other as created in the image of the one who created them.
I think you can tell I have moved on from the wolf and the lamb, and I am talking about us. Friends peace is possible. It is possible for us to live and coexist together, if we are willing to put aside our qualms, cease the harm, offer true forgiveness, and come to a place where we see the worth of every human to live together as a peaceable society.
Jesus comes to earth to offer the example by which we live…will we allow his image to be our image of lasting peace in the world?