If you wander through a grove of Redwoods, you’ll likely run across the stump of an ancient tree giving birth to a new generation of trees. That forest giant may have died, but new life is emerging from it. In much the same way Isaiah envisions a shoot emerging from the stump of Jesse. Jesse, of course, was David’s father. Isaiah is saying that David’s kingdom might be threatened with extinction, but despite the dire news of the day, things will get better. Not only will they get better, but a golden age of peace is on the horizon. The people’s hopes and dreams will be restored by God.
As Christians we see in Isaiah’s vision a promise of the Messiah, God’s anointed one who will restore Creation to its proper order. It may seem like a utopian dream that doesn’t line up with what we know about nature – but that’s not the point. The seasons of Advent and Christmas focus not on what is, but what shall be. It is as
Bobby Kennedy said:
"There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why . . . I dream of things that never were and ask why not."
That is a good question to ask at this time of year – why not dream of things that never were and "ask why not."
I. THE SPIRIT ENDOWED KING
The dreams of things not yet are filling our minds. After all, the beckoning call of Christmas is reaching a fever pitch. The stores are staying open longer in the hopes that you and I will deposit some of our money in their coffers. The Christmas songs are everywhere. In fact, many of you are waiting to sing the carols and wonder why we’re still singing Advent songs.
Waiting is difficult, but it can also be a good thing. We call it delayed gratification and it keeps us focused on the most important things in life. Of course, Advent is a season of waiting. The message of Advent is simple: we await the Spirit-endowed king, who is anointed by God to proclaim the good news of freedom and healing to the poor, the lame, the blind, and the captive (Isaiah 61; Luke 4). This Spirit-Endowed King – unlike so many of today’s leaders – will rule with wisdom and understanding, counsel, and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. When the day of the Lord comes, Isaiah promises, Judah’s fortunes – our fortunes -- will be restored. And if, as we believe, Jesus is this Spirit-endowed King then we must realize that the mission of this king isn’t the restoration of a nation to its past glory, but is instead the restoration of humanity to its proper relationship with God. When that happens, the creation will experience justice and mercy and peace.
II. RIGHTEOUS JUDGMENT
But there’s a step that has to be taken before we get to this future. We have to deal with the past. No one wants to deal with the past, but unless we do – it will stick to us. That’s why when I recently submitted my papers to the national office, I had to authorize a background check. They don’t send out ministerial profiles to churches these days unless they make sure they’ve looked for all the skeletons in our closets. You’ll be glad to know that I passed!
And so Isaiah’s vision begins with judgment. The king holds court and holds the people accountable for their past. To get an idea of what Isaiah has in mind, think back to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was led by Bishop Desmond Tutu. That commission allowed South Africa to make a peaceful transition from white minority rule to black majority rule. To move forward Bishop Tutu knew that the nation had to deal with its past, and the same is true for us. We may not enjoy standing before the judge, but it’s a necessary step toward wholeness.
And this judge weighs the evidence according to the rules of righteousness and equity. This isn’t blind justice, instead it’s justice decided on by an arbiter who, as Gerhard Von Rad wrote, "cares particularly for those whose legal standing is weak."1 God is, after all, the one with a "preferential option for the poor."
The result is that things get properly sorted out, kind of like the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13). Kathleen Norris says that this parable frightened her has a child, largely because her grandmother used this parable to convince her that God’s judgment is terrifying. In time, however, she found the parable liberating, because it freed her from the "disease of perfectionism."
I began to see God's fire, like a good parent's righteous anger, as something that can flare up, challenge, and even change us, but that does not destroy the essence of who we are. The thought of all my weeds burning off so that only the wheat remains came to seem a good thing.2
Yes, God holds us accountable and what’s not of God is burned off as dross – but we survive. Having faced God's righteous judgment, we are ready to enjoy true fellowship with God.
III. MESSIANIC PROMISES
When Isaiah brought this vision to Judah, his nation was facing destruction and its leaders – even the best of them – fell short of God’s standards. Despite the omens of destruction, Isaiah offers a word of hope to his people. That was then, but what message does this passage have for us living centuries later?
I believe this vision says at least two things to us. We’ve already talked about one – God’s righteous judgment will save us. The other message has to do with the promise of a restored Eden. In the Genesis story, God creates the earth and it’s good. Everything and everyone gets along just fine. And in this vision, natural predators sit and eat grass with their normal prey – just like it was, Isaiah says, in the beginning. In his vision the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf, dwell together in peace under the leadership of a child.
What the prophet is doing is offering a vision of universal peace. It’s something we’ve never seen, but it’s also something we can work toward, led of course by a child. That child is the one born on Christmas Day.
The Advent season of preparation is coming to a close, leaving with us a vision of God’s cosmic plans. Although God is concerned about each of us as individuals, God is also concerned about the healing of the cosmos itself. As the old 1960s song puts it: "He's got the Whole World in his Hands." That is the message of Advent and the message of Christmas. Darkness may be enveloping us, but a light is shining in the darkness bringing hope of restoration to all.
1. Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology (NY: Harper and Row, 1965), 2:169.
2. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, (NY: Riverhead Books, 1998), 317.
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 23, 2007
4th Sunday of Advent