Hope | 2nd of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10

1 A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.

2 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.

3 He will delight in fearing the LORD.

He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay.

4 He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.

He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.

5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.

6 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.

7 The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and a lion will eat straw like an ox.

8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole; toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.

9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, just as the water covers the sea.

10 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. (CEB)

Hope

Joy loves Japanese Maple trees. When we lived in Durham, North Carolina, our neighborhood had several beautiful Japanese Maples. As we walked the broken sidewalks of the old streets we’d admire each one we saw. Joy had wanted a Japanese Maple since, at least, the beginning of our marriage, but we never bought one because we kept moving. My wife didn’t want to buy a beautiful tree only to leave it behind.

Still, back in 2013 when we lived in Fort Wayne, we bought a Japanese Maple after a lot of searching to find just the right one. Apparently, we’re weird about plants because we felt our tree needed a name. So, we named the tree Mariko in honor of a character from James Clavell’s novel Shogun. We found an ideal place for Mariko at the corner of our house. The only problem was that a huge, overgrown bush was already taking up the space.

I fixed that by cutting it all the way down to the nub. Then, I put weed killer on the stumps of the exposed cuts. Once that was done, we planted Mariko the Japanese Maple in front of the dead stump. The space was perfect with no other large plants nearby. Mariko had all the room it needed to grow and thrive, and we were sure our tree would stand out beautifully with a few years of growth.

But wouldn’t you know it, after a few weeks, that darn formerly overgrown bush started sending up shoots of new growth. As much as I hacked and slashed, it keept growing. The shoots were coming up all over the place, not just from the stump. I was pretty sure I’d killed the thing a few times over, but it refused to stay dead. For all I know, it’s still growing at the corner of the house on Candlewick Drive. For the record, we brought Mariko with us to Mount Vernon.

Isaiah describes for us a family tree, of sorts. It’s a family tree that eventually gets cut down to the stump as larger and more powerful empires gobbled up the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. After 587 B.C. only the remnants of a ravaged nation were scattered throughout the world, and there were no more kings of David’s line. Yet, Isaiah declares that the line of Jesse, King David’s father, will see a shoot grow from its seemingly deadened stump. But this new growth from Jesse’s roots—this new king of David’s line—wasn’t ordinary. This was to be something God-breathed and Spirit-imbued. We’re told, “The spirit of the Lord 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.”

The reign of this future king will be marked by righteousness, justice, and a peace so pervasive that even the most ancient of enemies live in peace alongside one another. This king won’t judge by appearances. He won’t make decisions based on hearsay. He’ll care for those who are exploited by the powerful, and put down those who are violent with a word from his mouth.

We Christians hear Isaiah’s words and connect them to the Messianic reign of Jesus Christ. The reason this text is read during Advent is because it anticipates the full reign of Christ and the kingdom of heaven. It’s the coming inauguration of this kingdom that we’re waiting for in Advent, when all of God’s promises to the human race are finally and completely come to fruition.

The reign of Christ will be a complete restoration of the created order, and everyone is invited to be a part of it. The guest list seems to be all inclusive, as Isaiah gives us this powerful image of the peaceable kingdom where even nature’s most ancient enemies lie down together: wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, lion and calf, bear and cow. We even have the image of both infants and toddlers playing over the den of venomous snakes, which is a reversal of relationship between the oldest of Biblical enemies: the serpent and the children of Eve. After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God told the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. They will strike your head, but you will strike at their heels” (Gen. 3:15).

In one sense, these images speak to the complete restoration and reordering of nature, which fell into decay in the Fall. Adam and Eve’s job was to tend the Garden of Eden by governing creation. They were the pinnacle of the created order and its stewards. When the stewards of creation fell away from God, the created order, itself, fell into ruinous disarray.

Salvation is a cosmic event. We, and all of creation with us, await the fullness of God’s salvation in which the coming of God’s kingdom ushers in a new reality. Predators eat straw like their former prey. At first glance, this image looks like it is only the strong and fearsome predators that have been redeemed and turned into peaceful creatures. But I think it’s more than that. I think salvation is all-encompassing; that, just as lions have learned to eat straw and no longer feed on other, weaker creatures, those weaker creatures have, perhaps, been made strong.

What if this redemption means that oxen have learned to roar like lions, and lambs have been made as formidable as wolves? The justice of salvation tells us that the weak and lowly have been lifted up and the powerful have been put down from their thrones, that the hungry have been filled with good things, and the rich have been sent away empty-handed (c.f. Lk. 1:52-53). The powerful are converted, yes, but so too are the weak.

In another sense, the animals—predators and prey—are symbolic for the human race. They are all of us. The drama of human history shows us that the powerful tend to exploit the powerless for their own gain. Our own culture teaches us that the world is us against them. We have to beat the competition. Success means winning no matter the cost to ourselves or others. Putting other businesses out of business is justified as a means of self-preservation.

Our culture teaches us to think in terms of scarcity: that there’s not enough to go around, so we need to get ours before someone else beats us to the punch. If we manage to lop off a few heads so that we can breathe easier, that’s ok because it’s all about us. It’s a deathly life that we live in a death-filled world. Yet, we do see glimpses of the kingdom here and there, where the predator and prey attitudes are laid aside for cooperation and mutual benefit.

The vision of the messianic kingdom presents a vastly different place where the strong and the weak, the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited all experience conversion, renewal, a complete reordering, and live together in the harmony of God’s justice. The lion and lamb image is used in Jeremiah, not Isaiah, but I mention it because Revelation presents Jesus Christ as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and the Lamb of God standing as if it had been slaughtered. Jesus, too, is the all-encompassing vision of God’s kingdom where lasting peace is made.

Then Isaiah makes three references to children. Why is a little child leading this petting zoo of converted creatures? In one way, I think, it’s because in the restored order of God’s kingdom, creation itself, desires a human presence to care for it just as Adam and Eve were supposed to have done in the beginning. This picture points us again back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden when human beings cared for and nurtured the rest of creation.

In another way, perhaps our attention is being directed to the coming child who was born in Bethlehem. The world waited for this child to be born. And now we wait for his return.

Some scholars suggest that the children in Isaiah’s vision convey a sense of innocence. I almost laughed out loud when I read that. I’m not sure innocence is the right image. Anyone who thinks children are innocent has either never had children, or they’ve completely forgotten what having children was actually like. If you don’t believe in original sin, get married and have a child. Parenthood will quickly adjust your theological disposition.

No, the children here don’t represent innocence. Instead, I think they represent vulnerability. There is hardly anything more vulnerable than a child, whether it’s a nursing infant or a toddler. A young child playing over a serpent’s den would be a disaster in our world. But in the messianic kingdom there’s no danger. Isaiah says, “They won’t hurt or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the LORD just as the water covers the sea.”

Finally, Isaiah points once more to the root of Jesse and declares that he will stand as a signal to all the peoples and the nations will seek him out. We’re told that his dwelling will be glorious. The guest list for the kingdom of God is already made up, and all of our names are on it. We’re all invited. We only need to present ourselves before the Coming King and allow ourselves to be converted and renewed, whether we’re the predator or the prey. God’s kingdom will be a place of peace, where old grievances are forgotten, and all enmity is put aside.

The vision of Isaiah is our hope during Advent. We are a people who live between two times: we celebrate the coming of the root of Jesse in Jesus Christ; a shoot which has already grown and brought the Kingdom near, and we look forward to the promises of God being fulfilled in the final consummation of God’s peaceable kingdom yet-to-come when the Root of Jesse comes into our world again. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

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