Advent Project: Isaiah 11 and the Year in Review (by guest-writer Naomi Wilson)

Each year, I blog through the Advent Season – a time of waiting, expecting, and longing in the midst of exile. This year’s Advent Project is my way of intentionally seeking truth in this time and motivating myself to reflect. Let’s reflect together about what it means for God to be with us, and how badly we need it.

This week’s post is a sermon written by the amazing Naomi Wilson, preached on the second Sunday of advent at her church this year.

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A reading from the book of Isaiah, Chapter 11. 

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse

and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

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.

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;

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.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

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.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

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.

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.

The word of the Lord.

If we look at this year’s Time Magazine Year in Review, we will see joys, progress, and tragedies. Every year, it seems as if the list of tragedies is longer than any of the good things. Consider this year’s magazine: it mentions the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, wildfires in Arizona and Colorado, a plane crash in California, and the government shutdown—and these are only in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., there have been events that have been even deadlier. There is the Syrian civil war, including the government’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. There is the continued conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, including drone strikes which kill civilians. Malala Yousafzai is still recovering from the Taliban’s attempt to assassinate her in 2012. The magazine went to press before Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines and before Nelson Mandela passed away.

Our world is dark. Acts of terrorism, natural disasters, and violence abound. There is a clean water crisis in the developing world. Christians in a multitude of countries live in fear that if the government discovers their worship, they will be snuffed out like candles.

In a world filled with so much death and destruction, it would not be unreasonable to give up hope that things will get better. But this passage tells a better story than the one we live in—a story where God’s redemptive plan changes both humanity and creation. Because Isaiah is so well known for prophecies such as these, it is one of the most researched books in the Bible. In fact, I took two classes on Isaiah in seminary with the same professor. One of the more memorable moments in those classes was the day that we studied Isaiah 5, and my professor thundered, “If there is one thing that the eighth-century prophets want to communicate to us, it is this: that God hates social injustice.” Not only in Isaiah, but also in Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Joel, this point is stressed again and again.

I took these words to heart, and in further study of Isaiah have found the theme of God’s desire for justice running as a thread throughout the entire book. Isaiah 11 plays into this theme, telling us about who God is and what God has planned for the world. It tells us about God’s plan of salvation and redemption, as he comes to set all things to rights.

Now, most of us generally find history to be a little boring. Not me, I was a history major, but most of us find it to be distant, and abstruse, even. But understanding the context from which the prophet Isaiah spoke can give us a deeper insight into his words. So in the next few minutes, bear with me and try not to fall asleep. Jesus is watching.

We often read Isaiah 7 as a prophecy of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. And this is a fair reading of the text. But there is more in that particular text. Most scholars believe that it prophesies the birth of Hezekiah in the 8th century BC, the king of Judah who would withstand the power of the Assyrians, protecting the southern kingdom from falling.

A word about the Assyrians. During their time, the eighth century before the birth of Christ, they were the most terrifying people you could imagine. Their armies were powerful and well-equipped, and could sweep down into Israel and Judah at a moment’s notice.. Isaiah 5 tells us about how swift and deadly their armies were, saying:

None of them is weary, none stumbles,

none slumbers or sleeps,

not a loincloth is loose,

not a sandal-thong broken;

their arrows are sharp,

all their bows bent,

their horses’ hoofs seem like flint,

and their wheels like the whirlwind.

Their roaring is like a lion,

like young lions they roar;

they growl and seize their prey,

they carry it off, and no one can rescue.

They will roar over it on that day.”

The Assyrians were awful, and we can only imagine how much terror the people of Israel and Judah felt as they heard those words.

In the year 701 BC, the Assyrian king Sennacherib laid siege to the major cities in Judah, including Lachish and Jerusalem, which you can see on this map. Lachish was the second-largest walled city, and Jerusalem was not only the largest walled city but also the city where the king lived. Now Judah was a tiny nation-state compared to what we are familiar with. Imagine building a wall around the city of Los Angeles. Hezekiah called for the digging of a tunnel which provided fresh water to the city so that they could survive the siege, and in Isaiah we read about an angel of the Lord striking down 185,000 Assyrian troops in a single night, sparing the city and causing the Assyrians to withdraw.

Which brings us to the context of our passage today. While Judah was spared from the Assyrians in 701 BCE, the nation had been devastated by the sieges. And while in Isaiah 10 the prophet foretells the destruction of Assyria, Judah has also been damaged. It is from here that the stump of Jesse emerges. Not only did God deliver his people from the Assyrians, he continued to provide for them.

We usually read Isaiah 11 as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it was referring to someone who would have been king after Hezekiah? We know from the historical record and the Bible that Manasseh became king following Hezekiah. We also know that Manasseh was the worst king in the history of Judah.

Could Isaiah 11 be a failed prophecy? Was Manasseh the shoot from the stump of Jesse who wilted and died, and the only referent of this passage? Was Isaiah therefore a false prophet of salvation?

No.

The people of ancient Israel and Judah lived in the now and the not yet. Because of their history, they knew that God would save them, and that God was with them even as they struggled as a small nation-state surrounded by larger, more powerful empires. But they also understood God’s plan as the “not yet” — something which would come slowly. They waited for this Messiah of the not yet.

A scholar named Brevard Childs has done significant work with the book of Isaiah, including passages which we usually read through the lens of Jesus (including the prophecies of Immanuel in the early chapters of Isaiah, and the servant songs in the second section of Isaiah, such as Isaiah 53). Most biblical scholars believe that these prophecies actually refer to people who were significant in Israel’s history at the time they were written. Childs, though, suggests that these prophecies can have both ancient referents, but can also prophesy the coming of Jesus.

When we read this prophecy through the lens of Jesus, we get a glimpse of the kingdom which is here and yet still coming. It too is the now, but not yet. When Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem, it was heaven come down to earth, God in human flesh, the kingdom breaking in, the beginning of an era of God’s reign on earth.

Isaiah 11 gives us a glimpse of what the kingdom of God will be like when it is fully established on earth, while simultaneously giving instructions as to how we are to live. It also tells us how the Messiah will reign.

According to our passage today, the Spirit of the Lord will bestow upon the Messiah the following gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. A truly good ruler will have these characteristics. While ultimately the Israelite kings failed as rulers, Jesus did and does have all of these gifts. Because Jesus is wise, understanding, powerful, and omniscient, he is able to rule his kingdom perfectly. Moreover, his kingdom takes on different characteristics than the kingdoms of this world—almost to the point where it becomes something we might call an upside-down kingdom.

One of the things that is most evident in this passage is that God cares about poor and oppressed people. A central part of what the Messiah does is to seek out ways to make sure that the poor and the needy are treated equitably. This also fits under the heading of justice, but we cannot emphasize enough how central caring for the poor is to God’s mission. Jesus himself quotes the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4:18, saying

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus says in the New Testament that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. In our world, being poor puts you at the bottom of the pyramid not only economically but also socially and in terms of power. Under the rule of Christ, though, it is the poor who will inherit his kingdom.

Part of caring for the poor and oppressed is seeking justice for them. In a system where economic inequity is the norm, where capitalism allows major corporations to trample on the heads of the needy in pursuit of bigger profits and bonuses for CEOs who already make millions each year, God’s desire is for justice for the poor and oppressed.

So what are ways that we can pursue economic and social justice in our world? Perhaps it looks like working towards ensuring that every human being has access to clean water. Perhaps it means speaking out for those unfairly imprisoned. Perhaps it means campaigning for an end to human trafficking, and making an effort to purchase only slave-free products. Looking at Time Magazine, again, we get a sense of what justice might have looked like in 2013. Justice could have been sending money to relief efforts in Syria to help people who have been persecuted by their government, or working to provide supplies for those who lost everything in Typhoon Haiyan.

God’s plan for the world includes peace. In our passage today, we read about the wolf lying down with the lamb, the leopard with the young goat, the calf with the lion, and a little child playing with them all. We read about children playing near snakes without fear of being bitten. Biblical commentators not that in places like India, children dying of snakebite is a common occurrence. Imagine, then, a world where children can play safely and freely, where people and smaller animals do not live in fear of larger animals. Imagine a world in which people do not live in fear of natural disasters such as hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, fires, or tornadoes. Imagine a world where Trayvon Martin can walk down the street and get home safely. Imagine a world where Malala Yousafzai can encourage girls to pursue an education without fear of being assassinated.

There is one last image in this passage — the Holy Mountain. The Holy Mountain or the Mountain of the Lord is a common image in the book of Isaiah. For example, in Isaiah 25, we read about the Lord wiping away his people’s tears, erasing their disgrace from the face of the earth, and swallowing up death forever. This mountain, the same one, is how we are to understand the kingdom of God as it is presented to us by the prophet. The kingdom of God will be this mountain, where the proud are humbled, and the lowly are lifted up, where the lion and the lamb frolic together, where we can all live without fear or pain.

Although Christ came to us all those years ago, we still wait. In Advent, we await the birth of the Christ-child, just as Mary must have as she sang with her cousin Elizabeth as they rejoiced over their unexpected pregancies, just as Isaiah the prophet knew long ago that a true Messiah would come and save.

But we now also wait with anxious anticipation for the return of Christ, for the restoration of all creation, for all things to be set to rights. When Jesus comes again, he will bring justice for the poor and needy, restore peace on earth, and we will dwell together on the mountain of the Lord. While we wait, though, we are called to imitate Jesus our Messiah, the shoot from the stump of Jesse.

As a child, one of my favorite books was the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. In it, four children enter a land called Narnia which is ruled by an evil white witch. The witch has cast a spell, and in Narnia it is always winter and never Christmas, and all of its inhabitants live in fear. The children learn about a lion who is the one who will come to save the country from the White Witch—a lion named Aslan. The book is written as an allegory for the Gospel. When the children first hear about Aslan, these are the words used to describe him:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,

At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,

When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,

And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

This is the hope that we have in Jesus.

And as we await our coming king, please sing with me a reminder that Christ has come and will come again—O Come O Come Emmanuel.

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations bind,

All peoples in one heart and mind;

Bid envy, strife, and discord cease,

Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

 

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