Sermon 12/04/2022 – The Prophets

Isaiah 11:1-10

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 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. 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 will feed 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.

Sermon Text

Last week, looking into the Torah, we saw a reflection of a deep truth. In God’s promise that the enmity between the serpent and the woman would not be eternal, but have an end through the intervention of her child, we could see a clear image we could use to understand Jesus, born of humanity, and his work against evil. The work of the Gospel, perfectly embodied in the mere matter of a snake and its destruction. Today we jump forward in the history of God’s people. Looking far from the primordial state of the world, we look to the chaos of a world in ruin.

As with much of scripture, the prophet Isaiah preached during a time when conquest was just over the horizon. I was not a secret to anyone that the powerful armies of Assyria would begin making their way through the Levant. The only thing between the recently fallen Northern Kingdom and Egypt was Judah and its neighboring countries. There was no hope for the people not to be taken as collateral in the bid for control of the entire Eastern Mediterranean. Horses and chariots, siege engines and soldiers, all were loaded up and ready to reduce all opposition to their campaign to stubble and ash. This particular prophecy comes when Israel still stands between , this incredible army and the people of Judah, but neither country had a chance.

The promise that Isaiah brings is therefore one that is somewhere down the road. It is not deliverance in the form of a present King, but a future King. From the lineage of Jesse would come a hero who would purify the world. The wicked would be blown away, and peace would spring from where violence once sat. Wolves and their prey are now playmates in the fields. Blood is not shed, but life-giving springs bubble between all creatures in all places. Even the serpents of the world, literal and not metaphysical, are reduced to the toy things of small children. Asps and vipers, copperheads and moccasins, now just friends to all other life.

This idyllic vision of the future is one that any person would gladly see fulfilled around them. To see a world with no more pain, no more struggling just to get by, that is a blessed thing. Not only that, but a world where the wicked are punished and the righteous are allowed to live a full life, unfettered by the cruelty of circumstance. Now that is something worth dreaming of. Isaiah stands looking out over the countryside, knowing that much of it will soon be in flames, but he knows that there is a future ahead for God’s people and for all the world to flourish under.

Assyria would not completely destroy Judah, but it would reduce it to a vassal state. No longer independently governed, it owed taxes to the Assyrian capital and was expected to contribute to its military campaigns wherever possible. This end was far better than Israel, the northern kingdom, which was all but destroyed. The survivors in the land saw their culture merged with people from other Assyrian vassal states, and over time became what we now call “Samaritans.” The friction between Samaria and Judah was still decades off, but only a few days walk from Jerusalem would be the reminders of a people that once were, and now were not, the destruction of their siblings, the loss of ten tribes of the twelve in Israel.

The huddled people of Judah took in what survivors they could, some would go on to have descendants that cross our path in the New Testament – Anna the Prophetess being one such person. Yet, the dream of a king that removed all troubles never seemed to come. It was not achieved by the vassal-kings of Judah under Assyrian rule, nor when Babylon conquered a few generations later, nor when Zerubbabel ruled the exiles in the time of Ezra. Nothing seemed to bring about this prophecy’s fulfillment. The world is still in chaos, copperheads will still bite and kill, and wolves are not the best dogs to keep around our sheep. The world still waits in anticipation for the resolution of this prophecy, for peace without wickedness, but the day of that decisive peace seems distant, like a small light flickering in a dark attic.

It is not surprise then that the Early Church saw this prophecy as something that resonated with their experience of Jesus. Jesus, born into the family of David, was the thing that would someday bring about the kingdom that the prophet had long ago dreamt of. In Jesus’s time on earth we saw that light, distant and flickering, flare up brighter than any star in the sky. In Jesus there was a glimpse of something completely unlike what this world has shown us till now. There was a King who was first and foremost a servant. There was a God who allowed himself to be a slave. There was a Kingdom that promised the best for those with the least, and retribution for those who dared to have when others had not.

The bizarre nature of Christ’s life was a testament to the bizarre and wonderful nature of God’s kingdom. Repentance and forgiveness poured freely from the foot of the cross, a never ending stream that blessed all the world. The Spirit of God descended upon the Church after the resurrection, a great wind that blew them to the four corners of the known world proclaiming this new kingdom. An end to violence was possible, if all people banded together in love and service, a new era dawned upon the land. The root of Jesse had bloomed into a grand tree, and many found shelter beneath its branches.

Yet, of course, the Church has never been perfect, and seldom even successful in this mission, not on a grand scale at least. It took only a few hundred years for worldly powers to take over the Church. One of the first councils of the Church was called by an emperor, not a priest or even a believer, but an emperor seeking to create stability in his newly seized empire. That emperor set the tone of a unified force of Church and State that lasted centuries. The monks at first fled to the desert to avoid it, but even their monasteries fell in line. The Reformation simply moved the pieces around, and by the time of our own revolution even a country that claimed separation of Church and State could not resist power courting power.

The appeal of Christianity, its power and presence across all time, is that it is an alternative to the world. It is not like everyone or everything else, but is instead singularly focused on the object of its devotion – Jesus Christ, the Word of God present here with us. At this table all separations cease, there are no nations or denominations, no borders of IDs. When the bread is broken and the cup is lifted up, there is no distinction in sex or gender or circumstance or fare. We are all, each and every one of us, made equal in distance and proximity to Christ. We can see a little bit of what it is like not to have anger or violence rule the world, even just for a few minutes, if we let the time we gather here be like it was for the disciples to be in the presence of Christ. Here everything melts away, here there is only peace, here there is the glory of the Kingdom that God has always dreamt of.

In this Advent season, we await the coming of Christ into this world. Not just the birth of a Child two millennia ago, but a King riding triumphantly into a city that will know no end. This season, leading up to Christmas, is the time we tell the world that there is a good ending to the story of history. At the close of the book, there is not fear or doubt or struggle, but light everlasting and the life abundant. I hope that when we look into the worlds, shabby and broken as it is, we can do what Isaiah did.

Looking beyond the horizon, beyond all troubles and worry, there is a dawn approaching. Out from the darkness of all our sin and betrayal of God’s true kingdom, one that knows no distinction and seeks no power, there is a blazing flame that seeks to make things right once again. The conflagration at the center of life’s cyclical path is not a devouring and wicked thing, but something that purifies, refines, and will someday see all things made beautiful. Today, as we ought to do everyday, we must make clear the glory of our Lord through the communion of this congregation. We must see in one another the face of God, and show the world the world as it could be. – Amen.

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