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‘A Signal to the Peoples’

December 9, 2013

“‘A Signal to the Peoples’” Isaiah 11:1-10 © 12/8/13 Advent 2A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In the 1970s, Woody Allen published a book of comic essays called Without Feathers, the title of which I have always taken to mean that there is no hope, given that Emily Dickinson said hope is the thing with feathers. In that slim volume, there’s a section entitled “The Scrolls,” in which Allen relates the discovery of ancient variant versions of texts from the Hebrew scriptures. He tells, for example, how archaeologists found this verse, presumably from or in response to Isaiah 11: “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep” (28).

Some might say that Allen was overly optimistic. More likely is that when the lion and the calf lie down together, only the lion will get up. Likewise with wolf and lamb. The world is full of predators, those that walk on four legs and on two, and we had better be aware of the danger that is all around. There are snakes in the grass, and not only those that slither along and bite with fangs. Prowling lions, ravenous wolves, and poisonous reptiles are found in boardrooms and offices and families, governments and communities of faith and schools. It is not cowardly, only realistic, to have a healthy fear and respect for fang and claw; to watch your back and guard your tongue in certain company; to teach your children that the world may not always be kind to them, so don’t talk to strangers, don’t provoke an animal, even your pet.

Given our knowledge of the way the world is, Isaiah’s vision seems like so much wishful thinking. How can one ruler, no matter how wise or well-intentioned, bring about global, even cosmic change? How can natural-born predators put aside their DNA and their drive to feed their cubs and lie down in peace with the cow and the lamb that used to be a juicy feast? And who in his or her right mind would put an inexperienced, vulnerable little child in charge of it all? Utter nonsense.

But if I might tweak a statement from Frederick Buechner, faith is mostly wishful thinking. He says: “Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.” Isaiah’s dream was not foolishness because of one vital factor: the spirit of the Lord. Isaiah believed in a reality beyond sound and sight and terror and trial. He trusted the One who had been and will be and even now is here, the One whose very Name trumpeted the fact that he was in charge and wouldn’t be commanded or cornered or corralled by anyone or any reality, however harsh.

When we consider the political situation behind the text, the prophet’s vision is all the more amazing. There are two possibilities, both equally bleak. Some scholars say this material comes from the 8th century BC. For two hundred years, God’s people have been divided into two kingdoms, north and south, Israel and Judah, because of a civil war. The northern king has now allied himself with a regional power to try to grab the throne of Judah. Ahaz, the evil monarch of the south, appeals to the superpower of the day, Assyria, to come help him. They do, destroying the northern nation completely and scattering the people to the four winds. But now will Assyria turn on Judah as well? The once mighty House of King David, towering like an oak, has little more remaining of it than a stump, with its majesty and power gone. Only two tribes—Judah and Benjamin—are intact, and their king is alternately fearful and arrogant. Not a worthy monarch for God’s people.

But Isaiah will not give up hope. Because out of the remains of the felled tree comes a shoot, a branch. Fragile. Easily pulled up, readily broken. But the prophet is confident in God’s power to protect the little tree from the root of David’s father Jesse. And this promised king will possess practical wisdom, military and legal prowess, and a deep spirituality full of the joy that comes from reverence for God. His judgments will not be based on the usual external factors. His bias will not be toward those with power and wealth, so often corrupted. Instead, he will favor the poor and meek, and make sure they are treated fairly. The other side of his mercy will be sanctions against evil, to get rid of it forever. And when the prophet says the king will wear belts of righteousness and faithfulness, he means the king doesn’t just sit around. In the ancient world, to run and work you had to cinch your long robes with a belt. This one takes action, right and true and quick.

It could be that Isaiah has in mind the son of Ahaz, named Hezekiah. He ruled alongside his father until about 716 BC, when he ascended the throne by himself at the age of twenty-five. Hezekiah broke with his father’s policies and rebelled against Assyria, which resulted in war and the destruction of many Judean towns. Jerusalem was ultimately spared during the Assyrian invasion when a plague wiped out the enemy army.

If indeed the prophet is thinking of a particular king, it’s probably better to translate the text as “a branch” will come from the “stock of Jesse,” which is an acceptable way to read it. That means that Isaiah is trusting the usual political process, with kings coming in succession in a dynastic line, to bring in a new day.

We may scoff as such notions, given the dysfunction of our government, the greed and unscrupulousness of corporations, the ineffectiveness and co-opting of churches, and the general sense of powerlessness we may have. What can anybody do? Who can possibly make a difference even in one’s hometown, much less on the global scale of all creation Isaiah envisions? Such peace is a pipe dream, such harmony is hopeless, such fairness far off in some future we will never see. Vulnerable people, the “little children” of Isaiah’s dream, do not lead; they are crushed and put down and bullied. Groups with insignificant numbers, say small churches or constituencies without much money or big names on their side, never get anywhere with their mission or their agenda. They barely survive.

And that would be true if the spirit of the Lord, the creative wind of God, were not blowing over the stump, nourishing the root and the branch, enlivening dreams and imagination and giving courage to fearful hearts. God is at work and will keep working through real people where and when they live. His Spirit occupies and transforms human efforts and brings new possibilities (cf. Walter Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching Year A: 11, 12). As the hymn says, “Heaven shall not wait for triumphant Hallelujahs, when earth has passed and we reach another shore: Jesus is Lord in our present imperfection; his power and love are for now and then forevermore” (“Heaven Shall Not Wait,” John L. Bell and Graham Maule, 1987).

What can one person do? You may have heard that Pope Francis has been sneaking out of the Vatican at night, dressed as a regular priest, to feed the homeless in Rome and eat with them. A blogger who says he has “no use for organized religion” recently commented on the story: “I lost faith (so-to-speak) in all types of organized religion long ago. I have given up on expecting good deeds and magnanimous gestures toward the poor coming from the Vatican. But after hearing the unorthodox outreaches to those less fortunate in the world by Pope Francis, lately, I’ve been reconsidering the time-worn, idealistic notion that one man can indeed change the world.

I think Pope Francis truly has the potential to be a transformative pontiff.

“We’ve all heard about his washing the feet of the poor, his warm, unsolicited embrace of a gravely disfigured man, and about a dozen other diverse attempts to reach out and help common people around the world. His declarative statements about income inequality and corporate greed are legion.

“I don’t need a church to feel spiritual. But if a holy man in a hierarchical position such as a pope can truly care, console, comfort, and ultimately inspire the least among us… I say that man is doing good work.

Works Jesus himself would be proud of” (markthshark; see end note 1).

Neither you nor I have the influence of a pope. But what we do matters, too. Our buying decisions this holiday season and every day. The way we treat each other in church and families and workplace and school. The commitments we make and the promises we keep. The little acts of kindness we show. We are the body of Christ, no matter how young or how old, no matter the amount of money in our bank accounts or the kind of home we live in, no matter the size of the congregation or the scope of its ministries. We are a demonstration of the gospel to the world. Or in the words of the prophet, we stand as a signal to the peoples, an ensign, a standard, a banner, a badge standing for and pointing to something better, to Someone who has changed the world and our hearts. And however small, our accomplishments and our ministries are signal achievements, extraordinary, special. As someone has said, “God doesn’t think smallness is a problem. God is neither limited nor empowered by our size” (Karl Vaters; see endnote 2). Or as Mother Teresa observed: “You can do no great things; only small things, with great love.”

That’s possibility one, then: that God acts through human hands to bring in the peaceable kingdom. The other approach to the prophecy places it in the 6th century BC. By then, the southern kingdom of Judah was overrun and Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians, the current regional superpower. The leadership, artists, and business people were carried off into exile. Surely this was a time without feathers, with no hope of recovery. The David line was indeed a stump, never to grow a branch again.

But in fact, Jewish spirituality flourished. It was during the exile that the great prophet we know as Second Isaiah preached. The synagogue came into being. The priestly writers wrote their history of Israel from the very beginnings when everything was formless and void, and edited the scriptures. Fifty years after being carried off, those who wanted to do so returned to Jerusalem and the land to rebuild. They had no king and the land passed from the hands of one great power to another, but somehow the spiritual life of the Jews developed, the writing of history and wisdom continued, and the four distinct parties of the New Testament times came into being. One preserved texts that we know today as the Dead Sea Scrolls. And, of course, it was during this time that our Lord was born.

Suffering can do two things to us. We can become bitter and resentful and mean. We can strike out like an animal in pain, so that even those close to us want to turn away. I’ve seen people behave that way, as have you. And I’ve acted that way myself.

The other way is to let suffering transform us and to teach us the lessons we so need to learn, that we can pass on. We can become humble and more compassionate. We can put ourselves more easily in the place of others, especially those who are despised and left out. We can become the instruments of God for healing and peace, because we have been broken open by our suffering, which is sometimes the only way that the Spirit can get inside of us and change us into the agents of the Holy One. As one writer has noted, “some of life’s most important, loving, and holy moments are times of trial, sorrow, and sadness” (Stephen Matson; see endnote 3). Out of ruin comes transformation; out of hatred, love; out of the darkness, light.

I cannot imagine a more striking example of such work of the Spirit in our days that in the story of Malala Yousafzai. You may recall that she is the young woman who was shot by the Taliban for advocating education for girls. She stunned Jon Stewart into awed speechlessness and got thunderous applause from the audience during an interview on his program “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central (see endnote 4). She related how she asked herself what she would do if a Talib came to kill her. At first she thought she would hit him with a shoe, but then realized that if she responded to violence with violence, there would be no difference between her and the Talib. Instead, she decided she could not treat others with cruelty and harshness. She could fight, but with peace, dialogue, and education. She would tell the Talib that she even wanted education for his children. She would conclude her speech to her would-be killer with this: “That’s what I want to tell you. Now do what you want” (see endnote 4).

We may not ever be up for a Nobel prize or gain world attention as Malala has. But we can be examples of the redemptive value of suffering. We can refuse to give in to fear and hatred and bitterness. We can keep our wonder, our innocence, which often tragedy and pain take away. We can be ensigns, signals, banner-wavers, extraordinary people who point the way to possibility and newness wrought by the Spirit of God.

It is the cross of Jesus, born in the little town of Bethlehem, that stands through the centuries as the ultimate signal to all the peoples. It reminds us that even the worst humankind can do cannot defeat love. The most horrific schemes to thwart the dream of God for a new creation will not succeed. A shoot will grow from a stump into a mighty tree. A branch from Jesse’s stock reigns now in heaven, from which he will return and usher in his peaceable kingdom.

So with the hymnwriter, we say “Fling out the banner! Let it float skyward and seaward, high and wide; the sun that lights its shining folds, the cross on which the Savior died. Fling out the banner! Distant lands shall see from far the glorious sight…and nations baptize their spirits in its light.”

Endnote 1; italics are the author’s

Endnote 2

Endnote 3

Endnote 4


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