December 10, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
The year was 733 B.C. Citizens in ancient Jerusalem, the capital of the kingdom of Judah, are asking questions: Is this it? Is this what it all comes down to? Have all of our hopes crashed and failed? Is this all that God has in store for us? Really?
The was a crisis in national leadership. Their king had failed them. In those days, a major war was being fought between rival kingdoms vying for power. There were complicated alliances and treaties. And in the midst of this war, the king of Judah, the descendent from David’s royal line had crumbled in fear. Rather than standing firm and trusting in God, king Ahaz had made a backroom deal with the great foreign superpower, the Assyrian Empire. To save his own skin, stay in power, and protect his boarders at the expense of his neighbors, Ahaz sold his kingdom to the Assyrians. He bowed his knee and promised to serve them as his vassal. He would live out his days as a pitiful puppet king, propped up by a foreign power.
In the face of this crisis of leadership, the prophet Isaiah, paints a painful picture, which functions like a political cartoon. The royal household, the dynasty of King David, son of Jesse, which has ruled in Jerusalem for centuries is portrayed like a great tree, a massive royal oak. But with the cowardice of Ahaz (and a bunch of bad kings before him) that great tree has been cut down. It has fallen. Now, all that is left is a stump. A dead remnant in the group. It’s a pretty powerful metaphor for the loss of something great, for disappointment, for shattered dreams.
Think of what effect that same metaphor would have today. Imagine opening the paper and finding a pollical cartoon with a great tree that says “America” along it’s wide trunk. And in the cartoon the tree has just been cut down. All that is left is the stump. A painful memory of former life. Leaning against the stump is an ax, the instrument of the felling. And what might be written on that ax today? What is it that is cutting down our hopes and dreams today? What is leaving stumps where great oaks once stood? Greed? Ignorance? Intolerance? Anger? Divisive political parties? Social Media algorithms? Rampant consumerism? Perhaps, perhaps that ax today might bear the same name as it did in Isaiah’s day: Fear. Fear is what kills hope, topples centuries of growth.
Not only at the national level but in our own lives today—we have our stumps. Our places of disappointment and loss, of shattered dreams and thoughts of what cold have been, what might have been. So too in our own lives does fear cut down what we had hoped for.
Now, as powerful and biting as Isaiah’s political cartoon might be, its just the beginning. The metaphor of the stump, sets up the surprise that is to come. For out of this image of death and decay grows something new. A tiny, green shoot of a plant, with a fragile stem and only a few small leaves is breaking forth into the world. New life, growing where we least expect it. And this new shoot, this new growth out of the Royal line of David will not be anything like the failed kings of ancient Israel or the leaders that disappoint us today. This one, this ruler who is to come, will be anointed with “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.”
Every ruler, king, politician, claims to be wise and mighty, but the wisdom and might of God look very different than the ways of the world around us…and they certainly won’t get you elected. According to Isaiah, the might of God is shown in how the poor are cared for, how the weak are lifted up, how the meek are honored. The wisdom of God sees what is really happening, its sees through the mirage of power and wealth, it sees the wickedness and brokenness in our systems and structures that are all about greed and privilege, that are ultimately rooted in fear. Instead, this new one, this shoot of Jesse breaks forth quietly into the world to turn the everything upside down.
So, let’s see, in the midst of a time of war, Isaiah prophecies about a fragile young birth that will come when and where we least expect it. And this one who is coming will be a ruler, a king in David’s line, who sees people as they really are, who particularly cars for the poor and the outcast…does that sound like anyone you know? Anyone whose birth we await this time of year? [Jesus!] The early Christians saw in Isaiah’s prophecy a lens through which to interpret and understand the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This vision from Isaiah, which begins with the brutal commentary of loss, a dead stump with all its emptiness, has been transformed into a sign of hope. Life in the face of death. Light in the midst of darkness. Justice in a world of oppression. And it is all ushered in by the prince of peace.
But then, without any warning or even so much as a commercial break Isaiah’s prophetic vision shifts quicky. Now we no longer see the righteous ruler, but our attention is taken to a mountainside where some very unusual animal activity is taking place. There are big scary wolves, with sharp teeth laying down next to helpless lambs. There are mighty and ferocious leopards snuggling up next to baby mountain goats. There are young cows hanging out with lions and bears who could rip them to shreds if they wanted to…but they don’t seem interested in such a meal. Instead the lions and other predators are eating grass, grazing like cattle. There are human babies there as well playing with vipers and cobras who pose no threat to safety. What in the world is going on here? It doesn’t sound like the world as we know it!
When I was in school there were some students who decided that they were going to start an underground campus newspaper. They wanted to tackle issues that no one was talking about, uncover injustice in the school community, shed light on things that were hidden. I’m sure where the idea came from but I remember that a couple of people were really fired up about. They asked me to be a part of the writing group, but I never was able to uncover any grand conspiracies, so I couldn’t figure out what to write about. One month, as a joke, I wrote an article about “interspecies conflict.” You know those age-old burning questions like who would win in a fight between a lion and a tiger. At the end of the piece I invited people to submit requests for future articles. And to my complete surprise, they did! Apparently our readership was really interested in these hot topics, like who would win in a fight between a crocodile or a hippopotamus, or my favorite, a grizzly bear and a great white shark.
Humans have always been fascinated with animals in all their wildness. Predators and prey. We have TV channels devoted to watching footage of them, and we give sharks an entire week each year. We are fascinated by the way this food chain works.
That’s why Isaiah’s vision of this peaceable animal kingdom stand out as so shocking. That’s not the way the world works. Wolfs eat sheep. They always have. But in this prophecy, all are safe. All are at peace. The food chain is broken. The world is changed, new creation for now the lions, tigers, and bears are all vegetarians.
At first, this vision seems so far-fetched, so unrealistic that is bears no relevance on our world or Isaiah’s. It sounds nice, but come on, really? That kind of changes in the created order, if it ever happens, it certainly won’t be for thousands and thousands of years, right? But could it be that Isaiah is saying something that matters for our world today? Could it be that like the stump from the first vision, this image of animal peace and nonviolence works on more than one level? Could it be that these predators being transformed is precisely the kind of peaceful, hopeful call that we long for in the coming of the Prince of Peace.
For we certainly still live in a world full of predators. Our news is filled with stories of individuals in power preying upon those who are weak, innocent, young. Politicians resigning from office, is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the ways that predatory behavior around sex and gender have permeated our world, our families, our work places. We are increasingly aware in our schools of the presence and patterns of bullies and the ways in which social media has only sharpened their teeth and increased their reach. Predatory loan practices are big business these days.
We live in a world in which institutions and societies, even entire nations, still prey upon those who are poor or in need. The disregard for human life and dignity perpetrated by those bend on paths of terrorism and destruction is increasing rea. There are predators today just as ferocious and fearsome as the Assyrian Empire was in Isaiah’s day.
The vision of the Prophet Isaiah, the fleeting glimpse of the wolf and lion lying down with the lamb and calf is powerful, because it is the very change that we wish for, yearn for, right here and right now. We pray for a world in which might would not make right. In which what is empty would be filled. A world of free from war, terrorism, abuse, and violence. We pray as we sing, “Bid envy, strife, and discord cease. Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”
And while Isaiah’s vision may seem so far gone, so out there, that it feels impossible, the truth is, it is has already begun! He says, “a little child shall lead them.” In the good news of the Christian gospel we know the truth, we sing it and proclaim it, that this little child has already come. That the prince of peace has been born in a stable and that his rule has already begun. It not yet finished (not by a long shot) but it has begun.
In this season of Advent we speak this double truth. On the one hand we celebrate the good news of his birth, his new life amidst all the stumps of our fallen world. And in the very same breath we confess that his kingdom is not yet fully come, his will is not yet done on earth as it is in heaven. Isaiah’s vision of the prince of peace and the transformation of creation grounds our hope in God’s promise, and it pushes us to work, to strive, to struggle and sacrifice for the day when the world shall lay down his weapons and lie down with the lamb. When the lonely shall be lifted up. When the vulnerable shall be at peace.
O come, O come, Emmanuel! To God alone be the glory.