Isaiah 11:1-10 NRSV
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.
Matthew 3:1-12 CEB
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:
The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
Romans 15:4-13 CEB
Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures. May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice.
So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory. I’m saying that Christ became a servant of those who are circumcised for the sake of God’s truth, in order to confirm the promises given to the ancestors, 9 and so that the Gentiles could glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
Because of this I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and I will sing praises to your name.
And again, it says,
Rejoice, Gentiles, with his people.
Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and all the people should sing his praises.
And again, Isaiah says,
There will be a root of Jesse,
who will also rise to rule the Gentiles.
The Gentiles will place their hope in him.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
There are a lot of ways to stand. We can stand up for something, take a stand, stand by, stand down, and even stand in for someone else, but what does it mean in Isaiah to stand as a signal? What are we signaling, and who is this signal for in this world? To help us answer this on our second Sunday in Advent, we will look at not one scripture but three: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12, and Romans 15:4-13. A voice will call to us from the desert, a stump will sprout with new growth, and this fresh sapling will hold hope for all the world’s people. We will hear a call from scripture to echo an almost impossible vision, one of peace for the whole of creation. Peace between peoples. Peace between predator and prey. Peace between nations. During this season of Advent, will we make this vision ours? Can we take up Christ’s invitation in this vision, a promise of a new way of living, as our own?
Just last week, many folks in our church community joined together in the Fellowship Hall as we delved into our study of the beloved holiday classic, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This beloved story of redemption and transformation sees everyone’s favorite festive grump, Ebenezer Scrooge, go from being apathetic and greedy to compassionate and charitable. We love stories like this around the holiday! Whether it's characters like Scrooge and the Grinch being changed or Charlie Brown teaching us all the meaning of Christmas through a poor excuse of a tree. Here’s another for us from Isaiah: “the wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will feed together.” Let’s be honest though, how of us many thought it was a lion and a lamb? Nope, it’s the lion with the fatted calf, the one that is just ripe for eating! Well, Christ is on his way with kingdom in tow, so how many of us are ready to let these predators live and play with our livestock, our pets, or how about with our children?
Impossible, right? Outrageous! You might as well tell another impossible story, like that all Democrats and Republicans will start getting along this Advent, or that conservatives and liberals will stop being suspicious of each other. We might as well dream that pro-choicers and pro-lifers will set down their signs and cross the picket lines to give each other hugs and set aside differences. Get serious, Isaiah! It’s only in Christmas stories and movies that things like this happen. The old curmudgeon doesn’t change his strips in real life, nor will we expect to see his heart for others grow thrice over in this day and age! Our divides are too deep. We would much rather listen to and see stories in this life which confirm our suspicions of what the other side is up. The only visions we want in this life are the ones with endings where the only way there can be peace across divisions are ones where the other side realizes just how wrong they are! Endings where the wolves become lambs and the lions turn into calves. We would be much more comfortable to have John show up at our opponents’ doorsteps in camel hide and with his honey-locust breath tell them to their faces:
“‘You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.’”
Painter and Quaker minister, Edward Hicks spent much of his artistic career in the 1800s painting and repainting Isaiah’s vision of peace. In fact, he painted over a hundred different takes on his work, The Peaceable Kingdom, based on Isaiah’s vision, over sixty of which still exist. His paintings show this fantastic vision found in scripture, with predator and prey animals alike clustered around a small child. The animals are almost primitive in their childish depictions. Bears and cows cheerfully eat hay together as lions frolic with lambs! However, as Hicks moved through life, his art began to change. His paintings still had the child and the clustered animals, but the lions and leopards started to snarl and show sharper fangs as he repainted this scene again and again later in life. Hicks is said to have started to lose faith in humanity as he watched animosities grow deeper and barriers grow higher and stronger between God’s children. In his later works, the Child, Christ, now holds tight to the lion’s mane and the bear’s neck, keeping them in place with his strength when they sought to return to their old violent ways. Though Hicks lost faith in humanity as time went one, he in turn clung ever tighter to Christ, putting his hope there.
Christ put on our humanity, our flesh, to show us a better way. Jesus showed us that we do not have to live in fear of one another. On our own, the fangs would come out and the snarls would start, but it is through Christ’s sacrifice and strength that a peaceable kingdom is possible! While Isaiah’s vision seems like another in a long line of holiday fantasies, Jesse’s stump has deep roots and new life grows from its trunk. John the Baptist tells us in Matthew, “‘Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!’” Change your life because a new vision is here, and a better way of living is before us! Do not go back to your old ways, do not be like a tree with no fruit. The impossible is possible, for God is coming to make it so! This peace is there for the lambs and the wolves! This peace is there for the Jew, the Christian, and all the people of this earth. Paul reminds us in Romans, that all people have been grafted to this stump, life in the peaceful kingdom for all, not just for some!
Christ has signaled peace for us, can we turn to the world and signal that same peace for others? Look at what Paul says when he prays, “‘May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude.’” Christ worked and suffered to show us a better way, and Paul hopes that we might be imitators of Christ to all people. Christ is not a Republican, a Democrat, a conservative, a liberal, a pro-choicer, a pro-lifer, or part of any other category we love to group ourselves and others into. In case we have forgotten, Christ is God. Christ came to bring peace to wolves and sheep; lions and calves. Christ came to show a better way to all God’s children, and we follow by imitating Christ. Jesus told us plainly, love each other as I have loved you. Love each other, as you should love yourselves! Even when the other looks and sounds different; snarls and shows teeth, they are still us. We are all still children of God. Can we learn to trust in Christ’s way? Can we learn through Jesus to trust others and be trustworthy ourselves? Can we stand as the signal of the life Christ has called us to?
When we love, when we welcome, when we share Christ in our world today, we stand as a signal that God is among us, and that there can be peace, no matter how impossible that sounds or looks. We show there is hope in despair, healing in brokenness, and unity in the division! We are called to stand as that signal, and Advent reminds us to rekindle our light and shine out before this world to proclaim peace and revive hope. Let us stand today. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman