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.
Last week you may have thought Isaiah was off with the fairies when he spoke of nations hammering their weapons into ploughshares. I recognised that it is hard to imagine Jerusalem being a powerful symbol of peace that we might all aspire to. I said it was a vision of God’s reign and that we need to keep that vision in mind as we weave our day to day chores around the wonderful threads that make up the warp of Christian life. I pointed to the tapestry as a model for living the Christian life. Let’s build on that notion.
The vision we start with today is the same. Isaiah has a vision of something so profoundly new it changes the very dynamics of the cosmos. Let’s look at his vision.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
First let’s notice that the poetry repeats the same idea in the second line to echo and affirm the idea. That is why when we read the psalms we usually read the second half of each verse as an echo of the first half. Isaiah says, someone will be raised up, a shoot from a tree stump, a branch from the roots. The stump is Jesse. Now Jesse of course is the father of King David. Isaiah referring to the Covenant with David, “I will create a house for you”. God is understood to promise that there would always be a King of Israel who is a descendent of David. But Isaiah goes back before David to his dad, or if you like to the source of the Kings of Israel. This shoot will not just be a descendent of David this will be a new David, a new leader for the people of Israel. Just as we hear John saying to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”. God is bringing forth something new, from the dried up old tree stump God causes to grow a new David.
What should we expect of this new shoot that is growing?
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.
Again we see another poetic device. This time it is the noun followed by another noun. Wisdom followed by understanding, counsel followed by might, and knowledge followed by the fear of the Lord. The second noun acts more like an adjective describing the first. What kind of wisdom does the spirit bring? Understanding wisdom! It is the kind of wisdom drawn from love and understanding of people. The counsel has a real strength to it. I guess it is the sort of counsel that makes good sense today, next week and in a hundred years time. And the knowledge is shaped by “fear of the Lord”. To me that means, it is intimate knowledge inspired by awe and devotion.
So this new leader that God is raising up from the old tree stump with amazing wisdom, able to teach lessons that are abiding, all from a knowledge ground in an intimate relationship with God, himself.
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;
Again we see the lines repeating almost the same thing, giving it extra punch. This new leader will not judge superficially based on what one can see or hear. Instead judgement will be based on righteousness and equity. It will be judgement that raises up the poor, the vulnerable of the land. This is in contrast to the normal justice handed out under a tribal/nepotistic system or a system based on violence.
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.
This leader that is completely new will bring judgement just on the strength of his words and his breath. That sounds pretty impotent. What sort of leader doesn’t wheel out a guillotine, or gallows, a cross or at least a prison?
But this leader doesn’t carry a sword and a dagger in his belt. He has a belt fashioned by righteousness and faithfulness. This leader brings justice based on righteousness but it is not self-righteousness. It is based on the love and grace of God.
Then comes this crazy mixed up world where the Lion sits down with the lamb and a child with a snake.
Again we have the poetic device of the second line echoing the first for greater impact.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
I guess we can imagine this in a very literal way with dogs guarding chickens, or we can imagine these animals as euphemisms for human beings. We might call some one in politics a hawk or a dove depending on whether their style is hard hitting or gentle. For me it is possible to imagine the Israelis and the Palestinians as the Lion and the Lamb. Wouldn’t it be great to see them sitting at the table together eating and drinking, laughing and enjoying each other’s company? May be the Taliban and the women and children of Afghanistan are the Leopard and the kid. We could go around the world finding many similar power structures. The child and their abuser! Where ever there is power with one side gaining their will and the other loosing dignity it fits the crazy vision of Isaiah.
When we reflect on Isaiah’s vision it is not hard to see why every generation of Christians has said, Isaiah was predicting the birth of Jesus. We are in no doubt that Jesus exuded wisdom that showed loving understanding. I think of the woman caught in adultery. The person without sin cast the first stone. Or the question of taxes, given to Caesar. Jesus’ counsel shines with enduring depth. When you pray, go into your room, don’t make lots of noise. When you give, don’t let the right hand know what the left is doing. Just get on with it.
The simple words of the Lord’s prayer express intimate knowledge grounded in awe and devotion. Our father, hallowed be your name…
Last but not least, the cross is the crazy world changing phenomena. Jesus’ death makes possible the gathering together of people who had been enemies. It is possible as people hear and respond to the Good News of the cross that lives can be transformed. The terrorist will one day sit with the terrorized, the oppressor with the oppressed and even the abuser with the abused.
John the Baptist was right in warning those of us who have a tendency for oppressive or abusive behaviour to flee from the wrath to come. He is saying to us, if you want to weave your life as a tapestry of God’s reign you need change the focus. If our vision, our focus is based on oppressive abusive behaviour centred on our “needs” we will be a hindrance to the reign of God. Sure we may become the richest person in the world, the president of the most powerful nation, or rid our country of drug pushers and addicts but love and joy will always be out of reach. John the Baptist called the people of Israel back to the threads of faithful life. Repent means to have a change of heart and mind, to turn around and come into relationship with God.
St Paul in his letter to the Romans proclaims his understanding of the Gospel. That root of Jesse was not merely bringing something new for the people of Israel. Paul was totally convinced that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for the whole of humanity. He wants the gentiles, you and I, to rejoice alongside the Jews. John the Baptist may have been focused on his Hebrew brothers and sisters. Paul broadens that out to include all of us. Yet when we go back to Isaiah, we see the whole Cosmos caught up and transformed in this wonderful vision of the reign of God. Our tapestries of life are part of a tapestry that incorporates and transforms the whole cosmos. In our faithfulness to the vision we build the reign of God. Christ’s incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit has made that possible.