A shoot shall come out from the stock 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 the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek 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 and the fatling 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.
Stumps and Shoots: Isaiah 11:1-10
The prophets who's work is recorded in the book of Isaiah were pretty sure that God saw a positive future in store for the people of Israel. Given all of the desolation that their community had faced at the hands of brutal neighboring empires, such a hopeful vision for the future might have seemed foolish. But, the prophet knew that his people had not been completely destroyed. He knew that God was still with them. He knew that new life was possible. He just needed to convince everybody else of that, with God's help of course. Knowing that people often need signs to know that they are on the right path, Isaiah gave his community some signs to look for so that they would know that God was doing something life-giving and powerful in their lives. Today's reading from Isaiah is one of those poetic descriptions of the holy signs of God's kindom sprouting forth around them.
First, Isaiah said that we should be paying attention to the places where new life has grown out of something that has seemed dead or broken. He used the metaphor of a new shoot growing out of a dead stump. This is a familiar image for many of us who have tried to cut down a stubborn tree in our yards. There's a locust sapling that I've cut down at least three times and it keeps coming back. I've never removed it's roots, so it just keeps pushing out new shoots, making new life despite my best efforts to stop it. In Isaiah, this shoot is a servant/leader who would rise up out of a wounded and destroyed nation. One scholar I read this week said that this leader would come to embody the best of Israel's religious traditions, ruling in wisdom and with great understanding, listening to the counsel of thoughtful confidants under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all the while delighting in following God's will. We will know that this leader is the leader that has been prophesied because this leader will be guided by God to treat the poor and the meek fairly. This leader has no patience for evil and the wicked will have no place in the kindom. For a people who have watched all of their leaders marched away into exile and replaced by tyrants, it would have seemed almost like a miracle to have such a generous leader return to them.
In this new kindom God is creating, kindness will be the rule of law. Compassion will guide our dealings. Transformation will draw us closer to God's own intention. I don't know if you noticed, but for the second time in just a few weeks, a powerful scene of predator and prey living together in safety is used to represent this compassionate, tranformational view of the reign of God. For people who lived much closer to the real, dangerous, unromantic natural world than we do, this vision of these animals living together would have been the kind of ridiculous that only God can pull off. Wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, calves and lions... and a child is safe among all of them. Only God can do that. It is only through the power of divine transformation that the predators will learn to live differently so that they do not have to endanger the animals that are usually prey. Only God can help the animals that use poison for protection understand that they no longer need to defend themselves this way.
Isaiah says that the future that we are looking for, working for, is a future of life flowing from brokenness, compassion transforming brutality, and power tending to the vulnerable. In this future, peace is God's endgame. When the nations (that's us) we see any of these signs, we know that we are witnessing God's work for a new world. And, we will have a part in building that new world. You see, while many early Christians, and possibly Jesus himself, understood Jesus to be the servant/leader referenced in Isaiah's prophecy (which is why we read this story in Advent), there is also a long history of reading the account of the servant/leader as a call to communal, national leadership. All of creation will be invited to transform into the compassionate, safe, and holy vision represented in this piece of prophecy. I think we need both of the readings, the one where Jesus models servant/leadership and the one where we, communally, practice it. Because this work of building a peaceable kindom is not done yet. Part of our calling in waiting and working for the birth of Christ in our world, is that we participate in building the holy territory described in Isaiah. And to do that, we need to learn to recognize the ways God's kindom is sprouting around us and support these pieces of new growth.
I see glimpses of the reign of God that Isaiah was talking about when I observe the work that the Family Violence Project does in our community. If there was ever evidence of new life growing from broken places, it is within the sphere of their advocacy and outreach. They have people available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as lifelines for those who are seeking to sprout a new life. They provide advocates for those are navigating the court system... people who live out the work of the servant/leader by standing on the side of the oppressed and helping them recover their voice. They offer tips for safety planning, helping vulnerable folks stay as safe as possible until they can get out of the dangerous situations they are in. They also help with shelter, making sure that people in the midst of crisis and people who are taking the next step into their new lives have support.
As you heard from Nan, they help create a more compassionate and safe world through their education programs. They have school-based programs teaching children about healthy relationships. They also come to community groups, like our church, to educate the public about domestic violence. They empower law enforcement and healthcare providers to use best practices for serving people in domestic violence situations. They even provide services to batterers, helping the lions, wolves, and bears learn to live in a way that doesn't hurt or destroy the others in their own little corner of God's holy mountain. They work to teach the snake that it doesn’t need poison to survive. When I see the work of the Family Violence Project, I see a reflection of the servant/leader, lived out in community, showing us the power of advocacy and support to help us all get just a bit closer to the kindom of love, compassion, and justice that Isaiah, and Jesus, thought were possible.
When we support their work, we are supporting that stubborn, green shoot that keeps coming back to life. Of course, this isn't the only way we work towards the kindom together. But, it's a strong one. I pray that their work can inspire all of us to take that next step towards compassion and justice. They are living evidence of the power of new life to bloom in broken places. On this Sunday of peace, may we recommit ourselves to nurturing these places of life and building a just peace together.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=818
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4764
Michael J. Chan: Https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3117
For more information about the Family Violence Project: http://www.familyviolenceproject.org/domestic-abuse-services/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.