Year A, Advent II, Dec. 8, 2019, SMHP
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The 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. 3His 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; 4but 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. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The 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. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They 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.
10On 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.
[Slide—one at a time] Leopards, bears, lions, cheetahs, crocodiles, cobras, asps, and other vipers. This is just a sampling of the predatory fauna of the Holy Land. [Slide, Slide] Because of where Israel sits, on a bridge of land between Eurasia and Africa, along the Mediterranean Sea…and because of the variety of climate zones within the country and nearby…The Holy Land is home to an incredibly diverse array of plants, animals, and poisonous spiders.
So there are no shortage of images for a prophet to call upon to inspire a sense of dread and danger, as should be obvious from our lesson today. As all of these lessons in Advent will do, here we see Isaiah creating a portrait of the future Messiah with images drawn from the hopes and dreams—and fears—of his kindred.
Hopes first: when the Messiah comes, the prophet declares, he will carry the bloodline of king David and be imbued with the Spirit of the Lord: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
If that language sounded familiar to you it’s because you heard it emanating from over there at the font when we baptized Sam and Dominic and Jean Marie and CeCe. You may remember those words being pronounced over you some time long ago, or not so long ago.
In the baptismal liturgy, we’re reminded that the attributes of the Messiah aren’t just spiritual gifts that fell on Jesus and ascended to heaven with him: they are spiritual gifts which confer to us upon our baptisms.
When we were baptized, the Spirit of the Lord came upon us too, and we became children of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and joy in the presence of the Lord. We have all of those gifts because of all of that water combined with love from the community and from our adoption as children of God.
And it’s a good thing, too, because as Isaiah reminds us…there is so much scary stuff out there. In Isaiah’s day, a simple walk down the road could mean an encounter with a lion, a leopard, a bear—oh my!
For us, the dangers might be more subtle. Or just as immediate. Regardless, we all want a reminder that we are safe, don’t we?
So when Isaiah wanted to paint a picture of the glorious kingdom which would be ushered in by the shoot of Jesse, the branch of King David’s tree—God’s Messiah—Isaiah drew a world in which even little children were safe from the vipers and the asps hiding under every rock. In which lambs and wolves set up housekeeping together, lions and bears were no threat to the cattle, and, most importantly, the ruler over everything was righteous and just.
Isaiah was speaking to a people who had been living under the rule of the foolish King Ahaz, [Slide—rare black and white photo of Ahaz] who became a vassal of the Assyrian Empire—remember them from last week. The book of Second Kings records that Ahaz “did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done,” instead pleading for help from the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser, and sending gold and precious artifacts from the temple in Jerusalem to the King in Damascus.
Ahaz even went to Damascus to swear allegiance to Tiglath-Pileser, falling down before the gods of Assyria. According to Second Kings, Ahaz “even made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations.” Ahaz had an altar built in the temple to match the one he had seen in Damascus, and moved the altar of the Lord out of the center of the temple. He then commanded that the priests make offerings to Moloch and the other gods of Assyria daily.
So it was not a great time for Isaiah’s people—facing dangers all around them, and being betrayed by their own leaders.
In times of poor leadership, we must remember God’s promise. We must lean in to a word of hope and peace. [Slide] Peace is our theme for the second week of Advent, but like hope, the theme for the first week, the Word of peace casts its light over every week of Advent, as we are reminded that the Messiah brings a world in which people, and beasts, live and prosper together without animosity.
Bad kings come, and bad kings go. Jesus is forever. And because Jesus is forever, and because we have been washed in the waters of baptism and received the same promise Isaiah laid on his people before the birth of the Messiah—we are people of peace. When the world around us feels threatening and unsafe, we wage peace.
We wage peace! Because we are an Advent people—a people comfortable in good old Lutheran paradox—and we know the Messiah has come…and is yet to come. And in the time between, the time in which we live, the fearful time of uneven leadership, we must actively seek out peace.
Peace is not passive. It’s not the absence of war and conflict. Dr. King said it well, borrowing most of his quote from Jane Addams: “true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
True peace comes when we remember that we are led by a little child, sent by God, born in Bethlehem. Because we are led by him, we are actively at work in the world waging peace. Calling justice into being.
A woman was stuck in the airport, having just been told that her flight was delayed four hours. She was making her way through security when a voice came over the loudspeaker: “if anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 speaks Arabic, please come to the gate now.”
She looked at her boarding pass and realized that A-4 was her gate. When she got there, moments later, she saw an older woman sitting on the floor, crying uncontrollably. She told the agents she spoke some Arabic, and she sat down on the floor with the woman. She discovered that the woman thought their flight was cancelled, and she was on the way to El Paso for an important medical procedure. She explained that they were just delayed, and the woman calmed down. They called the woman’s son, who calmed her even further.
Then the younger woman called her father, who spoke to the older woman in Arabic for a while. It turned out they knew some of the same people. Then, just for the heck of it, she called some poets she knew in Palestine. They spoke on the phone for a while longer. Then the woman pulled out some mamool cookies—crumbly cookies stuffed with dates and nuts and covered in powdered sugar. She offered them to the women at the gate, and every one accepted a cookie with thanks. The airline brought drinks, and two little girls waiting for the flight passed them out.
The afternoon passed quickly, and no one who was there will ever forget it.
Peace doesn’t just happen. We make it happen. We act justly, with “wisdom and understanding, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.” We sit on the floor and eat the cookies and recognize the humanity in one another.
And perhaps you are thinking now, “Well sure, but I don’t speak Arabic, so I couldn’t be the hero of that story.”
But only one person in that airport spoke English, and there are a lot of heroes in the story.
I am telling you this morning that you will have an opportunity in the next few days to be a peacemaker, a bringer of justice. I don’t know what the moment will look like—but you will know when it appears. And then you will decide. Will I act in fear, or will I wage peace? Will I welcome, bless, affirm another person, and thus introduce a word of justice.
I believe you will. Because I know that you are children of “wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and joy in the presence of the Lord.” And we are people of hope and peace. It’s not just a name.