This week our world lost a man who demonstrated many qualities of a “prince of peace.” Nelson Mandela died at age 95 on Thursday, and people around the world paused to remember his legacy. Throughout his life, Mandela worked toward his cherished hope, “of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” Those are words he spoke at the trial which sent him to 27 years of prison, and Mandela stayed focused on this end, never seeking revenge against those who had wronged him, instead working toward reconciliation, seeking to make his enemies into partners and friends. In a world where politics seems so often to be about reinforcing division, the satirical “newspaper” the Onion accurately quipped that Mandela will go down in history as the first politician people will actually miss.
The people of Israel in the time of the prophet Isaiah were certainly missing such a leader. Scholars think this morning’s scripture comes out of a period of history when the kingdom of Israel, once gloriously united under King David, was now divided and at war. With Jerusalem under siege, against Isaiah’s advice, King Ahaz called the Assyrian empire to intervene. It was a choice to trust in the might of human arms rather than the power of God to sustain Judah, and it ultimately led to disaster.
Now it seemed that the House of David, the legacy of the king who had been known as a man “after God’s own heart,” had come to a sorry end. The imagery Isaiah uses to describe this once glorious family tree is a “stump.” Jesse was King David’s father, and “the stump of Jesse” pictures a nation’s hope, cut off and fallen. Despair and resignation now reigned in Israel;there little trust in God’s goodness and little faithfulness in the people.
But the prophet Isaiah sees hope in Ahaz’s successor. He believes that Hezekiah as king will bring Israel back to its faithful roots, renewing righteous worship of Yahweh. So the prophet envisions a “shoot” coming out of the stump, a new branch growing right from the root of the cut-off tree.
He envisions a leader gifted with Spirit-empowered wisdom and discernment, a leader who delights above all in “the fear of the Lord,” a righteous ruler whose ways make possible a community in which natural aggressors come to rest with their former prey, a new reality in which the poor receive justice and vulnerable children can flourish in peace.
Now, if we understand prophecy as simply “prediction” or “foretelling,” than we might ultimately dismiss Isaiah’s oracle as “too good to be true.” Though Hezekiah certainly goes down in the record of 2 Kings as a great and godly king, the world has yet to experience a reality in which lions regularly lie down with calves, and cows and bears munch on grass together.
But I would suggest that prophecy is not so much about foretelling as it is an enlargement of vision. Observed the unfolding events of history, the prophets saw and announced the purpose, presence, and power of God at work behind, in, and through those events. Their work was not to pin down exact dates and times, but to persistently point to the bigger picture of God’s promises continually coming to fruition.
And that’s why, as Paul tells the church in Rome, the words written in “former days” are for our instruction. and as we study the scriptures which witness to God’s faithful endurance with God’s people, we are encouraged to stay focused on God’s promises as they come to fruition in our own time.
I like The Message’s version of this verse: “Even if it was written in Scripture long ago, you can be sure it’s written for us.” So we treasure and repeat Isaiah’s beautiful vision of the Root of Jesse generation after generation. Each time we hear it, we are called again to mind the great gap between our present reality and God’s dream of the Peaceable Kingdom. Too many continue to be lost in the darkness of violence, poverty, and disease. Remembering the children killed at Newtown only a year ago, we are painfully aware that our world is not yet a place where our most vulnerable have the safety to flourish. The gap between our suffering Creation and Isaiah’s vision seems like a gaping wound which will never be healed.
But we are not to hide our heads and pretend that everything is okay. In compassion, we are called to share our hearts and our help with so many who suffer in our world. Yet we do not give ourselves over to resignation or despair! Even as we watch and weep, we are also looking to see how God is already at work, bridging the gap. Even here, even now, there is a small shoot of green breaking through the stumps of old failures.
For we know in Jesus Christ what Isaiah envisioned in Jesse’s Root: God is always at work, wiggling up through the nooks and crannies of our foregone conclusions, like a stubborn blade of grass coming up through a crack in concrete. No matter how dead or paved over things look, God is there, making room and welcoming new life.
The apostle Paul witnessed God making room and welcoming new life. In the church at Rome, where Gentiles and Jews worshipped together, Paul saw Isaiah’s vision becoming reality. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Christ, Jews and Gentiles together were all beloved children and heirs to God’s promises; outsiders were brought in and welcomed to the joyous feast of God’s presence.
Paul hears Isaiah’s vision and recognizes that Jesus is the promised one, the Spirit-filled “Root of Jesse” whose justice not only reconciles old enemies, but also creates a space where they can lift voices together, singing the glory of God in Jesus Christ as one people. My friends, we are here right now because God’s promises in Isaiah have already come true in Jesus Christ. The Root of Jesse has risen, welcomed each and all of us as God’s beloved children, and given us hope.
We hope in the future, that the Christ who has come in Jesus will come again to judge the world in righteousness, and he will usher in the fullness of the Peaceable Kingdom. But our hope is also for the present, because as we give ourselves over to God’s dream, as we entrust ourselves to the righteous rule of the Prince of Peace, as we experience Christ’s acceptance and welcome, we find that we ourselves are enabled to enact gracious reconciliation; we ourselves are able to accept and welcome all kinds of others to share in Christ’s presence every stranger who longs for a place at Christ’s table.
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God,” Paul tells the congregation in Rome, and let us hear those words as our instructions this season. “Let every heart prepare him room,” goes the hymn, reminding how “Joy to the World” comes about. As we wait and watch for Christ’s coming, we prepare room at the center of our lives for Christ to enter and dwell with and in us, as we prepare room to offer acceptance to strangers, maybe those we’ve never met before, maybe people so different from us that we’d never considered them part of our family, or maybe our own family members with whom we’ve become estranged.
I like blogger Glennon Doyle Melton’s thoughts about preparing Christ room in Advent. Her first suggestion is “Be Still.”:
“We turn off all the world’s voices and we listen and breathe and we just BE. We might take a walk, or color, or watch the sunset or pray. The only rule is that while we Be Still we must try to FEEL how BELOVED we are on this Earth. We must allow ourselves to BE LOVED. Because God tells us we are God’s Beloved – but there is no point in being beloved if we don’t take some time out to FEEL OURSELVES BELOVED. And because only those who feel themselves Beloved can truly BE LOVE to others.
First, we Be Still. Second, we feel Beloved. Third, we go out and BE LOVE.
That’s why God put skin on and came to our Earth party as Jesus. To tell us how beloved we are so that we could be love to others.”
Beloved friends, Jesus has come; the green and growing Root of Jesse has wriggled up from the dead-end stump of this broken world and welcomed all people to the abundant feast of life as God’s children. Peace has come and is coming again. Let us welcome him. Let us welcome one another. Let us be love. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!
(Laura’s previous sermon on this text is here.)