Sunday, December 09, 2007
The Unexpected Companions: A Meditation on Isaiah 11:1-10
“The Unexpected Companions”
December 9, 2007
Second Sunday in Advent
Week by week, as we light our candles and the light grows in the darkness, we are hearing the words of the prophet Isaiah. The prophet speaks to us from perhaps 800 years prior to the birth of Jesus, words almost 2800 years old. Isaiah is the prophet of this season for Christians. Handel’s “Messiah” has emblazoned his words on our hearts. Isaiah is probably the prophet most familiar to us, perhaps the most beloved. If there is one danger with Isaiah, it might just be its beauty: we can get lost in the gorgeous language, find ourselves entranced by the imagery, and fail to hear the extraordinary, surprising challenge in his words.
Today’s passage is a wonderful example.
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. ~Isaiah 11:1-2
When Christians hear this passage, we know it refers to the Messiah… the one who is born from Jesse’s lineage, Jesse the father of King David. We know that he is the one with the Spirit of God resting upon him, wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. If the words are familiar, it’s because these are all the things we pray for those whom we baptize and receive into the church as members. These words tug at our hearts. Their beauty fills us with joy.
But there is a price that goes along with the coming of the Messiah, a necessary prerequisite to his reigning in power: the clear-cutting of all that comes before. The “stump” of Jesse refers to a tree that has been cut down because it was diseased, not bearing fruit, not flowering forth God’s justice. This is a highly political passage… God cuts away the deadwood of the earthly powers and principalities. Scary as that sounds, it’s a useful reminder: our salvation is not in them. A fresh beginning: that’s the first attribute of the Spirited One who is coming.
The next attribute is righteousness. The Messiah will judge the poor and the meek and the wicked, all with the same Spirit-breathed justice. Righteousness is described as the belt around his waist and loins, which means that it’s as close to him as his undergarments. Nothing gets between the Messiah and his righteousness.
It’s this next part that is most likely to catch my breath with wonder; it never fails to make me mist up with tears: the poetic vision that has been called the “Peaceable Kingdom”:
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. ~ Isaiah 10:6-9
There is hardly a scene more beautiful anywhere, in or out of scripture. I have been looking at a painting of the Peaceable Kingdom this week, in the naïf style. The colorful coats of the animals have a backdrop of mountains and a moonlit night. The animals are paired with their natural enemies. There, almost at the center, is a child, holding a candle, a light in the darkness. Isaiah mentions children three separate times in this passage… two of them are playing in a carefree way where asps and adders live… remember in Genesis, when God predicted that serpents will be the natural enemies of humans? And a little child will lead them.
It is a beautiful image. But think for a moment, not like a churchgoer or an art lover. Think like, let’s say, a parent. Do I want my child playing where poisonous snakes can have at him? Of course not. Do I want my beloved offspring to be vulnerable to her natural predators? God forbid! No! Last week I came across a cynical rejoinder to Isaiah’s words, courtesy of Woody Allen. “The leopard may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.” It’s a funny one-liner, meant to get us dreamers to come down out of the clouds. It’s a reminder of the conventional wisdom, that our own safety and security are paramount. We can’t afford high-minded notions that might cause us to let down our guard.
Conventional wisdom is one thing. God’s will for us is quite another. This passage pushes us to an uncomfortable place. Isaiah presses us to consider the possibility that God’s vision of the peaceable kingdom is one in which we are willing to be vulnerable. We are willing to let righteousness be our guide, and not safety and security. We are willing to let the real hope for peace determine our actions, and not simply to experience “peace” as a word in a song we sing at a certain time of the year.
When peace comes, when God’s reign comes, we find ourselves among unexpected companions. We look around the table, and can’t figure out for the life of us how we got there. There are people all around who are not like us. They don’t look like us, they don’t live like us, they probably don’t worship like us. It’s like the old joke about the newcomer to heaven being told to tiptoe and whisper as they go by the area where the Southern Baptists live, because “They think they’re the only ones here!” That’s not God’s vision for us. God’s vision is always more inclusive than ours. God’s inclusiveness makes us uncomfortable.
And this is where our children lead us, isn’t it? The young people I’ve been privileged to know through my children and through my ministry are unwilling to exclude whole categories of people from possible friendships… they are more likely to make friends across barriers of race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, socio-economic class than any previous generation. In this way, I firmly believe they are closer to the peaceable kingdom than we are. Our children and youth led us so beautifully this morning in worship, their pageant encouraging us to recognize that there is one gift God calls us to give at this and every time of year: love. We give you God’s love, they said. May you give unto others as God gave his greatest gift to you. The God who welcomes us and loves us and accepts us casts a vision for us of a world in which we are every bit as welcoming, loving and accepting of one another. May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Image: The Peaceable Kingdom by John August Swanson