An Ancient Work

Second in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 11:1-10 (NRSV)

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.
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.

These words from Isaiah reflect the same theme we heard last week: All of God’s creation will be restored to what God intended. What is right and holy will live in God’s presence, and what is wicked will be destroyed.

As we look at the 11th chapter, however, we see how Isaiah focused on the actual person who would bring about this redemptive act. This Messiah’s behavior—perhaps we should say his piety—not only somehow saves us, it also continues to instruct us as we flock to him.

For those of you unfamiliar with the phrase “the stump of Jesse,” it is a reference to the house and lineage of King David, whose father was Jesse. By Isaiah’s day, the fabulous kingdom David had established was little more than a dead remnant, split and decaying, subject to the overgrowth of other, less-godly kingdoms.

Something would spring forth from this stump, however, something that would change the world.

Christians see this promise of new growth as one of the more profound prophecies of the Christ to come, the man we call Jesus. The first chapter of Matthew—a genealogy many readers skim in order to reach what they think is the real story—makes clear Christ is to be seen as coming from David’s badly broken lineage. Read backward, the genealogy traces to Abraham, who represents the visible beginning of God’s plan to rescue humanity from sin through the people known as the Jews.

The ancient nature of God’s plan for redemption can be hard for us to accept. We can feel lost or unimportant in it all, especially if we have a strong desire to see righteousness and justice win out.

I am currently in the midst of leading a confirmation class, and the same question that always arises has arisen again. Year to year It is phrased in different ways, but it is along these lines: Why doesn’t God fix things now?

It is a desire for an immediate response from God to evil, a wish often rooted in a pain recently experienced. I think it’s a question we all ask from time to time, if only in the secret places in our hearts.

The Apostle Peter dealt with this question in what we label his second letter:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. (2 Peter 3:8-10)

At the time Peter wrote those words, he was dealing with the impatience of a generation containing Christians who had seen Jesus in the flesh. His imagery also is more fiery, focused on the need to destroy and remake all things. Almost 2,000 years later Peter’s key point remains, however. When Christ returns and becomes the focal point for all the world, we will quickly move from, “When is he coming?” to “Didn’t see that coming!” Despite God’s desire that none should perish without accepting Christ, there likely will be many people who will wish there had been more time.

Peter went on to tell us how to live in this time of waiting, and in many ways his words illuminate what the Prophet Isaiah said about the Messiah.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (2 Peter 8:11-13)

Isaiah was more subtle, describing characteristics of the Messiah and then noting how the people of the world would come to him for instruction. “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord,” Isaiah wrote. But both Isaiah and Peter’s writings encourage the same thing: dependency on God. We are called to open ourselves to God, listen to God and allow ourselves to be shaped by God, trusting God’s understanding of truth over ours.

Certainly, Jesus Christ was God among us, divinity wrapped in flesh. But even with his divine status, he modeled the need to seek God’s guidance and God’s will in all things.

The classic image, so classic it is depicted in Luminary’s stained glass, is Christ on his knees, the Son asking the Father to sustain him and make clear what role Jesus was to play in the great plan of redemption. Jesus received his answer and obeyed, a truth we should give thanks for every day. The answer took him to the cross, where we were relieved of punishment for our sins. The cross and subsequent resurrection were huge steps forward in God’s plan.

As we wait for God to set all things right, let’s look to the root of Jesse and follow his example. Let’s complain and worry less and pray and study God’s word more. Perhaps as we open ourselves to God’s will, the experience we have will be enough to sustain us until God’s ancient work is complete, and we stand before him forever.

The featured image is a detail from stained glass in the sanctuary at Luminary UMC, Ten Mile, Tennessee.

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