Is. 11: 1-10; Rom 15: 4- 13; Mt 3: 1- 12
Over the last weeks you may have noticed that the media and politicians have been rather caught up in events which culminate, hopefully, this Thursday. And I’m not talking about the writing workshop I’m running on Thursday evening! Brexit, the climate emergency, the NHS, education, and more, so much more which is being debated, discussed, and eventually voted on. The political world, in the UK and internationally, has a level of agitation to it, which, I suspect, is unlikely to subside any time soon. Now, all three of our readings from the bible this morning also stem from times of political significance. For the writer of Matthew and for Paul writing Romans, the impact of the Roman Empire was hugely significant on their worlds, and inevitably what they wrote. John the Baptist attacks the religious elite as a brood of vipers. Yet his message is described as one ‘crying out in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’
Now, that’s a quotation from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is one of the most quoted parts of the Hebrew bible in the New Testament. Someone has described it as the ‘fifth gospel.’ Jesus, the early church and the writers of the New Testament saw it as very significant for understanding Jesus and his message.
So, I’d like to take you back to the 8th century before the Christian era, to the kingdom of Judah, the southern of the two Israelite Kingdoms, with the Kingdom of Israel, or Ephraim, as the northern Kingdom. Isaiah is a prophet in Jerusalem, and he spans the reigns of four kings, including the man who may even have been a friend, King Uzziah, who died the year of the extraordinary vision Isaiah had in the temple, which is in chapter 6. In the second book of Chronicles Isaiah is credited with writing the ‘acts of Uzziah’.
So, it is possible that Isaiah may well have been a professional prophet, and it also seems that his wife is a prophetess. So, they may have been part of the Jerusalem temple, potentially with access to royal circles. He appears to have direct influence. In the second book of Kings Isaiah is seen cautioning King Ahaz, and King Hezekiah, against forging alliances and getting entangled with foreign Kings. His challenge to the Kings is to trust in God, not in other political powers. That is his consistent message.
Now, to get some context, the earlier chapters describe how Assyria, which was the principle power in the area at the end of the 8th century, is seen as attacking the northern kingdom, and threatening Jerusalem.
The passage we had read follows a lengthy and devastating oracle from Isaiah about the eventual fall of Assyria. At the very end of chapter 10, Isaiah says: “Look, the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”
So, Israel and Judah have been damaged by the wars with Assyria, and Assyria itself has this oracle proclaiming it will be cut back. Isaiah is offering a destructive mix of prophecies.
This is a world in crisis, superpowers surround Israel and Judah, and who to look to for support isn’t easy to decide politically. (I drew an ‘air map’ but the one below covers similar thoughts, with Israel/Judah surrounded by Assyria, Babylon (Mesopotamia), Syria, Anatolia and Egypt)
Do you go for the most powerful, and run the risk that they will turn on you? Or do you align yourself with other political states? Isaiah’s message is clear, don’t trust such political entities, trust God.
And we then get the poem we had read earlier. “A shoot shall came out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of David, the iconic King of Israel. But the message is that all which is left is this stump, and what can grow from that? But Isaiah is saying that even out of the little that is left, can come a new shoot, a new branch.
In the 8th Century, this may well have been applied to a new King of Judah, possibly King Hezekiah. And bringing a promise of a new way forward which would follow Yahweh, rather than the ways of the previous Kings, especially King Ahaz.
In the poem, there is this is a vision of the Spirit of the LORD endowing the King with divine power, which would be used to enhance life, and especially to protect the poor and the meek.
Equally this will be a King who challenges, with the rod of his mouth, and the breath of his lips, the very words he utters are seen as powerful, judging the wicked, the elites who have oppressed and victimised the poor.
In the poem the outcome is a vision of a world that is peaceful for the needy and also for the natural world, the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the kid, impossible in terms of normal animal behaviour. Yet poetically Isaiah is offering an impossible possibility. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” The oracle is of transformation of life for humans and all the environment. And transformed so that all nations come to the holy mountain of Jerusalem and to the King who is the root of Jesse.
In Isaiah’s time that hope would be based on the King who might follow God’s ways. But, in the end King Hezekiah, whilst recognised as a good King in many ways, didn’t live up to this poetic inspirational message.
Centuries later, after the return from the exile in Babylon, during the time of the Second Temple, Isaiah’s poetic oracle was taken up by Jewish writers to speak of a Messiah, one who would come to restore Israel, to transform it. A Davidic Messiah. Thus in the writings of Qumran, or books such as 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and other writings, Isaiah 11 is seen as promising a spirit inspired Messiah, one who would bring judgement and transformation, and who would bring all the nations to recognise the place of Israel as God’s chosen people.
The early Christians also took this passage, and these messianic writings, to set the life and message of Jesus in context. They saw this poem as a way of understanding Jesus, offering a new vision for the world, of peace, of the importance of caring for the poor. The one inspired by the Spirit of God, who would bring hope for the meek, who would judge the earth, who would bring about a radical transformation of all people and the whole world, and, inspiring Paul to see this as a way of understanding his mission the to the non-Jewish world, the world of the Gentiles. (He uses a different quote from Isaiah as part of a series of Hebrew Bible quotes, to emphasize his message. In the 1st century C.E. to include a quote from a source such as the Hebrew bible was an “inartificial proof,” a clinching rhetorical move because it was not concocted by the speaker.)
So, it’s like there are three different horizons to this passage, the original 8th century, the period of the Second Temple, and the early Church.
And, Isaiah, one of the religious elite, someone who chose to listen to what he believed God was telling him. To prophesy distrust of political alliances and the resulting calamity if they didn’t trust Yahweh. But he offered the vision of trust in God, not political forces, and to the hope of a new way forward.
And for Christians over the centuries, Advent has been about looking to a new coming which may be challenging, uncomfortable, disruptive. The future is uncertain, yet there is a promise and a hope of what God can do.
So, what about our horizon? Does Isaiah speak to us? Advent and Christmas have become bland and safe, the Christmas music, the lights, the soft version of the nativity. Yet, we live in uncertain times, the looming election, and all that might follow from that. The questions of who do we trust, who’s promises do we believe?
Like Isaiah, we live at a time of political change and upheaval, our world is challenged in so many ways, ecologically, politically, in terms of truth and what we can trust, in terms of political alliances and who to go with. How to somehow listen to God and to trust and hope in the message of the small shoot growing?
For Isaiah, it was not inaction, it was not resignation, he knew he had to stand up and proclaim a message which was probably not very popular. Trust in God, not mighty Assyria? Sounds a recipe for disaster? Or a risk worth taking?
And he says that ‘a little child shall lead them.’ Maybe at the time of writing he was thinking of that new born prince, the King who might bring this tranquillity and lack of conflict. For the early Christians this connected to the birth of Jesus. It is interesting that now, that children protesting about the climate emergency have made such significant impact. Maybe only in a childlike way might we challenge the largest problems of our world?
And the New Testament also sets this Isaiah passage in terms of how we might live. How we might live in the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and the fear of the LORD. Showing righteousness and faithfulness. Being on the side of the poor and the meek. How to help bring peace to the whole environment, ‘They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.’
Isaiah has this sense of hope, the shoot, the promise of a new way, and he describes the ‘root of Jesse’ as being a ‘signal to the peoples’.
There is so much where we are living this out, the Winter night shelter, environmental action, members protesting and being arrested. But, how might we shout louder about what we believe, that what we believe is important, what our vision for the world is?
So, Isaiah in this chapter encourages us to trust in God, despite the political circumstances; to defend the poor and the meek; invites us to live out of the Spirit of God with wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and the fear of the LORD. Showing righteousness and faithfulness; to exhibit God to those around us.
Can we be a signal to the people who live around us?