Pastor Walther / Advent 2 / December 4, 2016 / Isaiah 11:1-10 / The Shoot That Saves
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. 6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
There comes a time in everyone’s life when you realize that you’re washed up. You’re no longer as awesome as you used to be. It stinks realizing you’re past your prime: past your prime in sports, past your prime in popularity, past your prime in memory, past your prime in music. These revelations come at different ages for us. I realized I was past my prime in basketball after about 6th grade. Yet sometimes we hold on to those memories maybe a little longer than we should because we feel like we would be giving up a part of ourselves.
The prophet Isaiah, who wrote our section of Scripture for today, speaks to his nation of Israel who is very nostalgic for the times past and for what they used to be. 300 years before Isaiah, the nation of Israel would bring forward this King named David. David would put Israel on the map as he built up the nation as a power house. The nation was like a strong sturdy tree in the forest that could withstand any force of nature that came its way. The nations around that sturdy tree would be chopped down left and right with the ax of God’s judgment, and the nation of Israel would stand.
But the nation forgot how they got to be there in the first place and why they were a sturdy tree. As they moved away from relying on God, they began to trust in their own power and their own rationality. The once powerful nation of Israel, this once sturdy tree, became torn apart by civil war. The nation became two kingdoms: Israel and Judah. Many of David’s descendants served as kings in Jerusalem, but many of them abused their high office. Many ruled selfishly instead of in the interest of God’s people. Some were idolaters and actually led the people of Israel into false worship.
The prophet Isaiah spoke the words of chapter 11 at a time when international wars threatened the security of God’s people. Yet, God allowed Isaiah to peer into the future and see the judgment that God also would visit upon their nation. Because of their pride and rebellion against God, the ax of God’s judgment would cut down this proud tree. The nation was invaded by powerful enemy nations. The beautiful capital city was trashed and torched, and the brightest and best of her people were led off into captivity a thousand miles away from home. Over the centuries, God’s people would be cut down and reduced to virtually nothing. The glorious tree of David’s line would be reduced to nothing but the stump of what had once been a great tree. At the time Christ came to earth, there was no descendant of King David on the throne in Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, that royal house had fallen so far that Isaiah doesn’t even call it the house of David; he calls it by the name of David’s lowly father, Jesse. They were nothing but stumps of former greatness. You can’t really call that a proud sturdy tree, can you?
It’s difficult to be washed up and to see how great you used to be and how sad your lives are now. It becomes depressing knowing that our lives will never be what they used to be. We know how great life could be, but instead our lives always end with sin, sadness, and death. We see our mistakes and how they bring destruction to our relationships. We see world leaders bring destruction to other leaders. We think we take big strides forward as a human race only to have new problems arise, new definitions of greed and selfishness, and new ways to bring destruction to each other. New physical kingdoms in this world arise, maybe giving us hope, only to bring us to despair. New philosophical kingdoms arise and new ideologies, maybe giving us hope, only to remind us that those aren’t the answers either. New technological kingdoms and their advancements, maybe giving us hope that through constant global communication, all problems will stop, but we see that those advancements only bring different kinds of trouble. We look at all these kingdoms as if they were trees in the forest, sprouting up, growing tall, only to be cut down. They don’t last. You go back looking for promises in a past tree, for fruit, but only find it’s a stump. Sadly, as a human race, we are past our prime. Our prime was in the garden of Eden: perfection. But we lost that. We are reduced to stumps.
Behind the house that my fiancé Julie moved into are the remnants of a tree, a huge stump. But this was no ordinary tree. This tree was so large and had branches that stretched so far, that it's looming presence was actually dangerous. Because the tree had branches that leaned out over several houses, the tree needed to be cut down. Just to give you an idea of how big the tree was, the stump is about 6 feet tall. Today, the stump is rotting and pieces of bark are constantly falling. But a few years ago, long before Julie moved in, this stump decided it didn’t want to die quite yet and another tree grew from the remains. It seems impossible for a tree to sprout up from a rotting corpse, but that’s what happened!
Isaiah looks at this forest of kingdoms chopped down, with nothing but stumps all around. But there was a difference that Isaiah identifies. All the other stumps, i.e., all the other kingdoms and fads and novelties would remain dead and lifeless, but not this one. God not only knows how to chop down mighty trees but he knows how to generate new life in dying wood. This is God’s work and God’s way. He brings life out of death. From this stump of a kingdom and the stump of a royal line, a new king would emerge like a shoot, like a new tree. The appearance of this sprout, or branch, is a miracle of God’s grace and power. Isaiah points us to the Messiah. Even the ancient Jewish commentaries apply this passage to the Messiah.
The problem is that this Messiah and King would probably be different from what the Jews wanted or even expected. In fact, this king would be different from any ruler that has ever lived. This King not only will know the will of God but will have a holy awe and reverence for God’s will. Because the will of this King and the will of God are so in line and so succinct, there can be no question that this really is God! Because this King is God, he has all the wisdom and understanding to rule a people. He has all power and yet is also the Prince of Peace.
And we come to my favorite part of these verses, verse 5. “Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.” (bring out a belt) Tightening up your belt usually meant securing the long flowing garments that people wore. It meant that you were ready for battle or ready to run. I also found interesting that throughout written histories or even literature, the picture of powerful man with a belt was often in reference to ancient wrestlers. (bring out a wrestling belt)Ancient wrestlers would use the other person’s belts to try and throw them to the ground. And so, the figure of a belted man came to indicate any person ready to face a contest or to engage in a struggle. If you ever watch modern wrestling, the best wrestlers never appear in the ring without holding their belt first. It’s a sign of victory, even before the match. Isaiah pictures his people as if they were a wrestler moaning and in pain, hurt by sin, rolling around on the ground. But, into the arena and into the ring steps a king belted for battle. He is ready to fight and ready to win. He has the belt to prove his victory. His belt isn’t just one weak strand but is a belt woven of two strands, righteousness and faithfulness.
Who is this King? It’s no one other than Jesus. He brings peace because he demonstrated peace. The messianic king has made peace with sinners. He has created a promise of peace with them through the shedding of his blood. But Isaiah shows that this peace isn’t only for the Jews in the Middle east, in the nation of Israel. His peace and his kingdom reaches to all people. His kingdom grows whenever the gospel is preached and people are called to repentance. On the basis of this Isaiah text, Paul pleads for Christians to accept each other in peaceable love (Romans 15:7-12). As Christians, our peaceful attitudes toward one another will proclaim to the world what can happen when Christ becomes King and Savior. Seeking a kingdom of peace here on earth is chasing an illusion. Christ will reign in complete peace when he returns, but for now his rule is conducted under the cross.
This King challenges so many of our cultural norms, turning upside down our ideas of authority, power, and glory, presenting us a kingdom that reverses everything we know. What sort of King washes feet? What sort of King hangs out with the weird people of society? What kind of King comes as a child but leaves on a cross? This King is like no other.
In Advent, we see how God came into our lives. He reached into the lives of humans, bringing some of our abstract thoughts about God and making them real and tangible. We see the humility of our Savior, Jesus, coming to us like a shoot, something so not expected. God works his salvation out of the lowly rather than the mighty. But that is what makes our savior so great. That’s why we want him to be our king, because he is like nothing else! He isn’t like any other king or kingdom that seems good for a time only to be cut down by new and different kingdoms, be it physical kingdoms, philosophical, or technological. They ALL will be stumps in the future. But God in his infinite wisdom brings to us the miracle of this shoot and the miracle of the forgiveness of sins. That is the banner we wave as we march into the battlefield outside these doors. That is our rally cry. That is our place of rest. And dear friends, that eternal rest will be glorious. Amen.