Isaiah 11: 1 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, 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.
It was not just for some future paradise far off in time that Isaiah gave us this vision of the Peaceable Kingdom on God’s holy mountain. It was for people in a time much like ours, even though 28 centuries have passed since it was uttered; a time of decay and dismay, even a time of terror. And much as the world’s fear is focused today on the region of Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, as last week’s digital dump of diplomatic cables shows, so did the world’s fearful focus turn in that same direction then. Isaiah’s friends lived in terror of the roaring lion to the east that was Assyria. Their nightmares were likely filled with images of Assyrian soldiers, marching in their direction, the rhythmic tread of their feet accompanied by the sound of thousands of rolling chariot wheels, getting louder as they approached. Why, when Judah was but a tiny remnant of its former glory under kings David and Solomon, the Assyrian hordes had not yet done a smash and grab and carted them away, was anyone’s guess. It was only a matter of time before they would try. In fact, sons and daughters of Abraham were already dispersed around the world, taken by conquest, or driven out by hunger, poverty and injustice. But the answer that Isaiah’s vision offered would have nothing to do with new wonder weapons with which to defend themselves, nor with military and political alliances.
Their time, like ours, was also a time of spiritual and moral drift. The natural disparities between rich and poor, weak and powerful, were rapidly widening, as in our day, to become a yawning gulf, eating at the very foundations of civil society. As for the covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, new shrines to foreign gods were showing up on hilltops, some of them even getting space in God’s temple. Isaiah and his contemporary, Jeremiah, lamented and fulminated against all these things. But Isaiah’s answer would not be to restore nor repeat the triumphant military and political past they had known under kings David and Solomon. For there was where the rot had set in.
Instead, Isaiah’s vision looks forward to four things that will be new, and yet ancient. They are: 1) a new king, from the lineage of David, bringing; 2) a new gift of God’s Spirit; 3) a new exodus to; 4) a new promised land.
As for 1) the new king, Isaiah’s vision renews the promise that God gave to King David, the son of Jesse, when God said “I will build a house for you,” and “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’” Only one problem: there has been no son of Jesse ruling Israel for 2600 years. Yet the vision promises a new son of Jesse who will arise like a green shoot from a dry tree stump, long considered dead.
But this new king will be very different from David and his other descendants in some very important ways. For one thing, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him.” That’s the second thing, a new abiding, enduring gift of God’s Spirit. Previously in the Bible, before Isaiah, we read about God’s Holy Spirit among Israel’s judges, giving them specific extra powers to serve and to lead, but only for short moments, for specific tasks. And though these judges were enabled by God’s Spirit to do great feats of heroics and strength, the Spirit came and went from them, never abiding in any lasting, personally transforming way. Sometimes scoundrels and scalliwags like Samson and Saul, they did not dependably nor regularly show the Spirit’s gifts mentioned in this passage: gifts of wisdom, counsel, or understanding. Might—maybe, sometimes—but the fear of God?
But now Isaiah says that this gift of God’s Spirit will rest, that is, abide, endure and remain upon this promised king. And what is a good king for any way, what makes him good, but that he shares his riches with his subjects generously? These gifts will take shape in relationships of justice and peace, of power used on behalf of the poor, and not against them, of wisdom used to cultivate peace, not to make weapons and war, and of human craft deployed in concert with creation, and not to abuse, exploit and degrade the earth, because the coming age of the promised king is also the age of the abiding and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, through the king to all his re-gathered, reunited subjects.
That, in effect, is nothing short of a second Exodus, the third thing promised in this vision. According to verse 11, “In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush [that’s Sudan and Ethiopia to us], from Elam, from Babylonia,from Hamath and from the islands of the Mediterranean.” And while that is a repeat of the First Exodus, when God split the Red Sea to let Moses and the people through, the second Exodus differs in two ways: 1) its from everywhere in the world that the covenant people have been scattered, and 2) it will include the nations, the Gentiles. “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,” says verse 10. That’s us whom Isaiah is talking about. We, here today, and God’s people all around the world this morning, are living, breathing proof of this second Exodus, already underway, with the reign of the Root of Jesse, and his abiding, enduring gift of God’s Spirit.
But every Exodus has a direction (its from somewhere to somewhere), and our Exodus is toward the fourth thing, a new Promised Land, “God’s Holy Mountain,” where no one and nothing will either harm nor destroy. And here I’ll go out on a limb and say that the destination of our second Exodus is not just a place, it is also a quality of life and a state of relationship, with God, humanity, and all creation, anywhere and everywhere on this planet. “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea,” the last verse says. I’ll go even further out on the limb and say, Yes, this vision still awaits completion in the future. And yet this promised land of righteous, restored relationships between God, people and creation, is straining and struggling and wanting to take shape even here and now, as a testimony to all of creation. God’s Spirit is making it happen.
Neither Isaiah nor his audience would see this Exodus and this Promised Land coming to pass in their lifetimes, nor is there any guarantee that we will in our lifetimes, either. It comes at an unexpected hour. But we, like them, are called to witness to this hope, and to watch through this world’s long, dark night of terror and exploitation, carrying the warming embers of Isaiah’s vision of healing and hope, as foretastes of the day that will yet dawn on us and our world.
That’s the point at which today’s Advent passage connects with our church’s membership covenant renewal today: the quality of life together, the righteous relationships, with God, humanity and all of creation that is both the new Promised Land, and what we promise each other in our membership covenant. Our membership covenant takes its inspiration from such biblical pictures and promises as Isaiah 11. As subjects of the new Son of Jesse, endowed with the abiding gift of God’s Spirit, who would give us also the gifts of wisdom, knowledge and the fear of God, we are called to and empowered for relationships like what we see on God’s holy mountain. Relationships in which the strong care for the weak, rather than consuming them. Relationships in which we refrain from biting the immature and the innocent with poisonous words inspired by fearful and defensive reactions. Instead, we defend their safety and their sensitivity, to the point that we even allow little children to lead us, and not only in the choice of one Christmas carol per Sunday of Advent. Its for the innocent and immature that we teach and model lifelong Christian education. Its for the innocent and immature that we examine our choices and consider our conduct and example.
Yes, I think these images of the peaceable kingdom on God’s holy mountain also describe nature as it will be after Christ’s second Advent. Although I confess, I’m hoping they allow fishing in the River of Life. But I can’t shake the conviction that Isaiah’s words are poetic as well as prophetic, and that the oxen, bears, lions, leopards and lambs are also us, the citizens of this peaceable kingdom, the subjects of the new Son of Jesse. Just as there are lions and lambs in every human family and community, so there is something of the lion and the lamb, the leopard and the goat, in each of us. Maybe Isaiah is even promising the eventual peace and reconciliation of the divided and warring parts of our selves, as well as the peace and reconciliation of a divided and warring humanity, and of a divided and warring creation.
So, as members of Emmanuel Mennonite Church come up later this morning to sign the membership covenant pledge, try thinking of those steps we take up the aisle to the table as something of a dress rehearsal for 1) the Exodus to come, in which we are already engaged; from this warring world to 2) a new Promised Land of righteous relationships, the peaceable kingdom on God’s Holy Mount, which will cover the world as the waters cover the sea. And think of our signatures as loyalty pledges to the Peaceable Kingdom here and now. Such an Exodus to such a kingdom is possible because of 3) the abiding gift of God’s Spirit, dwelling with us from 4) the king on down, the promised Son of Jesse.
His name, of course, is Jesus.