This is a sermon that I preached in 2015, in the run-up to the United Nations COP21 climate summit in Paris at the end of that year. The underlying idea is an understanding of prophecy that is a kind of word picture of what could be. The prophecy isn’t fulfilled in some deterministic fatalist way, but is fulfilled when a person chooses to be inspired by it and lets the Holy Spirit bring it to fulfillment in their life. Remember that the illustrations are from 2015.
Isaiah the prophet spoke into a situation of despair, of huge changes on the world stage. Large and powerful empires were rising, on the back of new technology and prosperity. The world of small states seemed to be passing. The glory days of Israel were fading fast, and Judah’s position must have felt increasingly precarious, caught between Egypt to the south and Assyria to the north, with the power of Babylon rising to the East. In a changing world, feeling insecure, people needed a message of hope.
We live in a world that is changing very quickly in all sorts of ways. One of the most important changes is what’s going on in the climate. These 200 years of burning as much coal and oil as we like so that we could have as much stuff as we want are already changing the world. Tonight, some people in the Marshall Islands will go to bed wearing life-jackets because the sea level has risen & they don’t know when the next storm-surge will sweep through their house. During the winter of 2013/14, the Thames Barrier that protects London from flooding was raised one quarter of the total times it’s been raised since being commissioned in 1982. We are the first humans ever to live on earth and breathe air with more than 400 parts per million carbon dioxide, and we really don’t know how all this will play out & we’re taking huge risks with our future. Do you feel you need a message of hope?
Isaiah is often thought of as a prophet of hope, which may explain why the book is one of the most popular of the Hebrew Bible. Into times of great change and insecurity, Isaiah prophesied about what the future might hold for God’s people.
Here in chapter 11, Isaiah prophesies a saviour – a shoot from the stump of Jesse. Jesse was the father of King David, the great hero of Judah – the great warrior king who defeated the Philistines and united the 12 tribes of Israel. David was known as a man after God’s heart – not only a great leader but a worshipper and the author of many psalms. David was the model king, and if you were hoping for a new saviour, David would be the man to shape your expectations.
But this passage doesn’t mention him. If Isaiah’s readers (or listeners) were thinking about a saviour as one of David’s descendants, the prophet takes them beyond what they think they know. This is something new – someone new.
There are two things that are important about this saviour who is to come from the stump of Jesse.
Firstly, he will be filled with the spirit of God. God’s spirit is referred to four times in verse 2. Only by the Spirit of God can the will of God be achieved. Zechariah 4.6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.”
Secondly, this branch from Jesse will bring about justice – but it is God’s justice, according to God’s standards of righteousness. The evidence of ear and eye is put aside in favour of the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And God’s righteousness turns the world around. Despite instructions in Leviticus and elsewhere, designed to press into God’s people’s hearts values like generosity, equality, care for neighbor, respect for animals and the land – by Isaiah’s day, Israelite and Judean society was characterized by division and an ever-growing gap between rich and poor.
So Isaiah’s vision here doesn’t focus on a warrior-king like David who will deliver Judah from its enemies. It focuses on a person of righteousness and faithfulness, who will bring an end to the exploitation of the poor and the weak. Judging according to God’s righteousness means re-balancing the world in favour of those who have been held down in poverty and so, by implication, I think, creating a peaceful and just community.
We can’t imagine this. It challenges the whole way our world has been constructed to work, where our economics depends on envy, dis-satisfaction and greed – where if enough people were to say, “No thanks, I don’t want more, I’ve got enough,” society would fall apart.
Isaiah takes us beyond what we know about the world. He takes us beyond what we know about God because our tendency is always to imagine God according to what we know about ourselves – to take human power and human judgement and simply write it large. But God comes as a servant and takes up a cross and lays down his life with nothing in his hands except two iron nails. We can’t imagine a world of equality and contentment, and every time something like that has been tried, it’s failed, perhaps because without people being made new through faith in God, sin always corrupts every good intention.
So if a world without riches is impossible to imagine, what chance does the next bit of the prophecy have? Isaiah goes on to paint a word-picture of the whole of creation living in peace. He deliberately links predators with their prey and says they will live together and not destroy or hurt each other. Even snakes – our primeval enemy – will no longer be dangerous. The offspring of Adam and Eve and the offspring of the serpent of Eden will play together. This turns into a vision way beyond what anyone has known of the real world. “The lion shall eat straw like the ox” – it’s far-fetched nonsense, isn’t it?
It is far-fetched. That’s because of 2 things.
1 – Isaiah has fetched this vision from the kingdom of God – when the world will be the way God wants it to be.
2 – The world as we know it is very far from being the way God wants it to be.
Because in this present life, not only have we built our world around inequality and division between humans. We have also divided ourselves off from animals and plants and from the earth itself – from the ‘Other-than-human-creation.’ This is more true today than it’s ever been, as the project to build the great and bountiful human empire advances and rises above nature like the tower of Babel.
It’s hard to argue against it. We will feed 7, 8, 9 billion people, even if it means extracting all the goodness from the soil till it’s nothing more than something to prop up the plant while you pour oil-products on it. We will feed them even if it means deforestation, intensively farmed animals, fished-out oceans. You can’t argue against hungry people being fed. We will win our battle against sickness, even if it means some children will have 3 genetic parents. You can’t argue against healthy children. We will live forever, one way or another – we will find a way to beat nature. You can’t argue against everlasting life.
You can’t argue against Babel, you can’t argue against the great and bountiful human empire when you’ve lost sight of God. Because when you lose sight of God, you think you’re all that really matters. But when you catch a glimpse of God, you start to see things differently. You see yourself differently and see how much you need to be made new. You see the world differently and begin to see how our grasping at life is bringing death to the whole planet. You begin to see how different the world would be if it were the way God wants it to be.
Isaiah saw that and Jesus saw that.
The reason why this passage from Isaiah is an Advent and Christmas reading is because many believe it was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. Jesus, filled with the spirit of God, was inspired by passages like this one – and he saw the kingdom of God and he understood what salvation looks like and how it could be achieved. Jesus saw the kingdom of God, in which all creation would be made new and live together, flourishing in peace within the love of God – and he understood that meeting power with power would never achieve a new creation. But he knew what the Holy Spirit could do.
So he let the scripture be fulfilled in him and he healed the sick, and preached good news to the poor, and carried our sins, and was cut off from the land of the living as he died, nailed to a cross. St Paul says in Colossians 1.20 – that through Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Through Jesus – through his death on the cross and his rising to new life, the whole universe is healed.
What makes today’s bible readings prophecies of hope is not some sort of fatalism that God will make them come true, whatever. God didn’t choose one way in Jesus then it’s back to business as usual. The way of Jesus is the way of salvation – the act, the choice, of taking up your cross daily, of dying to self and being made alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Hope lies in the scripture being fulfilled in us. So we need to turn from our ways of self-seeking, from our addiction to stuff and from all that’s in us that is divisive, defensive and deathly. We need to be made new at the foot of the cross and at the empty tomb and we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. With that living faith in God who wants to reconcile all things to himself – in the power of the Spirit, we find ways of serving our neighbor, of building friendships and real community. We seek the healing of the nations. We seek justice and life for all. We seek to re-connect with nature and be part of it, living as gently as we can on the earth, respecting and valuing all life. In that peaceful community of all creation, there will be enough for all through generous love in action – there will be an end to hunger & oppression – there will be life in its fullness for all.
Inspired by scripture and fired by the Spirit of God, we hold before us a growing vision of the way God wants the world to be and we choose to make that what we want too and we live whole-heartedly as if it were true. The kingdom of God, the new creation in Christ is not far-fetched nonsense if people like us choose to become the people of God in whom the new creation becomes reality.
We live in a fast-changing world that business-as-usual is killing off. It’s a world that needs a saviour. The saviour calls you & me to be people of the world that is coming – a world in which all life flourishes in peace within the love of God.
What will you do to answer the call?