“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
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 –
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11)
Our church celebrates three Christmases, of course. You didn’t know? The first (25th December) is fairly well known (in our culture, that is, the date isn’t mentioned in our Bibles at all!). The third is when Jesus comes again, and no one knows when that will be. We are told to wait, watch and witness (and that’s it).
The middle one is when you ask Jesus to come into your heart. And He does!
Each one is dramatic and life changing. Nothing ever stays the same when God moves in.
But when we celebrate Christmas, all three tend to come together. What is it that we’re looking forward to? Is it Christmas when we celebrate the coming of Christ at Bethlehem? Or is it the future coming of the Lord, the Return of the King?
Are we looking forward to the first coming of Christ in incarnation, the birth of the king, or to his second coming in glory, for judgment, when the kingdom of God will come in its fullness and all God’s creation will be redeemed?
The point is that Bethlehem was a beginning of a story that still has a great deal of future. The Jesus who was born at Bethlehem is not just a figure of the past, but also the Jesus who comes into our lives and will one day soon come to resume control.
The kingdom he inaugurated in his ministry and his resurrection is not yet manifested in all creation and cannot be while evil still ravages the world. To believe in the Jesus who was born at Bethlehem, the Messiah who brings God’s kingdom into the world, must also be to hope for his coming in the future and to live under His lordship in the present.
This helps us to understand Isaiah better, I think. For Isaiah, the future seems to be telescoped. He sees God’s purpose of sending his Messiah and establishing his kingdom, all together, just as we might see the outline of a range of mountains on the horizon without seeing the distance between them.
So which does Isaiah speak of ? The answer is all of them -all at once. That is to say, Christmas is a story that has not yet finished! A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse. and a branch shall grow out of his roots. We know that Isaiah is talking about a king, for Jesse was the father of king David. Remember when Samuel visits Jesse to anoint the future king? He sees all of Jesse’s sons except David, the youngest, the shepherd boy. He was so insignificant no one had even thought to fetch him along with the others. But he was God’s chosen king, the man “after God’s own heart.” David -even with his faults-was a picture of the ideal king and no successor had lived up to that promise. So what Isaiah sees is the great tree of Jesse – the royal house of David – cut down to a mere stump, cut down by God’s judgment. The royal line of the kings of Israel would come to an end.
But a shoot grows out of the stump. Not a branch from the tree, but a root from the stump when one might well have thought that the tree was dead.
The ideal king who is coming, the new David, will be seemingly insignificant, of humble origins, an unexpected king, someone without the prestige and privilege that rulers so often abuse. And when the Gospel of Luke gives us the genealogy of Jesus, we find his descent from David traced, not through Solomon and the line of the kings of Israel, but from David’s son Nathan and through a long list of descendants of Nathan who are not even mentioned in the OT. Jesus, born at Bethlehem, which was where David’s family originated but was not where Solomon or any of the kings of Israel were born – this Jesus is God’s Messiah, raised unexpectedly from humble origins.
The real importance of all this lies in what Isaiah says about the task of this new David.
His task is to rule righteously, providing especially justice for the poor. Kings born in royal palaces all too easily favour the rich and the powerful, the social elite they identify with, and neglect the interests of ordinary people. But because David came from humble origins himself, he was both a man of the people and a man after God’s own heart. It would be good to remember that too about Jesus when we read the Christmas stories this Christmas. Jesus was like neither Herod nor Caesar. He was a different sort of king, a king after God’s own heart, and that difference began with his birth in humble circumstances to a family of no status in society.
Instead of worldly power, the coming king is endowed with the Spirit of God: ‘the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.’
So what are the characteristics of his reign? We could sum it up in two phrases: justice for the poor and peace with wild nature. It’s been called “The Peaceable Kingdom.”
“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.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
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.
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.” (Isaiah 11:1-10)
Isn’t that an interesting and curious picture? It’s not speaking simply of peaceful relationships between animals, but about peace between, on the one hand, humans and their domestic animals, and on the other, wild animals: the wolf with the lamb the leopard with the kid the bear with the cow the poisonous snake with the little child.
The little child is there as the most vulnerable of humans, and the one at most risk from those he leads.
Here’s Edward Hick’s picture, which is discussed here.
For Isaiah, God was speaking an urgent word into his own present. The word was justice (or “righteousness”) in terms of how we treat the poor and how we treat nature. In general terms, they remain surely the most urgent issues of our time. Do we see justice for the poor or harmony with nature as we look around our world?
Despite all our advances, the problems now are much, much greater than they were in Isaiah’s day. We still await this righteous and peaceable kingdom of God’s Messiah. So did his first coming make no difference? Was nothing changed by Christmas and Easter? Notice the last two verses of our passage: ”
“They shall 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.”
The knowledge of the LORD is key: justice and peace flow from it. Jesus, the root of Jesse, already stands as a signal to rally the nations and bring them to the knowledge of his God. And for those who have eyes to see, wherever justice and peace break out there is the kingdom already to be seen. Not some kind of incremental progress as the world gets gradually better – no sign of that, and we were never promised it. But foretastes of what is to come.
Justice for the poor and peace with nature are possible because they are God’s own purpose for his world. And we are part of what God is doing. Right now.