The following is a sermon I preached on 3.11.07 at the Ithaca Church of Christ. I have made a few modifications for a print format:
I’ve been preaching a series of sermons called the story we live in. The story is about God who redeems. That statement (the story is about God who redeems) is a pretty big statement. First, the statement makes a claim on the existence of God. Secondly, the statement claims that God cares enough about humanity to help humanity. Well, it should make such a claim because the claim is true. God created us and even after our decent into the pit of sin and evil, he is still reaching out to save humanity from its fall. So it’s true, God cares enough about humanity to redeem humanity.
There’s a problem however. Many people who believe in God feel as though God is both cold and disinterested, caring nothing about humanity. Or they feel that God is just unable to do anything to help humanity. After loosing a son, my wife and I went through periods where we shared both feelings. Such feelings are not the product of irreverence. These feelings come from the real experiences of pain in this world. There is real pain and suffering in this world because it’s a place of injustice. There are too many things happening in this world that are not right. Isaiah prophesied at a time when Israel had experienced the injustice of this world. It is the late part of the 8th century and Israel has been led into captivity by the Assyrians. The prophet Isaiah describes the state of Israel in 1.7 saying, “Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.” (All scripture quotations from Today’s New International Version)
Do we understand what is going on here? For centuries Israel has rested on the promise of blessing that God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And now it appears that this promise has been forgotten.
The year was 1944 as Elie Wiesal recalls. No one in his Jewish community feared the Germans because the Allies were making great advances into Europe. In fact, they believed it would only be a matter of days before the Russians forced the war front to their community in Transylvania. In his book Night, he describes the day the fascist soldiers placed all of the Jews into the ghettos, robbed them of their belongings, and took from them every political right they had. But the Jewish community kept telling each other that everything would be all right. Then the orders came that all the Jews must vacate the ghettos and board a train bound for a work camp. Nevertheless, they kept telling each other that everything would be all right. They were loaded into cattle cars while being savagely beat with batons but held out faith that everything would be all right. The train took them to a place they never heard of, called Auschwitz. Elie Wiesal describes that night, as he writes:
An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded: “Men to the left! Women to the right!” Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. …And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and [my sister] Tzipora forever.
They kept telling themselves that everything was going to be all right. But it wasn’t all right. As smoke rose from the furnace chimneys and the smell of burning flesh filled the air, something was awfully wrong.
The horrors of what happened in the Holocaust remind us that something is very wrong. Whether it’s the evil of humanity that can murder roughly sixteen million people in one decade or it’s a tsunami or hurricane that devastates a community and wrecks havoc on the poorest and most vulnerable people of society, we know that our world is a place where suffering is real and justice seems more like a dream than reality.
Isaiah understood this world. And amidst injustice, Isaiah was called to speak truth to the suffering hearts of Israel. He began in 11.1 proclaiming, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” These words of Isaiah used became common prophetic terminology to refocus Israel back to the promises of God to raise a king from the line David who would bring about the blessing that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Isaiah goes on to describe this Branch beginning in v. 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 – 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; 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. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The Branch for which Isaiah speaks about is one who understands. He is one who delights in the ways of God and not the ways of the evil that consumes this world. Instead of evaluating people based upon their wealth, power, and stature, He will view the world through the eyes of God whose image people have been made in. Politicians, talk show hosts, news anchors, and all sorts of other people use language and propaganda to characterize people into various stereotypes, but the Branch will not evaluate people based on what their words. That is why he will come with righteousness to restore justice to this life of ours.
What Isaiah is trying to get Israel and all others who have experienced the injustice of this world to do, is to look beyond the present suffering. Isaiah wants Israel to look beyond their present captivity. He wants to remind them of the promises God made in the past. Upon these promises, he reminds them that God will be faithful. Because God will be faithful, Israel can not only look to the past promises but can also look to the future with a realized hope.
And there is hope. But it’s not just hope for Israel. It’s hope for the entire world – all those who have experienced the hand of suffering and injustice. Again the proclamation of Isaiah in v. 4 is, “…with righteous he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.”
It’s not just hope for Israel, its hope for the needy – the poor of the earth. But Isaiah is not just speaking of the physically poor, though the physically poor are certainly included here. Isaiah is speaking about those who are poor in life. That is, those who have been short-changed through suffering and injustice to the way of life that God created them to live.
Though we are only looking at one small passage in Isaiah, this prophet will go on to flesh out the glorious hope the world is longing for. But here in this passage, Isaiah uses some of the most vivid imagery to paint a picture of how this hope is imagined. Isaiah announces in v. 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. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like an ox. Infants will play near the hole of the cobra; young children will put their hands 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.
This is what life will be like when the Branch comes with righteousness and restores justice to the life that God gave breath too.
It seems almost too hard to imagine. Wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, bears and cattle, children and vipers, all together and neither injury nor death will result. It seems almost too hard to imagine. As long as we live in a world where people will kill each other and neglect each other, it is hard to imagine. As long as we live in a world where people who think like Adolph Hitler, it is hard to imagine. As long as we live in a world where Tsunami’s destroy homes and lives and all the while the money that is sent from around the world is selfishly swept up by the local hands of power, it is hard to imagine. As long as we live in a world where a hurricane can produce nearly a million refugees and yet people from other cities are more worried about their own self rather than receiving the refugee as a fellow human being, it is hard to imagine. It must have been hard for Israel to imagine as well. But as hard as it was, Israel looked beyond the present. Instead they looked into the past promises and acts of God, which gave them the confidence to hold out hope for the day when the Branch would restore justice.
The four Gospel’s of the New Testament were written to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophesies regarding the person from the line of David who would bring about this new dawn of hope. Jesus of Nazareth is the Branch which Isaiah speaks about. When Jesus began his ministry, he declared the appearance of God’s kingdom. He was declaring that the rule of God was being restored to this world, that righteousness and justice would once again be a reality. Of course, this message threatened the principalities and powers of this dark world as it always has and always will. So the powers that be killed Jesus and buried him. But God raised Jesus up and declared victory over evil, over every power of this world, and even over the last enemy – death. Jesus promises a return where the in breaking rule of God that began with his birth will be made complete. And so we live amidst two worlds colliding: The old world which is dying and the new in breaking world of God’s kingdom rule which is and is to come. It’s the light pouring into darkness. Right now we see glimpses of this light as it shines through and overtakes the darkness. But when Jesus comes again and finishes this restoration project, all of the darkness will be driven out never to be seen of or heard of again. So we cry out Maranatha – Come, Lord!
This is the story we live in. It’s a story about God who is saving a suffering world. One day the old world of suffering and injustice will no longer be. Now God is offering us an invitation to join the in breaking world where his kingdom is the rule. It’s the world where Jesus is King and Lord of all. No more principalities and powers of darkness. No more unrighteousness and injustice. It’s a life lived with the reality of the future breaking into the present. It’s a life that calls us to be about the kingdom business of Jesus by sharing in the work of restoring righteousness and justice to this world. It’s a life lived in the pursuit of righteousness and justice. The only question that remains is whether we will embrace God’s story and be part of the future among the present.