This is a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Isaiah 11:1-10.
Through Advent we get a little series of readings from Isaiah, which are supposed to give us some background to the idea of Jesus coming as Messiah. We know that the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting a Messiah, but it seems to me that often we don’t grasp what that really meant for them; and so I thought I’d take the opportunity, over Advent, to explore those ideas and see what they have to offer for our understanding of our own faith.
So what were (and indeed are) the Jews expecting? They’re expecting a king, a human leader, biologically a descendent of David through the male line, who is going to unite the tribes of Israel, gather them all in to the land of Israel, rebuild the Temple, usher in an age of global peace, and announce the final perfect age of the world to come.
Some of that, at least, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We have some of the same expectations of what it might be like when Jesus returns. In many ways, the big disagreement between Christians and Jews about the Messiah is about whether he will do all of this when he comes for the first, or for the second time.
But that’s a very big bunch of expectations, isn’t it? It was built up by looking at a whole bunch of Scriptural ideas and references and seeing them as all being related to the one future figure, and continuing to reflect and expand on those ideas in the writings of the later Rabbis. And so by the time Jesus was born we had already a well-developed idea of a Messiah and who he would be.
So what we can do now is look at just one of those passages – today’s reading from Isaiah – and see what that contributed to this set of ideas, and what we might then do with that.
To understand this passage, we really need to go back and look again at Isaiah’s vision of God in chapter 6. Isaiah wrote:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ “
It’s this vision of God in glorious majesty, high and lofty, which is the centrepiece of Isaiah’s thought. Everything else – rulers, priests, prophets, armies – finds its place somehow beneath the weight and the authority of that throne. And the same is true of the ruler envisaged here in the chapter we read this morning. Whoever this ruler will be, he will be beneath the power and the presence which Isaiah has seen in the throne room of heaven.
So let’s look at the passage in detail. The shoot and branch – the new growth from an old stump in verse 1 – comes straight after an oracle of the Lord cutting down trees and hacking at thickets in judgement. So the idea is that after a time of removing the unhealthy “trees” – the destructive powers at work in society – there is a new hope, a new beginning. More specifically than that, this is growing from the stock of Jesse; the ruler is seen as a new king David.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. This kind of language is not actually usual for kings; the closest parallel elsewhere in the Old Testament is in Numbers, where God takes part of the Spirit that was on Moses and transfers it to the 70 elders, so that Moses can have assistance with his huge responsibilities. (Do you remember that story? When Moses was overworked and trying to do everything, and eventually his father-in-law told him he was being stupid and to delegate? And 70 elders were chosen to help Moses in his work, and a portion of the Spirit came to rest on them as well). This suggests that the role Isaiah has in mind here for this ruler is one of deputy, assistant, or mediator; and the throne room scene we’ve just reviewed tells us whose deputy and mediator he is; God Almighty.
And what does he do, in this role? Mostly it seems to be a kind of supreme judge. It’s his job to give the poor and meek a fair hearing, and to remove the violent and the wicked from the community. And more than this, his personal attributes set him apart from everyone else around him; here he is described as not judging by what his eyes see or his ears hear, but by the most profoundly Godly standards. This is particularly striking when we know that earlier in Isaiah the people have been condemned as not comprehending, dull, unable to see and hear, and unable to turn and be healed. The ruler Isaiah describes here is not bound by any of the limitations of the people of Isaiah’s day.
But more than that, with righteousness around his waist and faithfulness around his loins, his role expands from being merely judicial to being the upholder of the ideal society. He is to establish the kind of society God desires for his people; one which develops naturally from a true understanding of God, and God’s love for His people. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord, not in power for its own sake or for his own pleasure and amusement.
So this is – at least in part – what Isaiah contributes to our picture of the messiah. A ruler under God; one who brings in a new age which is radically different from what has come before in the quality of relationships experienced in it; one who establishes justice and peace and the ideal society.
And this is what we also look forward to when Jesus returns; a new age which is radically different from anything we have ever experienced; an age of justice and peace and the ideal society. We see the beginnings of it in the church that Jesus founded (or we should), but we look forward to the fulfilment of it in the age to come.
Come, Lord Jesus.