Isaiah Insights - The Gift of Peace

Published: Monday, 05 December 2016

This sermon, ‘The Gift of Peace’, was given by Geoff Pound at the Ashburton Baptist Church on 4 December 2016. It is the second in the Advent Series, ‘Insights from Isaiah’.

Mallee root 3

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 11: 1-10

11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will 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.

10 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 author Toni Morrison said she was staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood. She felt helpless. It was the day after Christmas in 2004, just following the presidential re-election of George W. Bush.

A friend called to wish her happy holidays. This fellow artist said, “How are you?” And instead of saying, “Oh, I’m fine—and you?” Toni blurted out the truth: “I’m not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work. I can’t write. It’s as though I’m paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election…”

She was about to explain in greater detail when he interrupts, shouting, “No, No, No, No! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

Toni Morrison felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when she recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds. Those who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled and pilloried. And those who were executed.[1]

Last week when we commenced this series in Isaiah, we noted that the prophet was living in a dark time in Israel’s history.[2] The community was fractured, wise leadership was in short supply and the future looked bleak.

Yet Isaiah’s message is so like what Toni Morrison heard. It’s as if he’s saying: “This is precisely the time when artists and believers go to work. There’s no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language, we paint, we serve. That is how civilizations heal.”

Yes, the world might be bruised and bleeding and, while we don’t ignore its pain, we should refuse to be paralyzed by it.

As a way forward through our funk, Isaiah firstly casts an amazing vision because he knows that “people are changed not through ethical urging but by transformed imagination”.[3]

Down at Point Lonsdale overlooking the ‘Rip’ or ‘The Heads’,[4] that connects Port Philip Bay with the Bass Strait, there are some brass plaques that point out features of that sensational view.

Whoever put the plaques there was attentive to the needs of the visually impaired because the script is also written in Braille. They want visitors to enjoy not only the landscape and the seascape but the soundscape.

In words and in Braille they point people to enjoy the sounds of the musical wonderland, to note the strong wind gusts that rustle the vegetation, to hear the cries of the seabirds as they hover on the up draughts, to listen to the waves crashing across the rocky platform, to hear the trickle of the water across the rock pools, the choppy swirl of the waves across the dangerous rip and the foghorn at the lighthouse which in dark conditions helps mariners to navigate the treacherous waterway.

For those who can’t see, Isaiah encourages them to run their fingers across the Scriptural text and to catch this amazing vision:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will 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.

It calls to mind the translation by the great biblical scholar, Woody Allen: “The lion will lie down with the lamb but the lamb won’t get much sleep”.

He’s hinting at the way Isaiah’s animal combinations are not random. They’re tricky pairs that you’d never put together unless you’re looking for trouble.

In contrast to the violence all around, Isaiah paints a picture of the strong living with the vulnerable, where predators are turned into peace makers, where there’s a complete absence of fear—animals don’t lie down if they’re fretting and afraid.

What a picture this is: a little child shall lead them.” This isn’t a case of ‘children being seen and not heard’ but a valuing of the most vulnerable, a delighting in children and a recognition of all that children have to offer a community.

“The cows and bears grazing, the lion eating with the ox” are pictures of connection, of sharing, intimacy and community.

Talk of eating brings to mind the Jewish food rules about which animals were allowed to be eaten and which were not. But in Isaiah’s surprising pairing of bears with cows and wolves with lambs we’ve got unclean and clean together.

So this new community is welcoming, countercultural and absolutely inclusive.[5]

Daily we’re confronted with news of danger and the abuse of the most vulnerable. In this church we’re continuing to implement policies and practises that will make for a Safe Church.[6] So take a look at these images of protection and safety:

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;

The picture is not just of a Safe Church or a Safe Community but a Playful Church and a Playful Community where we can see the joy and hear the ripples of laughter.

Before we dismiss this assortment of animals in Isaiah’s open zoo, isn’t it fascinating that some of our best stories for helping us to think about how to be human, are filled with animals: Three Little Pigs, Animal Farm, Finding Nemo, The Hare and the Tortoise and Charlotte’s Web?

Isaiah’s vision of an outrageous peace doesn’t just happen. You don’t get the calf and the lion, the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the goat all choosing to hang out together.

For Isaiah secondly, introduces us to the coming of the One who makes this peaceful community possible.

In one of his last acts before he leaves office, Barack Obama recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a glittering assembly.[7]

Among the 21 honorees were singers Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen, actors Tom Hanks and Robert de Niro, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates and basketball greats Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

In making the presentation to Jordan, the president introduced him as a man who epitomized greatness. He said that’s why people talk about “the Michael Jordan of neurosurgery” or “the Michael Jordan of rabbis” and with a chuckle he said or: “the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing.”

He said, “Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness. He’s the definition of somebody who is so good at what they do that everybody recognizes them. That’s pretty rare,” Obama said.

Isaiah now introduces a person of supreme greatness, who will make this vision of peace a possibility:

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

At a time when there’s a dearth of leadership, here’s a leader of leaders who is coming.

At a time of fracture and factions, this Messiah will bring disparate parties together.

At a time dripping with blood, this leader will bring peace by subduing some and lifting others up.

It’s fascinating the difference between what we write in a resumé and what we say in a eulogy.

On a resume we write the skills we bring to the job market and the achievements that contribute to a successful career.

In a eulogy the virtues noted are deeper. We talk primarily of the qualities that exist at the core of that person’s being.[8]

Isaiah highlights these deep virtues engrained in this leader’s character: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, righteousness, faithfulness, a compassion towards the poor, fair judgement towards the meek.

This is talk about the coming Messiah but, as followers of the Christ, these are values we should also seek and pray for as we hope to be people of peace.

And as we are people in whom the Spirit lives, those who are encouraged to seek a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit, let’s turn this text into a daily prayer like this:

“May the Spirit of the Lord rest upon us, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, Amen.” (adapted from Is 11:2)

We started today’s study by looking at Isaiah’s surprising vision of peace.

We’ve caught a glimpse of the Messiah who, with his people, can make this peace a reality.

Now let’s finish with the starting point in this chapter and a starting point for us all.

11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

I wonder if you noticed the old mallee[9] root in the foyer [pictured] as you entered this morning. What’s the use of a stump? It’s old. It’s dead. It’s useless. Ready to be thrown out.

In Isaiah’s community hope was in short supply. The future seemed as dead as a mallee root. But ‘Surprise, Surprise!’, he sees a shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse—the royal line; a branch from the roots.

Centuries earlier when Noah’s world was at a low ebb and when everything was drowned in the flood, this sea captain sent out a raven and then a dove who returned with empty beaks—hopeless. Days later another dove flew out and returned to the ark bearing a freshly plucked olive leaf. (Gen.8:6-12)

What a difference it is when we receive a sprig of hope!

What a difference it is when we give a green shoot.

This might mean:

Passing the peace tomorrow with someone who is different from us.

Sending a card to the person who feels neglected.

Singing a carol to someone who is shut in,

Writing a letter to the Planning Minister calling for more public housing for the 35,000 on the waiting list in the state of Victoria.

Today we’re celebrating:

The Advent God who brings shoots from a dead stump

The Christmas God who brings a baby from a virgin’s womb

The Galilean God who commended a mustard seed, a cup of cold water and a little boy’s lunch.

The Resurrection God who brings life from an empty tomb.

This God of small things calls us this week, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to offer unexpected gifts of peace in the name of Christ.

Prayer

Loving God

Give us the eyes to see the vision of all that you’re hoping for.

Give us the wisdom to understand all that the Christ wants to do in and through us.

Fill us with that same Spirit that endowed and empowered Jesus in his earthly ministry.

Let those same gifts of character grow slowly within us.

Now guide us that we might be the means of peace coming to the part of this earth where we live and serve.

For Jesus’ sake.

Amen

Image: I wonder if you noticed the old mallee root in the foyer as you entered this morning.

 


[1] Toni Morrison, ‘No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,’ The Nation, March 23 2015; Also referenced in ‘No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear: Toni Morrison on the Artist’s Task in Troubled Times’, Brain Pickings, 15 November 2015.

[2] Keren McClelland, ‘The Gift of Light’, Isaiah Insights, ABC, 27 November 2016.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 25 and also posted on Just Leadership, 2 December 2016, a daily newsletter of Jesuit Social Services.

[4] More information on this is found in ‘The Rip’, Wikipedia.

[5] This paragraph and the one about animal stories is suggested by the paper on UCA’s, Intergenerational Worship, Bible Reading-Isaiah 11: 1-10, Year A-Advent 2 Dec 4 2016.

[6] This is being regularly updated but here is ABC’s foundational Safe Church Policy.

[7] Katherine Skiba, ‘Obama Gives Presidential Medal of Freedom to Michael Jordan, Newton Minow’, Chicago Tribune, 22 November 2016.

[8] David Brooks, The Road to Character, New York: Random House, 2015, discusses this distinction and draws on the writings of Joseph B Soloveitchik, Lonely Man of Faith, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

[9] More on the mallee tree in Australia, Wikipedia.