As I helped Eliza with her 5th grade math homework this week, I realized two things. First, they are apparently doing algebra in 5th grade now. Second, I realized how little math I remember beyond basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. I never thought I’d forget to “please excuse my dear aunt Sally,” but alas, I’ve replaced it with some very limited basics of Biblical Greek, the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, and since we had kids, the plot and major characters of every Disney movie ever made. While I’m only a little bit sorry that I don’t remember much about how to solve for x, I am profoundly grateful to have made all kinds of new memories, to have learned all sorts of new things, and to have a computer with one hundred thousand times more computing power than Apollo 11 in my pocket at all times.
Two of the few things I can recall amidst the fading memories of my seminary days are lessons I learned in my Old Testament class. Our professor, Dr. Cook, was a fan of the Canonical Method of Old Testament criticism. This method says that the books of the Hebrew Bible should not be read in isolation. Verses and Chapters should be read within the wider context of the book from which they come and even whole books themselves should be read with an eye toward how they fit within the larger narrative of Scripture, God’s love story for creation. Dr. Cook also taught us to pay attention when reading the prophets and to note that any prophecy of destruction would be followed soon-there-after by a promise of some sort of restoration. It might only be an assurance for a few, but the prophets never left the people of God without some hope for the future.
Somewhere this week, between basic algebra and the Canonical Method, I ran across an article by Casey Thornburgh Sigmon from the Saint Paul School of Theology, who suggests that understanding Isaiah eleven requires looking at the bigger picture. I was immediately reminded of Dr. Cook’s teaching and began to take a larger look at our Old Testament lesson for this morning. It begins with a word of hope. It is the promise of restoration to the people of Israel. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” If it is true that the prophets never offer judgment without hope, then we can reasonably assume that a word of future hope is rarely offered in isolation from past devastation. Turning back to Isaiah chapter ten, we see the tail-end of a long prophetic oracle on the impending destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Judah. In her article Professor Sigmon notes that in order to understand this image of the stump of Jesse we first have to see how the end of the Assyrian army is promised by way of some very woodsy imagery. “The Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power: the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. The Lord will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.” Chapter ten ends with forest felled completely. All that is left are stumps as far as the eye can see. The trees of Judah destroyed by the Assyrians. The trees of Assyria destroyed by the power of God. It is a barren wasteland, stark as the bleakness of mid-winter.
As we turn to chapter eleven, suddenly, hope springs forth from hopelessness. From a stump that is as good as dead, we see the tiniest shoot breaking forth, reaching toward the sun. In the midst of the reign of the destructive, idolatrous King Ahaz, Isaiah looks forward in hope by hearkening back to the ideal model of kingship for the Israelites, King David. Yet, even with David in his sights, the prophet is careful to avoid the language of any sort of human monarch, but rather builds this future redemption exclusively upon the power of God to restore all things. The leader who will bring forth life from the stump that was left after the destruction of Judah must be one who is grounded in the Spirit of God; a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. With these gifts of the Spirit, the leader of this renewed Israel will judge with equity, will care for the needs of the poor, and will strike down the evil with nothing more than a breath.
Over the years, one of the three things that I have filled my head with in the place of algebra is the plot to almost every Disney movie ever made. In 2016, Disney released a film called Zootopia. It’s a fantastic film that everyone should watch, no matter their age. It tells the story of a bunny name Judy Hopps who becomes the first rabbit police officer in the city of Zootopia, a city built upon the idea that predators and prey can live together in harmony. The city slogan is “Anyone can be anything,” but that gets put to the test when predators, who had evolved beyond their ferocious pasts, suddenly find themselves reverting to their “primitive savage ways” for some unexplained reason. The whole stability of Zootopia becomes threatened by fear and the love of power. Since seeing that movie in the theatre three years ago, I can’t read Isaiah’s portrayal of the peaceable kingdom – wolf and lamb, leopard and baby goat, calf and lion all living together in harmony – without thinking about the story of Zootopia and how precarious the peace that God promises is, unless it is built upon a foundation of the knowledge of the Lord, the pursuit of justice, and the love of neighbor.
Heard in the light of King Ahaz and his fondness for self-preservation, worshipping false gods, and entering into treaties with the enemies of God, Isaiah’s vision of a new godly leader for Israel would have been met by hearts filled with joyful expectation. Reading Isaiah some 2,700 years later and through the lens of our faith in Jesus Christ, it is easy to see how this vision of a restored Israel became a popular one for Christians looking for the promise of a Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. It is easy to see how this vision of the peaceable kingdom became a popular one for Christians looking toward a hope-filled future after the second coming of Christ. Even so, we don’t have to read this text as only describing what is possible through the coming of the Messiah or the second-coming of the Christ. This vision of a future built on peace is possible at every level of society – individual, church, community, nation, and even the world, if we set our hope, as Isaiah would remind us, on the power of the Spirit of God.
While we shouldn’t exclusively read this lesson through the lens of our faith in Christ, as disciples of Jesus, it is our natural tendency to see the promise of the shoot of Jesse’s tree as the promise of the Messiah who we believe to be Jesus of Nazareth. We believe that in baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit promised by the prophet. That same Spirit of God lives within each us, guiding us toward wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. With our eyes fixed on the hope of the holy mountain of God, this Advent season, we join with the beleaguered people of God throughout the generations and search with joyful expectation for the shoot of new life breaking forth from the stump of sin and death. Like our ancestors in the faith, we don’t wait passively, but rather, with God’s help, we live our lives seeking to be at peace with our neighbors, caring for those live on the margins, working toward justice for all people, and striving for the day of righteousness when we will join with the heavenly chorus and sing out the truth for all creation, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!” Amen.