I have been trying to put myself into the eighth century BCE as a listener to Isaiah—without the knowledge of Jesus. The Isrealites had desired a king to make them a great nation but that mighty tree had been reduced to a stump. The nation had known only a hundred years of ascendancy under David and Solomon. But since that time, the nation had divided and was under constant threat from its more powerful and predatory neighbors. Their borders were insecure. They could no longer defend themselves. The irony of course, is that the people had virtually demanded a king so they could be like other nations. They wanted a warrior king who could protect them and a king who would give them stature among the nations. But like all nations that depend upon human power, the conquerors became the conquered. Israel was in a bad way.
Israel seemed doomed. ‘Greatness’ had been fleeting. In the midst of this despair, Isaiah promises that out of what seemed dead (the stump of Jesse), something new—and to human eyes and ears, impossible— would emerge. The same roots that produced the Davidic line would produce a radically different kind of leader. God’s spirit, wisdom and counsel would guide him and this leader would seek to be righteous—right with God. Far different than the nationalistic monarch that the Israelites sought, Isaiah reimagines a leader for the people. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;” Human ways of ordering the world are set aside in favor of God’s will for all peoples.
But then Isaiah goes further. He suggests a world which is outside of our experience. He describes a future that has never been known. Wolves eat lambs. Leopards eat kids. Lions eat calves. That is the order of things. There are predators and there are prey. And we do our best not to be the prey. But Isaiah offers a way of living that the human mind could not imagine. In God’s new world, predator and prey live together. As Jesus put it hundreds of years later, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt 19:26)
This brings me to two Faith in Real Life questions. Is this vision fanciful? Is this something we want and need to believe but in real life can never happen. And if it is not just a fanciful vision, what are the implications for us, as Christians, in our personal and political lives.
Promises can be very powerful. They can change elections and change behavior. The casinos in Las Vegas regularly publicize the big winners. Though the odds of winning are extremely low, they need people to dream so they will keep gambling. People want to believe and the casinos need them to believe. The casino does not spend time on the cost of such belief. Nor do they deliver on their promise very often.
Advent and Christmas can be presented in a similar way. There is a commercial for Apple in which an unexpected holiday visitor finally receives the warm welcome he’s always yearned for. A holiday crowd, initially uneasy, ends up singing ‘There’s no place like home for the holidays’ with an odd, derelict outlier. The commercial is a vicarious ‘feel good’ moment. It captures a yearning for inclusion and good will. It can evoke tears. But in real life, such inclusion is a rarity. And in real life, such behavior runs contrary to the national mood of fear and anxiety. In real life, terrorists are killing people. Outliers are dangerous. But for a time, in a commercial, we hold the hope that we do not have to be governed by fear. And since it is commercial, nothing is required of us.
But sometimes, fear and pain carry the day. In the Atlanta newspaper this week, a couple wrote at length about the death of their daughter ten years ago. They are still recovering. At one point the father writes:
My mother is a strong Irish German, as blunt as she is kind, as honest as she is loving — and she does not suffer fools. We were all sitting around the kitchen table during one of the rare moments when one of us wasn’t at the hospital with Olivia. Mom was doing her best to support the two of us. In a quiet moment, she broke the silence of the darkened kitchen. Someday, it may be years down the road, but someday there will be a silver lining to all of this. I love my Mother dearly, but I was not in the mood to be uplifted. No amount of praying or silver lining was going to save my daughter. (AJC 11/27/2016)
At least at that time, no promise, no silver lining could assuage the pain.
Finally, I have a client whose good friend was abducted, raped and murdered. Going to the trial was visceral and traumatic for him. And even harder, it challenged his ideals—his opposition to the death penalty. This was no longer an academic argument about the value of life. A large part of him wanted an eye for eye. A large part of him wanted retribution. The families of those murdered in their church bible study face a similar dilemma. It is one thing to have Christian ideals but it is a much harder thing to live them.
We have an ‘impossible’ faith claim. We believe that in the end, love will prevail. This is not a sentimental ideal. It is not the promise of quick financial reward nor is it the good will that rarely lasts till January first. It is offered to us at great cost and it is lived at great cost. It is demanding and sometimes is beyond our human capabilities but we are called to keep loving. To change metaphors, even on a becalmed sea, without a breath of a wind, we are called to raise our sails. We can only do what we can do. The vision, the prophecy, propels and enables us.
Isaiah held out hope for a devastated nation and he holds hope for us. He promises that God will break into our lives in ways beyond our imagining. He calls us to be part of the vision. Every single day we are asked to decide if we will live in the way of the world–with our weapons and self protective behaviors—or if we will live in the promises of God— with kindness, inclusion and love. The prophecy calls us to live like love matters.
“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.” Let it be so.
1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 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.3 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;4 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.6 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. 8 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.