I’m unendingly amazed at the ways in which the Holy Spirit moves in the world. She’s been at it a long, long time. I say “she”, in part, because Judaism has a long history of recognizing “Wisdom” as both feminine and co-eternal with God. But the gender assignment is not the point. Rather, seeing how God moves in new ways is, and it’s a point that transcends gender.
For today’s purpose, I’m interested in exploring what’s going on in Isaiah’s writing. We get Isaiah every Sunday in Advent this year, and most of next year too, so there’s definitely something going on…
To get to Isaiah, however, we must begin back in the 2nd Book of Samuel, near the end. After a lengthy, yet gripping account of the beginning of the monarchy and the telling of David’s rise to power – and long after the prophet Nathan has delivered God’s promise of an eternal Davidic Dynasty – we begin to come to a new level of understanding as to how earthly rule and God’s rule are meant to intertwine.
A series of passages – narratives, lists, songs – concludes David’s story, touching upon many and various themes of political intrigue and David’s leadership. But it’s David’s own last words that were seen as an oracle, that is, a response from God to an unspoken inquiry:
The God of Israel has spoken
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
One who rules over people justly,
ruling in fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.
(2 Samuel 23:3-4)
This royal imagery is also seen in the Psalms – our Psalm today, in fact, celebrates not only God’s rule, but points us toward how earthly rulers are called to embody the reign of God:
Give the King your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the King’s Son;
That he may rule your people righteously
and the poor with justice;
He shall defend the needy among the people;
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
(Psalm 72:1-2, 4)
Ruling the people justly. Defending the needy and rescuing the poor. This ideal of righteous rule remained alive and influential in Israel even in such times as when the royal reality, if you will, sought to subvert the covenant tradition of faith in YHWH, the one true God. Political systems running counter to God’s ways? Shocking! Sadly, it’s become the norm.
But in David’s time – and perhaps even more so in Isaiah’s time – the ideal of righteous rule persists, especially in the writing of the prophets who expressed a deep and abiding hope that an anointed one – a messiah – would truly return righteous rule to the people. And perhaps the most resonant reference to this identity marker of a people – comes some 200 years after the time of David, in the writing of the prophet Isaiah. In our passage today, for instance, the long hoped-for ideal royal figure comes from “the stump of Jesse”, and ushers in an age of peace.
It’s important to note, here, that the long history of messianic expectation in Judaism, from the time of David’s demise and through hundreds and hundreds of years of conflicts, factions – the creation of two kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south – and worst of all, exile – throughout all of this, the ideal was thought of in terms of an earthly ruler who would restore Israel to its former greatness as it had been established as a nation-state under David. Y’know, “Make Israel Great Again”.
But it was at the time Isaiah wrote the words we heard today (and his writing spanned several significant periods in the life of The Chosen People) it was at this time, which was very near to when the northern kingdom fell and Samaria was destroyed in 721 BC – at that time, the prophets began to imagine that the restoration the people longed for had to be thought of in more expansive terms. From perfect earthly rule to the kind of reality where God’s work is clearly seen, even in the midst of the most inexplicable and troubling events. The movement of the Holy Spirit, through the prophets, began to indicate that God’s presence is, in fact, the overarching reality. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” “The spirit of wisdom and understanding – the spirit of counsel and might – the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord” All these references to the spirit in today’s passage lead us directly to the outcome expressed in this way: “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” Instead “righteousness shall be the belt around his waist” – a belt that John the Baptist continues to wear hundreds of years later.
It’s almost stunning to really hear Isaiah now. It’s seems equally true in the 8th Century BC and today. Into a world fascinated with idolatry, drunk with power, bloated with arrogance, enters Isaiah’s word of the activity of the Holy Spirit – activity that is meant to move in us in such a way that, ultimately, nations will come to search, not for gold or power, but for God’s word.
This evolution in Israel’s cherished expectation of a Messiah is significant in that the now ideal begins to make even more room for God.
It’s apparent that the prophets – and Isaiah, perhaps, especially – did not rely upon human attributes for justice and righteousness. They showed little faith in humanity’s ability to fulfill God’s demands or to attain redemption. If they had, they would not have insisted on the promise of messianic redemption. Isaiah and the prophets were devoted to articulating what it meant to be a “fit” leader of the people. And, fitness to rule will consist, essentially, in being endowed with the Spirit, which gives true wisdom – especially on behalf of the poor and needy. This seems the most significant part. Imagine the leaders of our nation if they were endowed with the godly spirit of truth and wisdom. It’s hard to even picture.
Endowed with the Spirit.
Jesus was endowed with the Spirit in his baptism, and went into the wilderness straightaway to be tempted. And from that point on he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
And yet, when we compare Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of the king Isaiah imagines, the differences are striking. Jesus certainly had a powerful earthly ministry, and he continues to minister graciously in the present through Word and sacrament, and even more. But evil still flourishes. The poor and meek remain afflicted. Predators continue to kill their prey. And violence is still rampant. The earth is far from being “full of the knowledge of the Lord”. If Isaiah chapter 11 were the criteria by which Jesus’ ministry were to be judged, then we might conclude that, on the whole, it falls short. Christ’s victory remains a hidden victory, or even an unaccomplished one.
Are we forced, then, to concede that Jesus was a failed Messiah? No. But we may have to allow that his ministry is fundamentally incomplete. This is where the movement of the Holy Spirit is so significant. Isaiah chapter 11 reminds us in a very important way of something characteristic of his time and our time. We’re still longing for the messianic completion of creation. In some important spiritual ways, we actually have a good deal in common with our dear Jewish friends. Isaiah refers to a reality not yet accomplished. The spirit in his words invite us into our own as yet unaccomplished reality. Maybe that’s why we hear so much from Isaiah in Advent.
We’re charged with helping to bring about this messianic completion of creation.
This hope of a peaceable kingdom begins with a shoot growing out of a stump – a small vulnerable bit of green growth that stubbornly begins to flourish in a most unexpected way. You can almost feel the straining. Could it be that it is not so unlike the straining so many of us have been feeling in this post-election time? Is there a little shoot growing in your heart that, considering all the Isaiahan imagery of the created order at peace, that little shoot inside, is it urging you into places of intercession? Can it be that the Holy Spirit is moving through this imagery in such ways as to help us make more room for God in both our interior lives and, tiny shoot by tiny shoot growing into the world in ways whereby we might discover all kinds of times and places where we might make a difference in the ways we actually can? (Come to our forum this afternoon and see! You may learn a lot about how to keep the focus on even small bits of goodness that may be exactly how we recreate creation and establish a more peaceable kingdom!) Don’t we long for creation’s promised destiny? To see in our very midst a world where peace, justice and grace have the final word?
I’ve begun to think that the Holy Spirit very often begins her movement in us and in the world in small ways – very much in keeping with Isaiah’s image of the shoot of Jesse.
In my ever-increasing search for new ways to help bring about the peaceable kingdom, I came across a piece the other day written by a Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale and author of “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning”. In this article he offers 20 small shoots – lessons from across the fearful 20th century that he’s adapted to today. Here’s just a few:
• When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the use of “terrorism” and terms of “exception”. Don’t accept the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
• Be kind to our language. Avoid using some of the phrases everyone uses. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying.
• Stand out. Someone has to. It’s easy, in word and deed, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different, but without that feeling of uneasiness, maybe there’s no real freedom. The moment you set an example, the energy changes – the status quo is broken.
• Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles – subscribe to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you.
• Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite – it’s a way to stay in touch with your surroundings – to break down unnecessary social barriers and really come to know who and how to trust.
There’s lots more. And I’m betting that even as you sit here you can name a whole bunch more ideas about how to recognize the small initial stirrings inside that signal the Holy Spirit’s movement in ways that yearn to move from you out into the world.
Isaiah’s writing – writing that articulates expanded thinking that moves from reliance on an earthly ruler and into knowing God’s ways as the object of this created order – that dynamic shift mirrors the ways in which faith longs to break through the hardness of our disbelief. Don’t wait until the tree is full-grown. God comes to us in this Advent time and encourages us to move beyond comfortable old ways.
Sure, we may need to keep sitting on that stump for a while. But I feel sure God sits with us – and she’s so good about nudging us every so often, saying, “…will ya look at that! See that little green shoot growing? What’s that all about?”
My dear friends, every day, in all kinds of ways, the Spirit is helping you recognize new ways that goodness can grow so unexpectedly and yet so strongly with your intentions.
I’m trying not to waste that spirit or energy on my frustration. Join me, won’t you, in seeing that spirit – even if it feels a little uncomfortable – as the beginning – as potential – and let’s be, first, about finding out how the Holy Spirit works in us to bring about the peaceable kingdom. Great things may come of it. In the words of Margaret Meade: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”