Forward Isaiah 11:1-10; Matt 3:1-12
What are you looking forward to? What are you hoping for? You’re
answer depends very much on who you are, what kind of life you have and
what time of year it might be. Right now and here I suspect that most
of us are looking forward to Christmas and the different kinds of happy
things that it means. Younger people may look forward to their presents.
Older folks may be more interested in things like spending time with family
or being able to take time off work. But imagine you are in Pakistan where
the floods were so bad this year. Many families are going back to where
they lived to find little or nothing of their homes and even less to live
on. I imagine Korean families are hoping that things will settle down
between north and south and a war will not start again. An Australian
might hope for cricketing fortunes to turn back in their favour!
Each year as Christmas approaches the Church gets ready to celebrate the
birth of Christ. During Advent we read the age old wisdom of the Bible
and try to understand what the message might mean for our times. Each
week this Advent we take our first reading from Isaiah and gradually build
up a picture of what he looked forward to. Our gospel readings tell the
story of how people prepared for the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah and
his people lived at a different time from John the Baptist and his cousin
Jesus, but they all counted themselves as God’s people. Isaiah often
painted pictures of someone who would make a difference, a leader who
would stand out from all others. What would this leader be like? What
did Isaiah look forward to? There were three things that came clear in
Isaiah’s word painting.
the old block
The first thing Isaiah expected was that a great leader would be a chip
off the old block. Well, to put it in his own words: a branch out of the
root of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David who had been the best king
Israel had known. David was one of Jesse’s sons.
So Isaiah is saying that the leader he looked forward to would have a
connection with the best of kingship they’d had before. David had
been chosen by God and was a good thing by nature as well as name. Isaiah
valued what God had provided for his people in the past, and looked forward
to the time when a new leader would be the real thing.
A good judge
The second thing Isaiah looked forward to was that this leader would be
a good king and a fair judge. In those days the person who sat on the
throne also sat on the judge’s seat. In technical terms the executive
was not separated from the judiciary. In simple language it was thought
that the person who made the rules should also be the one who made sure
they were kept. It is only with the growth of democracy that we have come
to believe that the court of the king should be separate from the court
of law. This is because it is easy for someone with so much power to abuse
it. But Isaiah hoped that the coming ruler would be so fair, that this
would not be a problem. He would be one who was blessed with God’s
spirit of complete wisdom and fairness; someone who wouldn’t have
favourites; someone who could tell that good looking didn’t mean
good behaving; who could tell that neither gossip nor the gift of the
gab was to be the deciding factor.
More than anything, Isaiah, along with his people, longed for peace. If
they had a leader who was the real thing and who was the perfect judge,
then they had the recipe for a peaceful kingdom. Isaiah’s way of
saying that was to describe a holy mountain where animals that normally
hunted each other would live together; that dangerous creatures would
not hurt innocent children; where there would not be any hurt or destroying,
because the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. The great
king’s qualities would spread out and influence the whole world,
beyond the borders of his own people because, like Solomon, his wisdom
would be legendary.
So did Isaiah get what he wanted for Christmas? Yes and no! He died without
seeing his hopes fulfilled. But his extraordinary word paintings were
preserved and when the followers of Jesus took a fresh look at them, they
saw how much was reflected in the leader they had discovered. So, in another
sense, Isaiah might not have got what he wanted for Christmas for himself,
but he got what he hoped for the world. Matthew tells us of someone just
as visionary as Isaiah and whom Isaiah had also described: John the Baptist,
a voice crying out in the wilderness. He was a bit of a weirdo, wearing
strange clothes even for his day, and having a diet that would outdo any
weight losing guru of the modern age! But boy did he gather the crowds!
Somehow his message seemed to strike a chord and people came in great
numbers to respond to him, being baptised and changing their lives. Later
Matthew gradually reveals how the figure of Jesus looked very much like
the paintings of Isaiah: he was a branch of Jesse’s family tree.
He was a righteous and wise king and judge, a bit like Moses in Matthew’s
view. He was someone who came in peace and who promised a kingdom of peace.
But there are other ways in which Jesus turned out to be very different
from anything Isaiah could have imagined.
Jesus was no Christmas present. Although he was born a baby and Matthew
tells us how angels, shepherds and wise men came to greet him, John the
Baptist warned that the one to come would be even more powerful than he.
He will immerse you in the fire of the Spirit; he will sort out grain
from worthless chaff. In other words, what you are looking forward to
may not turn out to be exactly what you expected. Whereas Isaiah’s
picture of the one to come was of a perfectly wise, fair and authentic
king, John’s picture was of someone who handled fire, someone who
threshed grain, someone who chopped down unfruitful trees: a fire-eater;
an axeman; a muscular farmer. Of course Matthew presented other pictures
of Jesus, he started off by telling us what John the Baptist expected.
to be as compassionate and understanding of poor and oppressed people,
as he was fierce and condemning of powerful and self-important people.
Last week Jeanette and I went to see the latest Harry Potter film. We
enjoyed it, as we have enjoyed the whole Harry Potter story. But we felt
the latest episode is one that might frighten our grandchildren, certainly
in the big screen of a cinema. However, I feel it is a moral story because
we expect that the hero will one day win, and the hero is aware that he
must fight against evil and put his magical world right. A similar theme
runs through the Narnia stories that are also being turned into films
these days. But these stories all tell of how long and hard the struggle
is. Harry and his friends have to sort out many things that are wrong,
and it is sometimes ugly and frightening.
we look forward both to Christmas and to the second coming of the Messiah.
It is lovely to celebrate the story of the first Christmas and a wonderful
time for the child in each of us. But it is difficult for us to try and
imagine the second coming. It may seem remote. As we try and understand
the Bible’s message we realise that sorting out the good from the
bad may be ugly and frightening. But we also know enough of life that
wrong is like a persistent stain or a stubborn infection. It will not
go away easily and takes a strong and determined leader and his people
to keep fighting until the good wins through. We quite rightly look forward
to Christmas and all it means to cheer our spirits. But we celebrate Christmas
in the light of Easter, knowing that the baby grew up to be the Son of
God who hung on a cross and rose again. In him we place our hopes for
a better world, a place of peace, justice and enough for everyone and
everything on this planet.
© Rev Paul Smith