Wednesday, December 8, 2010

As the Prophet Foretold (2): Root and Fruit

Psalm 72 (call to worship)
Matthew 3:1-12 (children)
Isaiah 11:1-10 (message)
Romans 15:4-13 (benediction)

As a child in Vientiane, I was not allowed to go into the back yard to play [bamboo viper] . . .

Last week, the first Sunday of Advent, we looked at the theme of anticipation, at Isaiah’s invitation to “walk in the light of the LORD” or to live in the light of God’s future, the promise of Christ coming, not just in the manger but to set all things right and rule. The focus in the prophet was on the teaching of the LORD and that the nations will not “learn” war anymore. That verb for “learn” is a learning that comes with practice, a very hands on learning process. The nations stop practicing war.

This week, as we continue to explore our theme “As the Prophet Foretold”, Isaiah extends the vision and description of the coming kingdom of peace with references to justice and to new creation. It is fashionable, in some circles, to make jokes about “tree huggers”. This vision of justice that extends to all of creation certainly lifts up a biblical vision for a renewed creation, for our responsibility and stewardship of all God has made AND this vision is completely impossible, implausible, ridiculous apart from an act of God. It goes way beyond the vision of environmentalism to nothing less than new creation. In that first creation, the serpent brought danger. In the new creation, a child plays over the hole of the asp. And, “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (and “mountain” is used elsewhere in the Bible as a reference to the whole earth under the dominion of God). “A little child shall lead them. . . . They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain”. Well, the bamboo viper didn’t get that memo.

But, Traveler’s Insurance did! [Show spot or summarize.] They’ve got an advertising campaign called “Take the Scary Out of Life”, and they put out a tv spot of animals having a grand old time at an African watering hole. A lion and a zebra, drinking together, an ostrich playing tag with a lioness, a muskrat diving off the head of a giraffe into the watering hole and pulling himself up on the back of the swimming crocodile. The tagline: “When you are not worried about potential dangers, the world can be a far less threatening place. Take the scary out of life. . . .”

Last week, I mentioned that Isaiah moves from the harshness of judgment to the glories of hope. This passage follows immediately on a harsh judgment, culminating in the last two verses of chapter 10:

Look, 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. 34 He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall (10:33-34).

In this post-apocalyptic world of clear-cut forests and barren landscapes, a shoot emerges from one of the stumps, a shoot from the root of Jesse. Matthew’s gospel picks up on these themes: an axe at the root of the trees, cut down and thrown into the fire.

The vision of hope in this section of Isaiah is expressed in the poem of 11:1-9. It comes in three parts.

In the first part, verses 1, 2, and the opening of verse 3, we are introduced to the promised shoot and root, a promise that the Christian tradition has attributed to Jesus (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel):
O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
an ensign of thy people be;
before thee rulers silent fall;
all peoples on thy mercy call.
The spirit of the LORD rests upon this fruitful branch, this “nazar” (Hebrew). It is a six-fold description of the spirit, in the Hebrew text, though the ancient Greek translation adds “piety” to make it seven, perhaps the basis for the expression “seven-fold spirit” in the Revelation. Wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

The second part, the rest of verse 3 and then verses 4 and 5, are focused on themes of governing and rule – kingship or dominion – in justice and righteousness. Cynics among us focus on the role of special interests and lobbyists and earmarks and pork barrels in politics – though usually overlooking the inappropriate influence of our own interests and lobbyists. But imagine a government that really worked for the powerless, and not by reinforcing cycles of poverty but by truly liberating. Imagine a government in which no one can buy justice, in which even the most privileged are held to account. Imagine a government in which justice is dispensed not according to surface appearance or in favor of those with the loudest voice or best lawyers, but decided with righteousness. Isaiah uses language associated with the kingdom of David (“rod of his mouth”) and his descendants, and anticipates a renewal of the monarchy that fulfills all of its original promise and hope.

The third part of the vision, verses 6 through 9, focus on themes of new creation. It is a new creation not ruled by tooth and claw, where themost vulnerable are safe. Instead of the language of the Davidic kings, we find the language of the first creation and the first man Adam. In the first creation story, the man and woman fall prey to the serpent. In the first creation story, the man and woman were told to rule the earth and to fill it with their descendants. In this new creation, the child leads, and the earth is filled with the knowledge of the LORD. Isaiah imagines a “second Adam”, this time a child, the child of a woman promised back in chapter 7 (“a virgin will conceive”, 7:14) and described further in chapter 9: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). Wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the LORD. Hear the echoes?
Come, desire of nations, come!
Fix in us thy humble home.
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed;
bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness now efface –
Stamp thine image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
reinstate us in thy love.
(Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, Charles Wesley)
Take that! you backyard bamboo viper. Bruise that serpent’s head! you brood of vipers.

Again, Advent is about anticipating and living into the promise of God. We can choose a life of clear-cut forests, we can choose the axe, we can choose the serpent, we can choose destruction. That’s the direction of history, that’s the trajectory and predictable outcome of so much human behavior.

Or, we can choose the promise – the root and the branch that bears fruit (NIV reflects Hebrew here better than NRSV).

The process of choice making is what the Bible calls “repentance”. It is an acknowledgment that we’ve made some bad choices, done what we shouldn’t have done, and that now we’ve changed our mind, we’ve done a 180. Once we’ve set ourselves in a new direction, in the direction of promise, John the Baptizer urges us to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. That’s an easy thing when you’re joined to the branch. But it is pretty tough, even impossible, when you’re a “brood of vipers”.

What is not impossible is the prophet’s vision – a kingdom of justice and a new creation of peace. If Communism falls, in no small part thanks to the prayers and work of a Polish priest and pope . . . If apartheid is dismantled without total bloodshed, in no small part thanks to the hours of prayer daily by Archbishop Tutu . . . Then I’ve seen enough to live in hope and to take part in a work and vision that transforms not just your soul and mine but the world itself. “Christ will come again.”

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