December 9, 2007

Vessel of Peace
Isaiah 11:1-9

Isaiah is at it again—dreaming. And if his dream in 2:1-5 seems unrealistic, the one here in 11:6-9 is nothing short of outrageous. We can at least imagine the transformation of the human spirit and temperament as depicted in chapter 2. We’ve seen people of varying nationalities and faiths come to the mountain of the Lord, hungering and thirsting after God. We’ve seen, though surely not often enough, stubborn and belligerent people drop their defenses and make peace with one another. There is precedent, on a smaller scale, for what Isaiah saw in 2:1-5 on a global scale.

But the picture here in 11:6-9 defies analogy, at least for me. I think instead of the night when I visited the Ark, a lodge in the middle of Kenya’s Aberdare National Park. Each bedroom at the Ark is equipped with a small buzzer that rings whenever wild game enters the area. Early one morning, I awoke to the sound of the buzzer and made my way out onto the deck. As I watched, an entire pride of lions pranced across the grounds. They had obviously eaten recently and showed no signs of hunger. One of the lions even leapt onto the back of an annoyed water buffalo, who tried frantically to swat him off!

More telling, however, was the scene off to my far left. There, in a virtual trance, was a young gazelle, crouched behind a bush. If gazelles pray, I know what this one was saying: “O Lord, I cry to you in this hour of desperation. My life is ever before you, hanging frightfully in the balance. In your mercy, Lord, blind the eyes of the lions and save me from their life-extinguishing jaws. If you do, gracious God, I will tell others of your act of kindness and worship in your sanctuary forever and ever.” I felt the tension myself—the threat—as I watched. Thankfully, the gazelle remained unnoticed and, for at least another night, alive.

Lions and gazelles don’t hang out together. We all know that. Neither do wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, cows and bears. Little children don’t lead wild beasts around like a shepherd caring for his flock. And toddlers might play with plastic dinosaurs, but not with poisonous snakes. These images are totally unfamiliar to us. They go against the very instincts imbedded within the natural world. Isaiah, so it seems, has taken us from the unrealistic to the utterly fantastic. A world so totally free of conflict and violence that even inbred enemies—animals and humans alike—are, as in the creation narratives, living in total harmony with each other. In Isaiah’s dream, Shalom—completed and unadulterated peace—will once again carry the day.

But how, we must ask, will such a world as this ever come to pass? That is the issue the prophet addresses in the familiar but always stirring lines in vv. 1-5. In these verses, Isaiah describes the appearance, anointing and approach of the hoped-for vessel of peace, who will one day turn a dream into reality.

“A shoot,” Isaiah begins, “will come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah, like other prophets, makes frequent usage of plant and tree imagery. In 5:1-5, the people of Israel are likened to a vineyard that, in spite of God’s relentless care, produced only undesirable fruit. In 6:13 and 10:33-34, Isaiah compares the anticipated destruction of Judah to the felling of a tree and to the destruction of an entire forest, respectively. Judah and Jerusalem lay in ruins, like a previously forested hillside soon after the arrival of a host of Weyerhauser lumberjacks.

Here in 11:1, however, Isaiah has in mind someone other than the general population of Israel when he speaks of a “stump.” He is thinking of the Davidic monarchy—the kings who reigned in David’s line. When David, the son of Jesse, first became king over Jerusalem some 300 years earlier, God had through the prophet Samuel promised that his descendants would continue to reign after him: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16).” God, in essence, entered with David into an eternal covenant. And in truth, every king who ruled on the throne in Jerusalem from the time of David to the destruction of the city in 587/86 B.C. was such a descendant—some 35 kings, all related to David.

The problem, as you may know, was that most of these guys were Davidic in body but rarely in spirit. They were corrupt and self-serving, leading the people under them into one form of idolatry or another. Even the few exceptions to the rule—generally faithful kings like Hezekiah and Josiah—either messed up late in life or died young through fool-hearty decisions. So much for David’s line ruling and reigning forever. Would the people of Zimbabwe today want Robert Mugabe’s family to rule forever? Do the citizens of Venezuela long for Chavez and his descendants to serve indefinitely? Even in our own country, we believe that term-limits are appropriate and necessary. The Davidic kings of Judah provide historical evidence—a royal wasteland. A once-tall tree cut down by the divine lumberjack. And what remains? A stump. A stump that others might trip over. Will this stump simply be left to rot?

Not in Isaiah’s mind. And certainly not in God’s mind, either. A promise is a promise, and God always keeps his word. So what will God do? What he always does. Bring light out of darkness and hope out of despair. He is the same God, after all, who in Israel’s collective memory brought Isaac, father of their nation, out of a previously barren, 90-year old womb. He is the same God who led his people out of bondage in Egypt. And he is the same God who called an unsuspecting shepherd boy named David and made him king in the first place. Our God is a God of surprises, a God known for bringing dead things back to life. And as Isaiah looks at the stump of the once-proud Davidic Monarchy, he sees, as will the prophets Jeremiah and Zechariah after him, that God is up to his old tricks again. When Jeremiah and Zechariah looked at the stump, they saw a new branch appearing: “In those days and at that time,” Jeremiah announced, “I (God) will call a righteous branch to spring up from David;… (33:15; cf. 23:5; Zech. 3:8; 6:12). And as Isaiah looks intently, he sees, not a rotting stump overrun by ants and termites, but a young shoot growing up from the very roots of the stump. He sees hope, not despair. Life, not death. How will Isaiah’s so-called peaceable kingdom ever materialize? Out of the ruins of David’s dynasty a new king—a vessel of peace—will one day appear.

And what qualifications will this new king bring to the position? This anticipated king, Isaiah points out, will be anointed by the Holy Spirit (v. 2). His claim to kingship, in other words, will rest on more than just his biological connections to David, as important as those are. He will ascend to the throne, furthermore, for reasons other than those so common within our modern world. To become president of our country today, for example, you must be both wealthy and popular. The winner of the next presidential election will spend some $500 million dollars on the campaign. And isn’t it fascinating, if you’ve been following the news, to see how various celebrities are lining up with particular candidates in hopes that their notoriety will sway the voters. Oprah Winfrey is campaigning for Barak Obama. Chuck Norris for Mike Huckabee. Bill Clinton for Hillary. Pat Robertson for Rudy Giuliani. And Fred Thompson, of course, has many Law and Order fans on his side. Wealth. Popularity. Throw in military coups as well. There are any number of reasons why and how modern-day leaders come to power.

No such reasons appear here in Isaiah 11. This new king rises to power solely as an act of God, and “the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.” He will, as a result, embody:
wisdom, discerning the difference between what is life-giving and what is not;
understanding, recognizing how to apply what is life-giving to the everyday affairs of life;
godly counsel, helping others to notice the same-life-giving connections that he himself perceives;
might, ruling with courage and confidence in spite of the demands;
knowledge, demonstrating a reliable awareness of what is going on around him; and
the fear of the Lord, never forgetting that his strength and hope lie in God alone.
To these six attributes the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) adds a seventh:
piety, modeling in all of life a love for and commitment to God.
These seven attributes, called in later Christian theology the “Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit,” are the anticipated king’s credentials. He never attended Yale or Harvard. He didn’t serve previously in the senate. He was never a governor or military commander.
This new king, in fact, brings with him no earthly qualifications at all. Instead, he comes to power by God’s decree and with the spirit’s anointing.

And finally, what will be his approach? Isaiah describes this as well, and how different it will be from his many predecessors. In contrast to those earlier kings who oppressed the poor, padded their pockets, accepted bribes from the wealthy, and even worshiped foreign gods, the shoot growing up out of Jesse will overhaul, not just our social security or health-care systems, but the entire earth. The intent of these lines is unarguable, and we make a tragic mistake when we encase the mission and ministry of this “vessel of peace” in entirely spiritual terms. This new king is coming, not simply to save individual souls, but to right the wrongs that infect the entire created order. He is coming, not simply to spare you and me of eternal damnation, but to redeem the earth and all that is in it. He is coming, not to pamper the rich and powerful, but to elevate the poor and oppressed. This new king, Isaiah makes clear, is coming with a cosmic agenda—to restore to the earth the very righteousness and glory of God. Feeding the hungry, defending the poor, lobbying on behalf of the innocent, denouncing the wicked, caring for the earth—these are not peripheral “add-ons” to the work of this new king. They lie at the very heart of his approach. This new king is coming, not to remove screaming people from a sinking ship, but to save the ship as well.

And when he does, the utterly fantastic images of vv. 6-9 will become commonplace. Not only will people from all over the world stream to the mountain of the Lord for food and instruction, as Isaiah suggests in the dream in 2:1-5. Here, he shows us what life itself will be like on that mountain:
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.
In this wonderful picture painted for us by the prophet Isaiah, a new shoot springs up and spreads life and peace throughout the entire world. Isaiah’s vision of peace will one day come to pass through God’s vessel of peace.

“How long must we wait?” the people undoubtedly cried. That was a question that even Isaiah himself could not answer. He only recounted his dreams and passed on his visions. And through time, one new shoot after another came to the public’s attention, only to wither up and die again. Finally, long after Isaiah breathed his last, cries were heard coming from, of all places, the tiny village of Bethlehem. This baby, Matthew assures us, is a descendant of Jesse, the father of David (1:5). Several years later, the same, once-crying baby himself announced through the John the Revelator, “I, Jesus, am the root and the descendant of David” (22:16). The new shoot, we’ve been told, has now appeared in Jesus.

“So what about the peaceful kingdom and the ice cream social with lions, lambs, wolves, cows and bears?” Chances are that those lions in Aberdare National Park ate that helpless gazelle the day after I left. Who knows? But this I do know. The peaceable kingdom is under construction even as we speak. Jesus came to begin the project, and he will return to complete it in a day yet to be. In the meantime, if you look carefully, you can see new buildings beginning to form and beautiful gardens being planted. You can see them whenever a grudge-holding person abandons his pride and extends forgiveness. You can see them whenever the haves offer bread and water to the have-nots. You can see them when Palestinian teenagers use the wood in their hands, not to club Israeli soldiers, but to build them a warming fire on a rainy night. You can see them when people in churches like ours not only share testimonies of their faith, but use their time, energy, resources and influence to promote peace and justice around the world. You can see them when people of all ages forfeit their own dreams and desires in order to advance God’s. You can see them when you look into the eyes of diseased and starving people and see the face of Jesus there. You can see them when you experience the transforming work of God deep within your own heart and soul. And you can see them—the buildings and gardens of the peaceable kingdom—when you put down your own defenses and weapons and begin instead to lay bricks and plant trees yourself. Make no mistake about it, the new shoot has appeared and it is growing and sprouting. One day down the road, the shoot will overwhelm the evils of this world and the peaceable kingdom will be completed. Then, the whole earth and all that is in it will be restored and the new king will reign forever and ever.