Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Rod from the Stem of Jesse: An Advent Sermon on Isaiah 10-12

Sermon on Isaiah 10-12 (10:5-7, 12, 15-25, 33-34; 11:1-16; 12:1-6); Luke 4:14-21; Romans 15:7-13.  Delivered 14 December 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The eighth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 6, Isaiah 7-8a, and Isaiah 8b-9.

As we continue our journey through Advent, it's important to remember that the season started, not just as a time of hopeful expectation, but as a time of penitent preparation. In the East, they hold a Nativity Fast that lasts as long as Lent, though not quite as severe. It's punctuated with feast-days for many Old Testament prophets who foresaw the incarnation, the Word of God coming in the fragility of human flesh, a rose ever blooming yet able to be trampled to the ground for our transgressions. The season paved the way for the upcoming Feast of the Epiphany, when many people were baptized to connect with Christ's baptism. In the West, Advent served two purposes: to remember the centuries-long wait for Christ's first coming, and to underscore our real and present centuries-long wait for Christ's second coming. The long wait is all worthwhile, because “the best of all is, God is with us”.

During the days of the Syro-Ephraimite War, there was plenty of room both for penitence and for hope. Time and time again, Isaiah warned Ahaz – and the whole House of David, and the whole nation of Judah – to trust in God, not in Assyria, and to fear neither Assyria nor Ephraim nor Aram-Damascus, nor anyone or anything else. And time and time again, Isaiah prophesied that God would assure them of their safety by giving them a living Sign of his living presence – and this living Sign, a Child to be born, would be the perfect love of God who casts out all our fear (cf. 1 John 4:18).

The nations of Ephraim and Aram-Damascus were doomed to fall – that much was already clear. But, Isaiah warned, the same was true even of mighty Assyria, who would conquer Ephraim and Aram. No doubt some wondered how God could ever use a pagan nation for his purposes. Don't godly goals need a godly tool? But God would use Assyria. Just the same, he would destroy Assyria, because their attitude was the attitude of a conqueror, not of a servant. God can use even the most arrogant pagan power to accomplish his own ends, but being used by God doesn't make one right. Being used by God isn't an endorsement, as it turns out, and Assyria's fate would be Exhibit A. Assyria is only a tool in God's hands, like an axe or a saw (Isaiah 10:15). She claimed to be more, she boasted of being more – and she would be punished (Isaiah 10:16-19).

That's a sobering reminder to all great national powers on the world stage, from America to Russia, from China to Europe, from modern Israel to Iran and the Arab states: We play our roles, but we don't write the script. Just because God has used us in the past, doesn't mean that we're pivotal to his purposes. Just because God has used us in the past, or even blessed us in the past, doesn't mean that we won't be humbled if we exalt ourselves above him or if we confuse our national agendas for his holy Christ-centered mission. That's true of nations and governments, that's true of individuals and groups, that's true of institutions and corporations and cultures. Even mighty Assyria wasn't 'too big to fail'.

But Assyria had forgotten her place. She'd claimed that even her generals were like kings, and that one nation was just the same as another: all dwarfed by her greatness. For Isaiah, Assyria is a prime example of arrogance – but, Isaiah says, her towering trees will be lopped down, her forests will be cleared by fire (Isaiah 10:18-19, 33-34). Yet while the mighty trunks of Assyrian arrogance topple and crash to the earth, Isaiah foresees a small shoot poking its way up out of a humble stump (Isaiah 11:1). It's a perfect illustration of God working, not just in grand displays and in shock-and-awe, but in the gentle growth of new life. Assyria mocked humility, but God revels in it.

That small shoot, that flowering stem, comes from the stump of Jesse – not of mighty royal David, see, but Jesse. Jesse wasn't a king. Jesse was just a man from a small and ordinary clan – but God chose to bring the whole House of David out of this humble stock. And once again, when David's descendants had returned to the simplicity of ordinary and unrecognized life like Jesse's, a new rod would spring up from his stem. He comes like a flower, blooming off of Jesse's lineage through the Virgin Mary. One fourth-century bishop, Ambrose, wrote: “When he blossoms in our land, makes fragrant the field of the soul, and flourishes in his church, we can no longer fear the cold or rain, but only anticipate the day of judgment” (Apology on David 8.43).

And here we have a divine mystery: How can the one who stems from the root himself be the root? For this “Root of Jesse” is both the Root of David and also David's Offspring, as Revelation 22:16 tells us. Jesus embarrassed the Pharisees with a similar question about how David's son could be David's Lord (Mark 12:37; Matthew 22:45; Luke 20:44). And the only answer is that “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14) – that the living presence of the very God who created David and sat David on a throne, then stooped down to be a twig on the tree he himself had planted.

So, Isaiah tells us, building upon the Immanuel sign (Isaiah 7:14-16) and the Prince of Peace sign (Isaiah 9:6-7), that this Rod of Jesse would be a humble king, a perfect king, the giver of peace and hope – and in everything he does, this Messiah, he'll follow God's Spirit. Humility trumps arrogance, because humility is from the Spirit, and all that the Spirit gives, the Son puts into action. Trust trumps fear, because the Spirit impels faith. So when the Messiah comes, Isaiah promises, he'll do everything by means of God's Spirit, and not by arrogant human wisdom.

Instead of faulty decisions, the Spirit of the LORD filling him will be the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge (Isaiah 11:2). And the fearful dread of enemy powers, like Ahaz and sinful Judah had, is replaced by a healthy 'fear of the LORD': “Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:13). This 'beginning of wisdom' delights the Son (Isaiah 11:3): it isn't some cowering in fear, but a healthy awe and reverence for God's all-powerful, fiery love, his hot and holy passion for glorifying his name by breathing new life into us.

And doesn't that sound like Jesus – anointed with God's Spirit to do God's work, and indeed the giver of God's Spirit to us? He himself, reading Isaiah's prophecy about God's Spirit being on God's special Servant, said to the Nazareth synagogue, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). The Spirit has anointed Jesus “to proclaim good news to the poor”, to “bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor” (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2) – stopping just short of the words, “And the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). How is he anointed? With “the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of the knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). And this points forward to Epiphany, when we celebrate the Spirit indeed being seen resting upon Jesus. Everything that the Son does by the Spirit will be for the glory of the Father – it's a picture of perfect trinitarian harmony working itself out in the economy of redemption. Charles Wesley picks it up (Poetical Works 3:141-142):

Glory to God, and peace on earth!
A Branch shall spring from Jesse's line,
Of human yet of heavenly birth,
And filled with all the Spirit divine.

The Spirit of wisdom from above
Shall dwell within his peaceful breast;
On him the Spirit of power and love
And counsel shall forever rest.

The Spirit of godly, filial fear
On him for all mankind shall stay,
And make his senses quick and clear
And guide him in the perfect way.

Shall make him apt to teach and reign
His heavenly mission to fulfill,
Judgment and justice to maintain,
And execute his Father's will....

Yet will he plead the sinner's cause,
The poor and self-condemned release,
Freed by the sufferings of his cross,
And saved by his own righteousness.

Yes, he once came to saved the wicked, freeing us by taking our sufferings upon the cross. And as he came to save the wicked in his First Advent, he will come to finally destroy wickedness in his Second Advent (Isaiah 11:4). And we have the choice before us of life or death: life, if we let him save us by destroying our wicked selves in his own death on the cross; or death, if we cling so tightly to our wickedness that we follow it down and lose our souls. John the Seer, foreseeing the appearance of Christ at his Second Advent, said that “out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15); and Paul, speaking of the Lawless One who would vex God's people in the time to come, said that Jesus would “overthrow him with the breath of his mouth, and destroy him by the splendor of his coming” (2Thessalonians 2:8).

In the meantime, we live between the First Advent and the Second. The reign of Immanuel, the reign of our Prince of Peace, has partly begun, but not fully, not as it will. For Isaiah, both are in the future, and he can slide easily between them and the era in between. What does the kingdom look like? What does it look like when Jesus, the Messiah, “rules the world in truth and grace, / and makes the nations prove / the glories of his righteousness / and wonders of his love”?

For starters, Jesus will reign and judge according to God's Spirit, not according to human estimates. That should speak to us. In our day, we're a divided nation – divided politically, racially, culturally, in so many ways. And it all mainly comes down to the fact that we naturally judge cases on the basis of our own personal experiences, our own tribal sympathies, our own bundle of biases. We see it Ferguson, Missouri; we see it in Staten Island, New York; we see it in virtually every political firestorm, every debate about immigration, about health insurance, about military actions, about interrogation techniques, about oil pipelines, about tax breaks, about just about anything.

Whatever the right way to look at the issues of the day, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), but Jesus Christ sees by the Spirit of God. And so “he will not judge by what he sees with his eyes or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). As the Word of the LORD made flesh, he “seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). That's how he rules now from heaven above, and that's how he'll rule when he comes again to earth to reign.

In that coming time, the Second Coming of Christ, “Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim” (Isaiah 11:13). In those days, the division of the kingdom flamed into all-out war; but Isaiah still spoke of a time for bygones to be bygones. Just as our country thinks and acts as a divided nation, though indivisible we proclaim it, so we live in days of a divided church, though Jesus prayed for us to be one holy people just as he and the Father are one holy God (John 17:20-23). We're so prone to factions about things that just don't matter. Now, many issues in the church today sadly revolve around non-negotiable issues of the gospel: basic doctrines of the faith, basic attitudes toward the Bible, basic commitments of holy living. And there, the only remedy for dissent from the generation-to-generation consensus of the church's witness is repentance from unfaithful stewardship of the faith.

But then there are things that just don't rise to the level of 'gospel issues'. And still we divide over them – if not outwardly, at least in our hearts. We divide fellowship over secondary points of theology: predestination and free will, for example, or views of the creation, or approaches to biblical prophecy. We divide over remarkably petty things like our musical tastes, or our preaching styles, or even the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. We even divide into factions around our leaders and figureheads (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). But were you baptized into Martin Luther, anointed with the spirit of John Calvin, fed with the body and blood of the Wesleys? Were Menno Simons or Jacob Albright crucified for your sins? They all have much to teach us, and it's okay to differ about these secondary things, so long as we keep first things first and “love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19). But in that day when the kingdom comes in full, Ephraim and Judah won't be hostile; in that day, the unity that Jesus vouchsafed to his church will be made perfect, when we'll be “brought to complete unity” (John 17:23). So “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Under the Messiah's reign, God will reclaim his lost people, the severed branches of Israel. Isaiah speaks of a remnant of the physical offspring of Jacob's line, a remnant who are spared to return to the Mighty God (Isaiah 10:21) – and we know that the Prince of Peace is truly the Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6). This remnant won't place their faith in Assyria. They won't place their faith in any idol, only in God; any human government, only the Messiah. Their faith centers only on “the LORD, the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 10:20; cf. Isaiah 12:6). And so they'll return to their promised inheritance.

Paul teaches the same thing, as we read (Romans 15:7-13). For the sake of God's mercy to the Nations, many branches have been allowed to wither from the Israelite tree. They broke off when they stumbled in unbelief over the Stone of Stumbling, Jesus Christ (Isaiah 8:14; Romans 9:33-34). But these broken-off branches aren't lost. If even the remnant of Israel, the apostles, was such a great channel for God's mercy to the world, how much more the restoration of all the broken branches (Romans 11:12)! Through holy jealousy for the promises of God (Romans 10:19-20; 11:11-14), God is able to graft the broken branches back into God's people, and so all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:24-26). A remnant will return, and the people will be restored.

The rule of Jesus is good news for Jews. And it's good news for Gentiles, too – good news for all the Nations. In the Bible, these foreign nations so often are compared to animals, beasts, who prey on Israel; but Israel, the real humanity, is supposed to rule over them and domesticate them, just like Adam was made to do (Genesis 1:28). In Daniel's visions, remember, it's one like a Son of Man – that is, a human figure, faithful Israel in the person of the Messiah – who gets the authority stripped away from the beastly empires (Daniel 7:1-14). Assyria had roared like a lion and preyed on surrounding peoples (Isaiah 5:29-30), but the time is coming for beasts to be tamed, and even the Assyrian lion will settle down with oxen (Isaiah 11:6-7). As beasts prowl the global landscape, we look forward to the day when the LORD will say, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” (Isaiah 19:25), when even oppressing nations will be converted and tamed to live together in the worship of the LORD (Isaiah 19:19-25).

The tamed beasts, the Nations, will join in life together with God's people, “and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6) – not just any child, but first and foremost the Child who was born, the Son who was given (Isaiah 9:6), the Child whom Christmas celebrates. And the age-old Serpent can do no more harm (Isaiah 11:8-9; cf. Genesis 3:15), for as Ambrose remarked, “the Word of God became flesh, put his hand into the serpent's den, removed the venom, and took away sin” (Explanation of the Twelve Psalms 37.4). Praise God for the day when “they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9)! And just as before, Isaiah saw the LORD raising up a banner to call the Nations to attack Israel in judgment (Isaiah 5:26), now the LORD raises up a banner to call the Nations to worship – and that Banner is the Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10). When the Root of Jesse reigns, all will know the LORD intimately, and he opens himself up as the Well of Salvation who satisfies every thirst (Isaiah 12:3; cf. John 4:13-14; 7:37-39). That will be, when Christ comes again, but the Nations are being called around the Banner now.

A Branch shall in that gospel day
Out of the root of Jesse rise,
Stand as an ensign, and display
The cross in all the Gentiles' eyes.

Thither the Gentile world shall flow,
And hide them in their Saviour's breast,
Rejoice his pardoning love to know,
And holiness his glorious rest.

Then shall the Lord his power display,
His ancient people to retrieve,
Gather the hopeless castaway,
And bid the house of Israel live. (Charles Wesley, Poetical Works 3:144)

All these things are in the process of being done. The Nations are being tamed and discipled; the Exiled Remnant is being readied for grafting back in; Christ continues to heal spots of disunity; he gives the water of life freely; and he already rules in perfect justice by the Spirit of God. We live between the Advents, and so we're called to praise God for what he has done at the First Advent and what he will do at the Second. “At all times let us stand firm”, another fourth-century bishop named Athanasius wrote, “but especially now, although many afflictions overtake us and many heretics are furious against us. Let us then, my beloved brothers, celebrate with thanksgiving the holy feast that now draws near to us, 'girding up the loins of our minds', like our Savior, Jesus Christ, of whom it is written, 'Righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins'” (Festal Letter 3, quoting Isaiah 11:5).

Our mission is pretty simple, really: we call the Nations and the Exiles alike to rally around the Banner, the Branch of the LORD (Isaiah 4:2), who works and rules by the Spirit. We sing to the LORD with rejoicing, singing the story of the gospel from beginning to end, so “let the mighty advent chorus / onward roll from tongue to tongue”. So “give praise to the LORD” Jesus Christ; “proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted” (Isaiah 12:4), for he bears the name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9). “Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things”, for Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ is coming again, and “let this be known to all the world” (Isaiah 12:5). Flying to heaven away from the world God created is not our blessed hope; it's at best a waystation between now and the day of resurrection upon the renewed earth. No, but “we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:13-14), and so we “wait for God's Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

So “shout aloud and sing for joy” to the world, “people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you” (Isaiah 12:6), who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Be baptized with his baptism; be immersed in the Well of Salvation, that the Spirit that filled him may rest upon us also, and to taste the Joy of the World and see that his rule is joyous indeed (cf. Psalm 34:8; 1 Peter 2:3). As you prepare in your homes for Christmas, and as you prepare in your hearts for Christ's return to earth, don't lose sight of this mission of hope, to “make known among the nations what he has done” so that the God who is our salvation can be their salvation too, and so that we all may trust and not be afraid (Isaiah 12:2; cf. Isaiah 10:24). Let us pray:

  • O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things, come and teach us the way of prudence.
  • O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm.
  • O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign among the peoples, before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
  • O Key of David and sceptre of the house of Israel, you open and no one can shut, you shut and no one can open; come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
  • O Morning Star, splendor of eternal light and sun of righteousness, come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
  • O King of the Nations and their Desire, the cornerstone making both one, come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.
  • O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their savior, come and save us, Lord our God.

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