Sunday, December 8, 2013

The One We Want

Isaiah 11:1-10
Advent 2
December 8, 2013
William G. Carter

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
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.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Earlier this week, I came across an article on the internet. It might have appeared on a tabloid newspaper at the checkout counter, or a glossy magazine dedicated to the glitzy and newly famous. The headline said it all: Can You Pick Out These Stars Without Their Makeup?

Ever see something like that? Lady Gaga without makeup looks like the college kid down the street with bushy eyebrows. Jennifer Love Hewitt reminds me of my sister’s senior high candid shot. The British actress Emma Thompson looks ordinary and pleasant, as if you would see her in the potato chip aisle of the supermarket. I wouldn’t have recognized Jennifer Lopez if the caption didn’t declare it was her. And the Kardashian sisters? Well, they don’t look anything like the people who play them on Reality TV.

It gives me an idea for reflecting on Isaiah’s old poem. Could you pick out the Messiah without make-up? I mean, he’s the One we want, the One that we are waiting for. We have our hopes and dreams, all of us. We sing the Advent songs – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” or “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” Today we overhear John the Baptist preaching to the snakes and the scorpions in the desert, declaring, “The One who is coming is greater than me.” But will we recognize the Messiah without the makeup?

That’s the benefit of this grand old text from Isaiah. It helps us to see beneath the shallow surface of outer appearances, to perceive what’s really there. And there may be a few surprises along the way.

Just consider how the description begins: “A shoot will come out of an old dead stump.” Not something that we see every day! When a tree is cut down, it stays down. The stump is merely a reminder of what was once there.
Once it was a tall, glorious tree, expansive in its branches. Now it has been reduced to merely a stump.

This stump has a name: Jesse, as in the father of King David. David was the great and glorious king of Israel, Israel’s fondest memory He was the sign and symbol of the glory days, when everything was flourishing, or at least we thought it was… but David is now cut down, cut off, leaving only a stump. Israel knows this. After David, they had four hundred years of really uneven kings, most of them bad. That was followed by forty years of national embarrassment from the Babylonians, and after that, another five hundred years of various despots, crackpots, and marauders running over their country. David’s memory was an old dead stump.

But now there is a green shoot emerging from that dark chunk of wood. New life happens, where the old life had supposedly been finished.

Kind of reminds me of my old friend, whose name was also David. He and his wife had two kids, a son and daughter. They talked it over and decided they were done with kids. No more. David went in to have a small surgical procedure so that they would have no more children. They were finished. A couple years later, his wife had a stomach ache that wouldn’t go away. It got so bad that she went to the doctor. He ran through some tests, came back, sat down, and said, “You’re going to have twins.” When the twins graduated from high school five years ago, David and his wife were the oldest parents in the crowd. They were older than some of the grandparents in the room.

A small sign of what Isaiah sees in the Messiah: he will come in the fullness of life, when everybody says there is no more life. Take that for whatever it means: a child born of David when all thought the line was finished, or a man raised from the grave when all thought it was over. Isaiah is a poet, so he refuses to spell it out. He sees a grey stump, cold and withered…with a green shoot of new life stirred by the generosity of God. This is how the Messiah shows up.

There’s something else Isaiah tells us. This Messiah will be seen by those who are concerned for the poor and the mistreated. He will never appear on one of those TV shows that focus on the rich and famous. Neither will he devote any time to glamour or inflated press releases. No, he cares first and foremost about the people that the fast-paced world rejects.

I like how Eugene Peterson translates the text: “He will judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth’s poor with justice… A mere breath from his lips will topple the wicked. Each morning he’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” (The Message) This is the Messiah, and the nature of his work. It turns the values of our world upside down.

It was curious to hear news leak out of the Vatican. Apparently Pope Frances is not hiding away in his palace every night. Did you hear this? Word is, many nights he takes off his official robes, dresses down, and slips out the side door to spend time with the poor folks in Rome. He takes them food and sits down with them as they eat. It’s a habit he began when he served the church in Buenos Aires. And it’s the kind of thing that the followers of the Messiah will continue to do.

So when the Holy Father gives a speech about how the rest of the world is too obsessed with greed and materialism, this is where he is speaking from. A few weeks ago, he gave the boot to German church leaders who lived in luxury at the expense of their people, and I can only imagine that he makes a few people in the rich Vatican City a little nervous. Yet he points to the Messiah when he says, “To live charitably means not looking out for our own interests, but carrying the burdens of the weakest and poorest among us.”  

The prophet Isaiah declares this is what the Messiah does: he shows the care of God to those who have nobody else to care for them. He does not look upon outside appearances; he looks upon their need. And all of us have deep needs, even if we spent a lot of time covering them with makeup or wrapping them in bows and colorful paper. It doesn’t matter if we have a lot or if we have a little. All of us have a point of great need.

Oscar Romero, the church’s martyr whom we heard from last Sunday, had these words to say in the season of Advent. Let them sink in past your defenses.

“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”

This rings true with what Isaiah sees. The Messiah go to those who are poor in spirit, to those in greatest need, and to those who, even if they have a lot, still recognize their own needs. Who are they? You know who they are.

  • The father who doesn’t know if his daughter will make it home at Christmas, or the daughter who doesn’t know if the father will take her in.
  • The young mother who can’t afford necessities in her kitchen because she wants to get her kids something for Christmas, or the old woman who has outlived all friends.
  • The couple who live under the same roof but they do all they can to avoid speaking to each other.
  • The young alcoholic who can’t keep a job.
  • The divorcee who lost her smile.
  • The widower who is terribly lonely.
  • The 58-year-old man who hasn’t told his boss about the most recent diagnosis.
The Messiah comes for all of us, if we are honest.

And when he comes, there is a third truth that the prophet reveals, a third way to see what the world will not readily recognize. When the Messiah comes, life will be fully reconciled. The predator will lose interest in destroying the prey. The chronic victim will be strong enough to give up always being the victim. There will be no more destruction, of any kind, under any circumstances. Poisonous serpents have no bite. Little children are perpetually safe.

This is how the Messiah will rule over all things. Nobody gets their own way; what they get is the Messiah, and his way. No more seething animosity. No more lingering hurts that we perpetuate. No more whining or resentment. No more division of the house. No more advantages over others. No more sorting by external appearances, for God looks upon the heart, and God’s great dream is that all the critters that God has made will get along with one another.

Imagine this: the wolf and the lamb, reconciled.
The cow and the bear graze in the grass side by side.
The innocent child is at peace with the wily old serpent.
All things held together by the grace at the heart of the universe.

I don’t know what you want for Christmas, but I’ll bet it is something like this. These are the blessings we are promised, Holy Dreams implanted in the human soul, to say nothing of goals that we continue to strive for.

New life, in all the astonishment of a previously dead end.
Deep concern and action for those most weak and vulnerable.
All life reconciled and held together in the Messiah’s peace.  

Yes, that’s what I want. How about you? That’s what all of us want right now. Come, Messiah, come.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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