A Star is Born - a Prophet

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot from Jesse’s stump

11 A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
    a branch will sprout from his roots.
2 The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
    a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    a spirit of planning and strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
3 He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
    nor decide by hearsay.
4 He will judge the needy with righteousness,
    and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
    by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
    and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed together,
    and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze.
    Their young will lie down together,
    and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
    toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
    The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
    just as the water covers the sea.

A signal to the peoples

10 On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

Immediately following the guilty plea of Michael Flynn, James Comey, the former director of the FBI tweeted out a quote from the Bible, “But justice roll down like waters, and righteous like an ever-flowing stream.” Say what you like about the investigation, James Comey provides an excellent example of the appeal of prophets, their language of justice. Over and over in scripture, the prophets cry out for justice. They invoke images of God’s wrath and power that is unleashed against those who have failed to follow God.

While they offer a warning to those who defy God and turn from God, the prophets also offer hope to the people. For those who are oppressed and enslaved, God comes to lift them up. “See, the Lord God comes with might,” Isaiah tells us. The prophets encourage us that in the end, our salvation will come from God. We need to wait, to hope, and to pray for that day to arrive.

For those living in the time of Christ’s birth, a message of hope was needed. Here were people who had been conquered by the Romans. Their leaders were replaced with Roman rulers. Their laws superseded by Roman laws, and their customs permitted, only as long as they did not dispute the power of Rome and the ultimate authority of Caesar. It seemed to all that Caesar was more powerful than God. The people wanted a prophet to say otherwise.

The role of a prophet is to speak truth to power. A prophet is called to challenge those in authority and to try and get them to change. In the Old Testament the prophets would challenge the rulers of Israel and Judah and try and get them to turn from their selfish ways and turn back to God.

At the time of Christ’s birth, the people wanted someone else to speak truth to power. They wanted to hear those reassuring words that God would come with power and might and destroy their enemies. They wanted to know that in the end good, not evil would triumph. They were hoping that a messiah would come who would lift them out of captivity and despair.

The longing for a prophet is no different today. It is not hard for people to name a “Roman Empire” for them. For some people it is the other side in the political debate. For others it is a foreign power like ISIS, Russia, or North Korea. For others it might be issues of systemic racism or sexism that threaten us. Whatever the foe, we can all long to hear the words of a prophet who promises a justice that will rain down on our enemies and offer us hope.

When James Comey quoted Amos, it was out of a sense of vindication. He believed he had been fired for following the law and pursuing an investigation into the dealings of Michael Flynn. With the guilty plea by Flynn, he had been proven right. The words of the prophet echoed the longing in his heart to see justice prevail.

What Comey probably forgot, what the Israelites forgot, and what we still forget is that more often than not, the words of the prophets are directed at us, not at others. Instead, what we need to remember is that the words of the prophets are meant to challenge and change us. When John the Baptist calls for repentance as he prepares people for Christ, he directs that message not at the Romans, but at the Israelites. He directs it at us too. We might be longing to hear how others have sinned and fallen short, but instead we need to start by thinking about what we have done to turn away from God.

The words in Isaiah 11 remind us how Jesus will come and offer hope to the poor and justice to the meek and lowly. If I am honest however, none of those are really me. Instead, I am called to change my heart and my life as I get ready for Christ’s coming. I am more like the lion that needs to learn to eat straw. I might long for a prophet to call others to account, but first I need to account for my own failings.

It is easy to think about how Jesus’ coming will make our lives better. In fact, I believe that his coming makes our lives better. What we cannot forget however is that it requires a transformation on our part. We long to hear about how God will come in power and deliver us from all our problems. Just as God drew the people out of captivity in the past, so too do we hope that God will deliver us from our enemies.

First, however, we need to account for ourselves. When Isaiah says, “the breath of his lips will kill the wicked,” are we worried? Are we ready for Christ, the prophet to come into our hearts and lives and judge us? Have we made all the right decisions, or will we be found wanting?

For an Advent devotional this year I have been reading a book that challenges us to think about how all the earth is waiting for God, how Christ’s birth is salvation not just for me and you, but for all creation. In reading it, I have been convicted from time to time about some of my choices and how they might be causing greater harm to other parts of God’s creation. It is not always a fun thing to do, but it is an important thing to do.

Isaiah talks about how Jesus’ coming will usher in a new order to the world. He talks about justice for the meek and poor and he talks about a transformed creation were predators and prey will find a way to co-exist. For those times when I feel like the poor, or the sheep, this should give me hope. It also means that I have to realize that those ways that I have benefited at the expense of others will need to change.

Advent is about preparing our hearts and lives for Christ. It is also about preparing to have our hearts and lives transformed. If we are the same before and after Christ is born in our lives, then his birth has been for nothing. Instead we need to head the words of the prophets of old and be ready for a new prophet to come and challenge us to repent and believe.

 

Questions to Ponder:

Where do you see injustice and inequity in the world?

What might God be calling you to change in your life to get ready for Christ’s birth?

As you think about the various roles and animals mentioned in the passage, which ones do you relate to?

When is a time where you have seen God’s transformative peace be at work?

Prayer:

Wondrous God, as we prepare for Christmas, enter into our hearts again this Advent season. Help us to recognize the hopes and expectations that we bring to the season. Help us also to set these aside and to look not for what we want, but for what you are doing in the birth of Christ. Open us up to the unexpected ways that you are born into our hearts and lives. Amen