Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent 2A

Against Isaiah’s counsel, King Ahaz of Judah rejected the calls for an alliance with the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Arameans to rebel against the Assyrian empire. And such a decision came with terrible consequences. The northern kingdom was destroyed. And Samaria soon followed. King Ahaz kept his crown, but his reign was effectively over. He lost his peoples’ trust. And so they turned their gaze to young Hezekiah, the heir apparent, who might be the righteous ruler they all longed for.

And this righteous ruler had quite the job description. If Hezekiah was the One, he had huge expectations on his shoulders.

“A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse,” they were told. Jesse, as they would have known, was David’s father. And the news couldn’t have been better.

But “stump” isn’t quite right. “Base’ is more true to the original Hebrew. From the base - from this one strong foundation - of the tree of Jesse, a shoot will spring out, and a branch shall grow out of its roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, and the awe of the Lord...”

This leader will rule not according to his own ambitions, but from God’s Spirit. He shall be wise and humble, righteous and fair, strong and just. He shall be everything God’s people needed in a king. He would lead their people back into their glorious past which would become their future.

God’s people had a long and weighty memory. The stories about King David nestled snuggly in their DNA. Those were Israel’s glory years when the kingdom was united and expanding. Their enemies feared them. Their lives overflowed with abundance. The world was their’s to win.

And most importantly, they remembered their God. They remembered what God had done for them. They worshipped as a forgiven and free people. 

Ahaz may have led them to ruin, but Hezekiah - they hoped - would return them to their former glory when David was king.

Whether or not Hezekiah was this man of destiny was anybody’s guess. Isaiah knew that Hezekiah was Judah’s last, best hope. Because, if not him, then who?

It turns out that Hezekiah’s reign was more successful than his dad’s. While he oversaw a religious reformation, finally got tough with the Assyrians, and built a vast aqueduct to deal with the on-going water shortage1, he just wasn’t the messiah his people were hoping for. While life was better under Hezekiah, it wasn’t Isaiah’s vision of a new and better world.

The people knew what they wanted. So again, they cried out to God for a Messiah - an anointed one - to give them the life and the world they couldn’t create on their own.

They wanted a king who would judge their disputes according to God’s wisdom, who would defend the vulnerable, and protect them from their enemies. They wanted a king who would bring final peace.

We Christians usually say this king is Jesus, the branch of Jesse, who is the one Isaiah prophesied. We see Jesus as the answer to their cries and to the promises Isaiah made.

“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.”

This child who leads them, we say, is Jesus, vulnerable in human form, leading by gentleness, “new, bright, undefended, and free”2, immersing himself in the life of the world, transforming it from the inside out.

But that’s only the beginning. It doesn’t end there.

For those paying attention, the first part of this passage might sound familiar. We use this promise as a blessing in Holy Baptism. When I lay my hands on the head of the one being baptized, I pray this prayer:

“We give you thanks, O God. that through water and the Holy Spirit you give your daughters and sons new birth, cleanse them from sin, and raise them to eternal life. Sustain [this child] with the gift of your Holy Spirit; the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the awe of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.”

Those who included this passage from Isaiah into our baptismal liturgy certainly knew what they were doing. They knew the gravity and expectations that those who were baptized, as much as the blessing and forgiveness.

While the people of Judah were waiting for a king, one man to lead them into glory and to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, instead, God created a people.

Instead of one magnificently righteous ruler to reign over a re-established kingdom, God re-united a family of nations gathered together as one body.

Instead of one heavenly hero fighting the forces of evil alone, God drew countries together to bear witness to, and work for God’s new vision of life and peace.

Instead of waiting for the ONE, God has drawn together the MANY, and knit them together as one body.

Instead of one divinely anointed Leader of leaders called to inaugurate God’s new world, God has appointed YOU.

In the waters of holy baptism YOU were crowned to reign with compassion over all creation, anointed by the Holy Spirit to rule with justice and peace. In holy baptism, YOU are called to lead with God’s wisdom.

As God’s people, YOU are the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. YOU are the answer to God’s promise. 
YOU are the shoot that came from the base of Jesse’s family tree, 
YOU are the branch that grew from his roots. 
YOU are the answer to the cries of God’s people.

YOU are the body of Christ! YOU are the one through whom Christ lives! YOU are the living sign of God’s presence in the world!

Your reign is Jesus’ reign, 
a reign where war and conflict disappear into peace and friendship, 
a reign where grief and struggle are transformed into comfort and rest, 
a reign where violence and death blossom into newness of life.  

a reign where...

...life-long wounds are healed.
...age-old grudges are reconciled.
...enemies become family.
...tears become joy.
...death becomes life.

This past week the world was saddened but not surprised by the death of Nelson Mandela. And as I heard and watched the tributes pour out, and listened to the words from the man himself, one thing struck me as a running theme through his work and his life.

Mandela, while emphasizing forgiveness for enemies, and peace between peoples, what seems to have gotten lost in the mythology of the man himself is his insistence that it’s not the great leaders of the world who change history, but it’s the everyday people who revolutionize the world. Those toiling day-to-day folks, whom nobody has heard of, working together, who have the real power transform everything. 

It’s like he’s echoing Isaiah. It’s people like you and me, who may never have the ear of those whom the world deems powerful, who may never be remembered by name in the history books, but who - together with sisters and brothers and empowered by God’s Spirit - can change this world from the inside out.

That’s because we serve a God who raised Jesus from the dead.  A God who defeated the power of sin and death. A God who desires above all else, that the world might have life abundant today and life eternal tomorrow.

The spirit of the Lord has rested upon YOU. Each one of you here. Everyone who has been died in the waters of baptism and raised to new life in Jesus. 

The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, and the awe of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence has rested on YOU. 

YOU are the answer to prayer. YOU are the one the world is waiting for. This is YOUR time. Because Jesus and his life-giving Spirit has rested upon YOU.

The cries of God’s people have been answered. And we’re it. It is God’s presence in us, the spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus, who calls us into this life. It is not our doing, but God’s spirit working within and through us, who blesses us to be the blessing the world needs.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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