What were they waiting for? (first Sunday of Advent)

Good morning, Friends!

Today is the first day of the season of Advent. Advent means “arrival”. Advent is the
season of the arrival of Christ. It’s a time of expectation, a time of waiting.

There are all kinds of traditions for Advent. Back in the early church, Advent was a time of fasting. People fasted – in some churches they fasted three times every week – during the weeks before Christmas. How would you like to do that?

In other churches, there are no flowers during Advent. Instead, they put up evergreens. The idea there is that flowers fade and wilt, but Christ doesn’t change.

In one church, the pastor was looking over the crèche the Sunday after Christmas, when he noticed that the baby Jesus was missing. He went outside and saw a little boy pulling a new red wagon. In the wagon was Jesus.

We walked up to the boy and said, “Hi, there. Where did you get the baby Jesus?”

The boy answered honestly, “In the church.”

“Why did you take him?” the pastor asked.

“Well,” said the boy, “I prayed to the Lord Jesus and asked him for a wagon for Christmas. I told Him that if He gave me one, I’d take Him for a ride in it.”

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

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.

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.

– Isaiah 11:1-6

Isaiah starts out with something that’s almost in code. What on earth does he mean when he says, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse”? What?

To understand this, we need to remember that the Jews expected the Messiah to be a descendant of King David. David was the greatest king in all of Israel’s history. He killed the giant, Goliath, when he was just a boy. David defeated all of Israel’s enemies. David built the holy city of Jerusalem.

David composed many of the Psalms, which were used in daily prayer by every Jew. More than any other king, David was the friend of God. David loved God passionately, and God loved David in return.

All of the kings of Israel had to prove that one way or another, they were descended from King David.

Now, Jesse was David’s father. So, when it says that the Messiah was a shoot from the stump of Jesse, that’s a poetic way of saying that the Messiah would be a direct descendant of David.

In another way, though, it wasn’t just poetry. We need to remember that when Isaiah wrote those words, Israel was a conquered nation. All of her leaders – the religious leaders, the teachers, the people of wealth and influence, the government officials, pretty much anyone who could read – were all taken away in chains into exile.

After Isaiah’s time, for hundreds of years, Israel was a broken nation. Over the next 600 years, Israel was invaded and conquered at least 5 or 6 times. In the poorer parts of the country, everyone lost their land. The best-off people were sharecrop farmers. The poorest of them were slaves.

If you want a parallel to the condition that Israel was in during Jesus’ time, the closest comparison would be someplace like Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria.

A country that was broken. A country that was ruled by foreigners, at the mercy of merciless dictators and warlords. A country where the only predictable conditions were poverty and misery. A country which had forgotten it’s glory. A place where people felt that God had forgotten them. That was the kind of place the Messiah would come from.

Have you ever seen a tree that’s been cut down, right to the ground? Sometimes, new life will still be there, and you’ll see a small twig growing out of the stump. Have you ever seen that?

One little shoot, standing up and putting out leaves. A tiny branch, growing from a place that’s cut down and dead. But the roots of that stump go very deep. It’s as though the roots remember the tree that used to be there. The roots reach down to hidden springs of water. And with the last of the stored nourishment, deep in the ground, the roots send up a tiny new shoot, a sign of hope, a sign of life.

That’s what Isaiah was talking about. That is what people were hoping for.

You have to remember that Isaiah wrote these words at least 700 years before the birth of Jesus. That’s like putting our trust in a promise God made 180 years before Columbus. That’s like getting excited about something God said 550 years before the American Revolution. The Jews had been waiting for their Messiah for as long as that.

When we talk about Christmas coming as the result of a promise, I want us to understand how deep and long the wait really was.

Then there’s a section in today’s reading that’s easier to understand. It says, The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him. . .”

That’s like saying that the Messiah will be God’s leader. The Promised one will be filled with the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.”

Wait a minute. What does that “fear of the Lord” business mean?

Jesus wasn’t afraid of God, was he? Jesus always seemed to be confident about his relationship with God. Jesus didn’t tell us to be afraid or anxious. He said we should trust God, that we should feel God loves us like the best kind of loving parent.

That phrase, “the fear of the Lord” is not one we use very much any more. The Hebrew words are yirat Hashem. On one level, it means being afraid of the consequences of wrongdoing – like being afraid of punishment. At a deeper level, it means a desire to live positively, in accordance with God’s teaching.

The ancient rabbis used to say, “Know before whom you stand. . .” When we pray, we don’t stand before a God who’s there to do our bidding. God isn’t something that we’ve created.

It’s the other way round. We are here to do God’s bidding. God created us. God doesn’t follow our laws. We are supposed to pay attention to God’s laws.

But at the deepest level, the “fear of the Lord” doesn’t really mean fear, it means a kind of awe or wonder.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the power and the beauty of God’s creation? Do you ever feel amazed at the intricacy of the world? Are you ever astonished by the way so many different things are working together, and that somehow, in spite of it all, things seem to come out right?

The “fear of the Lord” is about feeling awe and respect for the way God works. It’s being humble in the face of miracles. It’s being amazed by God’s grace and love and mercy. It’s being overwhelmed by the dance of the stars, the majesty of the mountains, the miracle of how God heals our bodies.

It’s knowing there are mysteries we may never understand with our minds – but it’s also feeling complete trust in our hearts.

The Hebrew word for “fear” is also close to the word for “seeing”. To “fear the Lord” is to see into the depths and beauty and wisdom of God’s world.

The Messiah, Isaiah says, is someone who will “fear the Lord” in this way. The Messiah will be filled with awe and love for God. The Messiah will be humble, and will respect God’s teaching. The Messiah will be wise and understanding.

And although Isaiah doesn’t say it here directly, we’re invited to compare the Messiah with the kind of leaders and rulers we’re used to.

Are they the kind of people who listen to God? Are they afraid of what God thinks about their actions? Are they afraid of seeing the earth destroyed? Are they afraid of doing injustice? Are they afraid of tearing the country apart?

Isaiah says, “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.”

When our leaders are God’s leaders, they’re not checking every minute to see what their standing is in the latest public opinion poll. They’re not worried about their ratings. They’re not playing to the public, or throwing bits of raw meat to the fanatics on the left or the right.

And they’re not sucking up to whoever can put more money in their campaign fund or in their personal bank account. God’s Messiah, Isaiah says, cares about justice and mercy. The Savior cares about the poor and the forgotten, not about the rich 1%.

God cares about people who can never break out of poverty – and God judges the people who keep them there. God cares deeply for all of the people who aren’t as bright, who can’t think as well or as clearly, who don’t have the advantages, who were simply born into places where they can’t live decently.

God is on their side. And if we’re not actively on their side, then we are not on God’s side. That’s what Isaiah is saying. If you don’t like it, don’t argue with me. Go fight with God.

And then we get to the words which originally attracted me to this passage, the part that everybody knows by heart, and which we don’t really think very deeply about: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” What do those words mean?

We often read this passage from Isaiah at Christmas time, because we like to think of the little child, the baby in the manger. And that’s OK. But what does it mean to be led by the newborn baby Jesus?

Christmas means letting our lives be led by God’s own Son, who starts out helpless and in need of our total care.

Christmas also means thinking about what Jesus said: “Unless you become like a little child, you shall never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. . .” It means taking a child-like approach to the truth, and making that a distinctive part of our lives. It means learning the humility of a child, and the total trust of a child.

It means stopping what we’re doing for joy, and it means wanting peace. No child in this world who has ever seen the real face of war up close, ever wants to have anything to do with war, ever again.

That picture of the lion and the lamb living together in Isaiah is so fantastic, that we sentimentalize it, without trying to take it seriously. Everybody knows that it’s going against nature for that sort of thing to happen.

And God says, “Exactly. That’s exactly right!” God is talking about a change in nature, a change that enables warring parties and ancient enemies to make peace with one another.

If Christmas is about anything, Christmas is about peace. It’s about a permanent and total change in our hearts and in our lives, a change away from the nature that we’re so used to, and changing into the kind of people that God wants us so much to be.

The gift which God offers us at Christmas is nothing less than a new world, one which isn’t led by politicians and terrorists and bankers and pressure groups, but a world which is led in peace by a little child.

Copyright © 2015 by Joshua Brown

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One Response to What were they waiting for? (first Sunday of Advent)

  1. Mcmurdock says:

    A wonderful meditation for the first Sunday of Advent, thank you

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