The Spirit of Christ
December 22, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, our fourth Sunday to stand side by side gazing at the prophetic vision of Isaiah. While it is helpful to think about the context of these writings, set back in the distant past – some eight or nine hundred years before the advent of Christ, it can be distracting to get too bogged down in the history, and it isn’t always helpful to dissect a text. Sometimes, taking a scripture apart to try to get at “what it really means” is like taking a music box apart. Have you ever done that – taken apart something lovely, like a music box, in order to see how it is put together? When you have finished with it, you may know more than you did when you started, but the music will be lost.
So as we approach this reading, we know that the people of Israel have been in a place of despair, and that the prophet Isaiah’s words are given as correction and they are given as explanation, but most of all they are given as a word of hope and encouragement. Let’s listen for what the Spirit is saying to us in this reading from Isaiah 11: 1-9
Isaiah 11: 1-9
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 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. 3 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; 4 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. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 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. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 9 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.
As with the other texts from Isaiah we’ve looked at in previous weeks, this scripture is filled with poetic images. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and Isaiah has painted word-pictures to help us see the future that he is seeing. He has shown us a light shining, dispelling the darkness taken us to a desert that is blooming, marched with us up the mountain to Zion, pointed out that long straight road that leads home, led us near the foundry of peace, where we can hear the clang of swords being beaten into plowshares.
Now, he shows us a forest laid waste, barren of life, the trunks of old growth trees chopped off, branches lopped away, huge stumps where once there was a verdant forest. The tallest trees were cut down, and the lofty laid low. Then fire raged through what had been a lushly wooded area. It annihilated the remnant. What was once a fertile and abundant place is now a wasteland, the ground covered in soot and ashes. The faint smell of smoke is everywhere as we scuff through the burned over land.
It is tragic to see, this place that once held such life and promise, now leveled, destroyed utterly. Isaiah sits down on a stump, a ruined old tree that once offered shelter and fruit. There, growing out of the ruin and decay, is a tender shoot, a sprout, out of the tree, with two small leaves… a branch, out of the still-living roots of that tree… In a generation, maybe two, or three, or more the house of Jesse will be restored.
This will happen through the coming of a leader who has God’s spirit – in Hebrew, that’s “ruach,” a word I like because it sounds like a rushing wind. Ruach -- God’s spirit-- a spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of discernment and power, the spirit of knowledge and reverence of God.
This leader who has this spirit does not simply know about people and the world, he is in relationship to people and the world, his knowledge and understanding are borne of experience as much as of instruction. He embodies a spirit of justice, deciding in favor of the poor and the meek, and against the greedy and the wicked. Righteousness and faithfulness are such second nature to him that he wears them like clothing – on his sleeve, as it were.
Now, just as we are getting our eyes focused, with Isaiah, on this vision of this leader that is to come, he shifts the focus, and pans out wide, to the cosmos. God’s redeeming work is not just this one small green shoot, it is bigger, broader, higher, more expansive than we’d ever imagined. Now we see all of creation being renewed through the Spirit of God. Here is a wild timber wolf, a predator living in community with a lamb that was once on the dinner menu.
A lion snuggling up with a cow and her calf, a leopard napping with the goat herd, the whole great yapping snuffling lowing bleating creation following a little child. Bears and lions have become vegetarians. Babies and toddlers can play with snakes, without fear, without danger. The poison of violent aggression is no more, not even in the animal kingdom.
Can you see it? Can you see what the Spirit of Christ will do?
All this week, the news feed and blogosphere and Facebook feed have been full of posts about this guy on Duck Dynasty, whose interview in GQ got him suspended from his job. The arguments have flown fast, about whether this multi-millionaire, who holds a master’s degree in education, should be praised or punished for what he said.
Meanwhile, in South Sudan, three thousand armed men surrounded a UN peacekeeping base, and fired into the crowd, killing eleven Dinka civilians who had sought refuge at the UN base. Aircraft sent in to evacuate peace workers was fired upon, wounding US service personnel who had come to help.
North Korea sent a fax – yes, a fax, to South Korea last week, informing them that they would “strike mercilessly without notice” if South Korean demonstrators continued to burn effigies of the late Kim Jong Il.
On Friday, roadside bombs in Iraq killed nine and wounded twenty-three.
A gunman opened fire at the Manila airport in the Philippines, killing a small-town mayor and three others, including a young child.
We don’t even notice anymore, the violence and bloodshed is so frequent.
Where is the Spirit of Christmas?
Where is the Spirit of Christ?
We don’t see the lofty being brought low. The needy are still turned away, and the poor and the widow still suffer; children are still preyed upon. We wonder, at times, if God is really at work in the world. The answer, of course, comes to us over and over again, and is highlighted for us especially in this season of preparation.
Our questions find their answers in this green sprig, growing up from a stump. Our questions may find their answers in the birth of an ordinary child, celebrated mostly by an ordinary family, people we may not know or ever meet, but people who may be nurturing a child to speak out for the lowly, to care for the hurting, to seek righteousness. Our questions find their answers in our own lives, in the ways in which we are moved by the Spirit of Christ to care for the needy, to protect the vulnerable, to work for justice. Our questions find their ultimate answers in this child that is to be born the child of the prophecy of Isaiah, perhaps, the one whose birth we celebrate every year. It is he who comes with righteousness and faithfulness to rule with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
His Spirit comes to us in the small sprigs of hope that spring up in unexpected places, tiny shoots in barren deserts. That Spirit of Christ is something more than a warm and benevolent feeling that fades away the day after we take down the Christmas decorations. It is a spirit of hope that prompts us to works of love.
I urge you to join me, this season, and in all the days to come, to walk and live in that Spirit of Christ, the Spirit that calls us to provide mittens to warm the hands of children, and to offer grace and mercy and food to those left out in the cold; the Spirit that believes it is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.
You very likely have heard a poem by Howard Thurman, about the true work of Christmas. He also wrote a poem called “I Will Light Candles This Christmas.” When Christmas Eve comes, and we gather for communion and candlelight, perhaps this poem will be ringing in our ears. Perhaps the Spirit will speak to you as you read these words:
I will light Candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.
The prophet looked ahead to that day, remembering the promise of hope given by God’s Spirit, made human in the Spirit of Christ: “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.”