By Jared A. Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 4, 2022
Isaiah 11:1–10 (ESV)
1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 2 And 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 fear of the Lord. 3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and 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 of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. 6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf 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 cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 9 They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
Out of the root of Jesse a shout will come. How many times have we heard this passage as the seasons progress toward Advent? It is the perfect hook. A phrase that attracts our attention and excites within us a desire. Every time I read it, the voice of my inner monologue takes on a different tone. It is no longer my voice but the voice of “The Blind Surfer.” If you do not know who that is, he is the voice actor that voices many of the trailers for action movies. And just so you know he is actually blind and he is a surfer.
I want us to listen again to that first verse, but instead of hearing in my voice imagine that action movie voice over. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”
It almost causes a shiver to track down your spine when our mind considers those words spoken in that manner. That is the feeling of the Holy Anxiety of Advent. This spontaneous yearning for something beyond what we are experiencing in our daily life. I like the term Holy Anxiety. Our society is very aware of anxiety, but generally the negative aspect. The feelings of dread, the sense of worthlessness, and the uncontrollable urge to do something yet having nothing to offer.
Anxiety is crushing our human spirit. Our muscles are so tense it feels as if our bones will snap under the pressure. Why then would I like a term like Holy Anxiety? I do not know if anyone else speaks like this, but to me it reflects what I feel.
Isaiah lived through an intense period of history. I mentioned last week that his ministry stretched through the reign of four kings in Judah. He witnessed the destruction and for lack of better words the extinction of the ten northern tribes of Israel. Some people, hoping to garner greater legitimacy for their nation or group, have tried to claim that they are one of those lost tribes. We might laugh now but this was very prevalent a century or two ago. So prevalent that some religious groups within our own nation were founded on these concepts. Just so you know there is greater probability that the Ark of the Covenant is in Ethiopia than a significant population from one of the lost tribes to have settled in America.
Isaiah watched as Israel crumbled. He warned the people of Judah that the same fate would visit them if they did not repent. He watched; he voiced his concerns. I imagine with each passing year, and each new king, anxiety gripped him. Remember Isaiah was not just some random guy living in the dust filled wilderness. He was a king’s cousin, a man of position, and even he seemed powerless when he looked at the weight of wickedness around him.
We can understand this aspect of Holy Anxiety. I cannot count how many sermons and prayers I have heard voicing this very thing. How many of us have prayed, “Lord Come!” I usually say that prayer right before I pay my taxes, on election day, or when I hear someone calling my name over a loudspeaker to go to the office. There is a sense of dread, a resignation to the inevitable because we are powerless to change the situation at that moment.
Year after year, Isaiah walked to the temple to celebrate Yom Kippur. Year after year he watched as the priest would symbolically lay the sins of the nation onto the goat, and then chase it out to the wilderness. And as he watched he knew the corruption never left the city walls.
And yet out of this anxiety, he wrote one of the most encouraging phrases in all of scripture. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” After 2000 years of church history we recognize this as a prophecy depicting the coming Messiah, and it is. But is it only a prophecy? Does it only describe the far-off misty future just over the horizon of time? Or does it speak words of encouragement to the people both in the past and today?
True faith requires us to be honest about the reality of today, and hopeful of the future. Isaiah recognizes that. If we were to read the verses prior to this, Isaiah speaks about the oppressive and vile world. He says, “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! … Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.” Isaiah speaks these dire warnings to his own people, and the words do not just fall on the godless of the northern kingdom, but includes Jerusalem, and even Mount Zion.
Isaiah says, Isaiah proclaims that God, is at work even in the wickedness. He is using the most ruthless of all the ancient empires to pass judgment on his own people. He does this for a reason. They decree iniquitous decrees, and their writers keep writing oppression. They turn from justice and rob the poor.
“When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes.”
My greatest desire as a pastor is to be encouraging. I want to express that everything will be fine, that the world is a wonderful place and if you just pray everything will turn out the way we want it to. But there are times where encouraging words do not come. There are times when nothing makes sense. What do we do in those times? We need to learn the skills of lament, because life is hard.
Isaiah spends some time speaking about how terrible life is, and how the godlessness of Israel and Judah will lead to their destruction. He even says that the instrument God uses for that judgment will also meet the same destruction. Jesus taught this as well. Those that live by the sword die by the sword. That is my own paraphrase of the statement that can be found in Matthew 26, but it rings true. Abuse births more abuse. Violence often leads to more violence. Wars foster more wars. It does not matter if we are speaking of the school yard bully, our family dynamics, or the relationships between nations. If these cycles continue, they tend to come to the same conclusions.
But Isaiah says there will be a remnant that will return out of the lost tribes of Israel. And there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.
I want us to really consider these words. Last winter, there was a fire that went through the area I grew up in. It spread to cover three counties in North Central Kansas. Kansas is one of those squarish states of our nation, so counties tend to be uniform. My home county is nearly 900 square miles. This fire covered three counties, approximately 2700 square miles. If we were to drive from here west to Topeka and then north to St. Joseph Missouri that is approximately the size of the fire. My oldest son’s grandparents lost their house and most of their cattle in that fire, and someone from my hometown lost their life. Our small little church helped the families that were affected by this. As much destruction as that fire caused it is nothing compared to what happened under the hands of Assyria. When I drove home after that fire, there was nothing but dry dusty wasteland. It would be easy to get discouraged. But grass grows again. When you cut down a tree, new growth is prompted. We saw that in the church yard after we cut down trees earlier this year. Written within the DNA of nature is this strong desire to live, and to regrow. A shoot will grow out of the stump. And a branch from the roots will bear fruit.
I do not know how God inspired Isaiah to write, but I image as Isaiah carried the transcribed decrees of the king to deliver to various cities around the kingdom, he came across a vineyard, or a grove that had been damaged. As he traveled from town to town, he observed nature doing what nature does. He watched as new growth began to come forth from a stump of a tree that had recently been cut, and it caused him to think.
There will be a time where life can be lived. There will be a time where the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon the offspring of Jesse. And the Spirit will give him wisdom and understanding. The Spirit will give him influence and security. The Spirit will give knowledge and reverence. Those that remember. Those that returned to God. Those that desire to live their life with God will see something that others will miss. They will see hope. Where there was once devastation, delight will take root, and the people will return to the life and lifestyles God created us to enjoy.
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
These words. If only these words were the words that we lived. They carry the same meaning as the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do for you.” Isaiah speaks of a time and place where we are not swayed by words or imagines. Where we can see through the rhetoric of various forms of media, see the truth, and respond.
There will be a day where righteousness shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. You might recognize a reoccurring theme here. A few months ago, we considered the statement that “the poor will always be with you.” I encouraged us to not look at it in terms of wealth, but power and influence. When scripture speaks of the poor, it does not necessarily mean those without money. The poor are often without financial security, but it more often refers to helplessness. To be poor means that the substance of your continued existence is based on the generosity of others. I want us to really let this sink in. Everyone is poor in some sense.
The CEO of a company requires their employees to provide services so that they can profit. The employees require wages paid by the CEO so they can pay rent. The landlord requires the rent payment so they can afford the service required to maintain their property. Everyone is poor, because we all require others to generously provide their goods and services for a reasonable price. It is important to recognize our own needs, and where we fit in that cycle. But we often do not hear of the plight of the poor CEO? We do not hear those stories because there is more to wealth than finances. Those that possess what a culture regards as greater wealth often take advantage of the helplessness of others.
Those that have, gain more. The bigger farmers ended up with more land and small family farms tend to disappear. Microsoft is used by more people and because they are used by more people it is difficult to find an affordable computer that does not have Microsoft products installed. Walmart moves in and the small community-based stores vanish. Amazon takes hold and suddenly we do not even go to the store now. I sound anti-capitalistic, but I am not. What I mean is that those with what society deems as get attention, and privilege. This is not necessarily bad, but it can be problematic because they often make the rules for everyone else.
This year was the first time in thirteen years my family went back to the farm to celebrate Thanksgiving. For thirteen years I could not even enjoy the day set aside to be thankful for what we have, because it was mandatory that I go to work so that the store could be ready for the busiest shopping day of the year. Why do retail workers have to work on Thanksgiving? Because they are poor. They must work because those that hold the power make the rules. If the largest retailers changed the rules, every person could be home for the holidays.
Now for the meek. If you listen to Jordan Peterson, you probably have heard that we have the word meek all wrong. He got a great deal of attention for saying that, but he is wrong. Since words evolve, we must look deeper. When it comes to the word “Meek” we often think of it as being weak. This is primarily because it rhymes, but meek in this sense means bowed. It refers to those that are forced to do something that provides a disproportionate benefit, often by force. The meek are the exploited, the enslaved, and those that have no other option.
This can happen in various ways. America, contrary to nationalistic belief, was built on the backs of the meek. We can point to slavery and see this, but that is just one very vile example. Indentured servitude, though less vile than slavery, was also a form of exploitation. And we celebrate Labor Day, because people in the past decided that it was better not to work than to work in unsafe conditions without proper compensation and safety precautions. Those that had the wealth and influence made rules that others had to abide by. We need to be able to recognize the reality of the world around us. Recognize where we caused suffering, where we have improved, and continue to strive for something better.
Isaiah looked at the world around him, he saw the wickedness, and he knew that it would only be a matter of time before the end would come. Labor strikes if their voices are not heard and nations invade over perceived threats. These only changes those that possess influence, it does not stop the cycle. “The poor will always be with you. The cycle of violence and exploitation will continue until someone decides to stop.
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.”
Each of these phrases speak of danger. The predator and the prey live in a constant battle for survival. Unfortunately, if you are poor and meek you are often the prey. Isaiah saw his people as the prey, they were the ones upon whom Assyria gazed with greed and envy. Isaiah looked at the reality of the world and he saw through the short term destruction to the hope. If we could stop the cycles the world would change. What would happen if Walmart closed for Thanksgiving? What would happen if they closed the Friday after thanksgiving? What would happen if the large farmer chose not to buy more land? What would happen if Microsoft encouraged smaller companies? What would happen if we lived for mutual profit?
My idealistic mind yearns for this with holy anxiety. I yearn for it because I know that it can happen if we let it. I yearn, knowing full well that I am caught in the cycle. I struggle just like everyone else, and yet I encourage my children to strive for something different and greater. I have sacrificed and will continue to sacrifice, I will live my life to the best of my ability to break these cycles in my own family, and with those that I meet. I will live within this holy anxiety because I know that God created the trees to send up a branch from the roots to reestablish the devastated orchard. I know this because the branch of Jesse did come. He lived a complete life among people not so different than us. He taught and he lived that life so we could see that there is a better way. Unfortunately, cycles are hard to break, and that branch was crucified on a tree, chopped down in the prime of his life. But even in that perceived defeat, a shoot emerged from the stump and life emerged from the devastation. There is hope in the future, the cycles can be broken, but this will only happen if it begins right here in our homes, meetings, communities, schools, and cities. Will we live in righteousness and bring hope to those living in hopelessness. Will we allow hope to return?