In my sermon last week, I gave you some background about Isaiah the prophet, his historical context, and I focused on the images he used, especially the images of beating swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. I’d like to continue to look at Isaiah this week, even though the gospel encourages us to reflect on John the Baptizer.
All of our readings from the Hebrew Bible during Advent in this year of the lectionary cycle come from Isaiah. As I mentioned last week, Isaiah of Jerusalem, as he’s called, was active in the late 8th century BCE, working in Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah in a time when the nation was gravely threatened by Assyria. During Isaiah’s lifetime, the northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by Assyria, and it looked very much as if Judah would be next. But the book of Isaiah also contains material that dates from a much later time. Some of it clearly was written during the Babylonian exile, roughly two centuries after Isaiah lived, and some of it probably dates from an even later period, when the exiles had returned to Jerusalem.
So it’s something of a compendium, a collection of material that was worked on for a very long time, brought together in a single volume because all of it reflects some common themes, and a shared commitment to the overarching vision of Isaiah of Jerusalem. I say this not to confuse you or raise questions about the authority or veracity of the text. Rather, I mention it because today’s reading cannot clearly be assigned to any of the historical periods I just mentioned. It could refer to any of the three.
Another prefatory word might be in order. In popular culture, prophecy is understood to be about predicting the future. Hebrew prophecy was rather different. Certainly it had a future aspect to it, but in addition to warning about future punishment or imagining a future under God’s reign, prophecy was primarily about calling the people, and especially the religious and political leadership, to obedience: reminding them of the law given them by God, and criticizing them for falling short of what God intended them to be as individuals and as a nation. Prophecy was about the difference between “the reality on the ground” and what ought to be. It was also, and we can see that here, about offering hope and consolation in times of despair and suffering.
I point this out because today’s reading could fit any of a number of contexts: the Assyrian crisis of the eighth century bce; the Babylonian exile, or after the return of the exiles to Jerusalem in the 4th century bce. It was also re-appropriated by early Christians who used it to make sense of their experience of Jesus Christ.
Seen from this perspective, Isaiah’s vision proves its lasting power, whenever it might first have been proclaimed. And like the vision of swords beaten into plowshares, this vision is as challenging to us today as it was 2700 years ago. Today’s reading easily divides into two somewhat unrelated sections. The first is a prophecy of a coming ruler in the Davidic line. And here the first image works its power. A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse.
In case you’re not sure what’s going on, let me explain. Jesse was the father of King David, so this is a reference to the Davidic monarchy that began with David, reached the height of its power, wealth, and significance with Solomon, then slowly declined. In the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem, David’s descendants still sat on the throne in the southern kingdom of Judah, but by and large they were a series of ineffectual and corrupt kings. If the prophecy comes from the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem, the stump refers to these ineffectual and impotent rulers. If the prophecy comes from a later period, during or after the exile, the stump refers to the fact that Babylon brought an end to the Davidic monarchy, but it didn’t bring an end to the hopes of the Jewish people that the monarchy would be restored. By the time of Jesus, or slightly before, hopes for a renewed monarchy had centered on the Maccabees, whose successful revolt is celebrated in the Jewish festival of Hannukah, and who established an independent kingdom that survived for about a century.
But in Jesus’ day, that kingdom was a memory, the glories of the reigns of David and Solomon faint, but powerful mythic memories. The promise of a shoot growing from the stump of Jesse was the hope for a renewed monarchy, independence for the Jewish people; but more than that, it was the hope for a restored, prosperous, and just reign.
To give a little bit of additional background to this image, in the last verses of chapter 10, the verses that immediately precede the promise of a shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, Isaiah says:
Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts,
will lop the boughs with terrifying power;
the tallest trees will be cut down,
and the lofty will be brought low.
He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe,
and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.
In other words, we have just been painted a picture of a forest destroyed by God, denuded; its trees cut down. And what’s left when a forest is clear-cut? Stumps—dead, lifeless remains of what were once mighty, living things. To see a clear-cut forest is to see God’s creation destroyed.
But that’s not what the prophet sees. He sees new growth coming from one of those stumps, the stump of Jesse and he imagines a new king, following in David’s line, bringing new vitality to what seems to be dead. This new ruler will be filled with God’s spirit. Here we begin to see the connection with the coming of Jesus. Also a descendant of David, Jesus comes on the scene when the monarchy has long been dead; after the efforts of the Maccabees to achieve independence for the Jewish people failed, at a time when the future looks bleak. But even in the middle of this world, God’s creative power cannot be vanquished, and a new branch begins to grow, new life begins to emerge from what is dead. And amidst that new life comes one upon whom the spirit of God rests.
But that Spirit is not limited to Jesus; nor was it limited to that century. For in baptism, all of us receive the Holy Spirit. That same spirit is poured out on all of us, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. Through baptism, that ancient promise of new life is renewed in every age.
Advent is a time of hope, of waiting and yearning for the coming of Christ. It is also a time when our spirits are renewed as we encounter again and with fresh eyes, the beauty and grace of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer that in this season of expectation and hope, that our spirits may be filled with the Spirit of God, and that through us, our community and world may encounter and experience that same spirit.