Isaiah 11: 1-10
The lion shall lie down with the lamb,
but the lamb won’t get much sleep!
That was the late Douglas Templeton’s take on this passage and others like it: beautiful, poetic visions of a dream world that never have been, and never will be, realised in the world as we know it. No amount of genetic engineering is going to turn a lion or a wolf vegetarian; even if that did happen the new creature would be so far removed from the old that it would have to be declared a new species. The nursing child might well be safe playing beside the snake’s nest, but it would be a brave mother who put the promise to the test, and any church promoting such ideas would instantly fall foul of our Safe church regulations.
Isaiah is using poetic hyperbole, prophetic encouragement, rather than prediction of future reality. Writing at a time when the northern kingdom was being destroyed by Assyria, things must have appeared so bad for Isaiah’s people that the prospect of living in peace and freedom seemed as remote as a kid snuggling up to a leopard, or a cow and a bear munching happily on the same field of grass. The aim of the prophet though, is to give hope that a future peace is possible and let his people to know that with God anything is possible.
So how is this to happen? What sort of radical transformation needs to take place? For Isaiah hope comes in the form of an inspirational leader; one who is so closely in tune with God that his judgements will be entirely fair and just. He will not be swayed by what he sees or hears from the world around him, but will be guided by God’s spirit, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, which rests upon him.
This leader is described as a ‘shoot’ from the “stump of Jesse”, Jesse being the father of King David. So he is related to Israel’s past; he has the same blood flowing in his veins as the greatest king the nation has ever known, one who ruled in a now legendary time of prosperity and peace. But he represents something new – born of his tradition for sure, but a ‘new shoot’ that is different and who brings many changes with his emergence.
It seems fitting to use here to use images of the recent and current bushfires. This is my brother’s place after the fires. One of the most striking things he told me was that everything was silent in the aftermath, with no birdsong, or hum of insects. Despite believing all must have perished in the blaze, Allan nonetheless filled the water trough he had constructed some years earlier and he set up a camera to film if anything survived. In total around 33 birds, animals and reptiles drunk at his water trough, and hope for him was reborn that day. These photos show the growth after fires in past years; the damage and regrowth reveal the extremes of destruction, making the resilience of these new shoots almost resurrection-like. To me, they evoke the concepts of judgement and hope, and vividly remind me of the image of God’s leader as depicted in Isaiah.
Further, all of us who are gardeners would be aware that many plants will only thrive if they are pruned hard, and dead wood and wayward branches removed. Indeed, the gospel of John, in a metaphor about believers, specifically refers to pruning the branches of the vine so fruit will appear. If new shoots are metaphorically what is required for God’s people to be receptive to a new leader coming to lead them back into the ways of righteousness and peace, then the message for our time starts to become apparent.
We need to be willing to let go of the past in order for new life to come, both in ourselves and in our communities, including the global community. If we are too tentative in our pruning, letting the old structures stay a bit longer out of sentiment or fear, then the new shoots will never have a chance to grow. And these new shoots will be unlike the old stump or the burnt tree: comparatively, they will be slender and weak, seemingly insignificant by comparison with all that has been in the past. But given time and nurture, they will form the basis for future growth and future fruit in the mature plant.
We read this passage on the second Sunday in Advent, because, since earliest times, the Christian church has seen Jesus as the “new shoot” of Isaiah’s vision. Jesus stands as the hope of Christians, the hope that sprung from an ancient tradition to encourage us to follow him and work to transform our corner of the world by showing God’s grace and love through our words and actions.
While this idea of new growth and commitment probably makes us nervous, and while we tend to regard people who are passionate about new life and growth and change as potentially pathological, nonetheless God is saying, despite the mess we’ve made of things, that God still chooses to care for this battered creation and our faulty selves, and is relying on us to help transform the world around us.
If God can have this faith in us, why not just go along with the wild transformative ride and work for positive changes where we encounter the opportunities?
So what are the qualities we look for in a leader?
What are the qualities we look for in ourselves?
Which attributes and skills do we value?
What kind of a land do we want to live in?
What are our hopes? What are our dreams?
And how are we going to work to help make them come true?
Prayer of Dedication
Creator God, source of life and love, hope and peace,
you have given us life; we give our lives to you.
You have surrounded us with love, drawing us to love you in return.
When all seems dark and hopeless, you give us a beautiful vision
of our world and all its creatures living in perfect harmony.
We commit ourselves again to living, loving,
hoping and working for peace, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine