Sermon from December 8: Wolves & Lambs at Play
Wolves and Lambs at Play
Advent II; December 8, 2019
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
In Arizona we had a native plant called a “century plant,” an agave. It lived many years – not a century, though – and would bloom only once, and then die. In my yard I had a century plant and when it bloomed the stalk shot up about ten feet and the blossom was huge. After a while I cut it down, trimmed it and attached it to a pair of boards. I sprayed shellac all over it, and then took it to the church. We put it up the First Sunday of Advent and hung chrismons on it; we called it our “Jesse Tree.”
Jesse was King David’s daddy; when the Prophet Isaiah said a shoot would come out from the stump of Jesse, he was predicting that King David would have an heir who would do all the things that he proceeds to describe. The line of David was eventually cut down; it blossomed and reigned for 400 years, and then was cut down. But you know what can happen if you cut down a tree and don’t remove the stump or grind out or poison the roots: a shoot may grow from the stump; new shoots may come up from the roots.
The Chaldeans cut down the tree of Jesse, the House of David, but they didn’t grind out the roots. So from the stump came the Son of Mary.
Isaiah’s words are a good example of the tension we live as people of God, tension between the “now” and the “not yet.” Isaiah’s vision is very compelling: a world where children are safe from poisonous snakes, where wolves and lambs play together, and calves and bear cubs curl up together for naps. We hang chrismons on the Jesse Tree to remind us of the vision, of the Peaceable Kingdom that we hope to see. And even if the wildlife images are metaphorical, it is still something we yearn for: where the weak in a society – the lambs, the calves – are not the subject of predatory victimizers. We yearn for a day when grandma is safe from scammers sending an email, “I’m in jail in Madrid; please send money,” when getting stopped for “Driving While Black” is no longer a thing, when the Golden Rule is not “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” The vision is compelling and is not yet.
Still, I’ll point to the “now” in this vision. One thing to keep in mind is that the image of the peaceful kingdom has inspired those who have worked for peace over the years. Some have seen moments of its fulfillment, such as in this painting by the American artist Edward Hicks (1780-1849) (above). Hicks painted sixty-two versions of this image from Isaiah 11, and many of them portray the moment you see here: when William Penn made a treaty of peace with the natives of the land to become Pennsylvania. Penn, you know, was a Quaker and Quakers are a people devoted to peace, not only among themselves but with others. And so he would not forcibly take land from the natives, but established and kept a treaty. Things started to go sour with the next generation, but the vision of peace in Isaiah 11 inspired Quakers and especially Edward Hicks.
The other fulfillment we have already seen, of course, is in our Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. He is the shoot to grow out of the stump of Jesse, the branch that grew from its roots. He is the one who carried to others the spirit of the Lord, who did not judge by what his eyes saw, but judged with righteousness and equity.
I could start to lament about how the peace that Isaiah envisioned has not come with Jesus and, rightly, blame us for that reality. We don’t actually do the things Jesus teaches us to do; and we end up fighting about the silliest things. Still, I think it better to stay focused on Jesus than to start lamenting our sins.
Although it is not yet the case that the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, the knowledge of the Lord has spread throughout the earth because of Jesus. He preached a word that welcomes every sort and type of person into relationship with God; his death on the Cross is a sign of love for every race and nation; his Resurrection from the dead has broken open his kingdom of life to reach throughout the world. Resurrection power has motivated his people to go everywhere, telling the story of his righteous life, his saving death, his glorious Resurrection. The knowledge of the Lord has been spreading across the earth.
And Isaiah concluded his vision by saying that the root of Jesse would stand “as a signal to the peoples.” Whatever else you may say about Jesus, he does stand as such a signal. Whether nations and leaders pay attention or not, the person of Jesus stands as advocate and judge, as a signal of the ways of God: grace, love, mercy, peace, all the things that continue to subvert the dominant paradigm of human life.
When I run through the many beautiful parks we have here in Omaha, I have yet to see the wolves and lambs at play. But sometimes I catch a glimpse, a hint, a shadow of the promise of Isaiah. And then I look around for more signs of the coming of the shoot of Jesse.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master