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When Lions Go Vegan

Isaiah 11:1-11

            Few things can ruin our happy, glittering Christmas preparations more quickly than the Bible. Here we are, merrily anticipating a warm, majestic day where our family will join together, to sit before an elaborately dressed tree, and we’ll open little boxes of luxuries. Our hope is for one of domestic contentment. What we crave is comfort and ease.  The gifts we anticipate are things like toys and tech, further augmentation of our wardrobes and entertainment libraries. Sometimes advertisements even tell us we should give and expect gifts like brand-new pick-up trucks. But the waiting and anticipation of the prophets was very, very different.  And they have a lot to teach us about the true heart of Christmas.

            Our reading from today is from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 11.  Since the early days of the church, this proclamation has been seen as an ancient foretelling of the coming of Jesus.  Let’s read together.

11 A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
    a branch will sprout[a] from his roots.
The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
    a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    a spirit of planning and strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
    nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
    and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent[b] with the rod of his mouth;
    by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
    and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed[c] together,
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
    Their young will lie down together,
    and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
    toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
    The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
    just as the water covers the sea.

10 On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.

11 On that day, the Lord will extend his hand a second time to reclaim the survivors of God’s people who are left from Assyria and from Egypt, from Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and from the coastlands[d] of the sea.

 

            If we let the voice of the ancient prophets teach us about Christmas, and this moment we’re preparing ourselves, then we should notice that the gift they hope and long for is no mere thing or sensation. It’s not a moment that could be captured in the family photo album. You definitely couldn’t buy it at some store –for what the prophets craved most deeply was the very Spirit of God. They longed for God’s presence to be potent and powerful among them! “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;” proclaims the prophet, “a branch will sprout from his roots. The LORD’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.”

            Here we can see not only does Isaiah want God’s spirit to be present with us here on earth, but he anticipates that spirit dwelling in a very specific locale. What Isaiah saw coming for Christmas was a divinely inspired king. In other words, the expectations preceding the Christmas miracle were first and foremost political.

At the time we think this first part of Isaiah was written, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was gone and lost forever. It had been utterly wiped out by the power-hungry Assyrian Empire. And the only reason Judah had not suffered a similar fate is because they were paying an outrageous tribute to that very same empire. But it was a circumstance that couldn’t last –the tribute was bleeding their nation dry. So one way or another, the piper was coming for them. And this is the pronouncement of Isaiah to the people of Judah: Doom!  The grand house of their golden king will fall; the land will go to ruin; and their people will be slaughtered or enslaved and scattered. And all of that is coming to God’s people because they were rich in things and they were poor in justice.

This is the great need of God and the source of all hope, according to Isaiah. The gift we need and the thing we should long for most is justice.  And this is what he sees: one day a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse. And God’s spirit will be upon him; and he will rule with justice. “He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer…”  But then don’t miss this line, because this line is important: “He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.”  The prophet is saying that this king won’t beat people with actual rods –instead he will instill order in the land with the rod of his mouth.  In other words, this coming king, this just king is going to rule with his words, and not with violence. Remember, this is a king who has been inspired with wisdom and understanding, and an ability to plan, and be strong, and he has both knowledge and fear of the LORD. 

Now there’s also some very interesting imagery here –the chapters starts off talking about a tree, right?  Isaiah opens by referring to the tree of Jesse as a stump. But from this stump, a new branch will sprout up and bear fruit.  That’s how the chapter opens. Then, after it talks about the king of a while, it starts talking about a rod. I want to pause here for just a second to ask: are we all familiar with the phrase, “go get a switch”?  If you were to hear someone say that –maybe a dad- would we know what’s going on?  That phrase depicts a certain kind of household discipline. When a child gets caught doing something wrong, it is up to them to walk outside, retrieve a stick –perhaps one freshly broken from a tree- and that stick will then be used on their bottoms.  And I’ve heard some people who grew up with that kind of systems say that the size of the stick was supposed to be in proportion to your guilt –so that if you did something really, really bad, you were supposed to bring back something more resembling a club. Are we at least aware of that system of discipline?  (I’m not asking for proponents of it.) That’s the imagery the prophet is conjuring in our mind when he talks about a rod: it’s the stick that’s used for discipline.  But here the question is not ‘how big of a stick am I going to get hit with now?’  But here the prophet is announcing an era where people are not hit at all.  Because this new king will come with a rod of the mouth –it’s not a physical, literal stick –it is a rod of words. It is a cudgel of wisdom. And the implication here is a reminder of the purpose of Jesse’s tree.  The branches of Jesse’s tree are not intended to be used for switches or cudgels; its branches are intended to grow fruit. It’s gift is nourishment and life, and not a bludgeoning. 

Then, finally, we arrive at the last section of the proclamation, and here it starts to get a little weird.  After the bit about an inspired and just king, it suddenly transitions to talking about animals. Namely, it starts pairing a predatory animal –like a wolf or a leopard or a lion, with its food. But instead of the predators eating their prey, Isaiah speaks of a time when those animals will cohabitate.  “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard with lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together…” And there’s even a line in there about lions coming to eat straw like oxen.  And this is the part that loses most of us, right? We believe a shoot can rise from a stump; and we might even be able to imagine a wise and just ruler.  But if what we’re sitting around waiting for is the day when lions go vegan, then we might as well bust out the booze ‘cuz we got time and a whole-lotta waitin’ ta do. 

The question for us today, brothers and sisters, as we set to prepare ourselves for the Christmas event again is this: what do we do with this prophetic announcement?  How do we read it, and what does it mean?  And most importantly, how should we respond?  Because most of us –even though we’re grown- we still treat Christmas like it’s just another fairy tale. One among many. We talk about it like it’s some kind of magical, out-of-time thing, where lions don’t eat meat anymore, and babies are born to virgins, so sure, why not throw in some flying reindeer and a talking snowman or two?  And of course the appropriate way to respond to a fairy tale is to dress your house up and play pretend for a while.  Let there be cookies and egg-nog and presents and credit-card debt!  Smile really nice for the one evening that your relatives with those extreme and outrageous political ideologies are in town. You know, the ones you can’t stand talking to the rest of the year.  Swallow your anger when someone cuts in front of you in the store  –after all ‘tis the season’!  Then when January 1 rolls around again, we can go back to being loud-mouthed jerks to everybody again, when the naughtiness-ban is lifted.

 But what you need to know as you prepare for this new Christmas event is that the prophets were political poets.  Their job was to pass on God’s words and God’s intention –God’s very spirit- to the leaders and to the people. And one of the most effective ways they did this was through poetry.  Isaiah 11:1-9 is a poem.  It is not a fairy tale. It is not a literal prediction of the future. But it uses inspired, carefully crafted words to invoke powerful imagery –imagery whose whole intention is to move us.  It’s calling us to action. 

And the bit about the animals is –according to many biblical commentators- politically symbolic! In their reading, the predatory animals each represent a violent empire that briefly reigns over the territory of Judah.  So the picture it’s giving us is one where Assyrians and Persians, and Jewish people are all eating together on God’s holy mountain.  Those who have a history of violence put it away and they find a means of being peaceful to and for one another.  The dream Isaiah shares with us and with the world is one where we find a better way to live than the scared existence that’s ruled by threat and punishment.  It’s a picture of Eden restored in the here and now, where we have enough, and we share.

This is the picture we’re called to live into for Christmas: Jesus is the king of peace, and we are called to be faithful and active citizens. We’re called to make with our words, with our relationships, and with our actions.  Let us go forth and live as peacemakers.

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