Sunday, December 5, 2010
Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent (December 5, 2010)
Note: Some of the material here is a reworking of a sermon I preached nine years ago. As I pulled it out of the files and read it, it seemed as though there were some things that I heavily borrowed. I can't remember whether I did, but if so, I did not record the source. Just want to put that out there in case any readers find this familiar. If I run across the resource I used, I'll come back here and post it.
“The Impossible Becomes Possible” (Isaiah 11:1-10)
“How should I not have known Isaiah would be there?” Once again, we ponder that question this week … the question the hymnwriter asks in stanza 3 of the hymn “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt.” He looks at the newborn Christ Child in the manger and reflects upon what he sees there. The words of the prophet echo down the centuries from that cattle stall in Bethlehem. “How should I not have known Isaiah would be there, his prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart I stare: A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me.” (LSB 369.3)
But what about those words from today’s reading from Isaiah chapter 11? This is not something you’d expect to see in a Nativity Scene. Cows, bears, and lions eating straw together? Leopards sleeping with goats? Wolves lying down with lambs? Infants and toddlers playing with poisonous snakes? How have these prophecies been fulfilled? And you can hear the critics: “You Christians are crazy. You are hanging on to false hope.”
How shall we answer the critics? What is the meaning of this portion of God’s Word before us today? Our answer is this: Because Jesus, the Messiah, came into this earthly existence, the impossible becomes possible.
The impossible that becomes possible through Jesus is in fact more spectacular than a bear or a lion eating straw. No doubt, a vegetarian bear or lion would be a sight to see. You can understand the objection. These are not normal animals. These are mutants! Freaks! I must be watching an episode of the Twilight Zone!
Animals like this would be like sinners who don’t sin. Like a leopard who has changed his spots. A leopard who has ceased being a leopard. Instead of stalking and eating a goat, he lies down with it. In Jeremiah 13:23, the prophet says, “Can … the leopard [change] his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” (Jer. 13:23) You and I have a beast in us called the Old Adam, our sinful nature. It makes us act like the sinners we are. But don’t blame Adam, the chief sinner, for that. God holds us accountable for our own sin.
But back in chapter 1, Isaiah talks about something else that seems impossible. He says, “"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isa. 1:18) How remarkable is that? It seems ridiculous that God could turn scarlet sins into the pure shimmer of glistening snow. It seems absurd that God would turn crimson transgressions into the cleanness of bright, bleached wool.
But he does! And there is a cross and an empty tomb that tell us that. The Holy Spirit persuades us to believe it as he works through the Holy Gospel, through Holy Baptism, through Holy Absolution, and through Holy Communion. And then he begins to tame and transform that beast within us into the image of Christ.
Bears and lions eating straw? Infants and toddlers playing with poisonous snakes? Those are puny miracles compared to the way in which God created peace between God and Man in Christ. That poisonous serpent Satan wanted to destroy that Infant in the manger. But that same Infant grew up, not to play with a snake, but to do battle with him. Jesus withstood all the temptations that the devil threw at him. He took our sins upon him at the cross and rose victorious, earning peace with God for us. And when we trust the miracle of God’s peace now in Christ, we are enabled to hold on to the future peace promised through Isaiah, when sworn enemies will no longer be adversaries. The complete fulfillment may have to wait until the second Advent of Jesus, but the reality is at work in the here and now.
In his first Advent, Jesus came as the “shoot,” the “Branch,” the “Root of Jesse” from the “stump of Jesse,” as Isaiah calls him. Jesse was the father of King David. David was promised an eternal kingdom by God. (2 Sam. 7:16) The possibility of this seemed impossible, especially after the kingdom was divided and finally destroyed by the Babylonians. The great family tree of David had been cut down. But a stump was left. A remnant remained. And from that stump, one tiny sprout came up in a bed of straw in Bethlehem. No lions there, but certainly cows.
It takes faith to see this, of course. But the need for faith does not mean it’s not real. And there’s more evidence for the reality of this business about Christ and the peace and hope the brings than the critics would like to admit. The disciples were changed men after the resurrection of Jesus … leopards who had their spots changed. And the early Christians confessed their faith while being in the arena with lions who did not eat straw. There are Christians today who bravely live and work in places knowing their life is in danger simply because they confess that Jesus is their Lord. There have been believers in Christ across the centuries who had the peace and hope of the Branch of David in their hearts in the face of dire circumstances.
The impossible becomes possible because the Spirit rested upon this Branch who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, and who ministered throughout Galilee and Judea. Our text today tells us that he had the Spirit of wisdom and understanding. Recall the twelve year-old Jesus in the temple and the teachers who were amazed at his answers. He had the Spirit of counsel. Recall his wise words throughout his ministry … the Sermon on the Mount, his parables. He had the Spirit of might. Recall how he turned water into wine, stilled the storm, walked on water, gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, functional limbs to the lame. He had the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. Jesus had such an immediate and perfect relationship with his Father that it was as natural as breathing air into his lungs.
The emphasis on the Spirit makes it clear that this Branch is a divine miracle himself. God caused him to sprout up without any human intervention. And the blessings of forgiveness and peace that he brings is a divine miracle. Without Christ, humanity is lost. There is no sense in the Bible tha somehow we’re going to make it on our own. When you chop down a tree to its roots, it’s very unlikely that it will begin to grow again. You’ve taken away its branches and leaves for it to receive the needed energy from the sun to grow and thrive. And so it dies. Only the almighty, creative power of God can make a dead stump sprout.
Only the all-powerful, creative Spirit can bring life into a dead situation. And this Spirit is encountered only in Christ. John 3:34 says, “He whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.” (John 3:34) The Spirit given to us without measure makes the impossible possible. He makes us spiritually alive even though we were once spiritually dead.
This gives us hope on the Last Day, too, when Christ, the Branch, returns to judge the living and the dead. If anyone else were to be our judge on that day, we would be in trouble. How do we know the judge will be fair? How do we know that the judge will give true justice? Without the intervention of the Branch, it would be impossible to be set free from our guilt.
Isaiah tells us that Jesus, the Branch, “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear.” (Isa. 11:3) What would he see if he were to merely look with his eyes? All our sinful deeds in all their stark reality. What would he hear from those we have hurt? Their accusing words.
But listen to what Luther says about the judgment of Christ: “For in [his] kingdom judgment will not be according to the ears or the eyes, that is, according to each one’s works, but according to the righteousness of Christ, which believers apprehend by faith, and they rely on it and are saved.”
Isaiah also tells us that “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.” (Isa. 11:4) The wicked are those who in stubborn unbelief reject the gracious promises of God in Christ. They will face eternal suffering as a result of their own selfish will. But who are the poor and needy? It has nothing to do with how big your paycheck is. The poor and needy are those who recognize their poor and needy condition before God. Jesus made this clear in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, where he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3) They are the ones who cling to the Branch in repentance. They are the ones who cling to the forgiveness and eternal life earned for them on the branches of the tree upon which the Branch suffered and died for them. They are the ones who are now shaded with the holiness of the Branch applied to them in Word and Sacrament.
This all seems impossible, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s very possible. It’s real. In Christ, the impossible becomes possible, even though in this life, the possible is received and believed only by faith.
Isaiah concludes today’s text by saying “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.” (Isa. 11:10) A signal is a flag or a banner which an army rallies around in battle. Think of how flags are planted when a piece of land is claimed, like that famous image of the Marines raising the flag on the island of Iwo Jima. Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." (John 12:32) The cross of Christ and the Good News that it brings is the banner that is lifted high for us. We rally to it. We rest in God’s glorious grace while we wait for his glorious rest when sin and death are finally done away with. And we are called to take up the banner of the cross and lift it high for others to be drawn to our Savior’s glorious grace.
Lions eating straw? Wolves lying down with lambs? Cows feeding with bears? Babies playing with cobras? Yep. That’s a precious way of describing God’s peace now in Christ and God’s eternal rest and peace promised to us. “And a little child shall lead them” … because of that Little Child in the manger.