Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13
Good morning. Don’t you love that last verse of our reading from Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” I heard a seminary professor refer to this as Advent in a single verse: hope, joy, and peace, sent by the God of love, through the power of the Holy Spirit. I hope you feel good and peaceful when you hear that verse. Peace can be hard to find.
A few weeks ago, we held a retreat for the members of the Worship and Christian Ed Commissions. The purpose was to plan worship for Advent. We looked at all the different texts in the Lectionary—that is, all the different passages that we might hear in worship over the four Sundays of Advent.
Most of the gospel readings for this year in the Lectionary come from the Gospel of Matthew, and nobody wanted to hear the Advent readings from Matthew, particularly the reading for today. In that reading, we hear John the Baptist call the people a brood of vipers. Then he goes on to say to the people—and I’m paraphrasing here—sure, you might be God’s chosen people, but if you don’t repent, God will cut you down and raise up a new set of chosen people.
That’s a scary message. And my usual approach to any challenging text is to lean into it, to break it down so that we can break through the fear and anxiety, so that we can follow Jesus into the difficult spaces. But I heard something different from the other folks on the retreat: they reminded me that we’re all living with too much fear and anxiety in our lives. They reminded me that peace is hard to find—even when God tells us to be at peace, we have trouble feeling it.
Both of our scriptures this morning speak to our need for hope and peace. The Apostle Paul reminds the congregation at Rome to remember that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” That is, he’s reminding the people to take comfort in all of God’s promises—promises that have been revealed in the scriptures. Then Paul quotes a bunch of passages from the prophet Isaiah. It’s almost like he’s telling us to take a closer look at Isaiah. So, let’s do that!
In this passage, God is speaking to the people called Israel, through the prophet Isaiah. Let me pause here and define my terms, because the name Israel can mean three different things in the Hebrew scriptures. First, there was Jacob, the Patriarch of the Israelites. Jacob struggles with God, and after he survives the struggle, God renames him Israel—which literally means one who has struggled with God and survived.
Israel also means all of the people who descended from Jacob—God’s chosen people. That’s why they’re called Israelites. Jacob’s twelve sons each become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Finally, long after the Israelites cross over into the Promised Land; long after King David unites the people called Israel; and after King Solomon builds the temple at Jerusalem; that monarchy crumbled. The people called Israel split into two kingdoms: in the north is the Kingdom of Israel and in the south is the Kingdom of Judah.
Here’s why all of this is relevant: Isaiah is offering this word of hope at a time of great anxiety. To the north of the Kingdom of Israel was the Assyrian Empire; they posed a mortal threat to Israel. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, in the Kingdom of Judah. He began his ministry of prophecy shortly before the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel.
The message we heard today comes either slightly before or slightly after the fall of the northern kingdom. No doubt, the people of Judah were concerned that they were next. Yet God is telling them to have hope! God is telling them that what has been lost will be restored!
He says: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was King David’s father. Jesse wasn’t from a royal family. David was a shepherd and God raised him up to watch over the entire flock of Israel. Isaiah is telling the people of Judah that God can and will do this again.