St Barnabas 20th December and St Michael’s 13th December 2009
How many of you remember learning all about the kings and queens of England in your history lessons at school? There was a time long, long ago when every schoolboy and every schoolgirl learned the dates of all the monarchs and whether according to the wisdom of the day he or she was a good or bad ruler. So, for example, King John, who reigned from 1199 to 1216 was generally considered a bad king because he lost the crown jewels in the Wash. While, on the other hand, Henry V, who reigned from 1413 to 1422 was on the whole thought to be a good king because he won the battle of Agincourt, and because Shakespeare made him out to be some kind of national hero. Now we don’t learn history like this any more, and maybe rightly so. But the idea that in the course of our history there have been good kings and bad kings remains a powerful one that still grips our imagination today. It makes history clear, simple and easy to understand, even if the actual truth at the time was perhaps somewhat more complicated than we have been led to believe.
And if you read the history of the kings of Israel you will see that there too the Biblical record divides them into good and bad rulers. There was David who brought the nation together and there was Rehoboam who caused the nation to fall into two separate parts – Judah and Israel. Sometimes the kings walked faithfully before the Lord. Sometimes they did not. And what you find as you go on through the history of Israel is that gradually the good kings become fewer and fewer. Yes, they might reign wisely for a while and call the people back to the one true God, but once they are gone their son leads the nation into pagan ways again and all their religious reforms come to nothing. So, for example, Ahaz who we met last week was not only a weak king who refused a sign from the Lord. He was a king who deliberately undid all the good work started by his father Jotham and, as 2 Kings 16:3, puts it followed the detestable ways of the nations.
It’s hardly surprising, then, as we have seen, that the opening chapters of Isaiah contain so many prophecies of judgement. After all, when a king turned the people away from the Lord, it wasn’t simply a matter of swapping over the hymn books in the temple or putting up a couple of extra statues out in courtyard. It involved introducing revolting practices like child sacrifice and cultic prostitution. It involved a way of life which was open to corruption, bribery and deep social inequality. In other words, the apostasy of a king like Ahaz had a devastating effect on the whole moral and social life of the country, and surely if there’s one lesson we can all take away from his sorry example it’s simply this: that who or what you choose to worship impacts on everything you do, and not only that, but impacts on all those around you. And, as Isaiah makes abundantly clear, one day you will be judged on the choice you have made.
But as we have also seen judgement is not the whole story in Isaiah. Amidst all the prophecies of judgement we have found visions of the Lord and oracles of hope. Back in chapter 2, for example, we thought about Isaiah’s vision of the mountain of the Lord and the day when all nations come streaming to Zion for guidance. Or again, in chapter 6, we considered Isaiah’s awesome vision of the Lord Almighty seated on a throne, high and exalted, where the train of his robe filled the temple. So this naturally leads to the question: how is it possible to have such words of hope and such words of judgement alongside each other in the same book?
The opening words of our reading this morning seek to answer this very question: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. Do you see what Isaiah is saying? Yes, the kings of David’s line will be cut down, and the land will be laid waste, and rightly so, because of all the sins they have committed. But after they have been judged and the Lord’s anger has passed, a new king will emerge from the same line, a king who will rule in the way that the kings of David’s line were always supposed to rule, with justice and righteousness and a heart fully devoted to the Lord. So, yes, in the short term there would be judgement, and it would be a painful judgement with invasion and exile and long years of captivity. But on the horizon there would be a glimmer of hope, a hope that one day there would be that good ruler the nation had always longed for, one who would remain faithful and true to the Lord.
Because this king that Isaiah talks about here will be different in at least three ways from the kings that had gone before him.
First of all, verse 2: he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. As it says there: The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him, the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. Now I realise that the whole idea of “fear of the lord” is often misunderstood. It conjures up pictures of angry preachers spewing forth fire and brimstone, with the congregation cringing in their pews at the prospect of a wrathful and angry God. But that is a caricature and gross misrepresentation of the type of fear Isaiah means here, and it certainly has little do with the fullness of life in the Spirit. What Isaiah is talking about here is a proper recognition of the might and majesty and awe of the Lord Almighty, who both rules high over us and yet, mystery of mysteries, loves us so deeply and personally. Because that is what the bad kings of Judah lacked. Yes, they claimed to worship the one true God, but in reality they had pushed Him to the margins of the lives. With what result? That they tried to rule in their own strength and judgement instead of relying on the power of the Spirit.
But the coming king would be different. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit. He would live in a true and proper fear of the Lord. And, secondly, as a result, he will make fair and just decisions. Verses 3-4: He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Because again, the trouble with the bad kings of Judah was that their judgements were superficial and partial. They were taking the words of the rich and the powerful at face value and denying justice to the most vulnerable members of society – with the result they were allowing all kinds of evil to take root and to flourish. For that, you see, is what happens when there is no fear of the Lord. Since if you don’t believe you’re accountable to some higher power than yourself, let alone that you will one day answer for your actions, then you will consider yourself free to do whatever you want, no matter how many others may suffer in the process. And, sad to say, we don’t have to delve into the dim and distant past to see how much this is the case, even today.
But the hope Isaiah gives us is that this future king will be different. Verse 5: Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash round his waist. What does he mean by this? Well, in many ways the belt is the most important part of your clothing because it holds everything in place. And as you probably know from your own experience, no matter what else you are wearing, if you don’t have your belt in place when you walk out the door each morning, you are likely sooner or later to come unstuck. But that is a fate that will never befall this king. He will always be ready for action, and every he does will be based on these two key qualities. There will be no falsehood, no economising on the truth, no breaking of his word. He will be perfectly right and good and true, and He will be worthy of our faith and trust in Him.
But thirdly, this king will not only usher in a wise and right reign over the people in his charge, he will also bring in a new created order.
Now several years ago I was asked to do the particular difficult funeral of a young child in a case that made national headlines. As I thought and prayed what exactly I should say, it was Isaiah 11:6-9 that came to mind.
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
For isn’t that the hope we all have? That one day children can play innocently and happily without fear of harm or injury or abuse, that the suffering of creation will come to an end, that we need no longer live in the fear of death. And according to Isaiah this is exactly what will happen when this king comes. Because unlike those kings who live to spread abroad their own fame and honour and glory, His one and only mission will be to spread the knowledge of the Lord and to lead people into the kingdom of God.
So who, then, is this king? Well, you may know the old Sunday school joke about the teacher who asked the children, “What is grey and has a big, fluffy tail and gathers nuts”. One bright little girl replied, “It sounds like a squirrel, miss, but as the answer to every question is Jesus it must be Jesus”. And of course we know the answer to the identity of the king is Jesus. But it is worth asking just how much of Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in that child born in a manger in Bethlehem. Because, yes, He was filled with the Holy Spirit even from the moment of conception and His first words of His public ministry were – quoting from another part of Isaiah – The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). And, yes, He was perfect in His decision making and did not judge anyone on their appearance, but welcomed the poor, the outcast and the leper. But, as is abundantly clear from the state of the world today, he did not bring in a new created order where the wolf and the lamb live side by side, and children always play in safety. That part of Isaiah’s prophecy still awaits fulfilment. There is, so to speak, another horizon, another hope even beyond the first coming of the promised king and one which we even now only glimpse dimly.
And this leads to a very important point, that we all need to take to heart at this time of year – that the Christmas story is not complete in itself. It is not the story of a Saviour born in a stable two thousand years ago that we can, so to speak, take out of the box once a year and then put away again on January 6th. Nor is it the account of how all the prophecies of long ago found their fulfilment in the coming of a person we now know as be the Messiah. No, the Christmas story, properly understood, is about the coming about a king to set up a kingdom, a kingdom that even today is growing and spreading all over the world, a kingdom that one day will reach its completion when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
So as we come to the end of the season of Advent and look forward to the coming of the king, the question we all need to ask ourselves is what part we are going to play in His kingdom. After all, no matter how good and righteous and true a king is, he cannot achieve very much if He has no people to rule over. Nor is he going to be effective if the people he reigns over do not carry out his commands or fail to follow his example.
But you says the Apostle Peter are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. And by praise I don’t think he had in mind simply singing lots of worship songs or telling Jesus how much we love HimiHiHim. I think he had in mind the kind of praise we heard from Mary’s lips in our gospel reading, praise that recalls that grace and mercy of God and causes us to offer our lives to Him with a grateful, willing obedience to do whatever He asks us to do.
In Luke chapter 19 we find a story of a king who went away on a long journey and left his servants in charge of the kingdom. When he returned, the king asked each of them what they had done with the talents he had entrusted them. And that surely is a reminder to us that how we serve the king matters. In fact if we believe and trust in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour it should be the only thing that ultimately matters. Now it may not be that we ourselves are called to fill the whole earth with the knowledge of the Lord. But this Christmas time let’s think about the streets and homes of Stoke and Devonport. Let’s think about the places where we work and the places where we meet our friends and neighbours. How can best can we declare His praise through what we say and do and think? How can we use our talents to make His kingdom known?
For surely in the end this is what it means to worship Christ the new-born king.