by Pastor Tracey Leslie
(From the sermon series This Holiday Season: Unwrap Your Gift)
Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-9
If one were to read this morning’s words from Isaiah outside their context… Well, this might sound like some pretty bad parenting. I mean, who would ever let their child play with wild animals, especially venomous snakes, right? Because we all know, we live in a violent world fraught with danger. But the words of Isaiah are, of course, prophecy; words that paint the picture of what life in this world would look like if God had God’s way. This is what we endorse every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done”… though – if we look around at our world today – it might seem more like a Pollyannish fantasy than sound, biblical theology.
Presbyterian pastor Kimberly Clayton Richter writes of her experience giving a children’s sermon on this Isaiah scripture. She’d brought in a statue of a lion lying down with a lamb on his outstretched paws. When she asked the children what they thought of it, one little boy – clearly a budding theologian – replied, “Well, in the Bible it says they will rest together. But in real life, the lion would eat him!” Richter comments, “The vision is glorious. Real life is something else.”[i]
This year at Trinity, our Advent focus is upon gifts. Now, we generally think of gifts as an object, position, talent or attribute of great value or in high demand. But this morning’s “gift” hardly fits those parameters because this morning we’re going to discuss the gift of vulnerability. I don’t imagine the demand for that gift could come anywhere close to rivaling a, well a Fingerling for sale on Amazon.
This passage from the prophet Isaiah begins with a focus on a Davidic king. David was Israel’s favorite king; a man after God’s own heart. God had promised David that he would never cease to have an heir on the throne. But that didn’t last because David’s progeny became more obsessed with power than the righteousness of God. Eventually surrounding kingdoms destroyed the nation; but Israel never stopped pining for a king like David. You see, Israel thought of their kings as “sons of God,” specially anointed by God’s Spirit to carry out God’s will on earth. This morning’s passage from Isaiah makes clear what that would look like: a peaceable kingdom, one characterized by justice and righteousness for all of creation. As Christians, we interpret Jesus as a descendent of David; as God’s Son who came to carry out God’s purposes, to make manifest God’s kingdom. The gospels of Mark and Matthew are in agreement that Jesus’ first public words were: “Repent, for the kingdom has come near.”[ii]
But one of the things that make Isaiah’s words so remarkable is that little comment that “a child shall lead them.” Not a strong, strapping man with a crown on his head and a scepter in his hand; but a little child. Now today, we adore children. But that wasn’t the case in the ancient world where children had little value aside from their potential to grow up to be adults who would contribute to the honor of their family and function as a sort of ancient “social security” for mom and dad in their old age. Children, in bible culture, were in a very vulnerable and precarious position. To envision them as leading anything would have seemed ludicrous… which is likely Isaiah’s point because that is what happens in God’s kingdom; everything gets turned upside down. Today it seems such a romantic notion that God came to earth as a baby swaddled and nestled in a manger; but it was, quite frankly, a crazy notion. What could have been more risky? Children had no rights; infant mortality rates were enormous; Mary and Joseph were nothing more than peasants. The Son of God didn’t just choose to put on human flesh; he chose the route of maximum vulnerability.
Friends, if we want to keep Christ in Christmas, we’d better get ready to celebrate differently by putting far less focus on that stuff we get at Walmart or Amazon and by humbling ourselves, treating strangers like family, defending the weakest and the most vulnerable among us, and laying aside our own rights and power and privilege (and all that stuff)… ‘cause that’s what Jesus did. That’s what God did. If we offer our worship and our lives to that baby in the manger, we’d better be prepared to live in his kingdom on his terms because it’s pretty clear that tiny, vulnerable baby in a manger grew to be a man who preferred the poor over the rich, the weak over the strong, and the despised over the popular, and the vulnerable over the powerful.
The kingdom of our God isn’t led by an army; it’s led by a little child and if we want to live in that kingdom, we’d best be prepared to think, behave, speak and engage with others in the church and the world in ways that reveal wisdom and understanding, reverence and righteousness, gentleness, justice and peace… for everyone; not just people we like or people like us.
I continue with my prior quote from preacher and pastor Kimberly Clayton Richter, “In Christ, God has come to close the gap between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven. God is intent on a world where the streets are safe in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, where a life in Darfur or [Damascus] is honored every bit as much as a life in New York City. The announcement of [God’s coming] means that those of us who use power unjustly or waste resources carelessly are going to be judged… We’ll either have to change our ways or find some other kingdom to live in, because we can’t live like that in the kingdom of heaven.”[iii]
Friends, today we see camera footage of little children: nameless refugees, crying at the borders or in the squalor of refugee camps. Imagine what it might be like to be already poor and marginalized in a nation ruled by an oppressive dictator and to have your first-born child’s life threatened by the government; a government whose paranoia has already led to the slaughter of so many innocent people and now is a threat to your own toddler. And so you grab what little you have and you flee in a moment for no other reason than to save the life of your child. And you arrive in a different place that is not your place, not your home, and not your people; with no extended family to support you and no government assistance to sustain you. And that is the precarious, fragile beginning of your little child’s life. Can you imagine that? Well, God did because that little child, my friends, is Jesus and you can read that story in Matthew, chapter 2.
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.[iv]
[i] From The Advent Texts: Glorious Visions, Dogged Discipleship by Kimberly Clayton Richter in the Journal for Preachers; Advent 2004.
[ii] See Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15.
[iii] The Advent Texts, ibid.
[iv] O Little Town of Bethlehem; text by Phillips Brooks, see #230 in the United Methodist Hymnal.
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