Portraits of Incarnation: The Visionary Judge
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On December 1st, 2013
For this season of Advent in our wreath-lighting liturgy and in sermons I will preach in the morning or the evening or both, we’ll be looking at five different depictions of the One whose coming into the world we celebrate at Christmas.
We’ll begin today with the book of Isaiah’s take on the Messiah, and then in the days ahead examine each of the four gospel’s views of Jesus.
The book of Isaiah is, of all the books of Hebrew scripture, arguably the one Christian tradition borrows from most to interpret the figure of Jesus. Its passages were originally written to address other, more immediate contexts, but if we understand them as prophecy, in the more popular conception of prediction of the future, Isaiah speaks volumes.
Isaiah 2:1-4, which is the O.T. lectionary passage for today, tells of the word of the Lord going out from Jerusalem, judging between the nations and arbitrating for the peoples, and it ends with “they shall beat swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not take up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore.”
From Isaiah 7, we get a young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.
In Isaiah 9 we hear: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. A child has been born for us, he shall be called Prince of Peace, he will establish David’s throne and uphold righteousness and justice.
Isaiah 35 tells of a rose blooming in the desert, a hope in the middle of despair.
Isaiah 40 speaks of a comfort which shall come to the people, telling them that they have paid double for their sins.
Isaiah 41 tells of a Servant who will care for the poor,
Isaiah 42 tells of a servant, with the Spirit of the Lord upon him, who will establish justice, but will not cry or lift up his voice or break even a bruised reed,
Isaiah 49 speaks of one who will be a light to the nations so that salvation may reach the ends of the earth.
Isaiah 52 and 53 tell of a servant who will suffer affliction and indignity, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities and by his wounds, Isaiah says, we are made whole.
And Isaiah 61, using words Jesus quotes at the beginning of his public ministry in Luke says, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor and oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.
You can’t understand Jesus without getting some sort of grasp on Isaiah—so full of God’s desire for justice and righteousness, so full of God’s heart for the poor and oppressed and of a servant spirit that does not return evil for evil. Isaiah has a vision not just for the insiders, but for the outsiders as well. Isaiah has a vision for what we would call the peaceable kingdom.
As you listen to the passage I’ve chosen to focus on today, listen for how the One who is to come will judge—and for the vision of what the coming kingdom will look like.
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist, who was for a time a political prisoner in Uruguay in the 1970s, shared this brief story in his trilogy Memory of Fire:
“The Uruguayan political prisoners may not talk without permission, or whistle, smile, sing, walk fast, or greet other prisoners; nor may they make or receive drawings of pregnant women, couples, butterflies, stars or birds. One Sunday, Didasko Pérez, schoolteacher, tortured and jailed for “having ideological ideas,” is visited by his daughter Milay, aged five. She brings him a drawing of birds. The guards destroy it at the entrance of the jail.
On the following Sunday, Milay brings him a drawing of trees. Trees are not forbidden, and the drawings get through. Didasko praises her work and asks about the colored circles scattered in the treetops, many small circles half-hidden among the branches: “Are they oranges? What fruit is it?” The child puts her fingers to her mouth: “Ssssshhh.” And she whispers in his ear: “Silly. Don’t you see their eyes? They’re the eyes of the birds that I’ve smuggled in for you.”[i]
I love that story. It’s the story of the vision of a little child, and how she taught her father to look beyond appearances, to see deeper than face value, to have the vision to see hope and to smuggle it past the guards in the form of colored eyes of birds hiding in the trees.
It’s a story that makes me think of the One whose coming Isaiah heralds. The shoot from the stump of Jesse, who will not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
Isaiah is speaking of one who can see deeper whose vision is guided by something greater than the way the world typically views things and people. It’s a vision beyond us and them. Where the wolf and the lamb lie down together and the lamb isn’t the first course. Where lions and calves and leopards and baby goats get together and the big cats eat straw like vegetarians and not carnivores. And there is no destruction, only peace and harmony.
That is one heck of an outlandish vision. Because that’s not the way the world works, right? It’s red in tooth and claw. There are winners and losers. There is always an “us” and a “them.” Three strikes and you’re out. Death and destruction get the best of us all. Even Isaiah has to believe that the root from the stump of Jesse will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. I think Isaiah would have been disappointed in a Messiah who dies on a cross, not slaying the wicked with the breath of his lips but extending words of forgiveness with his last breath even for those who put him there on that tree.
So very much of the time, appearances can be deceiving. Something can appear for all the world to be perfectly above board and it may even be entirely legal, but you can know in your gut that it is just not right. Appearances can be deceiving.
You can look at the other people sitting around you in church and think, “Those folks have it all together.” No problems in their lives, everything is just one big green light for them. And you cannot know the secret pain they harbor, the mess their lives are in because, like you, they are trying their best to keep it hidden from the world, from themselves and from God even. Because one little chink in the armor, just one little chink, and the whole thing can come undone. Appearances can be deceiving.
It can seem like the game is over against the two-time national champs. Down seven points with 32 seconds to go and then one wobbly, wounded-duck pass later, followed by a missed field goal returned for a touchdown, you’re rubbing your eyes, unable to believe what you’ve just seen. Appearances can be deceiving.
You can look at all the violence, all of the bloodshed that’s marked history to this point. The way it seems like the wicked always prosper and how the good die young and how the poor are always, always treated as nobodies. And you can just resign yourself to it.
Eduardo Galeano again, in his prose poem “The Nobodies,” writes:
“Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that, one magical day, good luck will suddenly rain down on them – will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn’t rain down, yesterday, today, tomorrow or ever. Good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day on their right foot, or start the New Year with a change of brooms. The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no-ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way. Who are not, but could be. Who don’t speak languages, but dialects. Who don’t have religions, but superstitions. Who don’t create art, but handicrafts. Who don’t have culture, but folklore. Who are not human beings, but human resources. Who do not have faces, but arms. Who do not have names, but numbers. Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the crime reports of the local paper. The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.”[ii]
My God. I wish that those words would not ring so true throughout so much of history.
And now we have a Pope who writes things that make us all a little uncomfortable. He writes things about economics that make us uncomfortable. He kisses men who have boils all over their faces. He kisses men with half their faces missing. He washes the feet of Muslim women prisoners. And he makes us so very uncomfortable.
Because that’s not the way the world works, right? It’s red in tooth and claw. There are winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. There is always an “us” and a “them.” There is always somebody that’s a nobody.
But in Isaiah’s vision there are no nobodies. No nobodies. Not you, not me, not them, and certainly not the poor.
We’re about to celebrate the gift of communion. A gift that is given to us from the heart of God and all are welcome and there are no nobodies here. Not in God’s kingdom. Come. Come. Come to the table and celebrate hope.
[i] Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire: Volume IIIL Century of the Wind (translated by Cedric Belfrage). (New York: Random House Pantheon Books, 1988).
[ii] Eduardo Galeano, “The Nobodies” in his The Book of Embraces (New York: Norton, 1992) was printed as the frontispiece of the first chapter of Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor, by Paul Farmer, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,2003) p. 1.