a beautiful branch – wisdom for life

We have these amazing texts preserved and handed down to us in the prophet Isaiah. Beautiful texts that speak about the transformation of our world. Beautiful texts that remind us of what we are waiting for. We are waiting for God to come in judgment and grace to his people, a waiting that infuses every moment of our lives. Last week we explored one of these texts – one of these songs.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Ain’t gonna study war no more.

This is huge, world–transformative stuff. It’s about politics, and about the life of nations, and it’s about the possibilities for peace in the world – it’s about what happens when the kingdom of God comes in all its glory.

This week we get more of the same as we turn to Isaiah chapter 11. This week we read these astonishing words:

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.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.

There is no doubt that we need this kind of poetic vision. In a world where Canadian CF18s are bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria; in a world where suicide attackers blow themselves up in crowded markets in Afghanistan and Pakistan; in a world where extremists attack churches and schools in Nigeria; in a world where, as we’ve been reminded over past weeks, unarmed black men are killed by police with depressing frequency; in a world where so many women face sexual violence – in just such a world we almost desperately need a vision, the promise, of another kind of world. We wait with longing for a world where senseless violence will no longer dominate life – where women and men and families and societies will live in peace.

And it’s not only that we need this kind of promise – it’s not only that our souls reach out for it – it is also that God promises just such a world in Christ. We don’t only wait for this better form of life because we feel a need for it – we wait for it because God in Christ declares it the future and reality.

But even as we read these astonishing words from Isaiah, and are amazed by them, perhaps there is also something difficult about reading this poetry. Because as much as we need this vision of the future – as much as we need the promise of a new world – and as much as God has promised that new reality, it can all feel very much out of reach. Beyond our lives, beyond our grasp, beyond what we can imagine as possible – beyond the demands of our own immediate lives.

So as we come to Isaiah chapter 11, we are actually going to try and look at its opening few verses just in terms of our own lives. Of course these particular verses can and must be seen in broader context – in terms of national and global realities – but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t also meet us very much where we are.

Here are the opening words of Isaiah chapter 11:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

This passage is different. With these words Isaiah doesn’t only speak about how events will unfold under God’s great providence. Rather, this passage is about someone. It’s about a person. It’s about a particular someone who is going to make a difference to our lives and world. It’s about the one we are waiting for.

When the first Christians heard these words they thought of Jesus. Or better, perhaps, when those first century women and men got to know Jesus, they thought about Isaiah’s words. They thought of Isaiah’s promise of a person – a someone who would be decisive beyond imagining. And they were convinced the promise of Isaiah was embodied in Jesus – the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him. At Jesus’ baptism the Spirit did rest upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice spoke from heaven: “This is my son, whom I have chosen, listen to him.”

In advent we wait for a new world, yes – we wait for and participate in the coming of a world that feels impossible and far away. But we are also waiting for someone in our own lives. We are waiting for Jesus – the one upon whom the Spirit rests.

Isaiah describes this spirit-blessed person in three ways, and we look at each in turn. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. In the original context of Isaiah, this wisdom and understanding would have meant a capacity to negotiate one’s way through political and legal affairs – to work well in the affairs of the nation, for peace.

And as we read this text personally, its meaning is not all that different. We all face hard questions in life. Not every day, maybe, but often enough. We all face questions we want to answer with wisdom and confidence. Questions about our jobs and about where our job is taking us. Questions about our kids and about what our priorities should be in raising them. Questions about our money and what we should spend it on, and save it for –and how we should give it meaningfully away to others. We all want to respond to life’s questions well – to live carefully and beautifully and wisely in these real-life situations.

And of course there is all kinds of advice on offer out there in the face of these challenges of ours. If we are looking for advice, we won’t have to wait long to get it. There are websites and blog posts and books and professionals – all desperate for our attention. Not to mention the advice offered by family and friends – so much advice on how to approach life in general and face its particular challenges. Some of that advice is really good advice – and some of it is just really lousy.

One of the especially hard things about wisdom is that it’s astonishingly personal. There’s no formula that will tell us how to act in a given situation. Two people may face a very similar situation – two people may stand at the proverbial fork in the road – and wisdom for one person will mean going one way – and wisdom for the other person will mean going the other way. Wisdom means understanding our particular gifts, our calling, our circumstances, our history, our family’s needs and strengths. Wisdom means understanding all of that and then trying to find a way of truth and goodness and faithfulness in the middle of it.

So wisdom is decidedly personal, in the sense that we must be wise in our own given circumstances and life. But wisdom is decidedly personal in another powerful sense.

Wisdom is personal because wisdom has taken on human flesh.

Wisdom is personal because wisdom has comes alongside us as a person.

Wisdom is personal because wisdom has come to meet us.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him. Behold this is my son, whom I have chosen, listen to him.

This one doesn’t give us a simple, magical formula for answering the challenges of life. But as we adopt a posture of waiting for Jesus – as we sit with the narratives of scripture open before us, as we open our arms to welcome the word he will speak, as we bow our heads in silent and difficult prayer, as we shout out our frustration and need of an answer – his voice is the one we wait for. Listening for his voice, waiting upon this spirit-filled one, to lead us in way of compassion and service and justice and righteousness and truth – the way of wisdom in our particular challenges.

This is not the superficial, quick fix of Upworthy and Buzzfeed – this is not the distracting clickbait wisdom of Huffpost and Gawker – this is not 10 top reasons this, or “you won’t believe what she did next,” or “which Star Wars character are you.” Not only is the wisdom of Jesus deeper than the superficial offerings of the web – even more, this wisdom is deeper than even the best wisdom our family and friends offer. That doesn’t mean our family and friends can’t be a source of wisdom – they often are. But it means there is a wisdom that goes much deeper. And if we are to live in that deeper wisdom, then we must learn to listen for his voice; we must adopt a daily posture of waiting that it includes a waiting upon him. We may still harbour doubts that the wisdom of Jesus really is the deep wisdom of the world. We may not yet trust that his wisdom is enough for life. But we are invited to seek his wisdom intentionally – and to be astonished and surprised and delighted at the answer and the challenge and the clarity he gives. And the Spirit of wisdom will rest upon him.

In a way we have said more than enough not only to explain what it means that Jesus has the spirit of wisdom and understanding – but more than enough to set the stage for Isaiah’s second word of description: The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of counsel and might. In the original context, this meant an ability to deal well with other people in political debate and international affairs. Counsel and might was the language of royal or political leadership and relationships building.

But in our personal lives, also, we wait for this spirit-blessed one – we wait for Jesus who comes to support us in our relationships. We face plenty of complicated questions about work and priorities and money as we’ve discussed – but nothing is as complex and difficult as living well in relationships.

How do we speak truth to friends, when so much in our culture says to just let them follow their own path? How do we walk the way of reconciliation with those who have abandoned us or want nothing more to do with us? How do we support our kids through the complexities of all life’s different phases? How do we accept criticism from family and friends in a way that is gracious and constructive? How do we respond to colleagues who are impatient and difficult? How do live well in a friendship when the other person is changing so much?

So many challenging questions, and it’s not that faith in the risen Jesus means simple or straightforward solution to these challenges. And there are skills and solutions and wisdom on offer from some of those who live around us. But there is a wisdom that runs deeper – a wisdom that sets us in line with the grain of the universe, and the one who created us.

It’s so easy when we are going into some difficult situations with a friend or family member – it’s so easy when we are facing a hard question in a relationship – to just double down on our own wisdom. It’s so easy to just to talk ourselves through it as if the immanent world around us can provide all the answers we need.

How different when we seek the spirit-blessed, risen one, in the midst of every relationship.

O risen Jesus – you are here with me, and you are with the one I relate to.

O risen Jesus – you are compassion for me and for him.

O risen Jesus – you are forgiveness in her life and my life.

O risen Jesus – you are the one who speaks truth in all relationships.

O risen Jesus – you invite honesty in my life and his life.

O risen Jesus – you are with me in my suffering and with her in her suffering.

O risen Jesus – you are building me up in love, and building him up in love.

O risen Jesus – you call each of us to be faithful to your kingdom, above all else.

Is there any surprise that the third moment of Isaiah’s description of this spirit-filled one – this one we are waiting for – this one who is the embodiment of wisdom – Is there any surprise in the third moment we hear Isaiah say: The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.

All of our waiting in life – all of our waiting for answers to difficult questions – all of our waiting for renewal and beauty and faithfulness in relationships – all of our waiting is for one who lives for the worship of God, who lives for the glory of God – who is the very embodiment of the divine life among us. Jesus. Our waiting for wisdom and strength in difficult decisions – our waiting for clarity and courage in relationships – is a waiting for the divine life to appear in our lives. Our waiting is and may be nothing more or less than a waiting for Jesus to meet us and speak with us and accompany us.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He’s the one we are waiting for… May a waiting for him infuse our whole lives, by the grace of the Spirit. Amen.

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