Isaiah 11:1-10 Matthew 3: 1-12
Barbara J. Campbell, Pastor
Nelson Mandela was a man who changed the world by teaching us about peace. Sentenced to life in prison for sedition against South Africa in 1962, Mandela served 27 years in prison where he befriended his jailers, learning to control emotions of hatred and fear for a greater cause of peace for all of South Africa. He refused to leave the prison until other anti-apartheid prisoners were freed with him.
Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and awarded the joint Nobel Peace Prize in three years late along with de Klerk, who was serving as President of South Africa. One year later Mandela was elected the first African President of South Africa were he continued to lead his country out of the rubble of apartheid.
Though the white Africaners had lost political power, they still much control of the economy, military and bureaucracy of South Africa and felt very threatened by black rule. In the second year of his presidency South Africa became the first nation in the world to protect the rights of gays in its constitution. That same year they set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Desmond Tutu, which worked for truth-telling by victims and amnesty for perpetrators rather than Nuremburg-style prosecution.
Mandela fought for an end of apartheid in South Africa and peace for his country. In Hebrew, the word for peace, shalom, means “fullness; having everything you need to be wholly and happily yourself.” This is surely the peace that Mandela modeled in himself and taught the world.
The image of toppled trees runs throughout this section of the Book of Isaiah, as the prophet foresees the LORD vengeance against their enemy, Assyria. In the verses immediately preceding chapter 11, the prophet declares, “The LORD of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. The LORD will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”
King David’s family tree, which included his father Jesse, had become little more than a stump but the prophet envisioned that even a stump could send up a new shoot and a new branch. The hope declared by Isaiah is that a new and miraculous ruler would rise up. As one filled with the spirit of the LORD, this new leader would judge with righteousness; would judge as one in a right relationship with God, and would execute justice with absolute power, killing the wicked with the mere breath from his lips. (Not exactly a peaceful freedom fighter like Mandela!)
Isaiah probably spoke of the young Hezekiah, who would take the throne after his father King Ahaz, and become the new ruler they longed for. Christians, however, have read this passage only as a prediction of the coming of Jesus, since his birth narratives mention Bethlehem, the city of David’s ancestors. Jesus was also filled with the Spirit of the Lord, but he stood among the poor and marginalized, confronting injustice with nonviolence.
With the coming of a powerful and just new ruler, Isaiah also envisioned the coming of Peace. Quaker minister Edward Hicks painted Isaiah’s “PeaceableKingdom” in the 1820s. There were some who saw human symbolism in the depiction of wild animals living harmoniously with domesticated animals. This human struggle with peacemaking is also represented in the background where William Penn signs a treaty with Native tribes.
Pastor Hicks painted Isaiah’s vision at least 62 times, to supplement his ministerial income. Overtime, we are told, the paintings changed. As Hicks became more and more frustrated by the conflicts in the culture around him, especially those conflicts within his religious community, he began to paint the predators differently. They became much more frightening and ferocious.
Pastor Paul Simpson Duke wonders if this passage is not about the transformation of predators, whether they be individuals, institutions, societies or nations. And, he asks, “Are the predators the only ones to be transformed? Why not imagine a purring lion beside a calf who has learned to roar, and a wolf wagging its tail in the company of a brave, lion-hearted lamb?”
Question: If peace, as shalom, means wholeness, or having everything you need to be wholly who you are, we must begin by recognizing and dealing with where people are the most vulnerable?
On the other hand, peace requires an awareness of where we are the predators. What are those areas in our lives where we may be prone to act too selfishly and too aggressively? Where are we unwilling to live peacefully?
According the Matthew’s Gospel, the one they called John, the Baptist, called the people to prepare for the coming of an “Anointed One” through self-examination. In this gospel lesson the wilderness becomes the predator. The wilderness setting of the Baptist’s ministry reminds us of bondage in Egypt and the wilderness where we wander and murmur against God.
The people came to John “confessing their sins.” When it comes to the confessing sins, one pastor wrote that “pews rush in where pulpits fear to tread.” Though most people don’t think about sin in doctrinal or theological terms, they know when they have experienced it and when they need to get rid of it. Pastors may shy away from preaching about sin, but that may be exactly what many people are hoping to hear on Sunday morning. The harshest predator or wilderness we face is often within. (Yurs, Mark, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, 2010, pg 47)
As with the text from Isaiah, the author of Matthew assumed, in hindsight, that Jesus was the one whose coming the Baptist predicted. But even John may never have realized that Jesus was the one who was coming as the anointed one.
Elijah, whom some may have seen reincarnated in John, was believed to be the forerunner of God, not of the Messiah. It was God whom they thought would baptize with the Holy Spirit. In the end, when the Baptist heard from his prison cell about everything Jesus was doing, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?”
It was the Messiah, the Anointed One, Isaiah’s shoot from the stump of Jesse, that the Baptist announced and for whom he urged preparation. Even centuries after Isaiah, the prophets and people still waited for redemption; still hoped for the coming of one who would bring peace with justice and righteousness.
In 1995, in his book Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote, ”I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended. . . For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. . . If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
As we are given once again the opportunity to grasp hold of something marvelous in the birth and incarnation of the Christ child, our tradition reminds us that his coming was to bring peace. “Peace!” the angel declared to Mary and to Joseph. “Peace!” the multitude of heavenly host declared to shepherds shivering in the fields. Peace on earth, goodwill to all!
At Christmas, in the birth of Jesus, we celebrate that we are a people who can live in peace in the midst of conflict, for our lives are centered on the presence of God’s love. This is not a peace that allows us to ignore suffering or deny the work yet to be done, but a peace that surpasses understanding, a peace that enables us to forgive, seek reconciliation, and establish justice.