Scripture can be found here...
Maybe it was like this: Just about eight hundred years after the prophet Isaiah wrote these words, a group of friends sat huddled around a table in an upper room in Jerusalem. By candlelight they pored over the scrolls of the prophet. And occasionally, they read something that made the hairs stand up on the backs of their necks. Their eyes met. And they nodded, and maybe one of them even spoke aloud what they were all thinking:
“Here. This. The prophet is speaking here about our Master. The prophet is speaking about Jesus.”
We have two kings before us today; one, whom the prophet Isaiah knew well; one, whose words we have come to understand as the warm breath of the Holy Spirit, informing us of a king still to come. We are in the same time period today we were in last week, but with a major difference. Now we are in the Southern Kingdom, Judah. Isaiah responds to the reign of king Uzziah, whose death prompted him to tell of a king not yet known. Uzziah was not a terrible king. In fact, we are told, “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his father…had done” (2 Kings 15:3). He was a warrior and a builder. He was a tender of grapes and of herds. “He loved the soil,” we’re told. Uzziah was, in many ways, a very good king.
But he was not a great king. He had a downfall. Maybe it was his tolerance for the “high places,” alien altars to alien gods (2 Kings 15:4). Maybe it was a breach of protocol, that time he dared to enter the Temple to offer incense—a job reserved for the priests (2 Chronicles 26:16 ff). In either case, God strikes Uzziah with leprosy, and his public life is over.
The Chronicler writes of Uzziah, “…when he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was false to the Lord his God…” (2 Chronicles 26:16). Arrogance. Pride. The belief that your position, your honor, places you above the requirements of the law. It reminds me of something I read long ago, about a mental illness known as “Acquired Situational Narcissism.” It strikes the wealthy, the powerful…tycoons, movie stars, politicians… maybe even kings. They develop dangerously narcissistic traits because, in the words of one psychiatrist: “The adulation is often justified and plentiful; the feedback, biased and filtered; the criticism muted and belated; social control either lacking or excessive and vitriolic.” [i] In other words, these celebrities become narcissists because of the kinds of people who surround them. No one is giving them honest feedback. No one is calling them out when their behavior is outrageous. No one is daring to risk being tossed out of the inner circle.
Isaiah knows kings. And he doesn’t need to understand a 21st century psychiatric diagnosis to understand when a king has fallen short of the glory of God. Isaiah spends some time in the early chapters of this book outlining the sins and failings of the king and the people. But here, in chapter 11, something else is happening entirely. Isaiah gives us a new vision for leadership. And he locates it right in the line of kings going back to David—or more specifically, David’s father, Jesse.
He begins with the image of a tree stump—something that has been clear-cut, a reference to familiar scriptural descriptions of God cutting down what doesn’t bear fruit. But then… God does a new thing:
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 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. ~ Isaiah 11:1-3
… Which is another way of saying “A spirit of joy in God’s presence.” Maybe it was like this: Just about eight hundred years after the prophet Isaiah wrote these words, a group of friends sat huddled around a table in an upper room in Jerusalem. And suddenly, they read something that made the hairs stand up on the backs of their necks. Their eyes met, and one of them spoke aloud what they were all thinking:
“Here. This. The prophet is speaking here about our Master. The prophet is speaking about Jesus.”
I think it is the same pattern for us today. We don’t find Jesus in scripture until we have already found him in our lives. We get to know Jesus, and then we understood what scripture means when it describes him. We understand why a passage that never mentions his name nevertheless is filled with him.
Those people in the upper room knew Jesus—whether it was because they had been fishermen whom he’d drafted into service, or because they’d been part of a faith community where stories were told about him. And when they went searching in their repository of faith, they found him there. They saw him. They read stories, and said, “This is his story.” They read psalms, and said, “There he is, right there.”
I read Isaiah 11, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and I think: there he is. Christ the King.
This is a very different vision of kingship than the one lived out by Uzziah, or Ahab, or even David. This is a vision of kingship in which the king is in no danger of developing dangerous pride, because this king’s chief advisor is God.
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. ~Isaiah 11:3-5
“He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth.” This king’s words have power. This king’s words have the power to make the hearts of the wicked shake… not because he threatens wrath, but because in everything he does, he seeks the righteousness of God.
The world Jesus was born into was a world of terrible oppression, and injustice, and fear. The Roman Empire’s reign of terror had brought God’s covenant people to their knees. The kings they knew, people like the Herods, were pathetic impostors, hand-picked by Rome to cause as little trouble as possible. The people needed a hero. They needed a real king.
The man sent by God, the man we hear described by Isaiah, was also the man described by Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, the man “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus’s strength was made known through his weakness. He conquered by yielding. He met hatred with love.
These are uneasy days we are living in. We also live in a world of terrible oppression, and injustice, and fear. And yet we follow a savior, we call “Lord,” one who teaches us to respond to fear with love.
Steven Charleston is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and the most recent in a long line of pastors. He has been a professor of theology and the dean of a seminary and the Episcopal bishop of Alaska. Though he is mostly retired now, from time to time he shares reflections on Facebook, and he shared these words this weekend.
“Like you, like all of us, I have been watching the storms roll in from the horizon, purple black clouds, billowing as they gather strength, painting out the light and the color, flashing signs of quick death, random threats of annihilation, carrying the smell of ashes on the wind. Like you, like all of us, I am afraid, made afraid by the storm, made to want to run, but not sure where to run, looking instead in every direction for imagined safety, longing for the place to hide, a way to shelter against a power too great to control.
Like you, like all of us, I would welcome a strong man, a woman of power, equal to that of the storm, who could force it back, whatever the cost, however many truths be trampled, willing to barter freedom for hope, unashamed now to let hate pay the price of fear, as long as the light returns, however feeble it may be. Like you, like all of us, I am so easily seduced by blame, naming the cause of the shadows by looking in the shadows, wanting to unmask the hidden faces of harm, listening to the whispers of a gossip older than nations, subverting faith into excuses, relying so quickly on the religion of goats, driven out into a land laid waste by the storms to come.
And yet, and yet, while I may make my confession to all of these temptations, accepting them as my ancient instinct to survive, allowing the reality of the wind to blow over me and bend me and make me lean into the earth, I will not define the circuit of my heart by this, or any other terror, nor deny that other emotions move my being, that other energies hold me still, even though I may want to flee, that it causes me to hold my ground, even if I want to strike out blindly, and despite the roar of the storm, despite the sound of fury, speak out my courage, my word of life, more ancient even than death.
Like you, like all of us, I have a light within me that can never be overshadowed by any storm, that can never be taken away or cowed by the intimidation of fear, but that remains resolute, not in the strength of power or the denial of others, but in the calm center we call love. Now is not the time to run. Now is not the time to fear. Now is not the time to blame. Now, right now, is the time to love. To love the light within, within you, within all of us, the light of who we are, we strange miracles of life that walk upright on this land, we makers of art and beauty, we designers of compassion, woven love, spun out around the world, binding fragile humanity into a family which cannot be broken, cannot be divided, no matter what assaults of evil may seek to scatter us. Like you, like all of us, I will not allow this holy ground, bought by the blood of so many innocent lives, to become a grave when I know it is a garden. I will be immovable in my love, holding high the light of my shared humanity, until the darkness crashes around me, waves against a stone, and recedes, as recede it must, leaving life alone upon this shore, while day breaks the horizon, and, once again, the scent of clean earth fills the air.”[ii]
God bless us all. May we hear, not the proud and arrogant, but the angels, telling us time and again, “Fear not.” May we act, and encourage one another to act, not in fear, but in love and trust in God. May we, in the name of Christ, whose reign we await, be filled, like him, with a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, and a spirit of joy in God’s presence. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Robert B. Millman, as quoted in Sam Vaknin and Lidija Rangelovska, Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited (Copyright Lidija Rangelovska, 1990-2013).
[ii] Steven Charleston, captured on Facebook, 11-21-2015, https://www.facebook.com/steven.charleston.5/posts/10208695310047153.
Image: HeQi, "The Risen Lord," found at He Qi Art.