Isaiah 11.1-6 and 12.1-6
How many of you have used a power washer before? They are awesome, aren’t they? I love it when I have a house project that calls for a power washer. For those who haven’t used one, put that on your list for life goals.
If you don’t know what I am talking about, a power washer is a machine that takes the water from the hose and shoots it super-fast out of a nozzle. You plug a normal garden hose on one side and then it turns it into this jet of water. It is for projects such as taking the paint off of a deck or the stain off of a fence, or the mold off of the siding of your house. The most basic description is that it is meant to divide something good from something bad. Mold from house. Old paint from fence. But you have to be careful because of the power that they have. The last thing that you want to do is divide skin from body. If you use them carefully and respect the power that they create, they are a really helpful tool.
In summary, power-washers are awesome.
But have you ever met a power-washer? Have you ever met someone who takes the normalness of life, like a garden hose, and turns it into something violent? Something destructive? There are probably people in your life who love to take a little thing and turn it into something divisive. The innocent comment on Facebook becomes a federal offense. The small dispute becomes a grudge becomes years of discord. They take something small or innocuous and turn it into something more powerful and destructive than it actually is.
There are a lot of power-washers in our world today. Just like a power washer separates something good from something bad, there are those in our world who love to play up the language of “us vs. them.” They love to turn up their power and pit one against another. I think our media exacerbates this. Conflict pushes ratings, so they love to create an “us vs. them” atmosphere:
- Americans vs. the Russians. “They are out to get us!”
- First World countries vs. third world countries. “Watch out…they are going to take our stuff.”
- The biggest is conservatives vs. liberals. Both sides love to play the power washer game. Turn up the power and see if we can divide one side from the other. Good from evil. “Us” from “them.”
And all of a sudden, they change the way we think of each other:
- “I know some people from Russia, and they don’t seem that bad…but maybe they are out to get us.”
- “We have had these incredible experiences with Christians in third world countries…but maybe we shouldn’t trust them.”
- “And I sit next to Larry here in the pew each week…but then I found out he’s a conservative. And now I guess I’m supposed to hate him. It doesn’t matter that he and I serve next to each other every week in the food pantry. And sing in the choir together. And more or less agree on most of the basics of our faith. Now I hate him.”
King Ahaz was a power washer. In the book of Isaiah, we read of this king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. While Ahaz was king, the Assyrians were building power, moving south and westward toward Judah. And the kingdoms to the north of Judah were getting nervous. Both the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Arameneans in Damascus were afraid of what was to come. So, they formed an alliance, and tried to pressure Ahaz to join them.
The prophet Isaiah explained to Ahaz that this was a horrible idea. It would mean certain death. He should count on God, and not foreign allies, to save him. The last thing that Ahaz should do was join in the violence against Assyria. Violence upon violence was not the goal. So as these other countries worked harder and harder to pressure Ahaz into joining them, Isaiah pushed harder and harder for him to stay neutral.
Which Ahaz did. For a while. But then, his inner power washer kicked in. Ahaz got tired of these other countries pushing him toward rebellion, so what he did was worse. Instead of simply standing his own ground, he went around Israel and Damascus to Assyria, and asked them to intervene in order to keep the pressure off. The results were, of course, more violence. Ahaz tattles to the big bully of Assyria and by the time that the bully is done with these other countries, there isn’t much left. The Northern Kingdom is destroyed by Assyria in 722 and we never see it again. Ahaz plays a game of “us vs. them” and the fellow followers of Yahweh are gone forever.
Isaiah was incensed. This wasn’t what he had in mind. He didn’t want more violence. He told Ahaz that God would protect them, but the king went out of his way to protect himself. And the result was violence upon violence. Ahaz the power washer had done his worst, and God’s people were forever divided…torn in two.
That brings us to today’s text. These two chapters are at the end of the first section of Isaiah in which he has ranted and railed against all of this violence. Finally, in chapters 11 and 12, Isaiah changes the terms of the conversation. He re-defines the terms of power. There are three phases in which he does this.
First, we read of Isaiah’s hope for a new leader. He is done with Ahaz, and turns instead with hope toward a new leader. A justice-oriented leader. A different kind of leader, with a different kind of power. A king who doesn’t define power in terms of violence, but in terms of justice and peace. In those first few verses, we see that the leader that Isaiah preaches about has a different set of values. He isn’t drawn into the violence before him, but acts with wisdom and sees what is happening behind the scenes. He works for the poor and vulnerable, and not the rich and powerful. He protects those in need and fights for equity. He is a justice-oriented leader. Historians wonder if Isaiah actually had in mind a specific king. Hezekiah was Ahaz’s son, and only a child at the time. But he eventually became king as a young man, and ruled for nearly three decades. So when Isaiah proclaims that a little child should lead them, he very well could have meant Hezekiah. Who was, by the way, everything that Isaiah preached about. He was the justice-oriented leader that Isaiah prayed for. His reforms were legendary and brought the people back to Torah. He was everything that Isaiah desired in a new kind of king. Less about the power washer. More about justice.
Then we see a shift in Isaiah’s message. From this hope for a justice-oriented leader, he turns to what one might call a peace-oriented vision. I really only read one verse of the passage that is sometimes referred to as the “peaceable kingdom.” But you have likely heard a version of it before. The wolf laying with lamb. The calf with the lion. Here Isaiah lays out this alternative vision to what Ahaz is all about. The vulnerable and the dangerous, side by side, both changed to equals. A re-definition of power. It is a new Eden. A balancing of power and re-definition of what it means to be powerful. Now, the lamb is as powerful as the wolf. And the calf is as powerful as the lion. A re-definition of power. Remember that the Old Testament prophets proclaimed an alternative vision for the people of God, and in this vision, Isaiah shows us what true peace may look like.
Which finally brings us to the third movement for Isaiah. Chapter 11 spills over into chapter 12, where we now hear of a third idea. After the justice –oriented leader and the peace-oriented vision comes a God-oriented salvation. Finally we get to the word of the day! Salvation! Three times in just a few verses, Isaiah uses this word. The foundation for all of this hope is the salvation that only God can bring! Kathleen Norris reminds us that the Hebrew word for salvation literally means “to make wide.” What a powerful concept! Salvation is about making wide, clearing the way, bringing more onto the journey with us. For us, salvation is not about us vs. them. But God for all.
It is not a coincidence that the way of the power washer, the us vs. them, insists on using a tiny nozzle that focuses the power of the water into a stream of violence. But look at the water metaphor that Isaiah uses instead. In vs. 3, he offers these words, “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Not the water of violence, but a deep and sustaining well. Dependent on the ground water around it to fill and refill. A symbol not of old ways of overpowering, but of God’s way of empowering. Isaiah proclaims that it is with joy that we depend on the watering of God to sustain us.
And so, for us, perhaps Isaiah’s words give us a clearer sense of what salvation means today:
- It’s not about pitting one side against the other. But about God making a wide way.
- Not about the power washer of violence and destruction and lording over. But about the empowering of God.
- Not about division and violence. But about the joy of a sustaining, thirst-quenching wellspring of God’s love and grace.
And what does that look like in our lives? A lot of times, we talk about salvation as this one-time moment in our lives, where we accept God’s grace and Jesus’ lordship. And what a beautiful moment that is! But is God done then? No more work of salvation? Are we no longer being saved? That’s not the picture we get in Isaiah, where the never-ending flow of God’s wellspring of salvation never ends! For Frederick Buechner, salvation is not just an event, but a process:
“It is an experience first and a doctrine second. Doing the work you’re best at doing and like to do best, hearing great music, having great fun, seeing something very beautiful, weeping at somebody else’s tragedy – all these experiences are related to the experience of salvation because in them two things happen 1) you lose yourself, and 2) you find that you are more fully yourself than usual…. it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to Business as Usual, it may lose you the ball game. If you throw your arms around such a moment and bless it, it may save your soul.”
And how do we respond to these moments? Buechner says we very simply say “thank you.” We thank God for these moments in our lives, and throw our arms around them. Plain and simple, we open our eyes to the wellspring of God’s salvation.
These were the words that the people of Isaiah’s day heard as grace and hope. A new definition of power. A yearning for a new kind of leader. But those same words lived beyond that context. This passage became one of the core passages for the concept of the coming Messiah. Hundreds of years later, the people of God found themselves again in desperation and hopelessness. Divided and conquered, they were at each other’s throats. But then they began to pull out the old words and read them again to each other. They began to ask if there was more to come. They said, “Hezekiah was great. The Messiah will be better.” And the people of God held out hope once more for a little child to lead them. Now, some still didn’t get it. Some still looked for an overpowering king. But some saw with eyes of hope who one came to redefine power once again. To come as a baby and reign as a king. To declare a kingdom of peace and justice and equity and grace. Some opened their eyes and opened their hearts to a new day of salvation. A new day of God making a wide way. A new day of a wellspring of sustaining, empowering grace. Some opened their eyes and saw a baby. A teacher. A sacrifice. A Risen Lord. And they remembered the old words and spoke with tears in their eyes, to one another:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 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.
3 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;
4 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.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 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.