Isaiah 11:1-9 – A Vision of Hope and Peace

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1826

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea. (New International Version)

In some quarters of Christianity, the church exists as a mere stump of its former existence. In many Christians’ daily experience the Spirit has been supplanted by individual ingenuity, hard work, and getting ahead through accumulation of more and more. Basic Christian spirituality is a mere shadow of its former influence. If Christians desire the Spirit of the Lord to rest upon them, they will seek Christ as of foremost importance.  

Indeed, it is when we are worn down to a stump and have no ability to grow or sustain life anymore that God enters, specializing in giving hope to the hopeless, justice for the poor, wisdom to the confused, and peace to all who desire a harmonious world.

In the awful feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, a faint sign of life can be seen. A fresh shoot becomes discernible. Could there be possibility amidst impossible circumstances? Can there be life again? Do I dare hope again? Will things really change, and do so for the better?

The answer is “yes.” For where the Spirit of the Lord blows there is the force of resurrection power, spiritual energy, and fresh courage. Where others see only the impossible, the believer has a capacity of faith to see the possible. The Spirit’s force generates possibility where none existed before. When the breath of God whispers to the sprout in the stump, pessimistic despair turns to optimistic hope, even joy.

Christ is the Christian’s hope. In Christ, there is security, well-being, and life. With Jesus, there is a vision of justice in which all persons receive what they need to live, thrive, and flourish in God’s world. Christ works for our benefit without the personal greed and indifference of so many earthly rulers. The weak and vulnerable have a champion in Jesus Christ. Renewal and restoration are possibilities.

I have taken a liking to a show called “The Repair Shop,” a British television series in which family heirlooms with sentimental value are restored by experts for their owners. What captivates me about the show is how a few people can take old broken-down items (and by all appearances now a piece of junk) and restore them to their once glorious newness.

Yet, there is more to my captivation. I am struck by the sheer pleasure the restorers take in handling the old object, enjoying the process. Just by the looks on their faces, I can tell they consider it a privilege to be restoring a precious object of the past.

I am sure this is precisely how God feels with us. Rather than envisioning the Lord as some reluctant deity who feels put out with having to rescue a bunch of dumb and wayward people, God is One who takes delight in taking this old stump of fallen damaged humanity and restoring people to their original luster and beauty.

Transformation is God’s specialty, and the Lord goes about the process of restoration with great care and delight.

The Peaceable Kingdom by Malcah Zeldis

The impossible possibility of God’s new creation is poetically described in Isaiah as the peaceful co-existence of animals who are inconceivably together without fear or violence. There is a time coming when death will be no more, and so, the necessity in this life of hunter and prey will be forever negated. No more snakes terrorizing women and children. No more big fishes eating little ones. No more human fat cats preying upon and striking poison on the small and vulnerable.

The presence of the godly Ruler means the world will be governed rightly, detoxified of its sinful impurities – a place where the poor, the weak, and the little lambs will indeed be safe and secure forever. There will be peace because of the Prince of Peace. All creation will be full of God, and so, free of all malice.

Isaiah envisions a deep, radical, limitless transformation in which there will be no more desire to injure another; no need to dominate another; and no motive for selfish power over others.

The Lord will bring about a metamorphosis of human hearts and institutions, a renovation of the animal kingdom, and a radical change down to every blade of grass in creation. The Apostle Paul had this grand prophetic vision of God in mind when he wrote to the Church at Rome:

I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25, CEB)

The implication for us as humanity was voiced by Paul to the Colossian Church:

Each of you is now a new person. You are becoming more and more like your Creator, and you will understand him better. It doesn’t matter if you are a Greek or a Jew, or if you are circumcised or not. You may even be a barbarian or a Scythian, and you may be a slave or a free person. Yet Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.

God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.

Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. (Colossians 3:10-15, CEV)

The transformation is all-pervasive, thoroughly public, and intimately personal. It is a gift from God; it is the impossible made possible. And it is this precise thing which we acknowledge, celebrate, and long for in the season of Advent. When the angel came to Mary and communicated that Isaiah’s vision was coming to reality through her womb, Mary astonishingly retorted:

 “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel, with supreme confidence, answered Mary as a matter of fact:

“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…. For no word from God will ever fail.”

Mary’s response gives voice to our own desires and longings for the new order of things:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:34-38, NIV)

This is our confession, too. We are the Lord’s servants.

May God’s word to us about the coming of Christ be fulfilled, just as Isaiah said. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus on a starry night so many years ago.

Soli Deo Gloria

Hebrews 13:17-25 – Pray for Pastoral Leaders

Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?

Pray for us. We have no doubts about what we’re doing or why, but it’s hard going, and we need your prayers. All we care about is living well before God. Pray that we may be together soon.

May God, who puts all things together,
    makes all things whole,
Who made a lasting mark through the sacrifice of Jesus,
    the sacrifice of blood that sealed the eternal covenant,
Who led Jesus, our Great Shepherd,
    up and alive from the dead,
Now put you together, provide you
    with everything you need to please him,
Make us into what gives him most pleasure,
    by means of the sacrifice of Jesus, the Messiah.
All glory to Jesus forever and always!
    Oh, yes, yes, yes.

Friends, please take what I’ve written most seriously. I’ve kept this as brief as possible; I haven’t piled on a lot of extras. You’ll be glad to know that Timothy has been let out of prison. If he leaves soon, I’ll come with him and get to see you myself.

Say hello to your pastoral leaders and all the congregations. Everyone here in Italy wants to be remembered to you.

Grace be with you, everyone. (The Message)

A survey on American clergy by the Schaeffer Institute found some of the following information:

  • 90% of pastors report working between 55-75 hours per week.
  • 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • 50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they had another job lined-up right away.
  • 80% of pastors believe church ministry has negatively affected their families.
  • 80% of pastoral spouses feel lonely and underappreciated by church members.
  • 40% of pastors report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
  • 50% of pastors starting out will not last five years.
  • Only 10% of pastors will actually retire as pastors.
  • Over 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month in the United States; 1,300 of them are fired by their churches.
  • The number one reason pastors leave the ministry is that church people are not willing to go the same direction and support the goal of the pastor; pastors believe God wants them to go in one direction, but the people are not willing to follow.

As a church pastor myself, the one thing I want every single church member to know is: Your prayer support is the Pastor’s life support. 

Without regular, earnest, sustained, fervent, and constant prayers lifted upwards on behalf of pastoral leaders and their families, no matter how hard they labor or how much they work, the church ministry will go nowhere. 

Conversely, however, with habitual and spirited prayer, even the most anemic weaknesses of an individual pastor can be transcended, and the church can thrive and flourish with spiritual health and joy.

Lift prayers for your pastor today and every day, appealing to God concerning the following:

Protection from the enemy

Rest

Anointing of the Spirit

Yielded heart to God

Effectiveness in ministry

Righteous life of integrity

The spiritual and relational glue which binds believers together is prayer. Churches are bound to clergymen and clergywomen, not by a legal agreement, but by a bond formed and sustained by God. 

The heart of prayer is listening, and as we allow God to speak to us through Holy Scripture, in the events of the world and in the silence of our hearts, we are enabled to unite our prayer to the intercession of the Holy Spirit.

The renewal of the Church everywhere will not occur through the latest program or becoming expertly savvy webmasters. Instead, sustainable church ministry will come through a renewal of spirituality.

Ordinary Christian parishioners who are prepared to share their lives with God in focused, daily, intentional prayer will be the spiritual means of seeing God’s benevolent rule and ethical will done here on earth, as it is always done in heaven.

Loving God, thank you for being our shield and strength. You are a God of compassion and faithfulness. Please protect, nourish and sustain clergy, church councils, and faith community leaders everywhere through the work of your Holy Spirit. May they find rest and encouragement in your loving care.

Gracious God, without you we can do nothing. Clothe Christian leaders everywhere with your Holy Spirit so that with joy and reverence they may lead your people with integrity and effectiveness, worthily proclaiming your gospel of love.

Righteous God, you have shown us what is good. So, help ministers everywhere to do what you require: act justly; love mercy; and walk humbly with you.

Almighty God, through your Son, Jesus Christ, you gave the holy apostles many spiritual gifts and commanded them to feed your flock. Inspire all pastors to preach your Word diligently and your people to receive it willingly so that together we may receive the crown of eternal glory, through Christ, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reign as one God, now and forever. Amen.

Isaiah 49:5-15 – Restoration

Even before I was born,
    the Lord God chose me
to serve him and to lead back
    the people of Israel.
So the Lord has honored me
    and made me strong.

Now the Lord says to me,
“It isn’t enough for you
    to be merely my servant.
You must do more than lead back
survivors
from the tribes
    of Israel.
I have placed you here as a light
    for other nations;
you must take my saving power
    to everyone on earth.

Israel, I am the holy Lord God,
    the one who rescues you.
You are slaves of rulers
and of a nation
    who despises you.
Now this is what I promise:
Kings and rulers will honor you
    by kneeling at your feet.
You can trust me! I am your Lord,
the holy God of Israel,
    and you are my chosen ones.”

This is what the Lord says:
    “I will answer your prayers
because I have set a time
when I will help
    by coming to save you.
I have chosen you
to take my promise of hope
    to other nations.
You will rebuild the country
    from its ruins,
then people will come
    and settle there.
You will set prisoners free
from dark dungeons
    to see the light of day.

On their way home,
they will find plenty to eat,
    even on barren hills.
They won’t go hungry
    or get thirsty;
they won’t be bothered
by the scorching sun
    or hot desert winds.
I will be merciful
while leading them along
    to streams of water.
I will level the mountains
    and make roads.
Then my people will return
    from distant lands
in the north and the west
    and from the city of Syene.

Tell the heavens and the earth
    to celebrate and sing;
command every mountain
    to join in the song.”
The Lord’s people have suffered,
but he has shown mercy
    and given them comfort.

The people of Zion said,
“The Lord has turned away
    and forgotten us.”

The Lord answered,
“Could a mother forget a child
    who nurses at her breast?
Could she fail to love an infant
    who came from her own body?
Even if a mother could forget,
    I will never forget you.” (CEV)

Restoration is a major theme in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In today’s lesson, God speaks of bringing Israel back to her original calling and purpose. This would be accomplished through the nation of Israel and focused upon God’s Servant, the Lord’s Messiah. The scope and vision of what the Savior would do is enunciated by God: rescue people, lead them home, and show unending mercy. The Servant of the Lord is made a light for the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Messiah is more than a Jewish thing. The Christian tradition discerns Jesus as the Servant, the Savior of both Jews, and Gentiles – Christ is given to reach the entire planet. The incarnation of Christ was meant for more than gathering Israel together, as if it were some sort of Bill Gaither Homecoming tour. Rather, Messiah’s place and power is so significant that it is to be shared with everyone in the world.  Although Israel was to be a holy entity and separate from the surrounding culture, their mandate had always been to be a light to the nations.

This has great import for Christ’s Church and every individual believer in Jesus. The church is much more than a country club which only caters to club functions and members. The church is a missional community with an outward focus, as well. It has always been God’s vision to reach the nations. The Lord wants more than one group of people; God wants everyone. Along with caring for its own, the church is designed as a missionary enterprise which puts significant resources into shining the light of Christ to every nook and cranny of creation.

However, we are a wounded people living in a culture whose first response to differing voices is to accuse, attack, and injure. Our hurts are carried by all of us collectively and personally, and it gives rise to bitterness, isolation, and resentment. When our hope runs dry, we become marked by cynicism, apathy, and escapism.

The vision of Isaiah gives us an alternative approach. Reflection on God’s mercy, salvation, and loving guidance leads to repentance; repentance of our unholy thoughts, words, and deeds leads to a restoration of our true calling as missionaries of faith, hope, and love to the broken world around us. Restoration brings healing of the stresses and anxieties that plague our planet, and ourselves. 

Since God has a missionary heart, all of God’s people are missionaries to the world. It behooves each believer, then, to be taught, trained, and led into God’s restorative mission to the nations. Let us build caring relationships and extend loving actions both to those within the church and toward those outside of Christian fellowship so that God’s intentions are carried out. For we know that not one person on planet earth is forgotten by God.

Restoring God, you bring us back to close relation and fellowship so that we might extend your gracious purposes throughout the world.  Revive us again, God, so that we can hear your call to the nations through our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Luke 22:39-46

            It’s easy to believe that we are people of prayer, that is, until we contrast ourselves with Jesus.  One of the problems we often run into when thinking about ourselves is that we make comparisons with the wrong people.  Compared to others, we look pretty good.  After all, I pray more than the next guy, right!?  But consider how Jesus prayed when faced with enduring the ignominy of the cross:  “Jesus was in great pain and prayed so sincerely that his sweat fell to the ground like drops of blood.”
 
            Even Jesus, the Son of God, felt the intense need to watch and pray so that he could face his time of suffering and humiliation on behalf of humanity.  I would conjecture that even your most incredible time of prayer probably doesn’t compare to the experience of Jesus in prayer.  That isn’t meant to be a source of guilt, to try and somehow twist our collective arm to be more sincere and focused.  Rather, it is meant to show us that there is much more room to grow in this business of prayer than we ever thought.
 
            Perhaps there is so little church renewal, so puny personal revival, and such a paucity of revitalization and reformation among so many Christians because our prayers are so small and so far in between each other.  Jesus prayed because he needed it.  I pray because without God I am hopelessly lost.  I pray because I desperately need Jesus.  I pray because only the Holy Spirit can bring the empowerment to face the rigors of ministry in front of me.  I pray because I sincerely believe that humanity’s hope rests with the blessed Holy Trinity, the God whom I serve.
 

 

            Gracious Lord Jesus, I am eternally grateful for what you did on my behalf by enduring the shame of the cross.  I have much to learn in praying sincerely, earnestly, and effectively.  Teach me, Lord, so that I might be like you in all I do and say.  Amen.