Isaiah 11:1-10 – All I Want for Christmas Is a Savior

The Lion and the Lamb by Aaron Spong

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.

In that day, the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10, NIV)

Christians believe Isaiah’s prophecy to speak of Jesus in whom all these virtues exist in wonderful perfection and practice. Jesus Christ has so clearly identified with us that we are in a vital union with him.  He still exists here on earth in the person of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was sent by the Father.  With the Father and the Son, the Spirit was sent to press the redemptive events of Jesus into the believer’s heart.  This is basic Trinitarian theology.  Yet these are not abstract ideas.  Prayer, discernment, and listening are the pathways forward to discovering the wisdom, counsel, and knowledge we need to live and serve well as Christians.

In some quarters of Christianity, the church exists as a mere stump of its former existence. For many Christians, daily experience of the Spirit has been supplanted by individual ingenuity, hard work, and getting ahead through accumulation of more and more.  Basic Christian spirituality then becomes a mere shadow of its former influence.  If we desire the Spirit of the Lord to rest upon us, we will seek Christ as our 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, there is a faint sign of life. A fresh shoot becomes discernible. Could there be possibility amidst such 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 three-dimensional impossibilities, the believer has the capacity of faith to see multi-dimensional possibilities. 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.

Jesus 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 operates to our advantage and on our behalf without the personal greed and indifference of so many earthly rulers. The weak and vulnerable have a champion in Jesus. Renewal and restoration become very real possibilities.

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

There is more to my captivation of the show. 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 such a precious object of the past.

Artisan Steve Fletcher restoring an 18th century French clock

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 has delight in taking this old stump of fallen damaged humanity and restoring us to our original luster and beauty. Transformation is God’s specialty, and the Lord goes about the process of restoration with great care and delight.

The impossible possibility of God’s new creation is poetically described in the peaceful co-existence of animals and creatures 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 shall 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 smaller 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 thus, free of all malice.

This beautiful prophecy from Isaiah envisions a deep, radical, limitless transformation in which there will be no more appetite to injure another; no more desire to devour another; no more lust for selfish control of another; and no more destructive passion for domination over others.

It is a thorough renovation of the human heart, human institutions, the animal kingdom, and even every blade of grass in creation. The Apostle Paul had this grand vision of God in mind when he wrote to the Church at Rome:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope thatthe creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23, NIV)

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

Now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:8-11, NIV)

The transformation is all-pervasive, impacting everything public while also being 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. I am the Lord’s servant. You are the Lord’s servant. May God’s word to us about the coming of Christ be fulfilled, just as Isaiah has said. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus on a bright starry night.

Matthew 12:43-45 – True Repentance

Freedom by Zenos Frudakis in Philiadelphia, Pennsylvania

Jesus said, “When an evil spirit comes out of a person, it travels through dry places looking for a place to rest, but it finds none. So, it says, ‘I will go back to the home I left.’ When it comes back, it finds that home still empty. It is all neat and clean. Then the evil spirit goes out and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself. They all go and live there, and that person has even more trouble than before. It is the same way with the evil people who live today.” (ERV) 

Nature abhors a vacuum. A tilled plot of soil will be overtaken with weeds if nothing is planted and nurtured in the turned-over dirt. The pecking order of a brood of chickens cannot handle the death of the top hen without filling the position almost immediately. And, in the spiritual realm, the exorcising of a demon will not simply leave a person empty of evil – his/her life will be filled with something in its place. 

Today’s Gospel story, told by Jesus, about the man who is delivered from an unclean spirit, is a powerful and simple narrative on the necessity of true repentance. Genuine freedom is more than getting rid of something bad and destructive; the evil must be replaced with something good and useful. That is, biblical repentance is both a turning away from ungodliness and an embrace of righteousness.

We are delivered from evil so that we can start living into the righteousness and peace intended for us. 

For example, the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers to not only stop stealing but also to get a job and start sharing with others. They were not only to stop lying and using their tongues for gossip and slander and start using their words to speak truth that builds up others. (Ephesians 4:25-32) 

The spiritual principle is the same as the nature principle: A empty vacuum will always be filled. The man who did not fill his life with God ended up having a problem with evil seven times greater than when he started. 

If anything, or anyone, is emptied of its unhealthy elements and practices, it is imperative that the hole be immediately filled with healthy disciplines for life. 

Whether dealing with addictions, bad habits, or any kind of evil influence, a two-pronged approach is needed for its eradication. We expel the evil by replacing it with godliness. The man struggling with pornography or adultery must not only stop the behavior but take up the mantle of being a champion for women’s issues. The woman who has no healthy boundaries and allows herself to be used and abused must not only separate from the problem or person but adopt her identity in Christ as a precious child of God and enforce righteous limitations.   

None of these examples are meant to be simplistic answers to complex situations. Rather, they illustrate why so many people do not experience freedom and continue to have even greater enslavement to their passions and sufferings. 

Freedom is realized through replacing old practices with new disciplines that directly attack the old. 

We all have needs. How we get those needs met is often a mixed bag of both legitimate and illegitimate ways. In a perfect world, everyone would be aware of their needs and be able to express them to one another without shame, anxiety, or anger. Since we live on a blemished fallen planet, we end up trying to meet our needs indirectly through hustling for love, hoarding resources, and controlling others – all harmful ways which destroys souls and relationships. 

So, unless we focus on positively meeting our needs, we must go a step beyond dropping a toxic relationship, cutting up a credit card, or saying “no” to another responsibility. We often get into our mess to begin with because we are out of touch with ourselves and our needs. We need affection and encouragement, and there is no shame in needing this. We need security and safety, and there is no problem in acquiring this. There are some things we need to control, and that is okay. 

If we fail to address our needs, we might do the necessary work of deliverance, then turn right around and become worse off than before by filling the empty place of our lives with:  

  • Being all things to all people, as if we were the Messiah.  
  • Being successful so that we stay ahead of being needy.  
  • Pulling inside ourselves and trusting nobody.  
  • Distancing from our needs and pretending they are not there.  
  • Being continually vigilant so that we are never hurt that way again.  
  • Keeping a positive spin on everything, as if there is no negative stuff in the world.  
  • Challenging other’s opinions and behaviors to keep the focus off our needs.  
  • Becoming a wallflower so that we can never be the brunt of someone else’s vitriol or evil. 

Instead, we can let Jesus fill the emptiness with love, purpose, peace, joy, attention, and grace. Christ is the Savior who delivers us from evil, and the Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier who carefully applies the work of salvation to our lives.

When our hearts and minds are full of God, there is no place for the demons to get in. 

True repentance equally forsakes evil and embraces righteousness; replaces the unhealthy with the healthy; jettisons the illegitimate and seeks the legitimate; and puts away unnecessary suffering and pursues peace and joy in the Spirit.  

O God, I no longer want to live with saying I’m sorry and going right back to the old pig slop of sin. I cannot change on my own.  I need Jesus to both take away the sin and give me a new life of living for him.  Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil Help me to make choices that put to death the old way of life, and the courage to live into my forgiveness in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

1 Corinthians 14:20-25 – Becoming Spiritually Mature

To be perfectly frank, I’m getting exasperated with your infantile thinking. How long before you grow up and use your head—your adult head? It’s all right to have a childlike unfamiliarity with evil; a simple no is all that’s needed there. But there’s far more to saying yes to something. Only mature and well-exercised intelligence can save you from falling into gullibility. It’s written in Scripture that God said,

In strange tongues
    and from the mouths of strangers
I will preach to this people,
    but they’ll neither listen nor believe.

So where does it get you, all this speaking in tongues no one understands? It doesn’t help believers, and it only gives unbelievers something to gawk at. Plain truth-speaking, on the other hand, goes straight to the heart of believers and doesn’t get in the way of unbelievers. If you come together as a congregation and some unbelieving outsiders walk in on you as you’re all praying in tongues, unintelligible to each other and to them, won’t they assume you’ve taken leave of your senses and get out of there as fast as they can? But if some unbelieving outsiders walk in on a service where people are speaking out God’s truth, the plain words will bring them up against the truth and probe their hearts. Before you know it, they’re going to be on their faces before God, recognizing that God is among you. (MSG)

Throughout the history of Christianity there have been faithful saints committed to the cause of Christ, and there also has been professing believers who are inconsistent and irresponsible in their observance of faith. In other words, the church always has been a mix of spiritually mature and immature people.

The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Church at Corinth precisely because there was a large chunk of people who were just flat out childish. He wanted them to grow up. We anticipate babies are going to cry, poop, sleep, and have others caring for their basic needs. When adults act like babies, it is unacceptable and, well, offensive. We expect better. We need them to pull their weight and be responsible.

Paul addressed the Corinthian’s lack of unity, paucity of wisdom, too much worldliness, inattention to each other, abuse of freedom, and impropriety in worship. To correct this, he pointed them squarely toward love, the one permanent attribute that binds all things together. (1 Corinthians 13)

So, when it came to worshiping together, the church needed a more mature way of handling their meetings. The last thing they needed was worship which made no sense to most people. “I would rather speak five intelligible words that makes sense than ten thousand words in a language other people don’t know,” Paul said. (1 Corinthians 14:19, CEV)

Ministry is to be done guided by love and concern for another’s well-being. Spiritual gifts are not given for one’s own benefit but are provided for the encouragement and edification of others. The exercise of speaking plain truth with exorbitant love to each other does this; and it influences outsiders looking on from the margins. Sensitivity to the needs of those foreign to the church was a premium concern for Paul.

However, there is more to the outsider than simply observing what Christians are doing – the other will speak into the life of the believer. This, of course, ought to surprise no one. After all, God can speak through whomever or whatever, including people from all kinds of ethnic groups (Acts 2:1-12) and even a donkey (Numbers 22:28).

The New Testament lesson for today concerns respecting persons both within the church and outside. For fellow believers, we are to continually speak and act in ways which build up the entire Body of Christ. And, for those who are alien to the church, we are to pay attention to them and have a healthy repartee with them which acknowledges their inherent worth as fellow persons created in the image of God.

Churches and faith communities tend to be full of “insiders.” If they fail to listen to the “outsiders” then ultimately a similar situation to the Corinthian Church will occur. No one group of people have all the answers, so we all need to take a posture of humility and listening with genuine attention and loving focus. This honors the other and demonstrates basic kindness and respect.

Christian maturity is realized when spiritual growth is sustained over time and produces the fruit of wisdom and love. Wherever you find a group of folks who listen well, are attentive to those on the outside, and have an orientation to serving others in a spirit of love and grace, there you will find the Holy Spirit energizing and empowering people toward good deeds on behalf of both church and world.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

James 2:14-26 – Faith Works

What good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (NIV)

Genuine authentic faith is more than mere sentiment and head knowledge. Faith without works does not work. Strong robust faith is active and can withstand adversity.

The rhetorical questions the Apostle James asked were meant to awake his readers to the reality that true faith is always active. In other words, inactive faith is not really faith at all. In his letters to the churches, the Apostle Paul typically talked about the relationship between faith and works before a person converts to Christ, whereas the Apostle James emphasized the role of works after a profession of faith in Christ.

St. James was getting at the heart of how a believer in Jesus ought to live. And he did this by giving an illustration of the relationship between faith and works: If someone is in need and a person expresses a sentimental feeling, even if that feeling is sincere, without backing it up with action – the expression is merely an expression, nothing more. 

I once came home after a long day at work on a Valentine’s Day several years ago. I had picked up some flowers at a drive through flower shop. I walked into the door and handed my wife the flowers with an “I love you.”  Then, I sat down in a heap and turned on the television. My dear wife’s response was not so favorable to my sentimental overtures. I did not really put any thought or action behind Valentine’s Day, and she knew it. My words of “I love you” just did not sync with my actions. 

Just so you know, I redeemed myself the next year by winning a contest on a local radio station for a spouse’s best love note, and it got read on the air several times throughout the day for my lovely wife to hear. My commitment and actions were were nicely aligned so that when I said “I love you” at the end of that workday, there was no doubt about it.

Faith requires that actions sync with words. For example, when we say “I will pray for you” it needs to be more than an expression of concern – we need to spend the time and commitment it takes in praying for them.

Faith involves emotions yet ought not be limited by them. Faith can neither exist nor survive without deeds. Christian works are not an added extra to faith any more than breathing is an added extra to the body. Both faith and action is needed for the Christian life.

True faith is shown as the genuine article by how it acts in real life situations. Faith is more than a checklist of right beliefs to sign-off on, as if it were some fire insurance policy against hell. Frankly, as a Pastor, I have heard some pretty lame justifications over the decades for failing to help others, give to the poor, be involved in justice work, and just plain serve in the church, like, “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “That’s what we pay you to do,” and the ever-prolific, “This church is not meeting my needs.”

Those in the habit of complaining without an intent to boots-on-the-ground helping do not yet have an active faith. Each person is to do their part in serving the common good of all. And we all suffer when that does not happen. Bifurcating faith and action leave us with a false faith. 

If faith without action is okay, then so is the entire demonic realm. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible leads me to think that the devil has the entire thing memorized and knows it well from Genesis to Revelation. Yet, knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Information by itself is useless unless it is accompanied by gracious and loving action. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Salvation is a term Christians are familiar with. In the Christian tradition, it refers to being saved from sin, death, and hell. Sanctification is another term most Christians recognize. It means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart” for God. Sanctification is not an event but a process. Whereas saving faith is a gift given without works, sanctifying faith requires a great deal of effort. A lot of energy is expended to live the Christian life. The late Dallas Willard used to often say, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.” 

The Apostle James dealt primarily with the sanctifying faith every Christian needs to exhibit. It is as if we have been graciously granted a full-ride scholarship to a university (salvation) but now the real work begins (sanctification) to learn, grow, and obtain the degree. And, just as a student will surely become discouraged at some point throughout their education and wonder if they ought to drop out, so the Christian will face tremendous adversity and challenge. Indeed, a lot of blood-sweat-and-tears goes into our spiritual studies so that our faith will be strengthened for a lifetime of active loving service.

For example, the Old Testament character Abraham was saved from an empty way of life in a pagan country and given a gift of grace to move to the country God would show him. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor.  God just chose him (Joshua 24:2-3). Abraham sojourned as a pilgrim throughout the land God gave him, which mirrored his spiritual sojourning and learning to be a follower of God. Abraham faced a monumental test of faith when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).

Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did. Testing of faith is necessary so that we become mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:3-4). The way for authentic faith to develop and grow is in the fiery trial of adversity and hardship. Spiritual maturation, holiness, and a well-rounded faith come by means of difficult life circumstances.

Rahab and the Two Spies by Unknown artist

To press the significance of faith and works, the example of the Old Testament character Rahab is highlighted. Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the red-light district of Jericho. St. James was doing something profound and important – he took two extreme examples, one a giant of the faith, and the other an almost overlooked example of faith, to demonstrate we all are candidates for real faith.

Rahab’s faith and actions worked harmoniously. She genuinely believed the city of Jericho was going to be overcome by God’s judgment, and, so, she housed the visiting Israelite spies (Joshua 2:1-11). Methinks we must expand our understanding of faith to include persons others might exclude. Some may be quick to judge those with dubious lives and backgrounds, as well as the poor and needy. The bald fact of the matter is that we cannot sanitize Rahab as something other than what she was – and because of her faith she ended up being an ancestor of Jesus himself (Matthew 1:5).

From the standpoint of faith, Abraham and Rahab are on the same level. In Christ’s new egalitarian society, all are welcome, all are equal. Together, we work on our sanctifying faith by submitting to adversity as our teacher; finding solace in God’s Holy Word and Spirit; praying for and with others; worshiping God like there is no tomorrow; leaning into faithful relationships; keeping our eyes open to what God is doing; being patient with the process of sanctification; and embracing unwanted change as our friend.

Faith works, my young Padawan. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Energize it.