Dr. Chris White May 22, 2014
Memorial Day is a day and weekend when everyone breathes a sigh of relief—finally, free time and warm weather. And yet Memorial Day is sobering news: 1.1 million U.S. persons were killed trying to kill other persons. Some of those wars were easy to accept, but there were not always sound reasons why those people died; half of those losses alone came by our own hands in the war between the states. In fact, it was that war, the conflict of greatest losses, that brought us Memorial Day. The U.S. Dep’t of Veteran’s Affairs cites April 25, 1866, as one of the first occurrences of Memorial Day. In Columbus, Mississippi, at Shiloh, a group of women decorating Confederate graves just one year after the end of the Civil War noticed the neglected graves of Union soldiers. Moved by pity, they placed some of their flowers on their graves as well. Memorial Day drudges up big issues: Right and rights, war and honor, death and memory, and both what war costs and the dream of what the world could be without war.
The Book of Isaiah speaks to the conflicts of this world. Isaiah is prophet in the court of four kings, so he sees first hand all that peace and war cost. He knows what a righteous king can bring a nation and what an unrighteous king can cost a nation. For us he is also the prophet who points to a future time beyond kings, a time of the Messiah he foreshadows in today’s passage. He lived between a gritty Now and a hopeful Then—when God’s will would be fully on earth. We also live between the hopeful Then and the gritty Now, and we face a vexing question: How do we live between the Now and the Then?
Let’s begin with Isaiah 11:1-5.
Isaiah lived in his Now with a hope that a righteous king would emerge from the line of King David, son of Jesse. It was believed that every king anointed to be king was anointed as God’s leader. The hope, of course, was that a king would one come who exercised wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and the fear of the Lord (v. 2). Further, the dream was a king who would have discernment and rule with justice, and—a word that will come up again and again—be righteous. As we read this today we look to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of this Messianic text. We have a righteous Lord and Judge from the root of Jesse. We live in the grit of Now and await the time when every knee shall bow.
But as we wait it is worth considering this most important word, righteousness. The Jewish understanding of righteousness is tied up in a righteous God who gave a Law, keeps a Law, and calls His people to also keep the Law. This God has a relationship with humans based on righteousness—His righteousness and theirs. Psalm 15 asks, Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? The answer: He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from the heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and cast no slur on his fellowman… Jews take God’s righteousness seriously, and to please Him they have to take their own righteousness seriously. There is an earthiness to Judaism you have to appreciate: it measures one’s standing before God by right actions. One cannot be in conflict with God’s moral law and be right before God. One cannot steal from neighbors and be right before God.
While we find our righteousness in Christ and his death on the cross, we have not outgrown the need for living with righteousness. That is, we should be known for the right. Not insisting on being right, per se, but doing right. No one should dread you as a Christian boss; instead, employees should expect a Christian boss to know and do what is right. Righteous. No one should dread you as a Christian employee for the same reasons. The list goes on: no one should dread the pain and deceit lurking in this world when they encounter you as a Christian neighbor, a Christian parent, or a Christian child. *I read this week in Christianity Today of evangelical boarding schools for missionary kids which used the isolation and Christian virtue of suffering in silence to enable sexual predators over decades. Parents didn’t believe kids, and kids were told by abusers to leave their missionary parents to the Lord’s work and not interrupt their service. We should be known as a people who do what it right, even when it is difficult. More than just telling people about God’s righteousness, we are willing to reflect some of it. Right action is a sign of righteousness in real time.
There is more in Isaiah 11. The passage goes on to give us one of the more memorable images of a future verses 6-9. Please read with me.
So great will this leader and time be, in the imagination of Isaiah, that all the great enemies and dangers will cease to be. Carnivores will take naps with herbivores and not desire in their hearts to eat them. Infants and children will play near the most venomous snakes without fear. No one will plan to bring harm or destruction on the mountain, Jerusalem. That will be a great occurrence. The reason for it, however, is in verse 9: the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. So great will be the time of a Messiah King that knowledge of God will be like a great flood. It is a very idyllic vision. It looks too far away to believe, especially when we live in an age of Russia/Ukraine, China/Tibet, India/Pakistan, and North/ South Korea. Conflicts are replaced by conflicts.
But I think there is a way to take this passage to heart. When the Scriptures give us a vision for life with the full reach of the Messiah, it reshapes life among enemies. Carnivores and herbivores, infants and vipers, represent some healthy sense of conflict and fear in the face of enemies. We may not think we have enemies, per se, but we have people we fear, people we avoid, people we resent, and people we do not trust. As herbivores, we have to decide how we’re going to address the carnivores. As parents, we have to decide how close our kids play to the holes of vipers. As I’ve mentioned time and time again, no ethical teaching is more unique to Jesus than his teachings on enemies. From Luke 6: 27: But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. I think we hold the greatest opportunity to reveal the fullest breadth of God’s work in our lives by our response to enemies. And we respond to enemies as God responded to His enemies: with love. Of all the things we think about Jesus, we cannot forget that Jesus is God’s response to His enemies. He came not be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
You and I cannot underestimate the power of offering agape love, self-giving love, grace, to those we deem a threat. Imagine the power of a church that does good to those that hate us, blessing those who curse us, and praying for those who mistreat us. You and I cannot underestimate the power of forgiveness and kindness toward people who harm us. There may be no greater expression of Christ in you than by treating people with the love Christ brings you. This is moving to the side of Jesus Christ, the Root of Jesse who is among us today. We have this king.