1 Advent: 9 December 2007
(Isaiah 11:1-10/Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19/Romans 15:4-13/Matthew 3:1-12)
Isaiah and House
May grace come and this world pass away. Come, Lord Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I generally don’t care for television: the Family Channel isn’t and the reality shows aren’t; sex is glorified – often between kids (they think they’re adults, but they’re kids) – and faith is ignored or ridiculed; heroes are essentially indistinguishable from villains, except the villains are usually portrayed as more interesting. All in all, television is a medium that aimed very low and undershot.
Except for House. I know I shouldn’t like House for so many reasons. Gregory House is the prototypical, modern, television anti-hero: self-absorbed, sex-obsessed, manipulative. He is an atheist who hates the fact that he’s not God. He is abusive to his patients, his colleagues, and what few friends he has. House gets by with this – and I guess I watch the show – because he’s brilliant and it’s fun to watch his mind work. And, I keep hoping for some redemption, hoping that House isn’t beyond hope.
For the first three seasons a team of three specialists assisted House: Foreman, a neurologist; Cameron, an immunologist; and Chase, an intensivist (a specialist in the treatment of critically ill patients). It was interesting to watch each doctor interpret a patient’s symptoms through the lens of his or her own specialty. Foreman always diagnosed a brain or central nervous system disorder, Cameron an autoimmune disease, and Chase – ever the suck-up – whatever he thought would endear him to House. It consistently fell to House to look beyond the narrow confines of the specialties to the larger problem, to the one diagnosis that tied together all the disparate symptoms. And therein lies the character’s brilliance.
The narrow-mindedness of the specialists is almost an unavoidable problem: If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem becomes a nail. I’ve done it myself time and time again – filtered a problem through my narrow set of experiences and expectations, totally misdiagnosed the situation, and developed a great solution for an entirely different problem, a solution that could not possibly work for the real situation at hand. It is true: your perception, your understanding of the problem determines the nature of the solution you will propose. It’s true in medicine – even on television. It’s true in business. It’s true in family life. And it’s true in faith.
Advent is the story of cracked eikons, the story of men and women created in God’s image who through rebellion and sin defaced that image. And that rebellion effected the entire created order: it corrupted human relationships with self, others, God, and creation; it brought death into the world; and it subjected all creation to futility. The disease man now carries – we rightly call it sin – has many different symptoms: in one it manifests as lust, in another greed, and in yet another anger. Just as with a medical specialist, the symptoms you focus on will determine the nature of the cure you propose.
Isaiah is with us again today as the great prophet of Advent. He is with us as one of us – a cracked eikon living amidst cracked eikons. He puts it a bit differently at the beginning of his prophetic ministry, but it amounts to the same.
1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"
4And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (Is 6:1-5, ESV)!
As Isaiah looks about and considers the state of his people Judah, several symptoms of the sin that infects the nation are apparent: true wisdom is in short supply, as is fear of the LORD; judgment is often perverted or withheld; the poor are systematically oppressed; the meek are denied equity. Isaiah filters these symptoms through his experience, through his specialty – under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we believe – and proposes a cure for the patient: a new righteous king from the Davidic dynasty. And, prophetically, he sees one on the horizon, though perhaps quite far off.
1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit (Is 11:1, ESV).
The great trunk of David’s line was felled by the division of the kingdom: only two generations, David and Solomon, ruled a united Israel. Upon Solomon’s death, and his son Reheboam’s folly, ten tribes seceded from the nation to form the northern kingdom of Israel. Two tribes, collectively called Judah, remained with the Davidic dynasty. The dynasty that should have been a massive tree had, by Isaiah’s time, been reduced to little more than a stump. And the stump itself had begun to rot as successive kings – with a few notable exceptions – moved Judah farther from God and away from the Law.
So, Isaiah prescribes a new king, a true son and heir of David as the cure for the nation’s social and spiritual illness. He envisions a king who blends David’s righteousness and justice with Solomon’s wisdom.
1There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.2And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.3And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear,4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.5Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
This king’s rule will be Spirit-filled: wisdom and understanding and counsel and might and knowledge – all these from the Spirit of the LORD. And these result in righteous judgments, not based on human perceptions of sight and sound, but upon the fear of the LORD and upon faithfulness. The poor and the meek will rejoice in Isaiah’s king; he will bring the justice and equity so long denied them and exercise the preferential option for the poor that God mandates in the Law. He will be the incarnation of Psalm 72, a coronation psalm of Solomon likely used for generations to come.
Give the King you justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the King’s Son;
That he may rule your people righteously
and the poor with justice;
That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people,
and the little hills bring righteousness.
He shall defend the needy among the people;
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure,
from one generation to another.
He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,
like showers that water the earth.
In his time shall the righteous flourish;
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
All kings shall bow down before him,
and all the nations do him service.
For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress,
and the oppressed who has no helper.
He shall have pity on the lowly and poor;
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence,
and dear shall their blood be in his sight
(Ps 72:1-7, 11-14, BCP).
Yes, this is Isaiah’s cure for what ails his people – a Spirit-filled king of righteousness brought forth from David’s line to reign faithfully over God’s renewed people Judah.
Until this point, Isaiah has been playing the specialist; his is the voice of a Foreman or Cameron or Chase, looking narrowly at the symptoms of his people while the real problem lies much deeper. All creation is out of joint, in bondage to decay, groaning as a woman in childbirth awaiting delivery. There are none righteous, none who seek after God. Sin and death reign supreme. There’s no room for a specialist here; we need House to see the big picture, to look at all the symptoms and diagnose the underlying problem. And Isaiah now does just that. He broadens his vision – the Spirit broadens his vision – to a time beyond his, to a people beyond his, to the day when the true Davidic king – son of David and Son of God – will appear to renew all creation. Isaiah looks to the day when, through the true King of kings,
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as waters cover the sea (Is 11:6-9, ESV).
This is nothing less than the return to Eden. This is the restoration of the cracked eikons and the renewal of all creation. This is Isaiah’s grand Advent vision, a vision that will come to pass through the King of Righteousness. Did Isaiah know who he was, who he was to be? It’s doubtful; the Spirit spoke through Isaiah for our benefit, not for his. The prophecy is for our time, not for his.
Isaiah never saw his righteous king. Judah continued its downward slide toward destruction, often led by its unrighteous kings. There were a couple of notable exceptions – the good kings Hezekiah and Josiah – but their religious and social reforms were short-lived and quickly rolled back by their successors. So, Isaiah waited. Isaiah watched. Isaiah prophesied. And Isaiah died with his prophecy yet unfulfilled, with his longing unsatisfied, with his dream of restoration unrealized. Perhaps that’s what makes Isaiah the great Advent prophet. He knew how to wait and how to remain faithful in the waiting.
There is another great Advent prophet, though, some seven centuries after Isaiah, who saw the Righteous King – who not only prophesied his coming, but who announced it. This great prophet proclaimed, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mt 3:1-3, NRSV).
Isaiah saw the righteous king afar. John saw him near. Isaiah waited in faith for his coming; that’s what made Isaiah an Advent prophet. John announced his immanent arrival; that’s what made John an Advent prophet.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came…(Mt 3:11-13a, NRSV).
The wait is over. Isaiah’s righteous king has arrived in the person of an unknown, carpenter-turned-rabbi from the sticks of Nazareth, a descendant of David of somewhat questionable birth – hardly what Isaiah had in mind. This king will have no palace; he will be homeless. This king will not reign; he will serve. This king will win no military victories; he will lay down his life. This king will have no throne; he will have a cross. Had Isaiah seen all this would he have understood? Probably not, at least no better than those who witnessed the events; that is, not at all. Isaiah the specialist wanted a cure for Judah, for God’s covenant people. That’s far too small. The Righteous King who came and who is to come, brought the cure – is the cure – for all creation. He is the perfect eikon of God who alone can restore all cracked eikons and release creation from bondage. He came not to rescue Isaiah’s Judah, but to create a new Judah from every language, tongue, tribe, and nation – a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father and our God and Father. He came to fulfill Isaiah’s universal vision. He came, not as Foreman or Cameron or Chase might have predicted, but as House surely would have.
So we’re told, and so we believe. But that’s not what I see. Is our world any less corrupt than Isaiah’s Judah? Are the poor and the meek in substantially better condition now? Are justice and faithfulness evident in our societies? Does the wolf dwell with the lamb and the leopard with the goat? Are children safe and free from fear? Is the earth full of the knowledge of the LORD as waters cover the sea? No and no and no and no and no and no. No to all these questions and to a thousand like them. Like Isaiah we are stuck in Advent, with a vision of what is far but not near, then but not now. We believe the Righteous King has appeared. We believe that his incarnation, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension truly accomplished all that Isaiah foretold and much that Isaiah could not see. We believe that cracked eikons are even now being restored to the image of God and a new and holy people are being created around and in and through Jesus, the Righteous King. We believe that sin and death are vanquished foes with no power to terrify or destroy. We believe and we await the completion of all these things.
Like Isaiah we are called to be great prophets of Advent. We have a true vision of what will be when Christ, the Righteous King, is all and in all. We announce that vision now. We work for and pray for that vision now. We live within that vision now. We live out that vision now, in our families and communities, in our churches and in schools and in our places of business through acts of faithfulness and righteousness and justice, through a preferential option for the poor and meek, through service, and through peace. We watch for the small signs that that vision is emerging and growing and happening among us even now. Like John we say, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” and like Isaiah we say, “The day of the Lord is coming.” It’s a strange Advent we live: an already but not yet time, a fulfilled but incomplete promise. The great advantage we have over Isaiah is this: we have seen the coming of the Righteous King. Now we await his coming again.