The Peaceable Kingdom and Promise of a Messiah Sermon
At Christmas, we always hear about how the prophets had foretold the coming of a messiah who would usher in an era of peace and justice. Our scripture reading from Isaiah 11:1-9 offers such a portrait. As we begin this Advent season, we will look at what the prophets said about the coming messiah so that we can make our Christmas season more meaningful and live by a hopeful vision of our future.
What do we mean by “Messiah?”
You may be surprised to learn the word Messiah is the Hebrew version of the Greek word Christ. Christ and Messiah both mean “anointed.”
We frequently hear the word anointed. In business, the Wall Street Journal often talks about corporations anointing a new CEO promising to lead the company into greater prosperity. In sports, when a team drafts a new quarterback, reporters say he is the anointed one to lead the team to the promised land of championships. When a new political star dawns on the horizon, pundits will proclaim them the anointed one who will lead their party to power. Anointing has to do with the acceptance of someone as a leader with great promise.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines anoint as to smear or rub with oil or oily substance. Or to apply oil as part of religious ceremony and to choose by or as if by divine election. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anoint
The Bible’s first religious oil smear happened in the time of Moses. Using scented oil was a way of setting certain objects apart for worship–to say that they were sacred and used for God’s purposes. Before long, people were anointed, especially leaders for certain tasks, marking them as those given a special purpose in God’s work. Eventually, kings were anointed.
The Bible describes how God sent the prophet Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s son’s as king. After a long ordeal of figuring out who was the chosen son, Samuel discovered it was the one no one expected. The youngest, still a boy–named David. Maybe you remember Psalm 23, a psalm of David: Thou anointest my head with oil.
Subsequently, all the kings in the Old Testament were anointed with oil. Great Britain has carried on the Old Testament tradition, and we will see it played out in real-time when King Charles is coronated. You may be as surprised as I was to learn that it’s not setting the crown on the monarch’s head, but the anointing with oil by an archbishop is considered the most sacred ritual in the entire ceremony. It signifies the holy task of reigning as the head of the Church of England. I know it’s hard to think of Charles as a religious leader, but it’s their system, not ours. https://www.rct.uk/collection/31733/the-coronation-spoon
So, on its most fundamental level, the biblical concept of a messiah or Christ signifies a royal anointing or appointing of one as the leader of God’s people. You are anointed by baptism. A little Christ. Bring it wherever you go. You bring the promise to those around you.
Visions of a righteous king
When Israel had no king and was under foreign occupation, the prophets said the day would come when God raises another anointed king. Several hundred years before Jesus, they painted a picture of an ideal king who will right the wrongs and rule with righteousness and justice. He would be on the side of the poor and disenfranchised. He would be a shepherd of the people, bringing up the wounded, bringing back the strays, and pouring healing oil on the wounds within the flock. He would be from the lineage of King David and reign forever.
Prophets such as Isaiah in chapter 53 saw that it would be no easy task, that the righteous one would suffer to redeem the people. But in the end, he would bring light to a world of darkness.
Centuries passed by. Empires and kings came and went. But people measured every ruler by the prophets’ lofty standards. They longed and prayed for one who could fit the description.
A Shoot of Jesse’s Tree
In the time of Isaiah, an empire conquered Israel. Isaiah shuffled around the ruins. But his experience with God told him that this was not the end. He knew that God was faithful and that God could redeem anything that happens to us. Some of us need to be reminded of that.
Isaiah used the image of a tree that had been felled, leaving only a stump. But he said there would be one who would rise, a shoot from the stump of the tree of Jesse—that is, a descendent of King David. The new king would come up and help the poor and the oppressed, make things right and usher in a day of peace. Whenever you see a tree stump with a little shoot growing out of it, you should smile and remember that God isn’t done with you yet. No matter how bad it is, there is still hope.
Centuries after Isaiah, people said, that’s right. Sounds like Isaiah was talking about Jesus. That is why Matthew and Luke’s gospels have genealogies near the beginning. You know all those so and so “begat” so and so. It’s to show Jesus’ bona fides as the shoot arising from the stump of Jesse’s tree.
Some people celebrate Christmas by displaying a Jesse tree. It’s like a regular Christmas tree, but the ornaments represent the people listed in the genealogies, and it’s a way of remembering the whole story of God’s redemptive purposes that culminate with Jesus.
Recognizing Jesus as the Messiah
In the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as Christ or Messiah over 500 times. It was a faith statement about how Jesus led people in a way after God’s own heart. He embodied God’s presence in the world, and he shows us what it is to redeem and love a broken world. They saw how Jesus talked about a different kind of kingdom. A kin-dom—where people were united and live in peace.
Christians met resistance when they identified Jesus as the Messiah. Many people said that Jesus checked many boxes of what the prophets had said. Such as:
• Descendent of David,
• born in Bethlehem to a young woman,
• hung out with the poor,
• had the Spirit of God upon him,
• road into Jerusalem on a donkey from the Mount of Olives,
• suffered because of the sins of others.
We’ll give you all of that, but there are some boxes he didn’t check off. He didn’t re-establish Israel as an independent nation that ruled over all other nations. He didn’t vanquish his enemies. And as far as I can tell, it’s not safe for the lamb to lie down with a lion—unless, as they say, you have an infinite supply of lambs.
Not everything predicted about the Messiah could neatly be applied to Jesus. The standard answer was, “Well, when Jesus comes back, he’ll check off the rest of the boxes and establish a peaceable kingdom.” Many people said, “Meh, I’ll wait until he comes back to worship him, then.”
In the Here and Now
But I don’t think Jesus was constantly talking about a kingdom that wouldn’t show up for at least another 2,022 years. I think he was talking about a kin-dom of unity, where differences are overcome in this world.
He said the kingdom of God is within you and among you. Now. It’s a state of being. It’s a vision we strive for. It’s not about livestock but about how we treat each other. We can choose not to use our power to destroy the lambs. We can treat each other better. We can be people of peace.
Barbara Kingsolver, saying, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out that for which you hope. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof.”
Jesus and Isaiah hold up a vision of a kingdom for us to live into. Where you are looking, where you place your attention guides your direction.
The word Christian has to do with our following the vision of the anointed one. We follow into a vision of peace and justice.