We were living in Ely, Nevada in 1977 when there was tremendous buzz over a new science fiction movie. It was the talk of the country. We wondered how long it would take to get to our little theater in Ely. First run movies could take as long as six months to make it Ely. To our delight, it didn’t take long.
It was supposed to be the first movie of a trilogy, but it the subtitle was later changed to Episode IV: A New Hope. We sat in that theater seeing something we never saw before. There was no space movie ever like Star Wars. It set the standard for all future science fiction movies.
In thinking about that subtitle, we had a sense that there was a need for hope in an empire ruled by evil. The evil was never clearly defined, but was embodied by a ruthless character named Darth Vader. The defining moment came when a space station capable of destroying planets was itself destroyed. In spite of this, the evil empire lived on. (I hope I wasn’t spoiling the ending for anyone.)
The conflict in the series was, at its core, a struggle to re-establish a republican form of government to replace a dictator. This made Star Wars a very American movie. So it seems the hope was to give the people a voice in their lives. As with many revolutions, the average person’s life was likely little altered by any change in government.
Today, a three year struggle is happening in Syria to replace a dictator with something. Though the revolt began with a desire for democracy, it is very murky as to what might replace Al-Assad’s government. Unlike Star Wars, the people of Syria are suffering from the civil war. There are millions of refugees. It may be that their hope would be an end to the conflict, caring little for who wins.
Most analysts say that there is a stalemate in the Syria fighting. That also means there is no end in sight for a resolution. Jordan and Turkey are bearing the brunt of harboring refugees. Each side launches counter-attacks. Islamic jihadists have infiltrated the revolutionaries, hoping for an Islamic republic. The biggest concentration of Al-Qaeda fighters is probably in Syria.
When we were in the Galilee area a little more than a month ago, we went up the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights was taken from Syria by Israel in the 1967 war. A few people on the tour expressed anxiety being so close to an active civil war. We could see well into Syria. When we were there, it was quiet and peaceful. If not for the media, we would have never known that a war was going on so close by.
A new hope for the galactic empire was to overthrow the dictator, the emperor. A new hope for the people of Syria would be, at least, a ceasefire, and at most, some kind of permanent peace. A new hope for the people of ancient Judah was freedom from military threat and an improving economy. A new hope for Isaiah would be a faithful people.
Isaiah has some great visions of hope. Last Sunday was a vision of peace, achieved only through trust in God. This week, we have another vision. Judah is in a bad place and Isaiah wants the people to have hope that things will be different. Anyone can proclaim that things will get better, so Isaiah not only gives the vision of a better time but also adds signs so that people will know when things will change.
Judah is ruled through a hereditary monarchy. Every king is a descendant from the great King David. The greatness of Judah is linked to the greatness of David. However, not all kings were great like David. During the reign of King Uzziah, Judah prospered. Uzziah also chose an uneasy relationship with the king of Assyria. Even though Judah paid tribute to Assyria, Judah still prospered.
Uzziah was succeeded by his son Jotham. Under Jotham, things went south. The economy was in decline and Assyria remained a threat even though Jotham remained a vassal.
Isaiah gives us an impression of how bleak things were under Jotham. David’s father’s name was Jesse. Using a tree metaphor, David was a branch of Jesse, maybe the strongest branch. But under Jotham, Jesse was just a stump. Nothing grew. The stump may also mean that that is all that is left of the Davidic line after Judah goes into exile.
Jotham was succeeded by Ahaz. The economy continued to be stagnant under Ahaz and the Assyrian army was on the march. Judah was under a dual threat. Ahaz refused an alliance with Israel and Damascus and was defeated by them, retaining his vassal relationship with Assyria. Israel and Damascus were leveled by the Assyrians and the survivors went into exile. Judah was a place in need of hope.
Yet there is hope. A new shoot will come out of Jesse. There might even be an implication that this new branch will be like David. Like David, the spirit of the Lord will be with him. Like David, he will have wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, he will know the Lord. Perhaps Isaiah is implying that Jotham does not know the Lord and that is why everything has gone wrong. Certainly, Ahaz was not very righteous.
This new shoot will be wise. What he sees and hears will not cloud his judgment. In righteousness, he will be a champion for the poor and the meek. Isaiah may wonder if Hezekiah would be the righteous king.
The shoot will be powerful. His words will strike fear in the earth. By his breath, he will kill the wicked. Obviously he is not a mouthwash commercial spokesperson candidate.
What Isaiah says next might make our ears perk up. This shoot will wear two belts: the first will be a belt of righteousness. This usually connotes a person who is right with God and is therefore right with other people. There is another belt for his loins, a belt of faithfulness. This might imply sexual purity, but also suggests an everlasting faithfulness to God.
A person with strange belts reminds us of an odd ball in the wilderness calling people to repentance, John the Baptist. John was calling the elite to task for not treating the poor fairly, just like this shoot from Jesse. John told people that the kingdom of heaven is near. This is also Jesus’ message. It is the same vision that Isaiah has.
Isaiah gave us another vision of a world full of peace and harmony. In Isaiah 2, it was the destruction of the instruments of war, because war became obsolete. In chapter 11, Isaiah has us return to Eden. In Eden, all animals, including humans, were vegetarians. So there was no violence.
Isaiah sees Eden and under the new shoot, Eden comes to Judah. Wolves and lambs live together in harmony. Leopards take naps with young goats. Calves and fattened cattle will graze with lions in peace. Joining the lions and the cattle are bears. Lions and oxen will eat straw. Children will play where snakes live with no fear of ever being bitten.
All of this is possible, because the entire earth will know God. When the whole world knows God, then the planet will know of God’s desire for peace and harmony. On God’s holy mountain, there will be no violence. For Isaiah the priest, his workplace is the mountain of God, the temple mount. The place where he spends most of his life will be a new Eden.
And it will be a little child who will lead them. A little child, the Prince of Peace, will be the leader of the new Eden. A little child will usher in a new world. This root of Jesse will signal the nations. They will go to his wonderful home and will learn how their homes can be transformed into an Eden. Isaiah continues to say after verse 10 that the new shoot will call the exiles home and they, too, will live in peace and harmony.
The gospel writers go to great lengths to emphasize Jesus’ Davidic heritage. They read Isaiah and in Isaiah they saw Isaiah’s vision coming to life in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the lion of Judah and the lamb of God all at once. Jesus’ message of peace and harmony are consistent with Isaiah’s vision. Isaiah uses a future tense in expressing his vision. Jesus used the present tense.
Jesus leads us into this vision. Jesus doesn’t wave a magic wand and it just happens. Jesus calls us, his followers, to complete his work and his vision. We are to be examples of peace and harmony. Through us, the world will know violence no more. The world will have hope.
Text: Isaiah 11:1–10