Isaiah 11: 1-10
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
11 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia,[a] from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.
Romans 15: 4-13
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess[a] you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
10 and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
11 and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
12 and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 3: 1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’[a] 3 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.”’
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 ‘I baptize you with[b] 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[c]the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 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.’
Last Sunday we discussed Isaiah’s picture of swords being changed into ploughshares. This week and next I want to continue to explore the world of prophecy, mainly through our readings in Isaiah, but also bringing in John the Baptist.
Isaiah’s picture of transformation brings together the two parts of his message: prophecies of judgment, about the failing present, and prophecies of hope, for a new, alternative future. The present state of the world, its powers, are clearly exposed for what they are. And then an alternative future is imagined, the future for which God made us and which he continues to create. For me, Isaiah is not predicting a specific future, but expressing a vision that one day God’s wonderful, self-giving work of creation will truly become all that it was made to be, in communion with him: He the creator, the lover, and we, his creation, the beloved, in eternal harmony.
Today’s reading from Isaiah 11, looks further into that future hope. It imagines a descendant of David, from the stump of Jesse, a new kind of leader: the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him and the fear of God will be his inspiration.
Isaiah comes back many times to this hope of a new leader who will not be like the failing King against whom he prophecies. For example, in chapter 7, we find the familiar words, “A woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.”
Words we will hear again at Christmas, words many see as a foretelling of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Others, taking a very different line, interpret these verses historically, arising out of the promise of a new king, Hezekiah, after the disappointments of his father Ahaz.
Both interpretations are valid. I however, would like to explore a third, which is as I suggested last week, that Isaiah’s words can be seen as insights into his present. Can we learn from Isaiah as someone reflecting on the nature of Kingship, or leadership more generally?
To put this in historical context. This is 700 years before Christ. At that time leaders were expected to be warriors, to lead their troops into battle and to put down rebellion at home, to sit in judgment as the powerful vied with each other. Leadership was for the most part aggressive, bold and male.
Isaiah’s alternative vision feels different, astonishingly so. For me it’s as if the leader’s dominant ego, needy and performative, has been overcome; and in the space left vacant, we find – the fear of God.
The fear of God is his inspiration, we are told. What might this mean? The Hebrew word translated as fear does not contain anxiety or dread. It is perhaps the feeling you get when you look up at the stars. In New Testament Greek, we read that love casts out fear – in Isaiah’s Hebrew, love and fear go hand in hand.
So I imagine a leader who is animated by a desire to do God’s will, and yet at the same time falls to his knees before the immensity, the mystery of God – who reaches out with empty hands.
And in this same spirit Isaiah goes on, “a leader who does not judge by what his eyes see or what his ears hear” A leader, perhaps, who hesitates, searches for inner guidance, from the spirit of God, who softens his heart, and leads him to attend to the needs of the poor and the meek, with justice and fairness.
This week I spent a few days at St Beuno’s, a Jesuit retreat centre in North Wales. We were reminded that Jesuits are called to a path of spiritual poverty.
The fear of God, not judging by what we see, spiritual poverty: Are these insights into the nature of leadership, I wonder, woven from the same cloth?
This brings me to John the Baptist, who we can identify as mainly a prophet of judgment, calling the people to repentance. What struck me about today’s reading is how harsh he is with those Pharisees and Saducees who come to him for baptism – who come, presumably, acknowledging their need to repent.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance” John says to them.
How have they failed? Jesus also has harsh words for them, he says: you load the people with burdens hard to bear… you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves and you hindered those who were entering.”
So perhaps their failure, which incenses both John and Jesus, is a failure, as leaders, to open up access, to unburden, to give away their knowledge and their power. Jesus, by contrast, repeatedly encourages with the invitation, “the Kingdom of God is here”, an invitation given first to those excluded from the rites and rituals of the temple – and Jesus shows us the ultimate giving away, of himself, in the Eucharist, offered as a supreme gift of love for all humanity, including he who betrayed him.
So these are my reflections on leadership, on Isaiah’s alternative vision, in harmony as it is with the leadership anticipated by John the Baptist and realised in Jesus.
I offer you these reflections, of course, as someone in leadership. I encourage you to hold me to account, feel free to point out any discrepancies (though perhaps not right now – over coffee will be fine).
And I invite you to reflect on the way you are as leaders, whether it be in work, family or with friends, whether by authority or by influence. Let us all open our hearts to the spirit of the Lord, in fear and unknowing, in spiritual poverty but in sincere desire to follow the example of Jesus.