Isaiah 11:1-10 & Matthew 3:1-12

Advent Prophets

What shape is a snooker table?

If you look at this first image, taken from the television coverage of this match, you would be forgiven for thinking that a snooker table is square. Even if you know that a snooker table is longer than it is wide, you might not have an appreciation of how much longer than it is wide. To get an idea of this, then you need a different angle, a different perspective. It is only when you look from above, as in this graphic, that you see how much longer the table is than it is wide. The original perspective is very much foreshortened, a side effect of the angle of the camera and of the way in which our brains interpret two dimensional representations of three dimensional scenes.

A similar thing happens when we see athletics events on the television. Take this shot of runners in a half marathon. It looks from this shot as though the runners in the distance and not that far behind the leading runners. However, if we were able to have an overhead shot, or pan the camera round to the side, then we would discover that the runners in the distance are exactly that, quite a long way behind the leaders.
Again, the image is foreshortened, and things that are far apart are bunched together.

Why am I going on about snooker tables, marathons, and foreshortening?

This morning we are celebrating the second Sunday of Advent, and so are remembering the prophets, those sent by God as messengers to God’s people. Many of these, like Isaiah, who we heard read from this morning, spoke of things that were to come in the future, especially about the one that God was going to send to rescue God’s people, and to restore creation.

One of the features of many Biblical prophecies is foreshortening. It’s like we’re looking at it head on, and this bunches things together, that actually are far apart. Today’s reading from Isaiah is a good example of this, and understanding this characteristic of prophecy can, it seems to me, give us better insights into it, and can increase our faith in its reliability.

When we first read it, we might think that it works like this. We have Isaiah at the front, looking forward in time, and there is an obvious sequence in the order of things that he sees happening. First the shoot is going to come up, bear fruit, and the Spirit will rest on him. Then we get the description of some of the things that he will do, and the values of his kingdom, and then we get the outworking of these values in the descriptions of the idyllic conditions on God’s holy mountain. There is a clear sequence, but we might get the idea that these things are going to happen one after the other, quite close together.

But, if we bear in mind the foreshortening effect, and look from a different angle, we can get a more realistic perspective.

We realise that from Isaiah’s time to even the start of the fulfilment of this prophecy is 700 years. The first few verses of the prophecy describe what will be seen at the initial fulfilment, which is only the beginning of a process, that we now know has taken hundreds of years, and continues even today. The last verses describe the end of that process, which has not, even now, come to fulfilment.

Why is this important? Well, it seems to me that if we only look at this kind of prophecy head on, then we might get disheartened. We can see that parts of it have been fulfilled, but are left wondering and, perhaps, disappointed. Where is the rest of it? Why haven’t we experienced the fulfilment of all of it? What has gone wrong? We may even doubt the reliability of God’s word, of God’s promises. On the other hand, if we take the other perspective, it can encourage us. The fact that we have seen the first part fulfilled, and have experience some of the fulfilment of the middle part, gives us confidence and builds our faith that the rest will also be fulfilled.

In his second letter to his Christian friends, the apostle Peter, addresses exactly this issue. He writes this in 2 Peter 3, verse 9 “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

As well as helping us to understand our Biblical prophecy works, getting this long view perspective can also help us in understanding God’s promises and words of knowledge or prophecy today. It may be that we feel like we’ve had a promise from God, or received a prophecy that hasn’t yet borne fruit, or been fulfilled. This can cause us to feel disappointed and let down by God. Now, it may be that there is some sin in our lives, or other peoples’ lives that is getting in the way of the fulfilment of that promise or prophetic word. If so, the Holy Spirit will make that clear to us, calling us to repentance. It is also possible that we’ve just not got a good view of the timescale that God is working to, and that we need to be patient and persevere in prayer and faithful surrender to God.

So, we’ve thought about the relationship between the different aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy, but what about what it actually says? What do they mean for us today?

Let’s take it a section at a time, beginning with the first few verses. Here Isaiah is talking about a shoot that is going to come up from the stump of Jesse. Who was Jesse? He was King David’s father. At the time that Isaiah was writing the royal house descended from David, and therefore from Jesse, had failed. Isaiah is saying that a new king, from the house of David, is going to rise up. And, of course, as we read the accounts of the first Christmas, we know that this is Jesus, the descendant of David. But this is not all that Isaiah says. He says that God’s spirit is going to rest on this new king, God’s spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. We know that this was fulfilled when Jesus was baptised by John, and the Holy Spirit descended and rested on him. We see these fruit in the life of Jesus – his wisdom, understanding, might, and knowledge. So it’s all been fulfilled, which is great, but there is more to come.

In our reading from Matthew’s eye witness account of Jesus’ life, we hear John the Baptist saying that Jesus will baptise people with the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself promised his followers that the Holy Spirit would fill them and be with them, and this promise was fulfilled at Pentecost, and is the lived experience of every Christian since. This Spirit of the Lord that Isaiah prophesied would rest on the Son of David is the same Holy Spirit that the Son of David promised would be with and in us. By the work of the Holy Spirit, we can have the same wisdom, might, understanding, sense of God’s majesty.

Why do we need the Holy Spirit? It’s so that we can work for the Kingdom of our King. This is what the next few verses are about. When Jesus came he declared that the kingdom of God was near. When he first spoke at the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, he told the people what the values of this Kingdom are. He read from another part of Isaiah’s writings, ““The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” He sat down and told the congregation that the prophecy had been fulfilled. He was the one who had come to bring in these kingdom values.

It can be frustrating and disheartening to look around the world and see the many ways that these values are not yet being seen in all the world. But they are there, and the kingdom of God is advancing. We are also anointed by the Holy Spirit to work for, to pray for, to advocate for, these values and to live by them. This is the in between time, and there is work to be done.

As we do this work we are sustained by hope and faith. The hope of the better future that we get a glimpse of in the last few verses of this section from Isaiah. In this beautiful future there is no conflict. We don’t know how, but somehow “Natural enemies” are reconciled. It’s not just a cute picture. Think about it a moment. What is more fundamental and irresolvable than the conflict between prey and predator. For one to live the other must die. For one to eat the other must be eaten. For one to live on, the other must starve. This is deep rooted opposition in the very definition of what these creatures are. And somehow, in the end, this impossible dispute will be resolved. As will every other conflict and dispute, however deep rooted and irreconcilable they seem now.

On the sure foundation of the past, and what we have seen of God’s work in Jesus, then let us keep working and praying in the Spirit with hope and faith in a future we haven’t yet seen, but which we know will be glorious, and let’s do this with prophetic words of challenge and encouragement.

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