Have you been keeping up with the news recently? Even with the US election out of the way, it seems that the news is still full of commentary on national leaders.
Former Cuban president Fidel Castro died on 25 November. He led the revolution which overthrew the military government of General Batista, and established a communist state in Cuba, himself becoming President in due course. What has been notable this week is the great diversity of opinion expressed regarding Castro. The socialist Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, issued a statement which praised Castro’s “tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people”. On the other hand, US President-elect Donald Trump called Castro “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades”.
The range and strength of feeling in response to Castro’s rule and death reminded me of the reactions in this country to the death of Margaret Thatcher in April 2013. You may recall that there were demonstatrations and street parties in many cities of the UK in response to the news of her death. On the other hand, many in the Conservative Party still look back to her 10.5 years as Prime Minister as a golden age in recent UK politics.
My point here is not to take sides on the merits of any of these people. Rather, I just want to remind you that our leaders frequently fail. Even those who are regarded by some people as national heroes, are seen as abject failures by others. Our leaders often fail to lead their people as they should.
This idea would not have come as a surprise to the people of Israel in Isaiah’s day. As Phil explained to us a couple of weeks ago, Isaiah lived at a time when the kingdom of Judah, which was the southern part of what had once been the original nation of Israel, was under threat from the great Assyrian empire. And the kings of Israel, the leaders who were needed to stand up to that threat and others like it, were failing to lead their people as they should.
A little history here is useful. Israel’s identity as a nation began in the time of Moses, when God led them out from slavery in Egypt, and gave them the land of Canaan to settle in. Right from the beginning, though, the people kept turning away from God. Instead of trusting God to provide what they needed, they got scared of their enemies. Instead of obeying God’s command to drive out their enemies, they made deals and allowed them to stay.
And so God provided a king. The first King was called Saul. At first, he followed God’s commands, and God blessed his reign. Saul ruled for 40 years. But things started to go wrong - Saul was afraid of the powerful nations around him, and he doubted God’s promises to him. And then Saul ignored God’s instructions, and so God removed that blessing from him.
God raised up a new king - David, the son of Jesse. Whilst Saul was too afraid to fight, David trusted God and defeated the Philistine giant Goliath. Saul was still alive, so it took some time before David reached the Israelite throne and ruled the people. Under David’s rule, the kingdom finally conquered all the land that God had promised for them, and lived in security. David was remembered as the greatest king that Israel had ever had, and the head of the royal dynasty that lasted until Isaiah’s day.
But David wasn’t perfect. He committed adultery with the wife of one of his generals, and tried to cover up what he had done. When that failed, David had the man murdered, so that he could marry the widow himself.
David’s son Solomon was next on the throne. He is remembered as a wise king, who built the Temple to the Lord in Jerusalem, and who was honoured by all the surrounding countries. But Solomon broke God’s commands by taking many foreign wives, who brought with them their worship of other gods. Solomon himself even joined in the worship of these other Gods.
And so that set the pattern for the kings who followed. Civil war between Solomon’s sons split the country into two - the kingdom of Israel in the north, and the kingdom of Judah in the south. But the kings of both countries failed in their leadership, just as David and Solomon had done. They failed in matters of justice, oppressing the poor for their own benefit. And they failed to worship God, turning instead to the idols worshipped by the surrounding nations. Granted, some kings were less bad than others. The northern kingdom of Israel went downhill more quickly, and they were overrun by the Assyrians in around 720 BC. The southern kingdom, where Isaiah lived, would last another 140 years before it was conquered.
So then, into this situation, this history of poor leadership, Isaiah brings a message from God. Firstly, we saw in chapter 6 God’s reminder that he is still in charge. Isaiah had a marvellous vision of God’s glory - as if God was saying “Don’t be scared, even though your leaders are rubbish and your enemies are close by, because I am in charge.” God tells Isaiah that he can fix the situation. Secondly, in our passage this morning, God promises a new leader, a better king, who will lead his people properly. He tells Isaiah how he’s going to fix the situation.
We learn three things about this new king:
1. A Godly king
Firstly, he will be a Godly king (verses 1-3a).
It’s clear that this promised king, this Messiah who will lead the people, is going to have some link with the kings who have ruled in the past. He is going to come from the stump of Jesse, from Jesse’s family tree, just as they did. You see, it’s not as if God was changing his plans - he doesn’t say “you know what, kings didn’t work out, let’s try something else instead. This is not some kind of plan B. No, God’s plan all along was to provide his people with a perfect king.
But at the same time, God is not merely papering over the cracks.
Rosie and I are not particularly into decorating. In our old house in Birmingham, we were pleased that most of the house was in a reasonable state when we moved in, so we didn’t have to do anything. There was just one room, the master bedroom, that needed doing - it had peeling wallpaper and no carpet. It took us 5 years of living there before we sorted it. But when we did, it was clear that a lick of paint wasn’t going to be enough - the walls were in too bad a condition. We had to take all the layers of wallpaper off, right back to the plaster, and have the walls skimmed so that we could paint it. When it was done, it looked lovely - it was a pity we moved out less than a year later!
With this Messiah, God has cut the rotten family tree right back to its stump. The diseased wood has been cut away, and a new healthy branch is growing in its place.
There is a fundamental difference that is going to make the new king succeed where the previous ones have failed, and that is the presence of God’s Spirit running through every fibre of his being. This new king will have Godly wisdom and understanding for leadership, counsel and power for carrying out God’s work, and knowledge and fear of the Lord for holiness. He is going to be the perfect King, who will perfectly lead his people in their worship of God.
It’s appropriate that we have this passage at this time of year, in the lead up to Christmas, because this is a prophecy that is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the Godly king who leads his people in true worship of the Lord. If you read the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew, you will see that Matthew starts his account with a genealogy. He traces the line of Abraham down to Jesse, then down through the kingly line until the kingdom was conquered and the Jews exiled to Babylon, and then down further still to “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ”. ‘Christ’ is just another word for ‘Messiah’, meaning the king that God has promised.
Jesus is the one who, in human terms, grew out of that stump of Jesse as the new king. Jesus is the one whom the apostle Paul describes as “in very nature God”. The one of whom God said from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”. Jesus is our Godly king.
2. A just king
The second thing that Isaiah tells us about this Messiah, about Jesus, is that he rules with justice (verses 3b-5).
Even the best human rulers have one great limitation - they can only make decisions based on the evidence in front of them. They are limited to what their eyes and ears can tell them. And that’s just the ideal; we’ve seen already that, in practice, humans fall well below that standard. We give less weight to the facts that don’t fit our desired outcome, or we choose to help one group of people knowing that it will mean hardship for others.
And then, of course, there is the problem that we don’t have all the evidence available. Even with the best will in the world, humans cannot know what happened if it is not recorded in some form. That is why it is a great idea to hold judgement on an issue until you have taken the time to look into it for yourself. And it’s why so much damage can be done when there is corruption or just laziness in the police forces.
You may remember a string of high profile miscarriages of justice which came to light in the late 80s and early 90s, as evidence came to light which had previously been unknown or deliberately ignored, releasing people who had spent up to 30 years in prison for crimes that they did not commit. For me, it is one of the main arguments against the use of the death penalty - we are simply incapable of knowing whether we have all the evidence we need.
But that is not a problem for the Messiah. Isaiah tells us that he is not limited to what can be seen or heard. Instead, he will judge with righteousness and with justice. In other words, he will be capable of discerning for himself what is actually true. Phil reminded us two weeks ago of God’s eternal qualities: he is omniscient, meaning that he knowseverything, and he is omnipotent - he can doeverything. And because the Messiah is filled with the Spirit of the Lord, those things apply to him as well.
At the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus told his disciples “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He described himself as “separat[ing] the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Jesus will sit in judgement over all people. But he will do that based not on external appearances - how people appear, or behave outwardly - but on a complete and perfect knowledge of every thing that we have thought and done.
That’s got to be good news, hasn’t it? Knowing that even the President of the United States will not be able to get away with cheating the tax man, or molesting women? Knowing that a child abuser won’t escape justice , no matter how respectable their public life? Knowing that those who are poor or have no voice will be on a level playing field with those who enjoy wealth and power?
But it’s also quite scary. It means that we will be held to account for every harsh word we have spoken, whether in public, in private, or even just in our own heads. Every selfish thought we’ve had. Every time we have knowingly pushed over the speed limit in the car because we were too disorganised to leave on time. Every time we’ve chosen to keep that treat for ourselves instead of sharing it with others. All these things are known to Jesus, the judge of the universe.
Jesus can’t overlook these things - they are a matter of justice and of righteousness. But amazingly he does something even better - he offers to take the penalty for these things on himself. On the cross, Jesus willingly took on the punishment from God that we deserve. And so, as the apostle John wrote in his third letter:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
It is a matter of justice that our sin, our rebellion against God’s perfect order, deserves punishment. But it is also a matter of justice that, once the punishment has been applied to Jesus, it cannot any longer be applied to us. Punishing two people for the same offence would be as equally unjust as punishing no-one.
3. A peaceful king.
Thirdly then, we learn that Jesus is a king who brings peace, not war (verses 6-10). In wonderfully poetic language, Isaiah paints a picture of the Messiah bringing true peace. Even the most bloodthirsty predator will turn vegetarian, and all will put aside their previous differences. It’s a glorious reversal of the curse put in place in Genesis 3 in response to sin; it’s a return to creation as it is meant to be.
No longer will we fight over resources. If, like me, you have ever had to take the train into London during rush hour, then you’ll know that just getting on the train is anything but peaceful!! But Jesus promises to end all that. The memories of Black Friday shoppers grappling for the last telly, or of starving children in a refugee camp, will be completely forgotten.
It’s a promise so alien to our experience that we can’t even imagine what that would be like. This is not the sort of peace you get on a deserted beach on holiday, sipping a cocktail as you watch the glorious sunset. It’s not the peace you get by getting away from it all. Rather, it’s the peace you get when there’s nothing to get away from. When that conflict simply no longer exits.
It’s a peace, Isaiah says, that comes with a perfect knowledge of God. Not only will there be no conflict between people, or between predators and prey, but there will be no conflict between us and God. We will delight to serve him, just as Jesus does. It is because Jesus removes from us that rebellion, that conflict with God, that we are able to live at peace with one another
And so it’s not a peace that we enjoy fully yet, but it is one that, as Christians, we can look forward to. We are in the season of Advent in the church calendar - meaning “coming” or “arrival”. It is a time where we look forward to Jesus arrival as a baby on that very first Christmas. But it is also a time where we look forward to Jesus’ promised return in glory. Jesus told his followers that one day he will return and will be seen as the king by the whole world - believers and unbelievers alike. He will come as the just king who judges all with full and perfect knowledge of everything that has been thought and done. Those who are depending on Jesus’ rescue will enjoy the perfect peace that Isaiah describes. But those who are not depending on Jesus will need to face his judgement.
This picture of Jesus as a mighty king is not one that we often see on our Christmas cards, is it? We tend to focus on the idea of the new-born babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. And whilst that image is of course correct, we need to be careful that it does not become the only one we have of Jesus in our minds.
The same is true of certain carols that we sing. Jesus was little, and he is our Lord, but we must be careful that we don’t think of him as if he is still the “little lord Jesus”. I’m going to cast my vote for Hark! The Herald Angels Sing as top carol.
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings Ris’n with healing in His wings
Jesus is the Godly king of creation, who sits over us in judgement. And he is the Prince of Peace, who paid for us with his blood. Let’s remember that this Christmas!