I had a perfectly good sermon on Thursday morning – about the earliest I have finished a sermon in my life. I came home early, raked leaves and, after the kids were in bed, flipped on the news and saw that Nelson Mandela had died. Perhaps as clearly as anyone in the last century – at the very least in a line of leaders that passes from Ghandi to King to Mandela – he saw a vision of a new kingdom, a new way for the people of South Africa.
He didn’t begin with that kind of moral clarity. He began as a revolutionary, was first jailed because of his support for armed rebellion against the apartheid regime, apart-ness, separation, led by the white minority in South Africa. Then 27 years in prison. 18 of those years were on Robben Island, a notorious prison, like Alcatraz, off the southern cape, filled with isolation and hard labor. One visitor per year he was allowed, one letter per six months. His mother died while he was in prison, as did a son, as did so many others in his conflicted nation. But he felt, sometimes he was the only one who felt this way, that they could build something together. Not just blacks, not just white, together. He got to know his captors, eventually charming them into treating him as a human being. Then began a process of negotiations with the government, persuading them over years, that it was only a matter of time before their white-only rule was going to end. It was crumbing in the eyes of the world; it had no moral foundation. They could choose, Mandela said, to be a part of a solution, together. After his release he led everyone towards elections and, after his 5 year term as president, peacefully handed over power to the next elected leader. In an interview in 2007 he was asked how, after such barbarous torment [in prison], how do you keep hatred in check? – his answer was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.1 With so much of his nation devoid of hope, Mandela helped them, and us all, see a better way.
Chapter 11 begins, as Paul Simpson Duke writes, with a beautiful pair of hinged paintings.2 The panel on the left – the first 5 verses of today’s text – shows a young king. The people recognize the name Jesse, father of David, the king whose reign continues to hold great power in the people’s imagination. A memory that here in Isaiah, 300 years later, still gives hope. Even in that difficult season, the northern and southern kingdoms in conflict, the Assyrian Empire’s shadow looming. The young king, Duke writes, exudes vitality and strength, severity and a brilliance of joy; deep wisdom is in his eyes. On a distant hill behind him, cruel-faced monarchs lie dead. Nearer to him is a gathering of the poor, whose faced are lifted and radiant.
The panel on the right – verses 6-10 – contains a fantastic panoply of the created order. There are sleek, beautiful carnivores – leopard, wolf, lion, bear; and there are domestic animals – calf, lamb, ox, goat. The predators and their edible counterparts lounge together. A child sings to them while toddlers play by the nest of rattlesnakes.3 The images are rich, the language beautiful. But the two scenes must be understood together. We first meet this One who will come. Then, once we know who He is, then we see how He will change us.
Let’s look closely at the language. From a stump, a line of people in danger of ending, the promise, first given to Abraham, is renewed. A shoot of green pops up. The shoot becomes a branch. This branch, this King Isaiah envisions, will be filled with the Spirit of the Lord. This spirit, ruach, breath, wind, comes with wisdom and understanding, discernment, the ability to make the right decision when it needs to be made. The spirit of counsel – to give and receive advice – and might, strength. But this strength comes not from his physical power, but is grounded in truth, in understanding, in the fear of the Lord. This fear isn’t about a God that strikes terror in the heart. This fear – this kind of language is used throughout the psalms and the prophets – is about reverence, respect. ‘The fear of the Lord,’ means having a clear sense of what is ours to do and what belongs to God, of the right dynamic between creation and Creator. This King is suspicious of quick decisions, of how things may seem, but judges all people, the poor with the righteousness of God. He sees people not as WE see them, but as GOD sees them. Sometimes, Isaiah says, he will rail against those who abuse and oppress the poor. He is clothed with righteousness and faithfulness, this great love that comes from God.
But the kicker comes in the second panel of the hinged paintings. Who this King is means that He is about the transformation of creation. How he SEES us will change how we SEE others. This changes relationships. This happens most dramatically when these animals that eat each other now lie down as friends. Everyone has enough. The calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a small, vulnerable one will teach us. Animals and people will live in concert, not competition. The vision of a small child playing near the hole of a poisonous snake still scares me, but excites me all the more. They will not hurt of destroy on all my holy mountain says the Lord. The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. We will all, it will all, be bound together in love.
But you don’t have to be a Mandela. God gives us these extraordinary people, put right in the midst of extraordinary historical circumstances, only so often. But we still are given the chance to be about the ways God offers us chances to reshape human relationships. I went with Ella Brooks on Friday morning to a breakfast at her school, Creekside Elementary. It turns out it was the first of a new program that the school is trying out called ‘All Pro Dads’, supported by a bunch of National Football League coaches and players that are trying to help us dads do better.4 Many of us want to be more engaged with our kids, our families, but aren’t quite sure what to do. Hubert Davis, UNC player and now Assistant Coach, was the headliner. We got there about 7:30, just as a teacher was welcoming us, as we snuck in the side of the cafeteria and sat down. The food wasn’t ready yet, so the teacher told us a little about the program, talked a bit from his perspective about how he has seen kids do better when their fathers were really involved in their lives and their schoolwork.
Then – I think he was trying to kill time – things got a bit awkward. The teacher said that one of the things that he knew was important was dads telling their kids that they were proud of them, and what that loved about who they were. It was sweet enough. Then he said, "Ok, so, let’s do that now. Anyone," he held out the microphone, "anyone want to tell us what you are proud of your kids for?" Its 7:40 in the morning, sitting on those little stools attached to the cafeteria tables, my guess is 80 or so dads, maybe 100 kids. "Anyone?" A painful silence. One dad, thankfully, raised his hand. He had 3 kids at Creekside and said some nice things about them. It was sweet. A couple more did the same. They were trying. Then a dad in the front stood up. His clothes were worn, short sleeves revealed a couple of tattoos. He named his son, then talked about a medical condition his son was born with. We did therapy together every day, he said. People talk about moms having a hard time on the first day of kindergarten, he said, but I cried like a baby. He’s my boy. He has worked so hard.
And the mood in the room shifted. The next dad said that he and his son’s mother weren’t married anymore, but they loved him so much. Another mentioned his wife having health problems when their daughter was born, and how he brought her home by himself that first week. Another stood up and introduced their kindergarten son. Our daughter is 16, and we didn’t think we could have another child. We had 4 miscarriages. And then he came. I love him so much, he said. He’s our miracle…
I have no idea what got into those dads on Friday morning. It was nothing earth-shattering, like the leadership of Nelson Mandela. They weren’t there at school to follow Jesus, but boy was He present, inspiring us, doing what Isaiah said he would do, reshaping all human relationships. Isaiah told us that when he comes things will be different. We will live and love and hope in ways we didn’t think we could before. On that day, Isaiah says, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
May it be so, that we – in our living – may be a signal to all who pass us by.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. I learned much about Mandela from 2 great long obituaries, in the New York Times, and the London Telegraph
2. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett, eds, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), Homiletical Perspective, page 29, by Paul Simpson Duke.
3. Much of this language is from Feasting, Duke, 27.
4. All Pro Dad