Have you decided who to vote for on Thursday? Are you going with the party you usually support or something completely different? Will you vote tactically? Will you bother to vote at all?
I hope you will. Democracy, the opportunity to have a say in those who lead our nation is not the only system of government, nor is it necessarily the best but it does offer a chance for all of us over 18 to have a vote something been hard won by previous generations As Christians we should use our vote carefully and prayerfully.
Our bible is set in a time and place when there was no democracy. Most people had no means whatsoever of influencing those who ruled over them. The world of the old testament was dominated by kings, potentates, war lords and pharaohs, none of them elected. They ruled either because they had inherited the position or because they had won on the field of battle. By the time of the new testament, little has changed, just that there was one almighty power ruling the western world; the Roman Empire.
Actually, the real background to the bible is that ‘The Lord is King’ (Psalm 97.1) It is the Lord, Yahweh, God who calls Abraham and his family to be his people in the early chapters of Genesis. It is the Lord who calls Moses and through him leads his people to the promised land. He gives the commandments on Sinai with out a hint of democracy. He raises up judges to rule the people some of them quite odd characters like Gideon and Samson who might not rate highly in opinion polls.
But the people want to have a say. They want a king, so that they can be like all the other nations. (1 Samuel 8.5) God hears their prayer and perhaps against his better judgement gives them a king; Saul who ultimately falls prey to some form of madness. He is succeeded by David, the shepherd boy from Bethlehem who had an extraordinary close relationship with God. He is called and anointed by Samuel as king and his rule was a high point for Israel, even to this day. The territory was extended with good and sound government established. But it proved to be only a fleeting moment in history. David too was flawed, tempted by Bathsheba bathing naked on a nearby roof top. Solomon, his son succeeded and though he built the first temple in Jerusalem, his penchant for wealth and women was legendary. He took his eye off the ball, or rather off God. Those who followed him went in the same direction. Gradually the kingdom of Israel became divided between north and south as the more powerful Assyrians asserted themselves. By the time of Isaiah, it was all falling apart. In chapter 10 he writes about the Sovereign Lord of Hosts cutting down the tallest trees and lopping off boughs with terrible power… even the lofty cedars of Lebanon. (verses 33-34) This is a picture, an image of the failure of monarchy … of the kings in Israel being cut down like a forest.
Then follow the beautiful words which have at the beginning of chapter 11, words which we have heard at many a carol service: ‘A shoot shall come forth from the stock or stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots.’ (Isaiah 11.1) They are words of mystical quality, even fantasy. What can they mean?
Jesse was David’s father. His family tree was revered as the greatest in Israel. I think we’re more interested in the family trees of TV personalities such as Ant and Dec but for the people to whom Isaiah speaks, even the people of Jesus’ day, even to true Jews today, the family tree which matters is the one of Jesse; one which stretches back in the bible through the remarkable story of Ruth and beyond. Now, in the eighth century BC, what had become of this famous line of kings? They had been felled like tall trees. Their family tree was severed. What would be the future? Was there a future?
Yes…a shoot a branch will come from the stump of the tree. From that line of kings who had ultimately failed to bring prosperity and sound government to God’s people, there would rise a new shoot, a fresh branch from his roots.
What follows is some of the most amazing poetry in the scriptures. We note that this new kingly shoot will have the spirit of the Lord. (verse 2) This will mean that he will be able to judge, to decide, to lead, not as men do but with the mind of God. ‘…with righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.’ (verse 4) Then the poem brings us to a scenario which is unreal. ‘The wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid…The nursling child shall play over the hole of the asp and the weened child shall put his hand on the adder’s den’ (verses 6 & 8) We all know from David Attenborough that these things cannot be. Nature is cruel; it is raw.
But this prophetic poem is designed to shock. It’s intended that those who first heard these words and those of us have listened to them since realise that there is only one ultimate authority in our world. God is the one who puts things in place who allows other authorities to rise and fall. Paul understands this when he asks that Christians be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God. (Romans 13.1) He wrote those words when the governing authority was none other than the Roman empire under whose jurisdiction Jesus had been put to death.
God had allowed Israel to have a king. He gave David as his anointed against the normal line of succession. Yet, he had felled the kings like trees, even the great Davidic dynasty, so that he might raise up his true king from his stump, the one alone who could judge and lead righteously, the one who do the unthinkable: allow there to be peace between natural enemies. Why? Because he would deal with the enmity caused by sin.
For the original hearers of these words, the identity of the shoot would have remained mysterious although belief grew around the idea of the Messiah, someone born of David’s line who would be King of the Jews and make Israel great again. For us, I trust I do not really need to tell you of that person’s identity. We see this prophecy perfectly fulfilled in Christ. We see already in a glass darkly the possibility of reconciliation of the lamb and wolf together as people find forgiveness in through the cross of Christ and reconciliation with each other. But we all await that great glorious day when he will complete his purposes and make all things new. ‘When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.’ (Isaiah 11.9)
What’s all that got to do with the election this week? On the surface, not a lot. At a deeper level, it does give us a context in which we can pray for our politicians. It reminds us of the bigger picture which is so often lost amongst arguments about Brexit and the NHS. God is in control. It is from him that we derive our life, the source of authority in the world as well as our code for living, our ethics. Many today, including our political leaders, lose sight of that or simply don’t believe it. They see their power coming entirely from their ability to influence us through the media, from their finance backers and ultimately the ballot box. Humanly, that is all true, but viewed from a biblical and faith perspective, it through these things that God works. All leaders are better when they acknowledge this perspective; that standards of behaviour, morality and truth are not negotiable variables, but to us by God as baselines for living. So, let us pray this for our leaders and vote if we can for those who share this understanding in some way.
Advent 2 08.12.2019