December 5, 2010

The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him

Passage: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12, Isaiah 11:2

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.

Anjana Ahuja and Mark van Vugt, authors of Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow and Why it Matters say (of human history): “In the absence of CVs (Curriculum Vitae)  and other objective ways of measuring competence, a fit, healthy, manly appearance was synonymous with leadership potential.”  They go on to observe that “taller candidates routinely triumph in American elections. … Another study found that CEOs rated as ‘stronger-looking’ by observers tended to run higher-ranked companies than weaker-looking individuals; while children confronted with photographs of electoral candidates generally favour the eventual winner.”

I think most of us knew that our political leaders have clay feet even before the revelations of Wiki leaks.  Notwithstanding the commonality of clay feet, does leadership make a difference?  The leaders we support or take our clues from—is “tall, healthy, and fit” our best criteria?

Earnest Shackleton led a daring expedition in 1914 to reach Antarctica. A year earlier, a lesser-known Canadian-led expedition headed in the other direction to explore the North Pole.  Both ships, the Karluk in the north and the Endurance in the south, found themselves trapped by solid ice packs.  Each crew was faced with a fight for survival. But the outcomes of the two expeditions couldn't have been more different.

In the north, the crew members from the Karluk, led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, degenerated into a band of selfish, mean-spirited, cut-throat individualists, ending in the death of all 11 crew members. In the south, Shackleton's crew faced the same problems—cold, food shortages, stress, and anxiety—but his crew responded with teamwork, self-sacrifice, and astonishing good cheer.

In the end, each leader stayed true to his core leadership values. Stefansson valued success of getting to the North Pole above everything. In Stefansson's words this meant "that even the lives of the [crew] are secondary to the accomplishment of the work!"

In sharp contrast, Shackleton's leadership focused on the value and dignity of his teammates. At one of the lowest points of his trip, Shackleton wrote, "The task was now to secure the safety of the party." Through his example of sacrificial leadership, Shackleton was able to accomplish his ultimate objective: saving the lives of his crew members.

1. When Isaiah penned the words of this oracle of longing for a king whose leadership would precipitate a peaceable kingdom—“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse”—he wrote this from the context of the devastating impact that unfaithful decisions by Israel’s and Judah’s kings had on its people.  In the northern kingdom Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians shortly after Isaiah began his ministry; the rest of his ministry witnessed the continuing decline of Judah and oppression of its people by rising superpowers.

The “stump of Jesse” is an insightful portrayal of Israel’s devastation.  Jesse is King David’s father; his name stands for the Davidic line of kings.  David was a brilliant leader—a  man after God’s own heart—who established Israel’s power and dominance; he was the one who made possible the glory days for his son Solomon’s reign.  God had promised David “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure before me forever.”  The image of great tree is an apt image symbolizing the zenith of that Davidic kingdom; but in Isaiah’s day it became a mere remnant of what it once was; it was now a sawed off stump.

Yet God is faithful to his promises; “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse”.  In our Christmas carol we ask: What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary's lap is sleeping? Of this child the Angel said to Mary—“and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.”  Thus we rightly respond—“This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.”

My wife once asked me to make her a promise that I would never run for political office; the reason is the hurtful discourse that is so readily hurled at our political leaders.   We are jaded about our political class; some of it certainly deserved.  I have come, though, to think that the clay feet we so readily observe in them we often quick to overlook in ourselves.

What I wonder is if the history of how easily power corrupts leaders, be they kings, revolutionaries, rulers, or elected leaders; I wonder if this makes us wary of any leadership.  Isaiah’s vision of the great ruler is nice but is it merely a pipe dream; a wishful hope of a prophetic vision.  As we explore the link between this text in Isaiah and Jesus I want to say a word in favour of this king.  I invite you to consider there is a King whose leadership is worthy of your all out, unswerving, unabashed allegiance, loyalty, and obedience.

One of the things that having children underlines is the fact that in life we have control over very few things; however our influence is vast.  (Perhaps we should spend less energy on to control and more on influence.) With this in mind I am ever surprised that people find the idea of surrender to our Lord Jesus Christ troubling; we aren’t in charge of very much to begin with.

2. All four gospel writers relate the story of John the Baptist and his ministry as the forerunner of the Messiah.  John is the one who introduces the Messiah to the first disciples; the pinnacle of his ministry is the baptism of Jesus.  While each gospel writer emphasizes variously aspects of John’s message and ministry they are all careful to note this detail; on the day John baptized Jesus the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on him.

These are the kind of details that make many of our generation nervous; we are nervous because it sounds a bit of a stretch; a bird behaving out of character.  We note that the text says “like a dove” and we feel better; with a sigh of relief we reduce it to merely a symbol.  Clearly the New Testament wants to connect this incident in Jesus life to the prophetic word about the messiah—of which our Isaiah text is one—indicating to us that Jesus is this messiah because what was promised has happened to him, namely “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him”.

But what does that mean to us?  Do we read it merely as a sign that Jesus is a nice guy; that his baptism was a special moment; that there is some inner strength to him that is important?

Philosophically speaking it is true that God’s existence can neither be proved nor disproved.  We tend to think that what is actual—i.e., the solid structure of the pulpit—is that which is real.  The things of the spirit seem vapour-like to us and this is the category where we put our discussions of God.  That the Spirit of the Lord rested on Jesus is of the category of the unseen and un-provable—not real, or not to be considered in the category of the tangible.  It is to say something about his character we like; his inner life was of good stuff.

A neutron star is a star that has, in essence, imploded on itself.  From your recollections of science class you will remember that gravity bends light.  The gravity pull of a neutron star is so powerful that the light from the star remains in its orb; it doesn’t travel away from it; we call this a black hole.  In reality it is not a hole at all; the neutron star is so dense that a thimble full weighs more than the entire human population of the earth.  The Sun—whose light and heat contributes so much to making the earth habitable for humanity is a ball of burning gases; a quart milk jug filled with these gases weighs approximately four hundred pounds; such is its density.

The gospel asserts that God created the universe including star and sun; it also affirms that God sustains their continuing existence.  If God does this, then, how dense is God; if God leaned on you or me who would fall over?  The gospel teaches us that God is what is real—we must not confuse the category of the actual (this pulpit) and the real.  When Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life” the word “truth” has the force of our English word “reality”.  Jesus is what is real; what we often class as real is iffy; but not God.  So when the scripture says of Jesus “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” nothing could be more real.

3.  This King that Isaiah longs for; the Spirit of the Lord rests on him and gives him gifts for what he will need to rule; a rule that gives rise to the peaceful kingdom.  The first pair of gifts have to do with intellectual qualities; the spirit of wisdom and understanding.  Wisdom is the capacity for discerning the nature of things; understanding is word to describe the capacity for discerning the differences of things.

I was fascinated to see a report of scientists from the CERN research centre; they are conducting experiments probing matter in underground facility that contains the Large Hadron Collider.  The first proof of the existence of dimensions beyond the known four—length, breadth, height, and time—could emerge next year.  I think that one of the things learning teaches us is how little is known.  Our text tells us the wisdom and understating that created all this is that of our Saviour.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “A moment's insight is sometimes worth a life's experience.”  On Monday, the Waterloo Region District School Board, voted to let Gideons International in Canada to distribute Bibles to Grade 5 students. The schools gives permission slips to each student who in turn must get parental permission to receive a Gideon’s Bible. The Bibles are taken home and are not for classroom use.  A firestorm has been set off—those who oppose seem to get the most press.  My question is; why would we want to cut ourselves from such wisdom?

Jesus’ insights into the human condition are profound.  While many adequately describe aspects the angst of our human situation Jesus reveals the human condition; it is out of the corruption of the human heart that evil comes.  It is the corruption of sin that needs to be dealt with; and the cross shows us that not only is he willing to diagnose he gives himself for the cure.

4. The next pairing of gifts of this King have to do with the practical application of wisdom and energy; the spirit of counsel and might.  Counsel is the gift of forming right conclusions and might the ability to carry them out.  As we have just noted, the cross is the definitive event of how this comes together.  Knowing the right thing and doing it are not separate things for God; they are one and the same.

Last week an Ontario man unable to work due to an injury won $15 million in a lottery. The headline read: “Luck changes for Markham, Ont., man”.  Is random luck truly the nature of our existence; are some lucky in life and others are not?  Would Jesus say that this man was loved more by God before or after the win?

One day some religious leaders approached Jesus and asked if they should pay takes to Caesar.  Jesus asked for a coin and asked whose image was on the coin.  “Caesar’s”, was the reply.  “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”, Jesus concluded.  The question back to those who asked him was—and being Jewish they all knew the creation story text Jesus was referring to—whose image is on you?  You are stamped in the image of God—give yourself to him.

But the lure of money ever calls us to surrender ourselves; its promise of security and wellbeing looks real.  There is great wisdom in Jesus’ saying “you cannot serve God and money”; counsel that steers us clear of much harm.  Further, as Jesus’ feeding the 5000 indicates and the scripture everywhere asserts; God is the first to show up on behalf of the poor and needy.

5. The last paring of gifts is about the religious life; the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  Is Jesus just a little bit too religious for us?  I mean he attends synagogue and temple; he is always talking about his heavenly Father; his mission in life is to obey his Father’s will.  Loving Jesus would appear to disqualify you as a suitable candidate for political leadership in our country; such extremists aren’t to be trusted, or so we a retold.  Could Jesus become a candidate for any of our present political parties?

Many today believe the existence of a higher power.  Some unknowingly follow Aristotle on this thinking there must be a first cause; others unknowingly follow Plato (everything we see is a shadow of an original form) that the design they see requires a designer.  The question we Christians should ask is this; does this higher power, first cause, or great designer have anything to do with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“If you have seen me you have seen the Father”, said Jesus.  Jesus reveals to us that this Father loves us enough to go to hell and back for us.  I am not sure you would conclude that from the idea of God as a skilled designer.

6. Thomas Aquinas lived from 1225 to March 7, 1274.  His profound writings in philosophy and theology are studied today by both disciplines.  When he wrote he had five scribes in front him; he dictated sentences to each in turn (continuing rotation) on different subjects.  His works on philosophy are so profound no student in philosophy can be without them; his works on theology and philosophy are required studies for every Catholic Priest.

Near Christmas of 1273 Aquinas went to church, as was his custom.  Something happened that day because when he came home he said “everything I have written is straw” (it isn’t); he put down his pen and never wrote another again.  We are never told the experience of the Holy One that so profoundly moved him—and neither could he put it into words.

It was surely our Saviour; on Whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.