Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-10
After a year delay the Tokyo Olympic Games finally happened in 2021. Unfortunately, at least state-side, the coverage of the games became dominated by one story. Which was star gymnast Simone Biles withdrew herself from competition. She did this because of what is referred to as the “twisties” which is where a gymnast cannot find or get their sense of equilibrium to orient themselves. This is not an official medical condition, but rather than one that is often stress-induced. Some talking heads took a really bad take to criticize the gymnast as selfish or embarrassing, but most rightly celebrated Biles for doing the right thing and putting her long term safety and mental health first. A year later, Biles still has not returned to gymnastic competition, and it is not clear if she will. Simone Biles actions at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics did shine a light on the enormous pressure that is put on gifted athletes at a young age. At the highest levels the expectations are intense. Hours and hours are required for practice, and one’s best is never actually good enough because it can always be a little better. This is unobtainable and unsustainable pace becomes too much for many and among student athletes at high levels burnout is a very real issue.
Working in youth ministry I once knew a young man who experienced this. He was a very gifted swimmer. He would be up at four in the morning every morning to practice a couple of hours before school, and he would do it again in the afternoon. There was talk that he was on pace to be in Olympics contention, but in his junior year of high school he walked away from swimming. It had been his primary activity that his life had been built around, and he was done with it. While I did lose touch with this young man a few years ago, I know that he was much happier after he gave up the sport.
For parents of gifted children with exceptional abilities there must be a challenge to manage expectations. There must be a balancing act of knowing when to push to help them reach their potential but not push too hard. It must be difficult to help them reach the heights that are possible without letting all of that expectation and potential become an agonizing weight that pulls them down and leads to burnout. I especially wonder this when I read scriptures like this one. I wonder how scriptures like the one we read today impacted Mary and Joseph while they were raising the most gifted child of all. This morning’s scripture is one that is full of messianic expectation. Being righteous living Jewish people, it is likely that Mary and Joseph would have been aware of this scripture. I have to wonder how scriptures like this morning impacted how the couple raised the messiah. Just how much pressure did a growing up Jesus feel to meet expectations, and ultimately did he meet or subvert those expectations?
From the first verse this scripture sets itself up as one with messianic expectation with the phrase “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse.” Jesse was the father of David, the great king of the Israelites and the grandfather of Solomon the wise king who built God’s temple. In the time of Isaiah, descendants of David still ruled over Judah but Israel had fallen quite a bit from the golden age of David and Solomon. The kingdom had been divided in two, the northern portion conquered by the Assyrians, and Judah under constant threat. Idolatry was high and the fact that the bible has the words of multiple prophets from this time, devotion to God was low. So even during the time of Isaiah’s life, this morning’s scripture could have been understood as a promised return to form for the Israelites.
By the time that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, the messianic expectation of this scripture had grown. It had been centuries since a descendent of David had ruled in Jerusalem. It had been a generation since the Jewish people had any kind of true autonomy and at the time of Jesus’ birth they were a client state of the Roman Empire, ruled by a King who was not even Jewish. This political climate led to scriptures like this plus several others to be read with a heightened messianic expectation. There was a hope that what the prophets had written about would come to pass that a king from the line of David would come, but not just any king. A king called by God, a king blessed by God, a king full of the Spirit of the Lord, wisdom, and understanding.
We have to be clear that during the time of Jesus, this messianic expectation was for a political king. It was a hope that God would restore Israel to its former glory. It was a hope that the messiah would overthrow the reign of the Romans, reestablish the ancient borders of the golden age, and lead the Jewish people into a new era of political and economic prosperity. It would have been likely that when the Jewish people of the first century read this morning’s scripture and read “He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked,” they would have understood this as military victories and conquest.
Given that this was the expectation for the Messiah, I cannot help but wonder how this impacted the young parents of Mary and Joseph. After all, the angel Gabriel had told Mary about Jesus that “The LORD God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Based on what the angel had told her, Mary knew that her son was the one to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah and others. Mary and Joseph knew what people were expecting out of the messiah, so how might have impacted the way they approached raising Jesus?
Clearly that is a hypothetical question of conjecture. It is a question that we cannot find or know the answer to. We do know that Jesus did not let what others expected the messiah to be to influence him too much during his ministry. We also know those who expected the messiah to be a political savior and military leader were ultimately disappointed in Jesus. Yet that does not mean that Jesus failed to live up to this morning’s scripture. Jesus is the messiah, he is the Savior of the World, but he was not the kind of messiah that might have been expected. Honestly, that makes sense because the second part of this morning’s scripture is all about the unexpected happening.
For the first four verses of this morning’s scripture, it can be easy to see how the coming messiah might fit the mold of a political king with military might. Yet, verse six starts talk about what the messianic kingdom will be like, and it is one that completely flips expectations. Everything is flipped and opposite: predators and prey lie down together in safety, natural enemies are at peace, a child leads, and dangers no longer need to be feared. It is a complete flipping of the script. This is completely on brand for Jesus, because he is the one who said things like “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” and “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
Perhaps the reason why when people read this scripture and others like it and then looked for a messiah that fit the mold of a legendary king who was a political ruler is because they were looking for a messiah that fit the old patterns of the world. They were looking for a messiah who would prove superiority through power and might. They viewed the world as one of predator and prey, so of course the messiah would be the leader of the pack and the top of the food chain. The expectations for a messiah was a leader who would rule and empire through power and might, shock and awe, or terror and fear just like every other would be ruler of the world before then and since. Perhaps they did not view the messianic prophecies from Isaiah and elsewhere through the lens of a flipped script. They were looking for a messiah who would be the ruler of a world where the last one standing wins, not a world where the lion lays down with the lamb and a little child leads them.
Jesus was not the messiah that many of the people of his day expected. I have to wonder, is Jesus the messiah we expect today? Do we seek to follow the messiah described in this morning’s scripture, or do we try to make Jesus fit the image of what we think a messiah should be like? I ask the question, because some of the Christian messaging I see seems to be more similar to the political conqueror messianic images than to the kind of messiah that could be humbly born and laid in a manger. It makes me uneasy when I see Christian messaging that is quick to raise up Jesus as the lion of Judah but seems to forget that he is also the lamb that was slain. It bothers me when I hear of other Christians praying for Jesus to judge “our enemies”. It grieves me when other Christians are more concerned with winning culture wars than loving the least of these. Because it seems all of these actions point to wanting Jesus to be a different messiah than he is. It points to wanting a messiah that rules by might and is characterized by power instead of one that rules by love and is characterized by grace.
Many of the ancient world, just like many today, believed that might made right, bigger is better, and whoever has the most is the winner. This is what they world of Jesus day was looking for in a messiah. Thankfully, Jesus did not live up to the expectations of his day and age for what a messiah should be, but he is still the savior of the world because he showed us a different way to live. Jesus subverted expectations, rebelled against the way of the world, and established a way of grace and forgiveness. Jesus said the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus said that whoever wants to be great must be least. He said the son of man did not come to be served but to be serve. When we live in a culture that proclaims bigger is better and winning is everything, ours should be the prophetic voice that states putting others first is better and sacrificial loving is everything. The message of the church in the world, should be a counter-cultural voice crying from the wilderness. We should act in a way that might go against the way of the world, but follows the way of Christ.
We can live in a way that fits a world where bears and cows eat together or it is safe for children to play next to snakes. We do this when we live in a way that is counter to the ways of the world. Instead of being so worried about how much everyone else is getting, we could instead be concerned with ensuring that everyone has enough. Instead of looking out for just ourselves and our families, we can champion the idea that all families have the equitable access to opportunity, safety, and happiness. Instead of seeing people suffering and shrugging our shoulders because we think they probably deserve whatever mess they are in, we could instead have compassion and seek to dismantle the oppressive systems that put people into messes in the first place. Jesus is a messiah who flips the script, who point to a world that is different than it currently is. A world that is more peaceful, more loving, and more glorious.
I have to wonder if when Mary and Joseph looked up a sleeping baby Jesus, did they wonder “What child is this?” Did they wonder just how Jesus would fulfill and live into the messianic expectations that were placed on him? It turns that this child is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. He did grow to be the exact person this morning’s scripture prophesied about. He may not have fulfilled it in the way that people expected but instead he did it better. So may we join in that better way. Instead of emphasizing power and might may we emphasize grace and love. Instead of just accepting this world as it is, may we join our messiah in living into a world where everything is flipped, where there is peace, where there is love, and where the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples: the nations will rally to him, and his resting pace will be glorious.