On that Day (Isaiah 11:1-10)
The following is the sermon I preached on the Sunday following the horrible events of September 11, 2001. I hope if it happened again tomorrow, I'd say something like the same thing again. Novelist Evelyn Waugh, created the character Scott‑King, a teacher at a boys’ school. One day, the headmaster of the school admonishes Scott-King, telling him that parents are only interested in preparing their boys for the modern world. The headmaster, assuming he already knows the answer to his question, asks, “You can hardly blame them, can you?”
“Oh yes,” Scott‑King replies, “I can and do,” adding, “I think it would be a very wicked thing indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.”
Boy, ain’t that the truth? Having seen what the modern world is capable of this week, we’d be hard pressed to want to fit anyone for it.
It occurs to me that one of the goals of popular Christianity these days is to help people to accommodate to the modern world. Christianity, so the thinking goes, always risks being thrust to the margins of modern life because of its naive claims. Consequently, many folks believe it’s the task of Christians to help the gospel make sense to an increasingly skeptical world. This skepticism is called reality, and Christians are always tempted to the notion that what we need is a little more of it.
What we ministers have become good at has less to do with exposing you to the radical claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ than it does with helping you to feel more comfortable, more at home in an increasingly materialistic, sex-obsessed, and obviously violent culture. So, under a modern reading of Christianity in popular circles, Jesus’ radical claim in the Sermon on the Mount to a complete reorientation of life in the Kingdom of God has been domesticated into The Be-Happy Attitudes — where God doesn’t really want you to die to yourself in order to become a better disciple, God merely wants you to be happy in order to become a more fulfilled and satisfied you.
John Stackhouse tells about a time he encountered an articulate, angry young Marxist at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London. He relates how he “came upon a small knot of people during an afternoon stroll.” As he approached, he saw what appeared to be a situation in which the young Communist had shouted down a gentle Christian preacher “by loudly proclaiming that Jesus Christ was ‘not a pleasant person!’” The preacher didn’t know what to say in the face of this awkward interruption. Finally, a Christian in the audience stood up, one with a firmer grasp on the Gospel and said: “Of course Jesus wasn’t a pleasant person. You don’t crucify nice guys.”
Why would anyone crucify the reasonable Jesus of the Enlightenment? Why would anyone crucify the dreamy poet of Romanticism? Why would anyone crucify the Law-abiding, mild-mannered rabbi of revisionist scholarship? Why would anyone crucify the sweet, big-buddy of popular Christianity?
Christianity has become for so many people a way to improve themselves, largely indistinguishable from their Feng Shui classes and their New Year’s resolutions. We’ve succeeded in remaking Jesus in our own image, culling from him those questionable and unreasonable characteristics that keep getting in the way of the warm, fuzzy, unthreatening character that drives the engine of the massive Christian retailing industry. Or as Jacob Neusner has said, “[We] have produced the figure [we] could admire most at the least cost.”
Why this rush to domesticate Jesus? Why this grand attempt at public relations, at image enhancement? Why this constant call for Christians to be pragmatic, realistic?
Because we’re naive.
That’s right. We don’t get it. Our way of dealing with the “real” world doesn’t make sense according to the ways the “real” world makes sense. We’re idealistic, unsophisticated, and gullible. The “real” world’s a tough, hard scrabble place, where nice-guys finish last, where the early bird gets the worm, where he who snoozes, loses. In the “real” world terrorists hijack commercial airliners and fly them into buildings. In the “real” world people lie dead in heaps beneath tons of rubble.
You know it. And I know it. The Gospel of Jesus Christ in its purest, unaccommodated, unsophisticated form can’t really work in the “real” world.
Come on. There are crack babies, and little kids shooting each other, and rising teen pregnancy. There are corporate mergers, and anti-trust cases, and no-load mutual funds. There are savvy politicos, and spinmeisters, and talk show pundits. There are bombs, and guns, and fascist dictators. There are knives and widows and twisted steel and broken concrete. There’s no way the Jesus of the Gospels can stand up to that kind of stuff. So let’s just make him a good guy, our friend whose sole purpose is to help us feel better about ourselves, more self-fulfilled and complete.
Nah! That Jesus stuff just won’t fly in the “real” world. Power and violence is the only language the “real” world understands.
But Isaiah’s not buying it, which is sort of odd, don’t you think? I mean, seriously … have you listened to this? “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:6–9).
Sounds kind of syrupy, doesn’t it? Like some kind of Hallmark commercial or something? Sounds like something you might have heard at Woodstock or in Haight-Ashbury. Very, sort of, peace and love, and flower-power and all of that.
Nice poetry. A wonderful vision. It would make a wonderful children’s book. But we know better, you and I. We know how the “real” world works. And in the “real” world lambs are merely lunch for wolves, not prospective roommates. Can’t you just hear it in yourself? Come on. Be realistic. You can’t just let the violence go unanswered, can you? Somebody’s got to pay.
Well, I hear you. I can understand your incredulity, why Isaiah sounds like Pollyanna. But the good news for you is that, contrary to even what many Christians believe, the church does not exist in order to help this vision of the world make sense to you. No. Indeed. The church exists to make you make sense to this vision of the world, to make you into the kind of person who can begin to see the world through the eyes of Isaiah, through the eyes of that wild-eyed radical in Jerusalem, whom they finally had to kill in order to get him to shut up about this vision of the world.
This isn’t just a slight twist on the way the power structures of the world are situated, this isn’t just a little tweaking here and there to make the world a little nicer place. Isaiah is heralding the end of the present power arrangements, he’s announcing that day when the “real” world as we know it will cease to exist.
You see, the problem is not with Isaiah’s vision of reality, the problem is with our inability to envision a world where guns and war and politicians and terrorists are a fiction. The message of the gospel is that when Jesus came the “real” world as we know it ceased to exist in the reality of the kingdom of God. The reality of the “real” world has been deposed … dethroned … defeated. According to the gospel, the truest naiveté is to believe that the powers and principalities of this world are in control. True credulity exists, according to Jesus, in believing that the road to peace is littered with the bodies of our enemies. The greatest illusion, according to the way God sees the world, is to believe that grown men and women living in places as diverse as Washington D.C. and Kabul and Moscow and Baghdad are the leaders of the world, when according to Isaiah it is a little child who leads.
I know Isaiah’s vision of a world in which God reigns in peace doesn’t seem particularly sensible given the current situation in which the world finds itself. You can’t argue people into believing this one. The only way to make this one make sense is to live it out. And that’s where the church comes in. We’re called to be a sign to the world, a community that understands the power structures the way God understands them, a people set apart to live out reality as envisioned on God’s holy mountain. We are the heirs of the root of Jesse, the Prince of Peace.
The other night on the phone, I was speaking with my mom and dad about the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They pointed out that our country is gearing up to show those terrorists a thing or two.
Anyway, being a pacifist, which is to say, being someone who takes Jesus literally when he says turn the other cheek and don’t return violence for violence, I said something like, “Oh great, here we go again. Will killing more people, really get us what we want?”
My mom said, “All right. I know you’re a pacifist, but we can’t let terrorism go unchecked in the world. I don’t like the thought that we’ll be dropping bombs on people either, but what can we do in a situation like this?”
To which I replied, “You wanna know what I think?” (Which is always a loaded question.)
My mom said, “Yes, actually, I would like to know what you think, Mr. Pacifist.”
“Well,” I said, “If the church was given first shot (no pun intended) at this situation, and they put me in charge (yeah, like that would ever happen), I would gather up all those troop transports, and ship 10,000 Christians over to Kabul. I know they wouldn’t be welcome, but I’d send them anyway with a story about a “new world order,” envisioned by God, and inaugurated in Jesus Christ, in which tin-horn dictators and bloody terrorists were no longer in charge. I’d have them tell the folks in Afghanistan about a different King, who relies, not on bombs or tanks or planes, but on the authority of heaven.”
My mom “tsk-tsked” me, a verbal sort of rolling the eyes.
Not to be deterred, I said, “I know. It sounds naive. I also know that those 10,000 Christians wouldn’t last very long. They’d probably be killed in pretty short order. So, I’d send 10,000 more over. And they probably wouldn’t last long either. But this is America, we’ve got all kinds of Christians. I’d just keep sending Christians until they started to get the message that we were serious about getting rid of terrorism, or until they got tired of killing Christians. And I don’t want to underestimate Osama bin Laden’s resolve, so I’m sure it’s going to take a lot of Christians to get our point across.
“Now, I know that sounds naive, reckless, and crazy. But we’ve already established the fact that a lot of people are going to have to die to get rid of terrorism. All I’m saying is that — at least according to the gospel — we Christians would always rather it be us than them. Or as Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘[Christians are called to lives that display] a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it.’
“So, yeah, maybe that is crazy. But is it really any crazier than thinking that after all these years and thousands and thousands of dead, if we just send enough bombs over there this time, we’ll finally have achieved the peace we’re looking for?”
“Oh, and here’s the real rub. Our main goal is not the defeat of our enemies. We aren’t trying to defeat them, we’re trying to change them. The church has no stake in trying to kill Osama bin Laden. What we’re trying to do is make him our brother. If I were in charge, that’s what I’d do. At least, I hope I would. And, I’m no hero, but I hope I’d be on the first plane.”
She didn’t buy it. Neither do you, I think. I know. It’s nuts. It’s naive. It doesn’t measure up to the standards of the “real” world. But let me tell you something, I’m not just making it up as I go along. As a matter of fact, God has a world in mind that looks something like that. In that world, the Tutsis shall live with the Hutus, the murderer shall lie down with the murder victim, the Americans and Russians and Afghanis and Iraqis together, and a little child shall lead them.
“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isa. 11:9–10).
Crazy, ain’t it?
Don’t you believe it.
Don’t you dare believe it.