Seeing the Vision

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on December 3, 2016, the Second Sunday in Advent.

There are churches these days that have a screen at the front and put pictures up during the sermon. I’m not ready for that myself but I see the point. We all know that one picture is worth a thousand words. So, two pictures and you’d have a pretty good sermon. Or not. But pictures do, often, tell us more than words. We also all know that seeing is believing. We often say, I can’t believe what I’m hearing or, I have to see for myself.

Words can paint pictures and make an incredible difference. I’m remembering the late unlamented campaign and two vivid – scary pictures: “We’re going to build a wall.” And “Lock her up.” Like it or not, those are vivid pictures. We may not like them. We may have voted against them. But they gave us a clear picture of consequences. And I’d be hard put to remember another.

So let’s turn to a happier subject and let me just show you again the pictures Isaiah painted for us this morning. We heard them read but I’m not sure we really saw them because we live in a different world with different pictures and we may not really see what Isaiah wants us to see. We live, I think, in a world so different from Isaiah’s that we may have real trouble picturing it even when we try to. But prophets are visionaries, they are people who see things and they want us to see what they saw, so they paint the picture to help us see what they saw. They want us to see what they saw because they saw more clearly than anyone else how things really are. They’re not fooled by surface appearances; they don’t settle for the easy rationalizations that we settle for, they don’t let the power of self-interest cloud their vision.

The prophet sees how it really is and that’s a rare talent – and it’s unpopular. I think most of us don’t want to see things as they really are, and we don’t want to see that God cares, cares about us, cares about our conduct every minute, cares about the societies we shape, and we don’t want to see that God sees individuals and societies and nations headed for destruction. Who wants to hear that – or see it? Who wants to hear about peace and love and justice if there’s a cost – if the cost is God’s will, not ours?

So picture this first of all: here’s a society, here’s a church, human are beings who don’t care much care for visions and feel free to ignore them, to close their eyes to what God wants them to see. But maybe on the other hand, there’s a society, a church, a human being who see the prophet’s picture – who sees it and can’t get it out of their mind and sees it so vividly that it changes things, makes things happen changes the society, the church, the individual until they become more like the picture, more like the vision, less far away from the will of God.

Let me show you, then, some pictures, the pictures you heard a few minutes ago but maybe didn’t really see. We read ten verses from the prophet and it’s not one picture it’s maybe more like a kaleidescope, a shifting array of images, more like modern art than, say, Soviet realism, more like the shifting scenes on a movie screen than a static image so it was hard to see clearly and we probably didn’t. Now, I don’t think the prophet meant us to have this problem and I’m also not sure the prophet painted the picture just the way we have it in the first reading. I think it’s entirely possible that the prophet presented these images one at a time over a span of years but then they were collected and written down and so now they come at us in a way that was never intended. So I think we’re well within our rights if we slow it down and sort the images out and look at them one at a time.

For example: here’s image one, picture one: “A shoot from the stump of Jesse, a new branch from Jesse’s roots.” So what is this picture? What are we meant to see? Well, Jesse was the father of David and David was the ancestor of Israel. So what we have here is a family tree and we still draw those ourselves. “” is a very popular web site. The prophet is drawing a family tree and the prophet says, “It’s not dead. Maybe you thought it was dead, but it’s not dead; it’s still growing; there’ll be a new branch, a new beginning.”

Can you picture that? It makes me remember an old apple tree that my father-in-law had on his property on a Connecticut hill-side. It was a tree so old and rotten he thought about taking it down, clearing it off. But before he got around to it, suddenly one spring it sent up a new shoot so he left it alone and year after year it kept growing and finally one year it produced a crop of apples. My father-in-law would take visitors down to see it and he’d say, “Look at this; did you ever see old-apple-tree-3372anything like it?” He called it his “miracle tree.” And it certainly gave you a good feeling: if that old tree can do it, there’s hope, hope for all of us. I think that’s the picture Isaiah wants us to see: here’s the royal line of Israel, worn down over the centuries to a mere shadow of it’s former greatness. But it isn’t hopeless. Isaiah could, of course, just say it but he wants us to see it: he wants is to picture it and see and know that there’s life, there’s hope, a new shoot, new possibility. Can’t you just see it? Hold that picture in your mind. It’s not impossible.

OK, here’s another picture. It’s a picture of a king, but not just any old king pursuing his own glory. Isaiah wants us to imagine, to picture a new kind of king, a king with a new spirit, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, discretion and authority, knowledge and reverence. Can you picture that? Can you picture a president whose wisdom and knowledge and reverence are just so overwhelming – well, maybe not maybe that’s too hard to imagine right now. I certainly can’t imagine it anytime soon. And I think it may have been hard for Isaiah, too, because he himself had certainly never seen such a king. But Isaiah was dreaming, he had a vision, and it must have been hard for him to picture also, because he’d seen all kinds of kings but not one like that: “wisdom and knowledge and reverence” in a king? Hard to imagine. Hard to envision.

This was a hard picture for Isaiah because it was beyond all his experience. But it shouldn’t be that hard for us not for us, because we have seen such a person. He was dreaming, but we are remembering, more than remembering because we’ve seen that king and he knows us better than we know him. To see and respond to that king is what Christianity is all about. Hold that picture in your mind. It’s a true picture of King Jesus.

But still there’s picture three. Here’s a picture that’s more of a moving picture with Isaiah showing us this king in action. And listen. Look. Doesn’t it remind you of something, maybe the Sermon on the Mount? Listen. Look. Do you see it? Can you see him as he acts to care for the sick and the poor? “ . . . with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . . Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. You can’t, perhaps, picture someone whose life is controlled by righteousness and faithfulness- so they are like the robes you wear, the clothes you put on. But read the New Testament and that’s the picture we’re given of Jesus. And then the picture shifts again. Isaiah began by describing, picturing, the Spirit within that would fill this new ruler, this once and future king and he finishes by describing the outward aspect, the garments covering him. It’s as if Isaiah were saying, I want you to picture someone absolutely the same, inside and out, filled with righteousness, covered with faithfulness. He won’t just keep his good qualities within. He won’t simply appear to be good on the outside. He really will be who he seems to be: one whole person through and through. Can you picture that? For Christians it ought to be the center of our faith and the foundation of our life. And suppose that picture were widely shared. Suppose the subject of that picture were everyone’s vision and center and life: what then?

Here’s the next picture – the most visionary of all, the vision of the peaceable kingdom, a world unlike any world we’ve ever known, but still a world which, even as a vision, a wild-eyed dream, makes an impact we can’t forget. Look. Look. See this.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and tpeaceable-kingdomhe lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the 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.

Now that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s that kind of stuff that gives religion a bad name. I mean, maybe it’s nice to think about on Sundays once in a while, but when you live in the real world and deal with practical people, it’s pretty irrelevant, isn’t it? Or is it? I mean, out there, sure enough, is the real world where they drop bombs on children, run cars into crowds, use assault rifles in night clubs, where two-thirds of the world’s children go to bed hungry, where violence is so constant and so ordinary that we watch it in our living rooms and are not surprised. Our cities are laid waste by arson, our air is polluted, our water isn’t safe to drink. You can pass laws, but not much changes. You can call a peace conference, but no one would come. And then here’s this vision, this crazy picture of a peaceable kingdom. What has that to do with the real world?

But you know, the odd thing is that Isaiah is the one prophet scholars tell us who knew the real world. They tell us he was an advisor to the king, a member of the aristocracy, a man of public affairs, an expert in international relations. So how can you explain it? How can you see it as having any reality about it at all? But this is the picture Isaiah gives us and he sees it as real. So fill your mind with it, try to see that picture as clearly as Isaiah did. Imagine, picture, the whole creation at peace: human beings, animals, the environment, everything at peace. Picture all the terrors that surround us made harmless, all fear removed. Picture it: walking home alone at midnight without any concern, take any bus, stroll through the darkest alley, Jews and Arabs will sit down together, capitalists and communists will work side by side to feed the hungry, you can board any plane without being searched or scanned, you can eat any food without fear for your health. Isaiah gives us this picture – and you turn on your television and there’s a different picture the so-called real world. But which is more believable? When you see Donald Trump sit down with Mit Romney Are you going to tell me that Isaiah’s vision is impossible? Which picture is more real? Which picture would we rather see?

There’s still one more picture in this morning’s gallery and it takes us back to the first: the root of Jesse, the new branch, but now the picture has changed and now the root is “a signal to the peoples . . .,” a flagpole, a signal light. “the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” Because, you see, it’s a variety of pictures, but in Isaiah’s mind it’s all one thing, it all ties together. If you want peace and harmony, says Isaiah, if the peaceable kingdom appeals to you, you have to seek it as a gift of God. There’s never a hint in Isaiah that you can get there with better planning or programs or peace conferences or a different president. You know better than to expect that and Isaiah doesn’t ask you to. He’s been there. He’s gone to peace conferences. 26 centuries ago, he knew how far that will get you. You can’t plan a new shoot from an old apple tree. You can’t legislate peace between sheep and wolves. You can’t pay lions to eat straw. Something much more radical has to happen and Isaiah knew it long ago.

We should know it too. God gave him the vision, gives us the vision, and only God can bring it to pass – no president or secretary of State or international policy. Only God. But why are we here if not to share the vision: to acknowledge our failures and weakness and to pray, and to open ourselves to possibility, and to ask God to open our eyes and hearts and minds to that vision, that picture, and pray “thy kingdom come” and mean it and believe it and let God give us and all the world such a ruler and such a peaceable world as God alone can give.

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