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The Lord's Highway

Even the wilderness and desert will be glad in those days. The wasteland will rejoice and blossom with spring crocuses. Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers and singing and joy! The deserts will become as green as the mountains of Lebanon, as lovely as Mount Carmel or the plain of Sharon. There the Lord will display his glory, the splendor of our God. With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands, and encourage those who have weak knees. Say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you." And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind and unplug the ears of the deaf. The lame will leap like a deer, and those who cannot speak will sing for joy! Springs will gush forth in the wilderness, and streams will water the wasteland. The parched ground will become a pool, and springs of water will satisfy the thirsty land. Marsh grass and reeds and rushes will flourish where desert jackals once lived. And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God's ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course, nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness. Isaiah 35:1-10

So we've had two passages from Isaiah now. Last week we looked at Isaiah 2 where the prophet talked about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and nations no longer learning of war. This morning in Isaiah 11 we hear the prophet talking about this peaceful kingdom where even the animals get along. We think about this and think, boy it would be great, wouldn't it? Wouldn't we love to see that world where there are no more weapons, no more violence, no more wars and conflict. Where that peace was truly real but, boy, there's a part of us that thinks that, you know, that's just a pie in the sky dream and it just doesn't seem possible.

And yet there are moments and times throughout history when indeed it has been. You may be familiar with that story of the Christmas truce. It was Christmas of 1914 during the first World War. On a European battlefield the Germans were on one side and the British were on another and it had been a brutal, bloody number of days. There was a barren no man's land between the German trenches and the British trenches. And on that Christmas Eve with the mustard gas hanging in the air and the smell of death around them, from the German trenches a soldier could be heard singing, Heilige Nacht, Stille Nacht, Silent Night, Holy Night. And everyone listened and the German soldiers all began to join in and sing and after they finished the British soldiers from their trench began singing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. And then over this battlefield in which they had been fighting and taking one another's lives, a German soldier and a British soldier emerged from the trenches and met at the halfway point of the battlefield. They greeted one another. They exchanged some small gifts, some schnapps, some cigarettes, whatever soldiers had to share and others came out and joined them and they began singing and celebrating and an impromptu soccer game broke out.

And the reality of what peace could be entered into that battlefield. Now the soldiers did return to their trenches and it wouldn't be until almost four years later, Armistice Day, November 11, 1918 when this war would be declared over. Ten million soldiers lost their lives. Seven million civilians. And yet even in the midst of what was referred to as the war to end all wars, even if for a moment this peace, this peace that the prophet Isaiah talks about, this peace that God desires for all of us, became a reality even if only for a moment. Now it would be easy to look at that and say see it's beyond us, it's impossible but rather we could also look and say but look no, it can happen when we let it, when we allow it. Even the weakest, humblest of things can lead to those times. Our text in Isaiah this morning begins with those words, a shoot shall come up out of the stump of Jesse and the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him. The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

The prophets declare and there's going to be someone who comes along, this young shoot, this tender shoot, this weak, this fragile shoot who's going to make a profound difference because the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him. That shoot, that strand, that branch is nothing apart from that Spirit of God and yet by that Spirit of God even the least likely, the most unremarkable have the potential to change the world. Anna, can you bring up that picture that I put in you? Some of you may recognize this painting. It's actually one of many. It's by an artist named Edward Hicks. He was a Quaker at the beginning of the 19th century and he painted over a hundred different versions of this painting and there are approximately 65, 66 of them still in existence. This is someone who wanted to see this reality of God's peace break into our world and break into our lives. And all of them have different slightly subtle variations to them and I realize with the projector and the light in here it's not as clear as it could be but one of the things that strikes me, I guess, about this is that as the prophet talked about the lamb lying down next to the fox and lion eating straw and the bears eating grass, the thing that always captures my attention are the eyes particularly of the lion and the one next to the child and the leopard down here.

Their big eyes as if they've been surprised by something. My take on that is that it's reality of God's peace breaking into the world, upsetting the natural order of stuff because the truth of it is we all know what the difference is between a animal that's a predator and an animal that's a prey. Predators eat the prey. Lions eat deer. Wolves eat lambs and that's the way that it is. And yet the prophet and Mr. Hicks's best attempts to capture that remind us that this peace is possible with God. You can take that down now, Anna, thank you. This peace that God talks about is remarkable. It's startling and it's even unsettling. Imagine the shock of those people that heard about that Christmas truce of British soldiers and German soldiers laying down their weapons and singing and dancing and playing games together in the middle of a battlefield where just a day or even hours before their comrades were dying. What? They did what? And yet it happened. We look at our world and we think, boy, where are we going? What is going on? But I have to say the timing of my friend and colleague, Angelo Monti, sharing that video at the beginning really helps to make that point that through the grassroots efforts of what they're doing, there's a profound impact happening in the lives of some of the young people at Southside High School.

That for all of the things that we hear in the news on a weekly basis of a shooting at that store or this college or this school across our country, we need to hear more stories about what's going on at Southside. Doesn't mean it's perfect, no, but yet as he said, we have to do something and they're beginning to move things in that direction. As the prophet says, in this peaceful kingdom where the natural order is upended, he says, and a child shall lead them. A little child shall lead them.

What if what is happening at Southside is the children leading us, our community, and saying enough is enough. He mentioned that young man who'd grown up and experienced a lot of trauma in his life. But he said, I want something different. Unfortunately, the violence that we see being enacted and playing out, particularly among young people, is something they've witnessed. It's something they've seen and it's a cycle that needs to break. And God's saying, trust me. Allow my Spirit to work and to move within you. Allow my Spirit to fill you and be my instrument of peace in this world. Sadly, we still live in a world where might makes right. That the loudest voices seem to carry the day. The one with the most and biggest weapons is the one that gets their way. But Isaiah, speaking to a people who were on the verge of being conquered, says, you know what, God has a different plan. God's Spirit will equip and prepare the people that will make a difference. God's Spirit will equip and prepare you. It's not such a far-off, Pollyannaish dream to think that peace is a possibility. It simply requires the resolve of people to say, I wanna see something different in this world.

Our reading this morning concluded with those words, on that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the people. The nations shall inquire of him and his dwelling shall be glorious. That tender shoot, that fragile shoot, that one that God called forth and filled with his Spirit to make a difference, is still a thin and slender shoot, weak and fragile and vulnerable. And yet by God's spirit that shoot stands as a symbol, a banner, an emblem to the world saying God's peace can and will reign. It almost sounds like it's the same kind of God whose idea of salvation would come to be through a baby born in a barn. This God seems to prefer using the weak, the fragile, the vulnerable so that his goodness, his love, his spirit can shine forth. Friends may we experience the peace, the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that seems so elusive and escapable, the peace that has been and can be a reality. On a European battlefield a century ago, in Germany in the late '80s when the Berlin Wall came down, in the hallways at Southside High School, God's peace is there. It's working, it's moving, it's coming and it is possible. In us and through us, may we be a part of breathing God's peace into this world. Amen.

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