People start thinking and doing strange things as the holidays come around. Have you noticed that? I heard about this group of youngsters who got this wild idea that it might be okay to collect some unused food and give it to some of the poorest families in their area. They thought, maybe one of the local supermarkets might be willing to give away some of its excess merchandise to meet the needs of struggling families. "Oh, I'm very sorry," said the store manager. "We used to do that sort of thing all the time, but now with all the health regulations, inventory controls, and such … it's against the rules." A man driving down the street passed an old car on the side of the road with its hood up. Beside it stood a person in shabby clothes with his thumb out, hoping to hitch a ride. For a second the driver considered stopping. Then, just as quickly there swept over him the familiar warnings: "Don't pick up hitchhikers. You never know what kind of crazies are out there." "I'd like to help," he thought as he watched the dejected figure recede in his rear-view mirror, "but it's really against the rules." You know the rules, don't you? "Don't talk to strangers." "Be careful to whom you open up with your feelings." "Look out for number one." "Don't be foolish." "Care too much and people will walk all over you."
In subtle ways, we all learn the rules about how far and to whom we can extend ourselves without risking trouble. Those kinds of rules grow out of practical human experience with the dark side of life in human society. We need to know "the rules"—if only to be reminded that we live in a world where sin and evil are all too real. As helpful as "the rules" are at times, are they the ultimate standard by which to live your life? What happens when the rules begin to really rule us—when the legitimate desire to protect ourselves from error or harm results in dividing us from one another, like so many separate soldiers each running for cover?
Isaiah brings hope to Israel
There are those who could tell us way back in 740 B.C., the prophet Isaiah discerned in his land a frightening trend common to the declining years of many great empires. At one time, the nation of Israel had been something of a light to the surrounding nations. It had been a culture strangely distinctive in the high value that its economic, religious, and social life placed on interdependence. To be a Jew was to be passionately concerned with the hurts and hopes of all your people. It was to celebrate your common connection to the true God, and to work together to build a society where every able-bodied person did their fair share but where the truly weak or vulnerable had no fear of being forgotten. Over the years, however, the tone of life in Israel had slowly changed. A wider chasm grew between people who had once seen themselves as members of one family. The wealthiest members of society became increasingly insulated from the vast majority of citizens who lived a hand-to-mouth existence.
A growing class of poor people became increasingly hopeless, desperate, and violent. Gradually, profound resentments grew up between the segments of Israeli society. In time, even religion no longer held people together.
Israel's ancient faith became diluted by other belief systems which favored a personal spirituality that didn't require allegiance to any one god or regular involvement in a certain community of faith to be practiced. From top to bottom, Israel increasingly became a society of self-protecting, self-advancing people—alienated from one another and from the God who'd given them life. The law of interdependence was replaced by a new rule: "It's everyone for themselves."
Through this society walked the prophet Isaiah. Filled with God's grief over the disintegration of Israel's character and culture, Isaiah made two stunning predictions. First, he foretold the national destruction which such internal division merely invited. True to Isaiah's word, the rod of judgment came in 722 as the Assyrian army easily overran the northern kingdom, plundered its wealth, and sold its surprised citizens into slavery.
Secondly, Isaiah foresaw the coming of a leader who would teach the faithful remnant of God's people a different way. Most of us who have ever darkened the door of a church or attended a Sunday School class understand something of what Isaiah tells us about this promised One. When he says in verse one that "a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse [and] from his roots a branch will bear fruit." We understand that Isaiah is predicting that the Messiah will come from the severed trunk of the family tree of Jesse, the father of King David—that royal line of leadership that had been chopped down when the Assyrians came. 800 years later, a rather remarkable child is indeed born in Jesse and David's home-town, Bethlehem. When this Child bears uncommon fruits of character and inspires amazing fruitfulness in others, we smile in recognition.
Isaiah goes on to say in verse two that this leader will be filled with an authority above any other—for "the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him"—even the casual church-goer may find certain images coming to mind. You see a carpenter wading into the stream to be baptized. You recall how the Bible says that the Spirit of the living God came and rested upon him like a dove. You realize that, in Jesus Christ, the prophecy of Isaiah again was fulfilled. These are some of the things we all know or have heard about the One who came at Christmas. But do we appreciate just how fully this prophesied Savior challenged the rules by which people commonly live? And is our allegiance to him changing the way you and I come at life too?
Rule of rejection
There are at least three specific rules that Isaiah tells us this Messiah—and by extension his followers—will come against. The first one I will term the Rule of Rejection. I'm talking about the rule that permits us to harden our heart permanently against those who hurt us, to write them off forever, to dismiss people as irredeemable and useless because of what they have done or failed to do. Do you know that rule? Do you practice it? Then consider this scenario. Israel has failed God time and again. The Jews have used God's temple as a marketplace, ignored the poor, and turned the Promised Land into a playground for selfishness. We know what response the rules of humanity would dictate toward Israel: "Cut them off! Have nothing to do with them! Reject them!" But what is God's response?
At first he leaves them to feel the consequences of their actions—the way a loving parent sometimes allows a child to feel the sting of an error in the hope of producing a change of heart. Rather than stewing in righteous resentment, God crosses the border between heaven and earth to bring forth from the stump of Jesse an olive branch of peace. Why does he do this? Isaiah tells us in verse five. Because God does not live by the Rule of Rejection but by the Spirit of "faithfulness" or as the Hebrew word here is sometimes rendered—a Spirit of "steadfast love." That's why God looks at you and me as we move around in our private, protected little worlds, and doesn't stop trying to reach us. No matter how far we've walked away from him. No matter how miserably we have failed. No matter how self-sealed we've become. No matter how deeply we've hurt him or others or ourselves. God refuses to brand us as a lost cause. Rather, he looks at us with a faithful love that longs to reconcile us to himself, that aches to bring us home.
Rule of appearances
God is not blocked either by a second law by which many of us unconsciously live. I speak of the Rule of Appearances. Many years ago, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy had an experience which helped him understand this. While out walking late one night, Tolstoy was approached by a beggar who upon seeing the author's fine clothes asked him for some change. Tolstoy's routine practice was to ignore such people; but on this night he felt moved by a different Spirit. Much to his dismay, however, a search of his pockets made him realize that he'd left home without his wallet or even a coin to extend to this forsaken soul. "I'm so sorry, brother," Tolstoy said, "I seem to have left my money at home." To his surprise, the face of the beggar seemed to transfigure. "That's quite alright, sir," the poor man replied. "You've already done something greater for me than anyone has in years. You called me your brother."
The One who is to come, said Isaiah, "He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hearts with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy." In other words, the Messiah will not be put off by people's clothes, their bad manners, their awkward ways. He is not dissuaded by the uniform of poverty, pride, or piety. The God who comes to us in Jesus Christ isn't ruled by appearances at all. What he is drawn to is need—the needs that drive people to do the things they do—and above all the need in every human being to be recognized and embraced as one of the family. Do you have that perception of people? Isaiah predicted that someone was coming who would break the Rule of Rejection, who would ignore the Rule of Appearances, and who would finally, destroy the Rule of Enmity.
Rule of Enmity
You know that rule too, don't you? It's the law of the jungle, we take for granted. It's the rule that fuels tribalism of every kind. It's the belief that at the end of the day there are eaters and eaten ones, and that if we don't crush, conquer, or consume them first, they'll do it to us. But Isaiah said that into this world will come someone who revises that rule and establishes peace between enemies. "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together … the cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together … They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain." It's a crazy belief really—the idea that natural enemies could ever dwell with one another in peace—except that now and then people have dared to stake their lives upon it.
On Christmas Eve 1914, World War I temporarily came to a halt on the front between France and Germany. Only five months into the war, more than 800,000 people had already been killed or wounded. Yet, as the sun went down a strange spirit settled across the lines. It began when British soldiers raised lighted Merry Christmas signs towards the German lines. In a matter of moments, both sides were singing Christmas carols across the battlefields to each other. Christmas morning dawned with officers on both sides unable to prevent their troops from leaving their trenches and meeting "the enemy" in no-man's land for songs and conversation. Exchanging candy and cigarettes, German, French, and British soldiers passed Christmas Day in peace along miles of the front. So pervasive was the spirit of reconciliation that along some stretches of the front the spontaneous truce continued all through the 26th, neither side willing to fire the first shot. At long last, the war resumed when fresh troops arrived, and the high command on both sides issued a decree stating that further "informal understandings" with the enemy would be punishable as treason.
At Christmas long ago, there came into this world One who was willing to take issue with the rules of earthly kingdoms, even if that meant being punished as a traitor. Jesus knew there was a coming kingdom before which all the shallow rules of this world would pass away. In that kingdom the rejections, appearances, and enmities that rule this world will be no more. All we will see then is a steadfast love, a community of brothers and sisters, a fellowship of former enemies, forever and ever, amen.
Living against the rules
Now and then, often around Christmas, someone wakes up to that reality. Maybe that's why Nelson Mandela chose to champion the way of reconciliation over retribution in South Africa. Maybe that's why some courageous Republicans or Democrats will persevere in crossing the aisle till we have the revolution we need in our political culture today. Maybe that's why a certain grocer ultimately changed his mind and gave out as many apples and donuts as a group of young people could carry to the poor of their community. Maybe that's why a certain driver turned his car around and picked up a hitchhiker who turned out to be not an axe-murderer after all, but instead a newfound friend. Maybe that's why an old resentment, an off putting appearance, or a social division will not stop you from doing something this week that shows you know what steadfast love really means, who your brothers and sisters truly are, and what constructive alliances are possible for those who know the King.
You see, there is another Advent coming, a day when Christ comes again and "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea." On that day, all these "informal understandings" he has called us to live by now will be the permanent practices of a whole new creation. So expect that day. Ready yourself for it. If you want to know how, then somehow, somewhere, with someone this week, dare to live against the rules.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.