I think my sermon Christmas Sunday at University Church, Athens, Ga., is just the thing to think about as we begin a new year–for reason that I hope will be apparent if you have the patience to read it!
TWO ADVENTS: Isaiah 11:1-9
University Church, Athens, Ga.
December 25, 2011
Donald T. Williams, PhD
Isaiah 11:1 Then a root shall spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. 2 And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 And he will delight in the fear of the LORD, and he will not judge by what his eyes see, nor make a decision by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he will judge the poor and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth. And he will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Also, righteousness will be the belt about his loins and faithfulness the belt about his waste. 6 And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little boy will lead them. 7 And the cow and the bear will graze; their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 And then the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
INTRODUCTION: This is not a typical text for a Christmas sermon, though its relevance to the season is undeniable. But it is a complicated prophecy. Verse one seems indeed to refer to the Incarnation and Birth of Christ. Then a root shall spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. Verse two was fulfilled at his Baptism, and verse three in his earthly ministry. 2 And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. That happened at His baptism when the Spirit descended like a dove. 3 And he will delight in the fear of the LORD, and he will not judge by what his eyes see, nor make a decision by what his ears hear. Jesus echoes these very words in verses like John 5:19: “Truly, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing.”
So far, so good. But from verse four on we seem to be looking not at the First but at the Second Coming of Christ. The final judgment is still in the future; and definitely the material in verses six and following has not been fulfilled yet. We have not seen a lot of wolves lying down with lambs, and neither hurting nor destruction have ceased on Zion or any other mountain; if anything, they are still on the increase! Yet, as is typical of the Old Testament, these prophecies with such diverse fulfillments are presented by Isaiah as one undigested lump. Huh? What’s up with that?
You can understand why most of our Jewish friends do not accept Christ’s claims to be the Messiah. When the Messiah comes, they common-sensically argue, this is what is supposed to happen. They haven’t seen any wolves and lambs dwelling together, vegetarian bears and lions seem to be in short supply, and babies playing with dangerous snakes are not long for this world. The Messiah is the Prince of Peace and will bring peace to the world when He comes. Obviously, therefore, the Messiah hasn’t come yet; and this seems more obvious in Palestine than in most places in the world. Jesus did not do any of these things, the argument goes, so he can’t very well have been the Promised One, now, can he?
Well, Christians are people who have been forced by the Person of Christ, the Work of Christ, and especially the Resurrection of Christ, to take another look at Messianic prophecy and realize that it is not quite so simple as our Jewish friends would have us believe. The testimony of the angels at His birth, the testimony of His Messianic works during His ministry, and the testimony of the Resurrection at the other end of His life tell us that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Old Testament just has to be interpreted in the light of that stupendous fact. The historical reality and experience of the Resurrection—and then the Ascension—forced the disciples to realize something they could not have gathered from the Old Testament alone: that the coming of Messiah was a two-stage event. There was going to be a Second Coming to complete His work. The Old Testament had not made this clear, but neither does it deny it. That is, you probably would not have anticipated this truth from reading the Old Testament, but nothing in the Old Testament is actually inconsistent with it. (If it were, we would have to admit that we had gotten something very wrong.) This should not be too surprising. After all, The Old Testament’s prophecies were not designed to let people predict what God was going to do in advance. Then as now, people who try to use prophecy that way invariably get it wrong. Old Testament prophecy was designed to let God’s faithful people recognize his work on their behalf when it came so that they could accept it. It is not surprising that they were surprised by certain aspects of it. (And we should not be surprised if we are surprised ourselves.)
Therefore, as we think today about the coming of Christ to this world to be born and to die, I want us to remember that this coming was part one of a two-part event. A sequel is coming which will be even better than the first installment; and the two are related. It is not that the Old Testament got anything wrong. It emphasized a very important truth, the unity of the two parts as really constituting one event, one act on the part of God for the redemption of his people. It has been explained as if the Old Testament prophets were looking across two mountain peaks and seeing them together from a perspective that hid from them the valley in between. There may be some truth to that. But an even better explanation is that the Old Testament saw truly the unity between the two peaks, the way they are tied together in the one unified mountain range of God’s redemptive plan.
Think of the analogy of driving a nail. Is it one act or two? You can analyze it either way. You raise your hand, and then you let the hammer fall—it is two acts. But it is just a truly pictured as one act with two parts. That is how it is with the coming of Christ to this earth that we celebrate at this time of year. The first coming raises the hammer in such a way that the driving of the nail becomes inevitable. We are just waiting for the blow to fall. To understand the perspective of both Testaments on Christmas is to see that the birth of that baby and the laying of him in that manger prepare for his Second Coming, when the healing of our sin-ravaged planet pictured by the straw-eating predators and the lamb and wolf as playmates will be completed, in just the same way as the lifting of a hammer prepares for the driving of the nail. The birth of Christ starts the process that leads to that end. It demands the Second Coming!
Think about the way the next to the last chord in a piece of music demands the resolution of the final note. [Demonstrate on piano: I, IV, V7, I.] That is why it is called the “leading chord.” That is how the Second Coming of Christ completes the First Coming: they are two chords in one cadence. So when we stand in that stable with the Shepherds, we should see even more than the Cross and the Empty Tomb looming ahead as part of that very vision. We should see that same Jesus coming in power and glory to judge the quick and the dead. We should see the lion lying down with the lamb. Because this thing happened, that thing has been set in motion. It is coming! Look down at that manger and then lift up your heads, for the hammer has been raised, the leading chord sounded; your redemption draweth nigh!
Our prophecy today stresses the unity of his two-part coming, and the New Testament reveals its duality. We want to look at both truths more particularly before we are done.
I. THE UNITY OF HIS COMING
What we see in the two Comings, the two Advents of Christ, are the two final and most awesome phases of God’s ultimate act of redemption and self revelation. God’s purpose is to glorify Himself by revealing Himself in atonement and in judgment. The coming of Jesus Christ into this world is what accomplishes that purpose. If you want to see who God is, look at Jesus. If you want to see God’s justice, look at Jesus. If you want to see God’s goodness, look at Jesus. If you want to see God’s wisdom, look at Jesus. If you want to see God’s mercy, look at Jesus. If you want to see God’s glory, look at Jesus. Specifically and supremely, look at Jesus on the Cross, reconciling for all time and eternity the apparent conflict between God’s justice which demands the death penalty for sin and his grace and mercy which would rather pardon the sinner. There God becomes just and the justifier of the ungodly. And look at His Resurrection, where we see God’s power and realize that the Cross was not a defeat but the ultimate triumph of justice, goodness, and grace over sin. But we have not seen everything yet! We must also look at the coming King who will bring the healing which isolated individuals experienced in His earthly ministry to the whole planet. You will not fully know who God is until you have seen all of that. And you are going to see it! The Christ who came is the same Christ who will return, in like manner as the disciples saw him go. What he began at that time, he will complete in the future. It is all one thing.
The First Coming of Christ was personal and perceptible, it was objective and actual, it was visible and verifiable—and so will his Second Coming be. The First Coming of Christ was incomprehensible and unimaginable, it was unexpected in form yet wholly factual—and so will his Second Coming be. The First Coming of Christ was predicted by prophecy, it was prayed for by the people, it was prepared for by Providence, and it was effected by the Almighty—and so will his Second Coming be. The First Coming of Christ was the first part of a single, whole, and unified act of God. The hammer has been raised. The nail will be driven. You can depend on it!
II. THE DUALITY OF HIS COMING
The Advent of Christ was part one of a two-part single event. As such the two parts are similar. But they are gloriously different as well. We rightly look back with nostalgia, even almost romance, to that first part. But in doing so let us not forget that it was all to prepare for the second, in which alone the glory of the first will be fully revealed. This distinction between the two parts can be described in at least five ways.
Christ’s Person: First, we can think of the distinction with respect to Christ’s person. To think of his Person in this way reveals something about His dignity. He came in poverty; He will return in power. He came in humiliation; He will return in honor. He came in meekness; He will return in majesty. He came to glares of hate; He will return in the glory of heaven. He came to be mocked at; He will return to be marveled at. He came to be executed; He will return to be exalted. He came to the hay; He will return from the heights. He came to be whipped; He will return to be worshipped. He came in grief; he will return in greatness. He came in sorrow; he will return with singing. He came without prestige; He will return with all preeminence. His Transfiguration and supremely His Resurrection foreshadowed all of this, but it will not be finished, it will not be fulfilled, until He comes. If we love Him, if we wish to honor Him, if we wish to see Him face to face, then we will long for that day when this cycle is complete!
We can also think of the difference for Christ personally with respect to his office. He came as a servant; He will return as a sovereign. He came as a peasant; He will return as a potentate. He came to experience suffering; He will return to exercise sway. He came to rejection; He will return to rule. He came to experience the trial of a criminal; He will return to enjoy the triumph of a king. He came to be vanquished; He will return as the victor. He came to be killed; He will return to be crowned. Like a friend who rejoices in the success of a friend, if we love him, we will long for this day, for His day—the Day of the Lord!
Christ’s Work: A second way we can think of the distinction between the two comings is with respect to Christ’s work of Atonement. He came to be judged; He will return to be Judge. He came to take on our nature; He will return to transform our nature. His first coming made atonement for sin; His second will make an end of sin. In His first coming Satan was beaten; in His second Satan will be banished. Christ came to make restitution; He will return to accomplish restoration. He came to bear punishment; He will return to bring peace. His big day will be ours too! Let our contemplation of His first Advent make us long for the second as we ought.
Christ’s People: A third way in which the two Advents will differ is with respect to His People. He came to Israel; He will return for everyone. His first coming was the founding of the Church; His second will be the fulfillment of the Church. He came to win his Bride; He will return to wed his Bride. When you were engaged, did it matter to you how soon your wedding day would come? His return will be the Marriage Supper of the Lamb! Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Christ’s Story: Fourth, we can think of the difference the Second Coming will make to His Story, which is history. When He came the first time the Kingdom was preached; when He returns the Kingdom will prevail. He came to keep his Promise; He will return to complete the promises. His first coming was in the fullness of time; His second will be the finale of time. His first coming was the turning point of history; His second will be the termination of history. He came at the crisis of history; He will return at the climax of history. His first coming was millennia ago; his second could be at almost any moment. Surely we should be filled with anticipation! How long, oh Lord?
Christ’s Goal: Finally, we can think of the difference his Second Coming will make with respect to Christ’s goal: self glorification by self revelation. His first coming was almost unnoticed; His second will be unmistakable. The first was recorded in Scripture; the second will be revealed in the sky. He came to teach us about Himself; He will return to take us to Himself. His first coming inaugurated a memorial supper; the second will climax in the Marriage Supper. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait!
CONCLUSION: We are used to the exhortation to look beyond the Manger to the Cross. It is one we need. But let us extend it! To understand the coming of Christ biblically is to be reminded that it is not yet completed. Our nostalgia for the Manger is not wrong if it leads us to appreciation of what came after the manger and to anticipation of what lies yet ahead. When we think that He came, let us be reminded that He is coming! And if we think the Shepherds were privileged to see Him in His Manger and to hear His angel choir singing—as surely they were—imagine the grace and privilege that may be ours: to join in that choir and welcome Him back as the bright and shining, the conquering and victorious King! We live for that day. And we anticipate it by the way we serve and honor Him even now.
How specifically do we do that? When the images and carols of Christmas come into our minds, and they now spur us to think of our Lord’s Second Coming as the completion of his First, what difference should this make in the way we serve Him? Let me suggest three differences.
First, let us live circumspectly. That is, let us live intelligently in the light of our place in salvation history as Scripture allows us to understand it. We live by an understanding of biblical prophecy that is tempered by an understanding of our lack of understanding of biblical prophecy. In other words, we know that we know some things, and we know that we do not know others. We know that we live in the “already but not yet,” the time between our Lord’s triumph over sin and death and the final and complete application of that triumph in the restoration of all things. That enables us to live with confidence and boldness, knowing that the final restoration is just as certain, though it be future from our perspective, as the historical Fact that is objective and visible behind us. In other words, we understand that the First Coming of Christ has, as the Apostle Peter put it, made “the prophetic word more sure” (2 Pet. 1:19). This lets us live with faith in our forgiveness, assurance of our acceptance, and confidence in our King. Christians who celebrate Christmas intelligently in the light of these truths should be hard people to discourage, difficult people to daunt, because we know that, however dark the immediate present may seem, we are going to be more than conquerors in the end. We have seen the hammer raised, and we have the utmost confidence in the nail-scarred hands that hold it. We have heard the leading chord, and we wait expectantly for the resolution. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
At the same time, we do not waste our time or our emotional energy trying to decipher (much less argue about) all the details of prophecy as if it were a newspaper written in advance. We have seen how the Old Testament was sufficient to allow people of faith to recognize God’s Messiah when he came, but not sufficient to let them predict in any detail how He would come before the fact. We understand that we are unlikely to do any better at that game with the Second Coming than they did with the First. We have better things to do. And that leads me to our second application:
Second, let us live purposefully. We understand that all of history is drawing inevitably toward its conclusion. We understand that this conclusion is the triumph of King Jesus in His Kingdom. We understand that triumph as the fulfillment of God’s purpose to glorify His Son through the salvation of sinners. We know who we are: the servants of the King. We have our marching orders: the Great Commission. We know how to carry it out faithfully: by walking worthily of our calling. We have many different callings, but we are all called to be soldiers of Christ. And so we evaluate our lives not by worldly standards of success but by asking, “Are we helping to make disciples of every nation? Are we letting our light so shine before men that they see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven?” What is your purpose? Even the pagan Socrates knew that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Well, we know how to examine our lives in the light of the Star of Bethlehem, so that we kneel down like the Shepherds and get up as Wise Men.
Third, let us live urgently. We do not know when the Lord will come, but we know that life as we are living it now will not go on forever. Even if the Lord does not return in our lifetime, life is pitifully short. And thus we do not have time for meaningless pursuits—including trying to figure out how much time we have. As for time, it is in His hands; it is finite; it is precious. The hammer is raised; the leading chord has sounded. What more do we need to know? We do not have forever to evangelize the nations. You do not have forever to repent, to forgive your brother, to do whatever it is the Lord is calling you to do. Therefore we are eager to seize the day and redeem the time, not out of fear or guilt or frantic compulsion but with boldness and confidence because we know the King is coming, and therefore our labor is not in vain in the Lord. This is not a life of hectic hurry but one of serene peacefulness and calm that lets us savor the minutes even as we do not waste them. They are precious because they are His. They are filled with significance because the hammer is raised and the leading chord sounded. We cherish them because they are leading us from the Stable to the Throne; they are leading us to His feet. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Donald T. Williams holds a BA in English from Taylor University, an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a PhD in Medieval and Renaissance Literature from the University of Georgia. He is the author of eight books: The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit (Broadman, 1994), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Toccoa Falls College Press, 1996), The Disciple’s Prayer (Christian Publications, 1999), Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006), Credo: An Exposition of the Nicene Creed (Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice Press, 2008), Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow Press, 2012). He has also contributed to such journals as National Review, Christianity Today, Touchstone, Modern Reformation, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Philosophia Christi, Theology Today, Christianity and Literature, Christian Scholar’s Review, Mythlore, SEVEN: An Anglo-American Review, Christian Educator’s Journal, Preaching, and Christian Research Journal. An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America, he has spent several summers in Africa training local pastors for Church Planting International, and currently serves as R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College. Material on literature, theology, the Inklings, and other topics can be found at his website, http://doulomen.tripod.com. He blogs at journalformalpoetry.com and lanternhollowpress.com.