Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Wolves At The Door

Isaiah 1:1-9
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the Lord shall rest on 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.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the 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.
Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”


John the Baptist looked at the world around him and knew it was in bad shape.  He pointed his finger at people and called them a brood of vipers. 

Things haven’t changed. 

Jesus Christ once sent several of his disciples on a mission and told them to be careful, “I’m sending you out as sheep among wolves.  Be on your guard.”[i]

Nope, things haven’t changed a bit.

          It is still a mean and vicious world out there, and the wolves are at the door.

          On Wednesday, a young man at West Orange High School took a gun and shot another student in the abdomen and in the face. 
A man killed his son and wife with a crossbow, then committed suicide.
A woman has been arrested for swindling an elderly man who suffered memory loss out of $22,000.
          It is a mean and vicious world out there, and the wolves are at the door. 

          We see the wolves around us, and we feel angry.

          And we are fed up, frustrated, and we often give in to hopelessness because there is no escaping this evil in our world.

          My nephew once lived in a neighborhood filled with crime.  Almost every home had been burglarized.  So he moved into another neighborhood.  On the Saturday of his move he took a break and sat down amid all of the boxes he was loading into his new home and a television van drove up.  A reporter and a cameraman walked up to him.  The reporter said, “We see you are moving.  Can we interview you?”

          “Sure,” my nephew said, thinking it must be a very, very slow news day.

          The camera was turned on, the reporter started the interview.  “We see you are moving today.  Are you moving out because of all of the murders that have happened on this street?”

          The wolves are at the door – there is no escape.

          It is easy to fall into hopelessness.

          The prophet Isaiah lived in such a time.  Things were bad, they weren’t getting better.  And like us, he was fed up!

          Our Old Testament lesson for today comes from Isaiah’s words that were apparently spoken during the coronation of the new king.  It was not unusual for a person in a prophetic role to announce God’s blessing on the new king.[ii]

          Now, these words from our Old Testament lesson do not strike us as very shocking, but apparently they were to the people of Isaiah’s time. He did not refer to the new king at all.  Instead, he spoke of a king yet to come. 

          Imagine a speaker at the Inauguration of President saying, “Let me tell you about how good the NEXT President will be.”

          And this is exactly what Isaiah does.

At this inauguration, or rather coronation, Isaiah says, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him —“ 

In other words – the present government isn’t helping.  It is dead as a stump.  There are no heirs to the throne who can follow and do any better.

So the prophet says that he has no hope in human leadership, but  -- that is not to say there is no hope at all.

Isaiah’s hope is that out of that dead stump will come real hope and real leadership.  “And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him,” says Isaiah.
“the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
“the Spirit of counsel and of power,
“the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD — 
“and he will delight in the fear of the LORD…
“and a little child will lead them.”

A new hope!  The only hope!  The little Christ child, born on Christmas Day brings us hope.

The wolves are at the door, and Isaiah knows exactly how the Christ will deal with them.

What we want to do with the evil doers of the world is to make war against them.  To hate them.  To kill them.  To ship them back where they came from. 

But the Christ that Isaiah speaks of has a wild idea.

It is an idea that seems absurd. 

Christ’s idea is for us to love them and to live in peace with one another. 

Isaiah said, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”[iii]

Now don’t misunderstand. 

This is not a world in which good and evil will simply tolerate one another.

Nor is this a world in which the innocent and good will simply live in ignorant and naïve bliss in which they lambs will eventually be eaten alive by the wolves.

It is a world in which everyone changes, including the wolves – AND the lambs.

In the language in which Isaiah was written, Hebrew, the clear message is that the wolf and the lamb will live together in friendship, not just toleration, nor in naïve ignorance.[iv]

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” Well, that is what most of us would do!

However Jesus says, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

It is easy to celebrate the birth of Christ.

It is not easy to follow his teachings.

It’s not easy, because when we hear of yet another school shooting we become angry and bitter.  And when we learn of elderly people with memory loss being swindled, we don’t want to love the accused.  We want to strike out.  The human thing to do is to respond to wolves by becoming just another wolfe.

In the movie that came out several years ago, the Kingdom,  Jaime Fox plays a Special Agent with the FBI.  He leads a team to investigate an act of terrorism in which one of their own team members has been killed.  It is a difficult and dangerous investigation, and at the end of the film, they kill one of the terrorists.  As this terrorist is about to die, he whispers into the ear of his little grandson, telling the child, “Don’t worry.  We’ll kill them all.”

Meanwhile, half way around the world, the FBI agent comforts other agents by telling them, “Don’t worry.  We’ll kill them all.”

If we are not careful, when we deal with the wolves, we may find that we become wolves ourselves.

Nelson Mandella, who died just a few days ago, was one of those folks who dealt with oppression in a real and dynamic way.  He lived in a society of race-based oppression.  He was a leader against that oppression and helped bring about change for the better.  After being in prison for almost three decades, he could have left angry and bitter and he could have advocated increased violence, but he didn’t – he could have become one of the wolves, but he avoided that.  As he put it, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness behind, I’d still be in prison.”


It is easy to deal with evil by using evil.  It is easy to respond to hate, with hate.  It is easy to deal with the wolves at our doors by become wolves.

          On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed.  Senator Robert Kennedy was on the campaign trail and was running for President.  He was in Indianapolis on a campaign stop when he learned of King’s murder.  In those days, there were no cell phones or Internet or instant news, and the audience had no idea that King had died.  It fell on Kennedy to tell them. 

          It was one of the most powerful speeches of his career. 

Kennedy  told the people, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer.”[v]

          That night, the violence and hatred behind King’s murder caused most of the nation to react in the most human way – with more hatred and anger.  The result was rioting in 110 cities.  Thirty-nine people were killed.  Another 2,500 were injured.  More than 75,000 National Guardsmen and federal troops were called to the streets.[vi]

          But in Indianapolis, where Kennedy called for love and wisdom, all was quite.

          What happens when we respond to anger with anger and when we respond to hate with hate is that we become the very wolves we dread.

          And the cycle of violence or hate or anger continues.

It is Advent.

We will sing songs of Christmas, and of peace, and of hope, and of love.

The wolves may be at the door, but the love of Christ is stronger than the wolves.

Hate may rule the world, but the love of Christ is stronger than hate.

Terrorism threatens us on every side, but the love of Christ is stronger than fear.

The wolves are at the door, but the day will come when the Christ who was born on Christmas Day returns and establishes his kingdom, his peace, and the wolves and lambs will finally rest together.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
when there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand,
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.[vii]

Copyright 2013, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved. 
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[i] Matthew 10:16

[ii] Trent C. Butler, Layman’s Bible Book Commentary: Isaiah, (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1982).  page 42.

[iii] Isaiah 11:6
[iv] Yearling or ayrm has a double meaning in Hebrew, as it recalls the similar word,  sy[rm, or “friends”

[v] Tom Brokaw, “Boom!” Random House, 2007.  page 52-52.

[vi] Indiana Historical Marker Database, ID #4920051.
[vii] The Prayer of Saint Francis is widely attributed to the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi, but the prayer in its present form cannot be traced back further than 1912, when it was printed in France in a small French language magazine called La Clochette (The Little Bell).  The prayer has been known in the USA since 1936 and Cardinal Francis Spellman distributed millions of copies of the prayer during World War II. It was the beginning of its international career.