Are we still a Christian nation? Do we want to be a Christian nation? What is a Biblical vision for Christian rule? Isaiah 11 helps to answer these questions.
Are we a Christian nation?
Last year a census was taken and the results are only just coming out.
This week the data on religion and ethnicity were released and the results hit the headlines. One of the key results was perhaps shocking. For the first time less than half the population put down their religion as ‘Christian,’ many instead opting for ‘no religion.’
This once again sparked a debate over whether you can call our country a Christian country. In many ways the answer to this question is, “Yes, we are a Christian country.” After all our new monarch will be crowned in a Christian ceremony in a Christian church. We have a national church and Bishops in the House of Lords. Perhaps more fundamentally, though, Christianity has been the dominant religion since England as a nation was conceived for well over 1,000 years. The values and outlook we take for granted are far more deeply influenced by our Christian faith than many people realise. For example, the idea that every human being is of equal value and worth arises from the Biblical idea that we are all made in the image of God. We take that idea for granted, but it would have been alien to many of the ways of thinking that existed in cultures before the influence of Christianity. So, yes, in many ways we are a Christian country.
Yet, on the other hand there are many reasons to answer, ‘No!’ to that question. After all, less than half the population would now even call themselves Christians and worse than that a very small minority could be called, ‘active Christians’, who attend and support a local church or want to grow in their understanding of faith or a relationship with God. Christianity or faith is hardly ever spoken about in the news or national discussions. In short people’s knowledge of God in this country has shrunk massively. All these facts suggest that we are no longer a Christian nation.
But perhaps we need to ask ourselves a more important question. Do we want to be a Christian nation? And if so, what do we mean by that? What might a Christian nation look like?
Isaiah’s Vision: A Better nation
Isaiah lived 700 years before Jesus. His was not a Christian nation, but it was meant to be a nation that worshipped the same God of the Bible. In a sense it was clearly, God’s nation, there was the temple, the Priesthood and kings, who could track their ancestry back to the great King David, the Son of Jesse.
But there was a growing trend to abandon this faith. Isaiah is critical of the ‘religion’ of his age, that had become focussed only on the ritual and abandoned God’s call to right living. Worse than that there was a move to embrace some of the more fashionable gods of the age alongside or instead of the God of their ancestors. Increasingly, Isaiah’s nation, Judah, seemed to be drifting away from God.
And Isaiah as a prophet, regularly warns of God’s judgement on the nation for this. Indeed, they were facing one of their greatest challenges, the rapid rise of the Assyrian empire, who were successfully invading many of the neighbouring nations.
Yet, he also gives great visions of a better future for the nation, an idealisation of the kind of nation that would come about, if the rulers and people were to truly follow their God and a vision of what God would one day achieve in bringing about.
Chapter 11 is one of these visions. So, let’s look at what kind of better nation Isaiah says God will bring about.
A nation of hope not despair – 11:1
Firstly, it is a nation of hope not despair. The image at the start is of a shoot coming out of a stump, the stump of Jesse. Jesse was David’s father and so this stump stands for the dynasty of kings that came after David and the nation they ruled.
Because of the threat of the marauding Assyrians, it was a nation in deep despair, a nation and kingship that felt itself as good as dead, things were going from bad to worse.
But Isaiah says, just as sometimes a dead stump, suddenly produces a green shoot, so God will give Judah new life and a better future. It may feel like nothing can be done about the Assyrians, but somehow God will save them. There is hope and this hope will be linked with a better king.
We too live in times, where the challenges seem to be mounting up and things seem to be going from bad to worse. Yet, the same God is still there. He controls the future and he promises that in the end he will bring us to a far better future. If you are feeling like a dead stump now, trust in the Lord, to bring about new shoots of life.
In such times, don’t we want to be a nation of hope not despair? This is what being a Christian nation means. Isn’t that something we long for?
A nation of justice not corruption – 11:3-5
Secondly, Isaiah’s vision of a better nation is of one of justice rather than corruption. A country, where those in charge make sure that the poor are cared for and looked out for and where wickedness is punished.
To be a Christian nation is to stop corruption and to make sure the poor are cared for. The truth is this is what our Christian heritage has on the whole helped us to bring about. Bribery and corruption are relatively rare compared with many parts of the world. The poor are pretty well supported, through benefits, the National Health Service and so on.
Yet, at the same time as we are moving away from a focus on Christian faith, that these things are beginning to slip away, as we hear of corruption in giving contracts for PPE, the increased reliance on food banks and a chronically underfunded NHS. Don’t we want these values to be reinforced? Surely, they are part of what it means to be a Christian nation.
A nation of peace not conflict – 11:6-9
Thirdly, Isaiah’s vision is of a nation that has peace not conflict. Perhaps this was particularly pertinent in a world where the Assyrian Empire were causing so much war and bloodshed.
The imagery he uses to describe this new state is really beautiful. Animals that would normally hunt and tear apart their prey, being no threat, but living in peaceful co-existence. This is a place with no harm or destruction, where little children can play in utter safety!
Our world seems to be increasingly full of conflict and harm. Marriage and relationship break ups are all too common, we have become increasingly aware of terrible abuse carried out against children. Our national debates seem to be become more vicious and critical and there is talk of culture wars. And internationally of course we are faced with an horrific war in Europe.
Isn’t Isaiah’s vision of a truly Christian nation something that we long for and want?
Isaiah’s Solution: The Knowledge of the LORD
So how can such a vision come about? Isaiah’s answer seems to be ‘the knowledge of the LORD’, which he mentions in verse 2 and verse 9. Let’s look a bit more closely at what he says will bring this about.
A Spirit Filled Ruler – 11:2
Firstly, Isaiah says in order to have this kind of nation, you need a ruler who is filled with the Spirit of the LORD. The emphasis here is not on any spiritual experience or miraculous powers, but on a Spirit that gives the ruler, wisdom, understanding and knowledge and fear of God. It is of a ruler whose heart is to delight in doing what God wants, who prays earnestly and seriously, ‘Your Kingdom come’, ‘Your will be done.’
In Isaiah’s lifetime, such a ruler did come about. After Ahaz was Hezekiah, one of the godliest kings in Jerusalem. He encouraged people to live according to his laws and when it looked like Assyria was going to conquer Jerusalem, he cried out to God and God rescued Jerusalem from the siege. Because of his rule, the kingdom continued under the rule of a Davidic king for another 100 years.
Yet, Hezekiah, only partially fulfilled this prophecy. When Jesus came, he brought an even greater fulfilment as the ultimate Son of David, the one who would rule at God’s right hand. The Spirit of the Lord rested on him and he taught his followers the knowledge of the LORD in an even more profound way and gave us the good news of God’s Kingdom that was open to all when they turned back to Jesus.
A Knowledge Filled Earth -11:9b-10
Jesus came not just to Jerusalem, but he sent his followers to preach the good news, the gospel, the knowledge of God revealed in and by His Son to the whole world. And they went. The reason England has been Christian for over 1,000 years is because that gospel came here. And the gospel is still going out throughout the world, bringing transformation and change to nations that value hope, justice and peace.
Isaiah’s vision was more than a vision for a better nation, it is a vision for a transformed world. It is an international vision. Indeed, it says the nations will rally to the banner of the root of Jesse to Jesus. His Kingdom is both not of this world, yet it is for this world. It is both the hope of a perfect future that he will bring about when he returns and a vision for a better world now that we can work towards as his followers. But all this comes about through the growth of the knowledge of God, brought about in and through Jesus.
Can we achieve Isaiah’s Vision without Isaiah’s solution?
So, do we want a nation of hope, justice and peace or are we happy to slip into a state of despair, corruption and conflict? Most people would long for the former rather than the latter, yet Isaiah would say that we can only have these things, if we embrace the knowledge of God.
We live in a nation that has many benefits from its Christian heritage, but where the present reality is that the knowledge of God is fading away.
The danger is that as we lose the knowledge of God, we will gradually lose the benefits of our Christian heritage. Increasingly, people live for today and don’t care about the future, because they have lost hope. They live for themselves without caring about others because they don’t take God’s judgement seriously. And they are increasingly angry with others, because they have lost touch with the God of grace.
As those who do take the knowledge of God seriously, who have met with the root of Jesse, Jesus Christ, let’s play our part and pray for the spread and reception of the knowledge of God in our nation, that we may truly become a Christian nation in every sense of the word!