“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah 11:1
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.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge is reputed to be the most popular attraction for tourists visiting the Bay Area. And visiting Muir Woods is not far behind. Unlike sites like Alcatraz—the former federal prison whose residents included Machine Gun Kelly, Al Capone, and the Birdman of Alcatraz—we residents of the City don’t go there, except to accompany out-of-town guests who have Alcatraz on their “must see” list of things to see and do. On the other hand, everyone—residents and non-residents alike—have visited Muir Woods. The attraction for most are the tall, stately giant redwood trees. The familiar cross-cut display of a fallen giant redwood, with the dating of historical events determined by the rings on the tree is always popular with everyone. The tree is over a thousand years old and events like the 1849 Gold Rush, Columbus sailing to America in 1492, the Aztec construction of Tenochitlan, Mexico, and the building of cliff-dwellings in Mesa Verde in 1100 are some of the events identified by the rings on the tree. For me, what has always caught my attention are the fallen trees, the giant dead trunks stretched across the floor of Muir Woods. And what always amazes me about these giant, dead, trunks are the living branches, some large enough to qualify as small trees, that are alive and growing from these dead logs.
My wife, Sharon, has an office in a building where one of the tenants periodically discards dried-up orchid plants. They all end up in our home. Sharon sees something more in these discarded plants than dead stumps. And sure enough, with care and in time, tiny shoots and buds appear on the dried-up, seemingly dead branches. Sadly, we at times treat God’s children in similar fashion. This is tragic. They may be the homeless or those with physical or developmental disabilities, discarded on our streets. Racial profiling is another way we treat people as disposable, viewing them with suspicion and behaving accordingly sometimes with ghastly consequences.
In this morning’s reading from Isaiah, we heard these words…”a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The stump of Jesse…a branch growing out of his roots… is clearly a reference to the House of King David, the most celebrated, honored, powerful king in Israel’s history, so important that in both the Hebrew and Christian testaments, the word dynasty is used inter-changeably with the House of David. But in today’s reading, we hear the news that the once powerful House of David, has fallen on hard and desperate times. In our recent times, we are witnessing the fall of the once mighty main line denominations, including Presbyterians. According to Religious News Service, a new report that is being called a “wake-up” call for the Anglican Church of Canada shows that they may not be around by the year 2040.
Immediately following the first verse describing the fall of the House of David, the ruach—the wind, the breath, the spirit of the Lord—will rest on that stump. A branch shall grow out of his roots…and the ruach of the Lord shall rest on him. The crisis facing Israel is the struggle between Israel’s present and Israel’s future, a struggle between the stump and the spirit. The Spirit of the Lord, resting upon the branch growing out of the root of the stump, will transform the stump into a king who rules with fairness and justice and righteousness. And under the reign of such a king, peace and shalom shall be established throughout all creation and…the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together…and a little child shall lead them. Who among us hasn’t yearned for a world in which lambs could hang out with wolves and adders behave as though Mr. Rogers had taught them how to play with children? A strange political animal appears in the dream as well, one who does not use his or her office to increase their personal wealth, but a leader with the heart and Spirit of God. This vision of a reordered creation is remarkable: predators dwell in harmony with their prey, carnivorous instincts are transformed, and the most vulnerable humans in society (our children) are free to play with venomous snakes. Can you imagine natural enemies becoming friends in this peaceful kingdom? Imagine Palestinian and Jew, China and Taiwan, North and South Korea, Shiites and Sunnis, Christians and Muslims, Republican and Democrat living as friends in this peaceful kingdom. This is Isaiah’s vision.
Can this be more than a fairy tale? The Bible is not naive; it knows full well the pain and suffering we live with. True, it is one thing to describe such a kingdom; it is another to create one. It is one thing to picture such a kingdom; it is another to live in one. The late Reinhold Niebuhr, urban pastor and social ethics professor at Union Seminary, New York City, said: “If you want peace, work for justice!” Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, preached: “Blessed are the peaceMAKERS.” Jesus did not say: peaceLOVERS, but MAKERS! Work for justice—then the rich and the powerful and the aggressive (those with fangs, like the wolf and leopard and the lion) will live in peace with the poor and the weak and the vulnerable (like the lamb and the calf and the little children). Over the years, I have had to mediate many conflicts—congregations, Presbytery, community, couples, families. What I have learned in every case, is that the one main factor contributing to the conflict is the imbalance of power. Address the imbalance of power and you are well on your way to resolving the conflict. Take for example the matter of sexual abuse of children and youth, of women. There is no such thing as a consenting child. Sexual abuse is not about sex; it is about power, an imbalance of power, where the adult in the relationship—the person with the advantage of age and size, experience and authority—exploits the weaker party.
In the Bible, nature is also the victim, along with the poor and the hungry and the sojourner and the blind, widowed, orphaned, sick and imprisoned. In Isaiah, nature and economics, creation and politics, are woven together. So that an ecological disaster—wildfires, floods, famine, sour grapes, dead fig trees, stumps—is not just a problem in nature, it is always related to human injustice, to greed, to brokenness in human relationships. Isaiah reminds us that everything is inter-connected, inter-related…balanced. When the parts get out of balance, and the connection is damaged, we suffer climate change and a gap between the haves and have-nots which has grown to its highest level in more than 50 years of tracking income inequality.
In 1988, a huge fire scorched about 1.2 million acres across the greater Yellowstone area leaving the impression that the world’s first national park had been destroyed. In a subsequent article in the National Geographic Magazine, the effects of the serious forest fire in Yellowstone National Park were described. Forest rangers trekked up a mountain to assess the fire’s damage. One ranger found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perched statuesquely on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat sickened by the eerie sight, he knocked over the bird with a stick. When he struck it, 3 tiny chicks scurried out from under their dead mother’s wings. The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and had gathered them under her wings, instinctively knowing that the toxic smoke would rise. She could have flown to safety; but had refused to abandon her babies. When the blaze had arrived and the heat had singed her small body, the mother had remained steadfast. Because she had been willing to die, those under the cover of her wings would live. When people with power and responsibility are willing to die to themselves, those who are weak and vulnerable will live.
Just as the Spirit of the Lord rested on the stump of the House of David, and upon Mary over 2000 years ago, the Spirit of God continues to rest upon the stumps of our fear and despair—be it separation and divorce, failing health, anxiety about our finances, loneliness deepened by the absence of a significant other in our life, the meaninglessness of life. The Spirit of the Lord gave birth to a child in a manger in a stable, a most unlikely place. Advent is the waiting and the dreaming and the trusting that the wind of the Spirit is blowing and resting upon the hopeless stumps in our lives today. With every pregnancy, birth, and baptism, a new shoot comes forth from the stump. With every ordination and installation of Elders and Deacons, a new shoot comes forth from the stump. With every refugee seeking asylum who finds sanctuary, a new shoot comes forth from the stump. With every African American male going to college instead of being incarcerated in prison, a new shoot comes forth from the stump. With every miss-communication resolved, every conflict reconciled, every mistake forgiven, a new shoot comes forth from the stump. In a recent report, rural and town churches are starting to grow again as more and more of our population are rediscovering the benefits of living in smaller communities and moving there; evidence of new shoots coming forth from the stump of dying churches.
Isaiah’s vision of the peaceful kingdom only looks like an impossible dream from the perspective of the arrogant and privileged, those who rely solely on themselves and refuse to listen to anyone else. People may see the world and the church as a dried-out plant, a dead stump. God sees the potential for shoots and branches. In our time, they remain mere shoots and branches; for much unfinished work remains to be done. As John the Baptist announced, “The Kingdom of Heaven is near”, NEAR, not here. Advent is the season of hope because we know that the Spirit continues to rest upon the stumps of our lives, bringing forth new shoots of hope and love and joy and peace!
As for the rescued orchid plants in our home, Sharon gives most of them away to family and friends. The few we do keep grace our home, adding beauty and hope!