“A shoot shall come from
the stump of Jesse.” The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures opens with such a particular and strange image.
It may be obvious to many
of you, but I needed to look into it a little bit because this year for some reason it intrigued me. Why does Jesse have a stump and why does it have a shoot coming out? I’m a little slow.
It may be helpful to back
up a few verses to see where we pick up this conversation. The previous few versus talk about “the glory of the forest” that will be destroyed, and “will be so few that a child can write them down.” “The tallest trees will be cut down and the lofty will
be brought low.”
We enter the prophet’s judgment
of the people of God at a time when the political situation they find themselves in is in stark contrast to God’s longing for them; when the religious imagination of Israel is crying out for something new.
It is a time when the prophet
writes harshly about the neglect of the poor, the needy, the orphan, and the widow. The prophet writes poetically and angrily that this mistreatment of the most vulnerable has caused a blight upon the nation, a blight caused by their own neglect, and that
it will spread to the very aggressors that perpetuated the mistreatment. As Israel has capitulated itself to the political whims of the world around it, its people have become more divided and prey to worldly motivations. They have forgotten what it means
to love the Lord and neighbor.
Historically, Jerusalem has
become captive to Assyria and its people spread among the captors empire, the beginning of not just decades but centuries of captivity from different empires. For hundreds of years this text of Isaiah would be fine-tuned to highlight the plight of the dispersed
people of Israel, holding on to the hope that God still had a place for them somewhere.
Our passage opens with this
scene of desolation, of a decimated and lifeless forest as a metaphor for the decimation of Israel. We don’t have to look very far to identify with the prophet right now. Division runs rampant, not only in our nation but in the world. You can hear the groans
of humanity crying out in the images of a dead Syrian refugee boy on the beach from what seems like years ago but was only a few months ago, or another lifeless refugee boy carried in his father’s arms as they sought sanctuary in this country. We can hear
the cries of creation as the glaciers melt and the oceans rise, as the birds shrink in size and the fish disappear from the sea. Our forests are literally disappearing. It is not hard to identify with the prophets image of feeling as if we are a forest, and
the forest is burning. And it is burning fast.
The story of the loss of
hope is not new. We have been here before. A lifeless stump appears to be all that is left of the beautiful forest. “Oh God! Will you hear the groans of your people, of all of creation, crying out!” And from a stump, seemingly lifeless and apparently desolate,
there will come new life, says the prophet Isaiah.
The new life imagined by
the prophet is not like the old. God’s imagination is not like ours. The new life imagined by God as a response to the groans of creation is incomprehensible to us. Shall we let the wolves wander over to stay with our lambs? Ridiculous. Let my child play
with snakes? You are out of your mind! God’s love is so big that we cannot fathom the peaceable kingdom depicted by the prophet.
What kind of peaceable kingdom
can you imagine ? I’m not sure it matters that much if we can’t imagine all the details.
What matters is the belief
that there is something bigger. Something more than I can imagine or you. What matters is the promise of a vision beyond myself. What matters in Isaiah’s beautiful vision is that it brings hope to a desolate forest. Hope: The tiny shoot, tender and delicate,
emerging from a dead stump in a felled forest.
Hope that it can be different.
Hope in the God who dreamed up the stars and the mountains and the lion and the lamb; that that same God has the capability to dream up a new ending than the only one we see right before us. Hope in the God who created humanity in all of our beautiful diversity-
that there in that God is also the capability to instill peace in a way that escapes us.
The prophet does not call
for the listener to create the peaceable kingdom. The prophet says the anointed one, the one we wait for, will do that. But by instilling hope in a new ending; by planting a seed that a new tendril can unwrap its precious leaves from what looks like an old
dead stump, that, perhaps, gives us strength to act differently, to keep going anyway. Hope itself changes things.
Advent is a time to turn
from despair, and hope in an ending to this story that we can’t quite otherwise believe is possible. With hope, anything is possible.
I ran across a story this
week of two unlikely people interacting on social media. Social media is not a place known for interactions depicting the peaceable kingdom.
An angry parent of a trans
boy wrote to a well-known gender non-binary model named Rain Dove. The conversation opened with the mom’s projection of anger directed towards Rain: “My child is sick due to you!”
I am not sure how I would
respond in such a situation. I think I would likely just ignore it. But Rain responded to each successive comment with compassion and empathy, with comments like, “How are you feeling about it? Does it feel a bit heavy?” And “For you to be reaching out to
me about it shows that you must care about their wellbeing and happiness.”
The mom’s attacks continued,
but they diminished in velocity, from “My child hates her body because of perverts like you” to “Why would my child do that to herself.” Rain continued to ask questions about the child, affirming the mom’s love and concern for the child.
In the end, the mom began
asking Rain about the changes her child was going through and if she could contact Rain if she had anymore questions. They each signed off with “xxx”s.
Rain had hope in a different
future. That hope made a change possible in Rain’s responses that lead to changes in the lives of others, especially the life of the mom and her vulnerable child.
I pray that as we go deeper
into this Advent, we can quiet; that the whole creation can, in the midst of our groans,
just long enough to hear a voice crying in the wilderness, a voice that points to a new life emerging from the dead places; a place of hope; as we watch and we wait for the One who has something in mind for us that is bigger than any of us can ask or imagine.
The Rev. Canon Jeff Martinhauk
Advent 2A, December 8, 2019
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
Isa 11:1-10, Matt 3:1-12
on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1.
Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2010.