I probably shouldn’t start off the season of Advent by cataloging my sins, but I used to covet. A lot. One thing especially.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
December 4, 2022—Advent II
Isaiah 11:1–10; Matthew 3:1–12
For years, I lived in an apartment in Dupont Circle, and there was a townhouse across the street that was—and is—my dream house. It is situated on a triangular piece of land between New Hampshire Ave and 21st Street. And man, did I covet this place.
When I first moved in, there was a tree in the front yard. Well, not so much a tree but a dead tree trunk. When they finally cut it down, there remained a stump in the middle of the yard that was there for years.
It was ugly. And was a huge obstacle in the middle of what was already a small, triangular, urban lawn. At times the owner tried to dress it up with a hideous rock garden, or tried to bury it in sod, or just ignored it. Nothing could make this stump an attractive part of the landscaping. In the end, a subsequent owner paid the money to have the whole thing ripped out of the ground at, I am sure, great expense.
There were a lot of things I thought about this stump over the years as I looked out from my balcony onto my Coveted DC Townhouse: eyesore, obstacle, curiosity. But I never thought that this stump would ever bring forth anything new. Certainly not anything living.
No. This stump was dead. There was no hope.
That’s really the whole point of stumps. They’re the tree that used to be, not the future of the tree.
II. THE TEXT
And so it’s interesting that the passage from Isaiah we read earlier should begin with this image: a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. Stumps are not generally known to be productive lines for future growth. If anything, they are obstacles to be removed, a reminder of the tree that was, that should be cleared out for something new.
It’s not the first time that Isaiah has used stump imagery, and to be honest, he doesn’t always use it in a hopeful manner. We see this in the story of Isaiah’s call to ministry in chapter 6 of that book when Isaiah is told what it is he should proclaim to the people:
And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.Isaiah 6:9–13 NRSV
This is not good news. Isaiah is called to preach a message that will actually prevent the people from understanding so that they will not repent and be spared punishment. When Isaiah asks how long this state of affairs will continue, he is told,
Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Just when you think that’s bad enough, God continues:
Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.
The devastation and ruin will be total. Even the stump will be burned, the way you burn an oak or terebinth stump after the tree has been cut down. The fires that John the Baptist prophesies will consume the unfruitful trees and the chaff are invoked by Isaiah as a sign of utter devastation for the land and its people.
III. THE HOPE
Let’s remind ourselves of the setting in which this prophetic passage of Isaiah is written. Even though early in the book, it likely dates from later in Isaiah’s career, when the enthusiasm he showed for the reign of King Hezekiah (found in the 9th chapter) has waned, and the Judean monarchy has not lived up to his expectations. The kings of Judah have not brought about the revitalization of the land or the people. He becomes more and more disillusioned with the kings, and the return of David’s dynasty in glory is no longer expected.
Indeed, the glory days of the Davidic monarchy are over. All that’s left of the dynastic tree planted by David’s father Jesse is a stump.
Now, it is sometimes true that new growth can arise from old stumps, but in general, it’s not a hopeful sign. If I were to show you a photograph of a solitary blade of grass or a small flower pushing its way through a crack in the concrete, you would likely find that a hopeful metaphor. You’d be likely to find that on one of those motivational posters you find hanging in office breakrooms. But if I were to show you a photograph of a field of tree stumps, you’d be hard-pressed to see that as anything other than as a sign of devastation.
Because while we know that, on occasion, tree stumps can give rise to new life, we don’t really expect that to be the case. When we see a tree stump, we know what we’re looking at: the end of a tree, not the beginning of a new one.
And yet, here in Isaiah, the word of the prophet begins: “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse…”
IV. THE EXTRAORDINARY
But what of this shoot?
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.
So, right away, we’re told that this shoot from the stump of Jesse’s tree will be spirit-filled, wise, mighty, and knowing and fearing the Lord. Right away, all good qualities for a king of Judah to have (and rare ones among the kings of Judah thus far). But there’s more:
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.
This shoot shall decide with righteousness, equity, and justice for the poor and needy. The wicked will be stricken, and he shall be clothed in righteousness and faithfulness.
Again, pretty good qualities for a king of Judah to have.
But then things take an interesting turn:
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.
Now, as you may know, prior to my ecclesial life, I was a practicing attorney and worked a few years doing legislative law. I’ve researched this question, and as far as I know, there is not a single statute, regulation, or code that can cause wolves to live with lambs. There is no governmental edict that can cause leopards to lie down with goat kids. No royal decree can get cows and bears to graze together and their offspring to lie down together. There is no imperial command that causes asps not to bite the hands of young children placed over the mouths of their dens. These are not the qualities one might reasonably look for in a king of Judah.
And this makes Isaiah’s point clear: what’s happening is not ordinary. It’s extraordinary. It’s not just a good king that the people are awaiting after a succession of lousy kings. It’s not a ruler who will smite Judah’s enemies or who will simply be more just or more equitable than his predecessors. What accompanies this shoot from the stump is a literal transformation of the world from a place where wolves eat lambs to one where they lie down together in peace. This is an inversion of the world that we know. This is not a political renewal, or a cultural renewal, or a religious renewal; it’s a cosmic renewal. The entire world is changed.
And if that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter how likely a shoot arising from a stump might be. This is not something that happens in due course. This is God’s doing. And therein lies the most helpful part.
See, we Christians can get awful mechanistic about our faith. Put prayers in; get good things out. Or we can get Pollyannaish about it: everything will turn out alright because, well, they have to. Or we can get determinist about our faith and just imagine—contrary to Jesus’ own admonitions about this—that there’s a discernable plan for how this is all going to work out.
But what we forget is to be surprised by our faith. We forget the power and freedom of God to do not just what we ask for or think God should do but to surprise us beyond our expectations. See, we just really want a good ruler. Someone who is just and righteous and can keep us safe. Instead, God says, “How about a transformation of the world itself into a place where wolves and lambs get along?” Surprise!
We’re too accustomed to looking at a stump and seeing the end of something. We might try to dress it up with a hideous rock garden or bury it in sod, or even just ignore it. And even when we allow that something new might arise out of that old stump, we don’t really imagine that that growth will be world-changing. It’ll probably just be another future stump, won’t it?
But here before us stands something that isn’t just better than we had hoped for; it transforms our hopes.
What this means is that whatever the “stumps” are in our lives, those places where we’re feeling cut off, not only can God bring forth something new, but something transformative as well.
Perhaps the stump for you is a love that was once vibrant and strong but has come to ruin, ending hopes for a life together. Or a friendship that once gave you shelter in its branches but now is cut off. Or perhaps it’s a career or a job that ended suddenly, dashing any hopes for accomplishing all the things you’d set out to do. Perhaps it’s a sudden or unexpected illness that has cut your vitality and your sense of well-being and left you feeling vulnerable and uncertain. Or perhaps it’s the death or loss of someone dear, who’d always, like an oak, been a source of strength and assurance, whose death has left a gaping hole in the sky. Perhaps it’s any one or more of a myriad ills and burdens that we can bear through our ordinary human experience.
But what this means is that there is no stump that God can not only bring forth a shoot from but can bring forth a shoot that can change our lives.
The message that Isaiah brings and that John the Baptist proclaims is not an ordinary message of run-of-the-mill change. It’s a message of transformation and life out of death. It’s a message that no matter how cut-off we are feeling, no matter how much the trees of our lives have become stumps, there is always the hope of new shoots and of those that can change everything.
Nearly two millennia ago, the early Christian community saw in these passages from Isaiah a prefiguring of the Christ they had come to know. Of the Jesus whom they had, perhaps, imagined might liberate them from Roman oppression, or who might establish a more equitable system of government, or who might reform their religious institutions, and instead, they got someone who transformed the very world itself. Who transformed despair into hope, fear into love, and death into life. And who called us to do likewise.
Throughout Advent, we anticipate Christ’s coming into our lives. But as the lectionary readings keep reminding us, we do not anticipate a coming that happened 2,000 years ago; we anticipate the final coming at the end of all things that will change the world itself.
And we anticipate the many ways that Christ comes to us in the here and now, meeting us in our pain and our brokenness, sharing with us in our sorrows, and promising anew that what to us are stumps and ruins are, to God, new shoots on the way, and with them, hopes for transformation for ourselves, our lives, and of the very world itself.
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.”
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.”