Let us pray: O Most Holy, as we prepare for your coming, illumine these scriptures for us that we may learn the will of your heart. Guide us and teach us the way of everlasting, and keep us in the palm of your hand. Amen.
I am often reminded that this season is a study in contrasts. True it can be breathtaking with lights on snow, excited children, colorful decorations, and that mysterious goodwill that somehow manifests itself as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are cleaned up. There are also those who find it the most challenging time of the year, with too many painful memories of missing family and friends. To both there is a standing invitation to embrace the deeper meanings of Christ’s coming into the world.
Isaiah’s visions led him to see and to proclaim a deeper reality: “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” (Is.11:10) and, “…the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Is. 11:9b).
Let’s look at the language of this text a little more closely. When the Hebrew prophets spoke concerning the coming of the LORD, or the realm of God, the meaning we find is generally in a future tense. This makes sense. During the time of their writings, Israel was either occupied or its sovereignty threatened, or later even deported and living in exile under another regime; so of course they were looking forward for a savior to bring them back into their own, to cast out a regime they felt was usurping their sovereign independence. In that longed-for state, God is/was supposed to be their head in the tribal theocracy that governed all the descendants of Jacob, or the twelve tribes of Israel, as we hear of them in the Bible. One of those twelve children was Judah, whose descendant was Jesse, father to King David, the “one after God’s own heart,” and consequently ancestor to Joseph, foster father to Jesus, born of Mary and the Holy Spirit.
The reason today’s Isaiah text appears during Advent is because,
The earliest Christians heard echoes of this prophesy in the life of Jesus. With a future tense organizing his thought, Isaiah in this chapter highlights themes of hope and a coming prince of peace. Taking his cue from the concrete and current situation, he indicates that Assyria will fall like a tree that will never sprout again. The scene changes when he turns to the house of David. Although David’s house is falling, also like a tree, from its roots a branch will sprout. All is not lost for the people of Judah, because from the Davidic line will emerge a king of peace whose reign will be one of peace and righteousness. A second David will emerge from the line of his ancestors to usher in a time of peace… In this wonderful vision of peace inaugurated by the Messiah, the entire creation participates. The place of peace will be the holy mountain of God, and the land will be filled with the knowledge of God. The peace of God expected will include human beings, animals, and the land. The promise is reconciliation and restoration for all of God’s creation.
Like last week, I do have to turn around and ask, what about bringing this vision into our post-modern reality? The vision is beautiful, but how does it translate for us in our context today? I think the first step in translating is realizing just how big a challenge it is. For us, “the challenge is not to be stuck in the traditions of the past but to be open [as a church] to…a new future … made possible by God.”
Let’s return to the text. Isaiah paints the picture of a new shoot of growth coming out of a stump. Simply thinking like a forester, once the tree is cut, it’s done, gone, dead, and the stump is lifeless and left behind. So how can Isaiah say out of a stump comes a new shoot? Actually, the Hebrew word here could be either stump or stem. Another way to translate the verse would be “And a shoot will come out of the stem of Jesse, a shoot from roots that bear fruit.” I have some personal experience here.
Just a few years ago I was asked to cut down a precariously leaning plum tree from the corner of my yard. It was already partly broken and decayed, with the remaining half-trunk leaning over the neighbor’s fence toward where their new garage was scheduled to go. I had made my first two batches of plum jelly from it just the previous summer, and now it had to go? Well, I didn’t want to do it, but he offered to have his workers remove it, so I agreed. The stump still sits in my corner, but from the same roots, shoots have come up intertwined between the old wire fence compost bin in that same corner. This year and last, those shoots produced a few plums. Not quite enough for plum jelly yet, but I was able to add a few of them to a fruit smoothie this past summer. I am hopeful with proper tending, I might have another harvest for jelly in the future.
Moving from literal back to metaphorical, what kinds of stumps do you find in your life? Do you feel cut off in any way shape or form? Can you imagine or believe that even now God might be nurturing something new in you? If you do have areas in your life that most need the promise of new life, how might you open yourself up to that promise? I wonder, can you recognize tiny signs of hope, life, and even peace in places where they have been absent in your life?
Here’s an example. Consider Mr. Tumnus, the faun in the Chronicles of Narnia. He is a spy in the employ of the Queen, or the White Witch as she is called in the book. He stumbles into Lucy, a human child, and knows at once he is supposed to hand her over to the Queen. He invites her to tea, intending to lure to sleep and hand her over. His heart completely changes over the course of their conversation, and the dead part of him in the Queen’s employ now comes to life. He confesses everything to her; she calls him to account and he truly repents of his intent, enabling her to escape, to his own peril. We are a lot like Mr. Tumnus. We are both, as Heidi Haverkamp writes, part wild and part tame, part fearful and part loving. Like Lucy, God calls us to account but also offers us love and mercy. In this season of Advent, or, preparation, we have a chance to put our wild and fearful parts to sleep, reflect on how we might need grace, and ask for change that leads to peace.
May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
Questions for Reflection
Look for places where the wolf and the lamb lie down together in peace. Where do you see that peace in your relationships, in your family or circle of friends, in the neighborhood, the town, the nation, and the world? Even within yourself, where has peace been forged between previously conflicting factions?
Household Prayer: Morning
I give you thanks as I rise, O God, for safety in the night, for rest from my labors, for another day in this creation. Turn my eyes toward what is noble. Teach me to see hope where it is veiled. Give me the wisdom to desire the good. Help me to love not only those I encounter but myself as well, for with you, I know my many frailties and failings. Let peace reign. Amen.
Household Prayer: Evening
I give you thanks, O Holy One, as this day ends. I give you thanks for the richness of my hours: for families and friends, for people with whom I work and play, for my neighbors, for those who fill this world with music and art, for those whose needs remind me of my blessings and shoes skills make me grateful for differences. Guard us all, O God, and keep us in your embrace until the daylight comes. Amen.
 Noel Leo Erskine, “Theological Perspective, Isaiah 11:1-10” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0