Shoots & Stumps, Lambs & Wolves
November 23, 2014
I begin this sermon with some trepidation, knowing how many horticulturalists, professional and amateur, there are in this congregation. But surely many of us have tended to a back yard, whether or not we can identify what’s growing in it. So we have, many of us, trimmed the branches or even chopped down the trunks of trees, only to find a few weeks later, small shoots growing exactly where we do not want them.
From the stumps of trunks and limbs emerge thin, new branches – just twigs really. For most of us they are eyesores – ragged little branches, unkempt and messy. They’re known as “suckers,” in fact, and there are all kinds of remedies on the Internet for how to seal off a stump so you don’t get half a dozen of them every time you lop off a limp or cut down a tree.
This tiny new twig of life, however, is the image Isaiah chooses to convey his message of hope. This fragile, defenseless growth, so easily snapped off, so vulnerable to weather and insects and zealous gardeners, is the description Isaiah draws of Judah’s future king: a king greater, even, than King David; a king of perfect justice and complete righteousness.
Isaiah doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing the dead tree stumps from which this new shoot will grow. The verses leading up to this morning’s are not pleasant to hear:
Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall. (10:33-34)
In this month of reading from the Book of Isaiah, Pastor Bill and I have been talking a lot about the Exile of the 6th C BC, when the second part of Isaiah was written. But this verse comes earlier in the book, most likely from the 8th C BC, when the leaders of Judah were hardly worth the name – making deals for their own protection with the pagan Assyrians, failing to exhibit courage or stand for justice; trampling the weak in order to preserve their own power. Clearly Isaiah is fed up with the pathetic attempts at leadership he was witnessing from the court in Jerusalem – and, he says – so is God.
The glory of his forest and his fruitful land, the Lord will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when an invalid wastes away. The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down. (10:18-19)
God will clear-cut the forest that was God’s chosen people, Isaiah says. Because God has something better in mind: from the stump of Jesse, the father of King David, a shoot will burst forth. From out of David’s roots, a branch will surge.
This new shoot will possess extraordinary, discerning wisdom, unbending counsel, mighty knowledge of God. This small, fragile, tiny twig will fulfill the call of Psalm 72, the psalm we began with this morning that describes the perfect king: one who will not rely on traditional ways of judgment, but will go far beyond his predecessors, bending over backward on behalf of the poor and the meek, making certain that justice is offered to them, despite those who would deny it to them. Such a king has never been seen before. But, Isaiah says, he is coming.
The strength of this king will be displayed in a much different way, too. "He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath (spirit) of his lips he will kill the wicked." This new king will not come with sword and shield but with words of truth; the strength of his words will overcome any who would stand in his way. He will be motivated entirely by "righteousness and faithfulness"; they encircle him like a belt.
In fact, with the coming of this new king, creation itself will be transformed. Animals that are natural enemies – wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, calf and lion – will lie down together in peace and contentment. And all of them will be tended and lead by a tiny child.
A shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, the reign of true justice, the peaceable kingdom where predators and their prey live side by side, and babies play unharmed near poisonous snakes. It’s all too good to be true. Woody Allen once gave his own interpretation of this vision: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep!”
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls this part of Isaiah “a poem about the impossible possibility of the new creation.” In this future, the old practice of big ones eating little ones will end. The world, even nature itself, will become transformed -- a safe place for the vulnerable. The rules of life will be changed, bent in the direction of gentleness and peace; not just the absence of violence but true peace, shalom.
Perhaps you, also, regard Isaiah’s vision as too good to be true. I imagine that many of us stand in skeptical partnership with Woody Allen: that lamb better keep an eye out on the wolf no matter what Isaiah promises. What, then, do we make of the most fundamental claim of Christianity, that in Jesus, God comes to us as one of us, one of the most vulnerable of us?
Typically we think of God in grand terms: all-knowing, all-powerful, all-righteous, and so on. And that makes a certain sense, when we are talking about God as the creator of the cosmos and the author of all life. But that is not how God meets us in Jesus.
- 700 years after Isaiah described the tiny shoot growing from the stump of ancestors, it was neither Athens nor Rome, but backwater Bethlehem where the shoot started to grow.
- 700 years after Isaiah offered a word of hope despite the hopelessness around him, it was not from a military leader or a powerful monarch, but from a vulnerable infant that our hope took on flesh.
- 700 years after Isaiah described the perfect kingdom, it was not through economic success or cultural achievement, but in the shame and pain of the cross that sin and death were conquered.
What an odd thing for a religion to claim: that the new King of Israel, the perfect ruler, is a fragile branch growing out of an old tree stump. But that is exactly what Christianity says, and what the season of Advent is all about. Advent – the four Sundays before Christmas -- begins next week, November 30. It is the time of year when we consider what it means that God came to us as a defenseless human baby, and continues to come to us in the least likely, most vulnerable places in our lives.
God continues to meet us where we least expect it and are most reluctant to believe it: in the plight of the homeless, on the side of the poor, in the face of the needy, and in the company of the imprisoned. The God we know in Jesus is revealed, that is, not in power but in vulnerability, not in might but brokenness, and not in judgment but in mercy.
The message Isaiah has for us in this pre-Christmas season, is that God will not be found where everything is perfect and strong and beautiful and complete. If you are looking for God, search instead in the places of weakness, the less-than-beautiful, the easily overlooked. If you are looking for God, don’t bother with the powerful and successful, visit the people in need. Visit them - not to pity them, or even to serve them, but because they are the slender shoots where God is growing.
A long time ago I heard a story on the radio about the last day of summer camp. This was so long ago that it was before I’d learned to write down the details of good stories that might end up in a sermon. So I cannot tell you where this camp was or who told the story or when it happened. The storyteller was a parent of one of the campers who arrived, along with all the other parents, to pick up their children and bring them home. Before camp was officially over, however, there was a program of camp activities: relay races, archery demonstrations, arts and crafts exhibits – a display of camp life for the parents to admire.
The last activity was a balloon-popping game, played in groups of campers. Balloons were tied to the ankles of each participant. The point of the game was to pop the opponents’ balloons by stepping on them, while still keeping one’s own safe from harm. Once all the balloons tied on a camper’s ankles were popped, the camper was out of the game. The child with the last remaining balloon was declared the winner.
First the older kids played, then the younger ones had their chance. A few tears were shed as children were sent out of the game, shreds of balloons dragging on the ground as they left the arena. Last in order were the special needs children, who were also finishing up a week of camp.
But this group of children did not understand the counselors’ directions. They stood quietly at first, admiring the balloons around their ankles. “Pop ‘em!” their counselors urged. The parents joined in, “C’mon! You can do it! Just step on them, as many as you can!” Finally one child extended her ankle and its balloon forward; her friend grinned, and jumped on it. Pop!
“No, no!” the counselors and the parents chorused. “Not that way! Don’t let yours get popped!” But it was too late; a new game had sprouted and would not be stopped. Each child happily offered his or her balloons to be trounced upon; both of them rejoicing as the balloon burst. The parents and counselors eventually gave up trying to enforce the original rules. At the end of the newly invented game, there was not one single loser, nor one single winner; all of the players won, together.
Did you know that trees do not grow from their cores, the center of their trunks? You horticulturalists and arborists already knew that, I’m sure. A tree grows at its outer periphery, where the bark is, and at the tips of its branches. Growth doesn’t happen in safety, where the new cells are protected, but in the most vulnerable spots, where life is fragile.
If you are looking for God this season, don’t look at the mall, or at the decorated houses, or the glossy catalogs. Look for God
- in the face of your recently widowed neighbor,
- in your hardest-to-love relative,
- in the co-worker whom you believe has nothing to teach you.
Look for God
- in the stories of immigrants,
- in a nursing home visit,
- in an act of service to a stranger.
Better yet, look for God in an act of service offered to you – allow someone to help you, to support you, to bless you. Allow yourself to be vulnerable; that is how you will grow.
Isaiah’s vision of the new shoot growing out of the stump of Jesse was surprising in its smallness. The shoot would not become a mighty cedar; Israel would not rise again to its former glory. Instead what grew was quite different from what anyone expected:
For he grew up before them like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53: 2)
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse… fragile yet brave, vulnerable but tenacious. Like a plant growing through a crack in the dry ground, the strength of this life will eventually push back the stone that seals a rock-hard tomb.
Isaiah’s fragile sign, like Mary’s tiny baby, is God’s new beginning. Thus we must tend the seedlings in our hearts, the places
- where faith can breaks through our hard skepticism,
- where hope can grow despite our discouragement,
- where love can blossom even in the dry deserts of our sorrow.
If you are looking for God as you prepare for Christmas, don’t look among the full-grown trees. Look in the cut-down places in your life, in the broken relationships, the divided communities, our damaged world – look for the new shoots, the small, vulnerable, growing edges...there is where God will be found and new life will blossom.
Barbara Lundblad | Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10 December 08, 2013 Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1940
Whitney Rice New life stirring in an old stump December 8, 2013. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/11/21/2-advent-a-2013-2/
Ron Hansen. The Peaceable Kingdom The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself 2 December 2013. http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20131202JJ.shtml
David Lose. Christ the King A: The Unexpected God in Dear Partner Nov 17, 2014 http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/christ-the-king-a/
Weekly Seeds: Vision of Peace/Hope-Filled Vision. December 8, 2013. http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/vision-of-peacehope-filled.html
John C. Holbert. Wolves and Lambs and Leopards, Oh My! Reflections on Isaiah 11:1-10 (Advent 2). December 02, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Wolves-Lambs-Leopards-John-Holbert-12-03-2013.html