I’ll tell you a secret. It is something every pastor knows. Also, any therapist, social worker or anybody else who deals with people at a deeply personal level. For many people this is not “the most wonderful time of the year.” For many it is a sad and troubled time. Advent invites us to consider even the darkest parts of our world and of our lives. And that is a good thing, because often the deepest truths are found in the darkest times. That certainly has been true for me.
And it was certainly true for Israel. One of the important discoveries in Old Testament scholarship in the last generation is that, though the literature that makes up our Old Testament came from a time span of 1000 years or more, the final shaping was largely the work of what we call “Second Temple Judaism.” This is the time that comes after the Babylonian exile. The exile was a catastrophe for Israel, and from that catastrophe came some of the deepest theological searching in Israel’s history. For example, from that time we get the Book of Job, the prophet Ezekiel, and many of our favorite Psalms.
The exile had meant the end of Israel’s traditional hopes. The three realities that had carried their hopes: the land itself, the Davidic monarchy, and the great temple in Jerusalem were all cut off. While it is true that the exiles were to return a generation later and they did rebuild the temple, their basic theological question remained: “Where was God at our worst time?”
It would be hard to overestimate the impact of this crisis of faith on the outlook of the Old Testament, and in some real sense, that is why its poetry is still so powerful. What is it about these prophetic texts that stir us so? I think they speak to every generation, indeed to every person, for who among us has not asked in our own worst time the troubling question, “Where is God in all this?”
The prophets of Israel tried to find the words that would offer an alternative reality to the one they saw before them. The reality before them was completely lacking in possibilities, so it is quite remarkable the way they imagined a different world, a world that can only be imagined because God promised it.
As with last week’s text once again Isaiah has a vision. This time he sees a cut stump. if you cut your own Christmas tree you may have walked through a field with numerous stumps, the trees cut off and removed. That is what Isaiah sees before him, the cut stump of the tree of Jesse. Who was Jesse? Jesse was King David’s father, so that the tree of Jesse is David’s family tree. You know how sometimes artists will draw a family tree so it actually looks like a tree. Norman Rockwell has a famous comical painting of a family tree, where he imagines some of his forebears as pirates, cowboys and Civil War generals.
The family tree that had carried Israel’s hopes for generations was that of the dynasty of King David, what the Bible calls “the house of David.” Why David? Because David was the best king they ever had, and Israel had longed for another king like David, one anointed by God to carry out justice and righteousness. And this good king would come from “the house and lineage of David.” Does that sound familiar? This king would be God’s anointed, which is Messiah in Hebrew and Christos, Christ, in Greek.
But sadly, the kings that followed David were not good and righteous kings. David’s son Solomon was his only somewhat successful successor, and after Solomon’s death the Kingdom was split in two, and was conquered by foreign invaders. The Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria in the eighth century BC, the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians in the sixth century. The final destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar’s army was particularly catastrophic. The temple was burned and razed, the leading citizens (about 10,000) were taken away in chains to Babylon, and the monarchy came to an end. This was clearly the end of the family tree of Jesse.
So, the stump Isaiah sees is a sign of desolation, a sign of despair and hopelessness. If this family tree had carried the hopes and promises of God, how had the Assyrians threatened and the Babylonians destroyed the house of David? And where was God in all this?
One troubling answer was that it was God who had cut down the tree to create the stump. The passages just before today’s text are about “God the forester” bringing down the mighty rulers and powers like great trees. Listen to this:
Look 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.
This theology may disturb us, but we need to keep in mind that the faith of Israel was so God-centered that even their downfall must have the hand of God in it. So, if their desolation is God’s judgment against them then the stump of Jesse stands as a sign of that judgment.
But Isaiah refuses to see the judgment of God as the only, or even the final, word to Israel. The faith of Israel manages to hold before it both God’s judgment and God’s promises at the same time. The Word of God is often a two-edged sword, at once both a word of judgement and a word of hope. So even if God’s hand has been against Israel, there must be more to say.
But what? The stump for the dead tree looks to the human eye to be dead. But Isaiah suggests a new possibility. A “shoot” appears through the dry ground, perhaps a yard away from the stump. That shoot will eventually become a new tree; new, yet rooted in the old.
This is what the prophet sees. It is not the stump in and of itself that signals the future, but what God does with the stump. The shoot that grows out of the dead stump does so only because the Spirit of God blows over it, and infuses it with new life. Without the spirit the stump is what it appears to be, dead. But with the spirit new possibilities emerge. That is what Isaiah sees.
Isaiah imagines an alternative vision in which the divine spirit will prevail. God will bring about a new future, a shoot from the stump from which the remnant of sinful Israel would be reborn with a new kingdom ruled by a Davidic king.
Israel’s hope for the future lies in their belief in the persistence of God’s purpose in history. The shoot in and of itself is insignificant. But the divine wind is blowing over the shoot and, therefore, the shoot will be transformed to carry the hopes and promises of God into the future.
Think about this conflict between the stump and the wind. Who among us has not looked at a stump of our own at some time? A dead end, a broken promise, a dashed hope. We look at our stump and what do we see? The stump has no life, no prospects.
Or does it? The prophet’s daring act of poetic imagination conjures up a world where the wind of God brings about something entirely new. Listen with me: “From his roots a branch will bear fruit. There will be a new king,” says the prophet, powered by the spirit, not like anything we have known. He will not be like the corrupt kings they had known, open to bribes or swayed by propaganda. That is, the king will be impartial, fair and just: ”He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decides by what he hears with his ears.” He will attend to the needs of the meek and the poor. Justice will flourish.
And finally, this new thing that God’s anointed will bring will be as large as the whole of God’s creation: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid”. Ancestral enemies, even in the natural world, will know complete reconciliation, so the babes and infants can play safely in the company of wild beasts. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover of the sea.”
It is a vision of a peaceable kingdom. Do you know the paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom by the Quaker painter and preacher Edward Hicks? He painted 62 of them, but one of the best known depicts, in the foreground, wild animals and small children lying down side by side, the “lion and the lamb” dwelling in peace. In the background are white men and Native Americans feasting around a table. It is a picture of hope for a new future, a different kind of future, where natural antagonists live peaceably together.
The church, of course, reads these passages in the light of Jesus Christ, the one who came so long ago, is present with us even now, even here, and will come again to complete the kingdom he began so long ago. In Jesus we see the fulfillment of the prophecy, with a twist, of course, for God’s ways are not our ways.
Nevertheless, Jesus is a king, the anointed of God, and he is from the house and lineage of David, and he was anointed by the Spirit of God at his baptism. And his own tragic end on a Roman cross was another low point, another dead end, or at least that is how it appeared. But what we mortals see as dead ends are often what God sees as new beginnings, and the Easter faith proclaims that with God even the deadest of dead ends can become the means of new life. Yes, I know it is Advent, but it is always Easter in the church.
Our Easter faith gives us hope beyond the seeming possibilities. Hope is not merely an optimistic outlook. The basis of our hope is not ourselves; but God in Jesus Christ who is our future! It is true that Christ ultimate glory has yet to be revealed to the world, and so we must walk by faith and not by sight.
It takes vision to perceive that what for now is only promised and not yet seen. And I like to think of Advent as a time to exercise our religious imagination in the service of faith. Advent invites us to imagine more than we can see. Helen Keller was once asked if there was, in her estimation, anything worse than being blind. She responded, “Yes. Having no vision!”
But once we have a vision for a new future how are we to prepare for it? Not only is our world not the world that God intends, but we, ourselves, are not the people God intends. So as we await God’s coming, how are we to prepare to meet him? Earlier in the service we heard the great hymn by Paul Gerhard that begins: “O Lord, how shall I meet Thee, how welcome Thee aright?” That is the question for us and brings us to the second theme running through today’s lessons: repentance.
In our reading from Matthew, John the Baptist calls the people of God to repent and be prepared for the coming of the Lord. He, too, referred to God as a forester. Listen: “Even now the axe lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that is not bearing good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Like Isaiah before him, John had a lively vision of the future, which was at odds with what people could see. And John knew that this new future required repentance. There is a direct relationship between hope and repentance, for repentance literally means to turn in a new direction. Repentance is not about feeling guilty and remorseful about the past as much as it is about moving on, and leaving the past behind for a new future.
Advent invites us to keep our eyes fixed not on the dead stumps, but on “the root of Jesse”: Jesus Christ our Lord. Once upon a time nobody saw him coming except for a few prophets. But now we look to him. And when we look to him it’s not hard to envision new possibilities, new worlds, new lives.
When you look to him it is not hard to imagine a new church, a changed society, a transformed world. It is not hard to imagine a world without fear or hatred. It is not hard to imagine a world full of justice and righteousness, security and peace. Not just for us, or for our country, but for our neighbors near and far, for the whole world which God loves and for which Christ died. A future that leaves no one out. That is what we are invited to imagine. We look to Jesus, for he is our hope, and wherever Jesus is, you are sure to see new shoots growing out of old stumps. Amen.
(I preached this sermon at The First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, MA, on December 8, 2019. To listen to an audio podcast of this sermon go here.)