Scripture: Isaiah 11: 1-10
The wood rising from the ground comes to an abrupt and jagged end. Life had sprung forth from the ground in this spot, but now there is only a remnant, a reminder of what had been. It is a stump and it is dead. Yes, the stump is dead just as God had said. In Isaiah, just before this chapter, God declares punishment on the people. From the mouth of Isaiah we hear, “The tallest trees will be cut down and the lofty will be brought low.” The trees, the people of Israel, will be cut down and cut off.
And yet, the words of promise will also come from the mouth of the very same prophet. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.”
I am a person who is easily amazed by trees that grow in odd places. Trees that grow where no tree should grow. You know what I mean, the ones that people point out because they are clinging to life in the shallowest of soils, with their roots crawling out over rocks and cliffs. But there they are, trees growing against all odds, supporting life.
In the front of my house in Somerset there are two large flower gardens. When the gardens end with a retaining wall. The retaining wall stretches down to the sidewalk. The entire time I lived there I had a constant battle with English Ivy growing between the sidewalk and the retaining wall. It looked nice, but it would quickly get unruly and during the winter the ivy would wrap around my snow shovel. So I decided the ivy had to go.
As I’m tearing this ivy out, I found, in the tiniest of cracks, a maple tree. This maple tree was growing in a little hold, choked by ivy, surrounded by stone and concrete. And yet, there it was, shooting forth. On closer inspection I could see it had been cut back multiple times. I can’t tell you how many times I took a blade to that stubborn maple tree. But every year it would persist and grow back—this stubborn little miracle maple tree.
There was a woman I grew to know when I was on internship, her name is Jane. Her daughter got married in the fall and it was a big wedding. There were lots of details so Jane, the mother of the bride, was in the building frequently and we talked often. Then the wedding came and it was phenomenal. It was probably one of the most exquisite and expensive weddings I’ll ever experience. Three weeks after the wedding, Jane’s husband of 39 years collapsed in their home. He died in the hospital a week later.
Jane was devastated. The whole family was. The community was. Jim was only 61. Every time I saw Jane over the next couple of weeks she was sobbing, her head down, her shoulders sagging…and rightfully so. Her whole body was in mourning. She was a stump, cut off from everyone.
I grew accustomed to seeing a somber Jane. She left for a while to be with family. Many months passed. Until one Sunday I saw her coming into the church and before I could get any words out she waved and said, “Good morning Vicar Dave. What’s the good news?”
She walked beside me through the church, eager to talk. I could not know what brought the change that seemed so sudden. Perhaps for her, the change wasn’t sudden at all, but it was painfully slow. Like a seedling pushing through rock and clay toward the sunlight. There must have been an explanation, yet to me it appeared to be a miracle. A shoot shall come out of the stump.
The night I was ordained Hurricane Sandy barreled into the East Coast, wreaking havoc and causing massive destruction. The storm created 65 billion dollars’ worth of damage. 65 billion, with a B.
Oceanside Lutheran Church in Oceanside, New York was part of that 65 billion dollars. Almost a year after Hurricane Sandy many of the members of the congregation were still trying to rebuild their damaged homes. Many experienced too much damage to rebuild and had to abandon their homes, leave the area, or live elsewhere.
One quarter of Oceanside Lutheran’s congregation members were displaced, living in the chaos of repair work and contractors. Some of them developed depression and post-traumatic stress from all they went through. In many ways the congregation and the community were cut down like a stump.
But Oceanside Lutheran Church, despite its own damage in the storm, and despite its members’ struggles, worked hard to bring forth hope and life through its ministry. The congregation was transformed by its experience. New life sprang forth and now they are vibrant and living out their mission to proclaim the Gospel in new and different ways.
One part of their ministry is called “The Art of Faith.” They created a growing mural that wrapped around their church. Local artists from the congregation and the community, including poets and writers, created a canvas to help people tell their story. The people of the community had an outlet and opportunity to use this project to express their anger and loss, their hope and their healing.
In the wake of devastation the people of Oceanside didn’t expect much. But hope can be stubborn. New life can spring forth from every stump.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. Who could imagine anything growing as they sat on stumps of utter despair? I have sat on that stump. You have too. You may be there now—at that place where hope is cut off, where loss and despair have deadened your heart, tarnished your hopes, and laid waste to your vision of the future.
It is there, on that stump, that God’s Advent word comes to sit with us. This word will not ask us to fake it until we make it, it will not tell us to be happy or to ignore the pain. Instead, it gives us a small but surprising word of hope.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. It will be fragile, yet it will be tenacious and stubborn. It will push back the stone from the rock-hard tomb.
Later, from the mouth of Isaiah, we hear:
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.
This is the promise of Jesus, the Messiah, who will bring hope and joy and love and peace when they seem all but cut off. He is the shoot that will come out of the stump. He will grow in the heart of a woman cut off by sorrow until one morning she can lift her head again and face the day. He will grow in the hearts of people looking over the splintered ruins of their homes.
This shoot will grow. And hope will take root.
These fragile signs are God’s beginnings with us. The seedlings are the places where faith longs to break through the hardness of our disbelief. God comes to us in this Advent time and invites us to move beyond counting the rings of the past that are exposed in our stumps. God comes to us and nudge us into action, and to see that new life, a new shoot, will grow in places where we could only see despair.
In Advent we get to sing one of my favorite hymns, O Come O Come Emmanuel. Next week we will sing a verse that connects really well with today’s reading. Here’s a slightly different translation than what we will use next Sunday:
O come, green shoot of Jesse, free
Your people from despair and apathy;
Forge justice for the poor and meek,
Grant safety for the young ones and the weak.
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel draws near.
Where ever you feel cut off, may God grant you a new shoot of hope this Advent.