December 4, 2022
My neighbor and I have an understanding about our mailboxes, which are located next to each other, but across the street from our houses. See, every spring and into the summer, there’s this woody shrub that has been growing up in the midst of our mailboxes. And we take turns, through the summer, to occasionally cut down the shoots of this shrub so that we can get to our mailboxes easier. But the shrub just keeps growing back, and I know that if we could just pull it up by its roots, we wouldn’t have to take turns cutting it down anymore. But the roots remain. So the shoots keep growing.
It’s a constant reminder to me that when God wants something to grow, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, it’s going to grow. I can cut this shrub down to nubbins but because God has decided its roots will sustain it, that thing keeps growing back. And that’s true of the prophecy we heard from Isaiah this morning, the prophecy about a shoot growing from the stump of Jesse.
So what is this “stump of Jesse?” It’s the poetic way Isaiah referred to the Davidic monarchy—the kings descended from King David. In the years leading up to this prophecy, the kings of Judah hadn’t been all that great. They were okay-ish, but they let idolatry flourish and didn’t follow God the way that David did. And then a king came along named Ahaz, and he was just really bad. He worshipped foreign gods. He made his sons pass through fire in a ritual to the god Molech. It looked like the righteous tree of Jesse, that grew from faithfulness to God, had been cut down to a stump.
But when Ahaz had a son, Isaiah heard from God that something was about to change. That stump would produce faithfulness again—a shoot growing from the dead wood of the monarchy. That shoot was a word of hope, a reminder that even when the world tries to cut something down, God will raise up new life in it. That prophecy of Isaiah, the reminder that God would bring a shoot from the stump of Jesse’s tree, would continue to give hope to God’s people when the whole nation was destroyed by Babylon. And it would give them hope when they were conquered by Rome. And it would finally and completely be fulfilled when Jesus, God’s final answer to death, would come.
So it might be uncomfortable, then, that these words of such clear hope are paired with the barbed words of John the Baptist this morning! John was never one to mince words, and it seems like his favorite thing to do was to make his hearers think long and hard about their actions and their faithfulness. When the Pharisees and the Sadducees from Jerusalem came down to be baptized too, John didn’t let them just anonymously slide into line—he called them a brood of vipers! He wanted to make sure they understood that it was repentance, not descent from Abraham, that would prepare them for the coming reign of God. He needed them to be discomforted enough to be really sincere in what they were doing. And maybe some of that discomfort comes our way when he started talking about the coming of the Messiah.
His winnowing fork is in his hand, ready to sift the wheat from the chaff! John baptized with water, but the one who was coming would baptize with fire—fire that would burn away and renew. It really sets the contrast with the sweet, innocent baby Jesus we’re preparing for come Christmas. But if it’s uncomfortable, that’s what John was hoping! Discomfort leads to urgency, and urgency leads to a desire to get it right. He even reminds us of that urgency by pointing out that the axe is already at the foot of the tree, ready to chop down anything that doesn’t bear fruit. This disturbing imagery makes us think, I hope!
In the midst of our disturbance, though, I hope we’ll also be pushed to think about that chaff separated from the grain and burned; or that tree chopped down to a stump and tossed into the fire; and that baptism by fire John was preparing his listeners for. The chaff, after all, isn’t something wholly different from the grain. They’re both part of the wheat stalk. And the stump, we know from Isaiah, isn’t the end of the tree’s story. What if, in our disturbance, we realized that John wasn’t giving an either/or proposal, where we are either wheat or chaff, fruitful or unfruitful trees. Rather, what if he’s warning us that there are parts of us that will need to be burned away, cut down, winnowed and tossed, as we prepare the way of the Lord?
The stump of Jesse wasn’t the end of the Davidic monarchy. By chopping it down, God could encourage the fresh shoot to grow from it; one that would fulfill the righteousness that God needed for God’s people. It was painful, and it was disruptive, and it was difficult, but Jesse’s tree needed to become a stump because it wasn’t producing fruit as it was. It needed a new start.
It makes me think of the pandemic, in a way. We came through a great ordeal. I know the memories of it are already fading, but we had a hard go of it. We couldn’t meet. We had to adapt to new technology. We had to grow in new directions as a congregation. We had to ask how we live together and love one another with the reality of a deadly virus. And now, as we emerge from it, a whole new set of priorities is emerging. How do we do church differently? All those questions of changing patterns of church participation before the pandemic were suddenly brought to the forefront, like someone chopped down our tree and we no longer had the luxury of thinking new fruit would grow on old branches. We don’t have the option of trying to make things be the way they were before. What does that new shoot look like? For our church? For our faith lives?
I know that it can seem frightening when we contemplate a future we can’t see. How do we pass on the faith when the way we’ve always done things doesn’t work like it used to? How do we worship together when worshiping patterns are so radically different from when we grew up? How can we engage with the world when the world no longer assumes the church will take a central role in things? How are we called to embody the new shoot that God is growing from the stump of the tree?
The good news, though, is that there is a shoot. And it is green. And yes, it is small. But the king Isaiah saw as the hope of Judah, King Hezekiah, would really go on to renew the faith of his people, and turn them toward God. And we know the hope of that baby born in Bethlehem, and the way his life, death, and resurrection would change the course of history. Like that God-blessed shrub that keeps growing in my mailbox, what God decides will live, will live whether we want it to or not. And the witness of God, the hope of a world made right through Jesus Christ, the fullness of justice that comes with the kingdom of God, is just that thing that God has decided will live.
So let’s leave behind the tree that’s been cut down, and look to the new shoot that is growing in our midst. Let’s trust that God is doing something amazing with us and through us and in us. Let’s explore the wild and wonderful ways that God is leading us into something new, something full of hope, something that will renew our spirits and bring life and love and hope to the world.
Change your ways to embrace this new reality, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Thanks be to God. Amen.