The Promise of New Life

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7
Matthew 3:1-12

Reverend Dr. Stephen R. Caine

 

11: 1 “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth, will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 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.” (Isaiah 11:1-10, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of hope and of timeless grace, you fill us with joyful expectation. Make us ready for the message that prepares the way, that with open hearts and great joy we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

 

This is the second Sunday of the season of Advent. Advent means to wait, to anticipate, to wait with great expectation.  As Christians, we wait, with hope and expectation for something glorious to come.  We wait and we remember and we wait to celebrate the Christ child born in a manger so, very long ago.  But we also wait expectantly for the Son of God to return at the end of time.  And we wait.

We know something about waiting here at the Indian Hill Church. We have waited for two years for this day, as we welcome our new Rector, Father George Sherrill.  We have waited with hope, we have waited with expectation and now our waiting is complete.  We begin a bright new future…

 

But we all know that not all waiting leads to a happy ending.  Some waiting leads to hopelessness and despair.  At our former home in Tennessee we had eight fir trees planted in our back yard and within three years over half of them died.  We kept hoping and waiting and thinking, that just maybe those trees would make it!  We thought that once the cooler weather of fall came and the rains of early winter fell they might make it but our hopes were dashed. We tried, we watered them and cared for them but they never rebounded so they were cut down that following December.

 

In our text from Isaiah, like the fir trees in our backyard the people of Israel had lost all hope.  We saw with our own eyes that those fir trees were dead – just like we see with our own eyes that Isaiah’s prophecy has not come to fruition.   The wolf is not lying down with the lamb, babies can’t play over snake holes and disturbed young men continue to carry out violent acts like happened this last week at Ohio State.  Some days there seems to be no hope for the world.

 

The great German theologian Karl Barth used to say that every Christian should read the Bible in one hand and with the daily newspaper in the other.  So, if we follow his lead, and we read the Bible about cows and bears peacefully grazing together with a little child leading them.  Then we pick up our newspaper and we read about wars and insurrections and protests and people like the Kardashians and Justin Bieber making front page news.   There is a disconnect.  You can’t miss the contrast between this biblical vision of peace and the reality of our world.   We all long for this peace and security and hope for that to be reality.

 

The reality of our world makes the prophecy of Isaiah even more relevant.  Isaiah is envisioning a future based on a family tree and forecasts that from the stump of Jesse, a solitary shoot, a great leader will come.  This great leader will not be a future President, but one much greater than any mere human.   When the one Isaiah points to comes – all of life will change, the world will be transformed.    Isaiah’s message is a story of hope.   Some may say that it is blind hope and misguided optimism or a fairytale or even empty words but Isaiah knows it to be true because he is sharing God’s vision of the future of all creation.

Isaiah spoke this message of radical hope to the nation of Judah – the last remaining vestige of God’s Chosen People – who had been defeated in war, its leading citizens had been dragged hundreds of miles away and the last king of Davidic dynasty, which God had promised would last forever, had died in exile.  Living in hope was the last thing the people of Judah had in mind.

 

Isaiah tells it like he sees it, a land devastated, people who had lost their faith in God and their hope for anything but more of the same.  He preaches with imagination and paints a picture of a different world than the reality of that day.

 

A tiny little shoot will sprout up out of a stump that has been beaten with an axe and worn down by the weather.   A stump that is all but dead.   It would be like seeing one little speck of green, fresh growth, poking up out of the ruins of the wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.   Just when you think all is lost, your eye catches that tiny speck of life, of hope.   Isaiah draws our attention to this tiny sprig of hope.

 

The hope that Isaiah talks about is a world without fear or violence or war.   Can you imagine – no fear in Syria, no violence in Afghanistan, no war in the Middle East, can you imagine peace in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, in Bethlehem?   Can you imagine no violence in Over-the-Rhine, nothing but great joy in our communities, our neighborhoods, our schools, our shopping malls, our homes and even in our own hearts!  Can you imagine?

 

This hope is not just for our world and our communities, but it is also for our own lives and our hearts and souls.  It only takes a little twig, a peck, a chance, to bring hope and life.

 

Have you ever experienced a great loss in your life that cut right to the core of your being and you thought that your life was over?   And then out of nowhere a small spring of hope spouts in your life and you notice that you are smiling, or laughing or living again!   It still hurts.   The hole is there and always will be.  But somehow, someway, a little twig of hope emerges every once and a while you feel just a bit of life emerging from the ashes of ruin.   You can put one foot in front of the other and stumble along.

 

That is the hope Isaiah is speaking about.  A shoot shall come and it will abide in your heart and in mine and in places of ruin and devastation, in places of war and violence, in places of pain and grief.   A shoot will emerge and grow and make a way where there did not seem to be a way.

I read a story recently by a Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig.   She is the Rabbi of Beth Am, The People’s Temple, in New York City, and an Instructor in Homiletics at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.  I could never do her words justice so let me just read you what she writes:

 

I am a Jew. But for many years I have been a guest at Advent services. Every year I am moved, but also disturbed. Let me tell you why.

 

The answer lies in the following story, a true story, a story which begins in Buchenwald.  Buchenwald was a concentration camp for so called “political prisoners.”  In the 8 years, the camp operated it held 238,380 prisoners, many of whom died or were killed.  A small group of Buchenwald survivors dreamed of settling in Palestine and establishing a kibbutz.

 

On April 11, 1945, American troops arrived to liberate the camp.  Just 3 years later the kibbutz was founded.

 

Today the kibbutz flourishes with intensive farming, three industries, and the birth of a third generation.  The name of the kibbutz?  Netzer—twig or shoot. “A shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, a twig—netzer—shall sprout from his stock.” Kibbutz Netzer: a green shoot sprouting from the stump of a grand old tree.  You see to Jews we believe that Isaiah’s promise has already been fulfilled time and again whenever people have been felled and new shoots have miraculously appeared.[1]

 

As Christians, we believe that God did send his Messiah, Jesus the Christ to bring about God’s vision.  God can bring about life out of death, new life out of a seemingly dead stump.  Peace out of chaos.  So, as we wait this Advent Season we are invited to observe the world and if we look closely enough, we just might see some green sprouts of life emerging from some stumps that we had long given up on.  Can you believe it?  Just wait and see!  After all, it is what Advent is all about!

 

Let us pray:

[1]Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, “A Shoot Shall Sprout from the Stump” Program #4220 First airdate February 21,1999. Rabbi Wenig’s sermon originally appeared in the National Bulletin on Liturgy, Volume 29, Number 46, Copyright & copy; Concacan Inc., 1996. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ottawa.

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