Stumped (Part Two)
| Isaiah 11:1-10
||Sun, December 9, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
“A shoot shall come out from the stump ...”. This is an extraordinary claim. Isaiah portrays a stumped landscape. In his vision Israel has been clear-cut by God, by Yahweh: “the LORD of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest tress will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low” (Is. 10:33). But this is more than a theological metaphor. As ancient Israel hears Isaiah speak it really does face devastation. Its countryside left ruined by invading forces who leave a forest of stumps. Israel is stumped ... literally and figuratively. Once promised to rule forever, the family tree of King David has been cut off. There will be no more rulers in David’s line, no more Messiahs. Israel has been chopped down. Only a stump ... “the stump of Jesse’s lineage” ... is left.
Stumped. I wonder if you remember that Sunday morning this past February 11th when I admitted to being stumped. I do. I remember that Sunday because it wasn’t much fun ... for me or for you. That was the occasion when we read the sixth chapter of Isaiah ... and proclaimed God’s intention to wipe out God’s own people ... to leave nothing but a forest of stumps. Isaiah quite literally stumped preacher and people as we sought a Word of hope and of comfort. We hoped that the New Testament offered something else ... but found this very text quoted again and again in the Gospels. That sermon, like the text, ended with barely a shred of hope ... with three odd Hebrew words that say something like: “The holy seed is its stump” (Isaiah 6:13).
We found ourselves then ... we find ourselves now ... pondering the cruciform stump which is our “holy seed”. The cross stumps us. It is, itself, a great holy stump. The cross is the end of the line of David, the death of the promised Messiah. Gathered here we sit at the stump of all our dreams for a better world. Here we die to our illusory hopes. And here Isaiah proclaims the gospel: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”. With the earliest Christians we imagine that Isaiah foretells the birth of a babe in a manger, the promised offspring of Jesse’s lineage, the holy shoot from the stump of Israel. But there is more. In Advent we relive the pregnant waiting for the birth of baby Jesus not only for the benefit of the children. As those who live after his birth ... and his death ... and his resurrection ... we find ourselves still waiting for the promised shoot to spring forth from a stumped world. The one called ‘Emmanuel’ - God with us ‘ has come. Yet we pray all the more: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.
We long for Emmanuel - God with us. We pray for a world soaked in spirituality, a place made ‘holy’ by the presence of the divine. It is a highly political prayer. Oh, I know. Mixing religion and politics, or spirituality and economics is inflammatory at dinner parties and in Bible studies ... not to mention sermons. But see, the one we are praying for, the promised new shoot from the old stump, will have the spirit of Yahweh. Four times Isaiah repeats the promise, four times in a single verse: “The spirit of YHWH shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of YHWH”. Notice that YHWH’s spirit is utterly political. This spirit is what is needed to make tough decisions and lead in difficult times: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
Do you see? When we finally gather here on Christmas Eve to sing “Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her King!” we will not just be going through the motions of religious habit. Our Christmas Eve gathering will not be a harmless spiritual occasion without political or economic implications. Oh no. When we join our voices with the angel chorus we legitimize Jesus as the promised one on whom the spirit of YHWH rests. Our Christmas carols are a subversive political activity. When we sing “Hail the heaven born Prince of Peace” we pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ - the One whose way calls us to live in odd ways that confound the political arrangements of our families and classrooms and offices and nations. So we may wish to be careful who and what we pray for ... for what if Emmanuel does come again, here among us ... and being found here, calls us to follow him in a world that crucifies his kind?
Judgments for the meek
Well, the truth is, it is not a question of ‘what if’ Emmanuel will come, here among us. Isaiah does not speculate: “What if a shoot shall come out from the stump”. Our hope is not speculative. It is grounded in the promise of God: “With righteousness <Emmanuel> shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”. This is what we are praying for in Advent. This is the season when the poor cry out that justice be done, when the meek of the earth pray that their case be decided with equity. It is not hard to imagine the massive chorus who join this prayer of longing in this darkened season. And you don’t have to be a theologian to hear it. This week - on the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize - 100 Nobel laureates signed a statement about the future of the earth. It begins: “The most profound danger to world peace in the coming years will stem not from the irrational acts of states or individuals but from the legitimate demands of the world’s dispossessed. Of these poor and disenfranchised, the majority live a marginal existence in equatorial climates. Global warming, not of their making but originating with the wealthy few, will affect their fragile ecologies most. Their situation will be desperate and manifestly unjust.” These scientists and writers and peacemakers all hear the growing cry of the earth’s poor: “O come, O come, Emmanuel” even as we merrily celebrate his innocent birth. But it is not an innocent birth. In this long-promised child God comes to judge the earth. Remember: “Blessed are the meek, for the will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:5-6). The child of Mary comes to judge the poor with righteousness and to rule for the meek with equity. How will he judge us? Looking at a world where rich nations invest huge resources to secure their borders to keep the poor at bay, one hundred Nobel laureates agree: “It is time to turn our backs on the unilateral search for security, in which we seek shelter behind walls.” In other words, this is an Advent season in world history ... a season of urgent preparation, there is literally no time to waste in preparing room for Emmanuel, the One who comes to judge for the poor and the meek. Let every heart ... and every nation ... prepare him room, indeed.
Speech that kills, acts that clothe
And see how he will judge: “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” How often we long for action, not words. How we imagine that God’s will is done in doing things, that change begins with acts. But, no. The first sign of the arrival of God’s Promised One is speech. God’s voice has been silent ... like a tree that has been cut down ... stumped, silent, mute. In the absence of the Word of the LORD other words have cluttered the landscape. Words of self-interest ... of self-service ... of self-help ... of self-righteousness. The ways of God are not known or spoken and, therefore, not lived. Emmanuel comes to speak ... and in speaking to strike the earth with a rod of judgement and to kill the wicked ways that oppress. Words can be tedious filler ... they can be used to justify the status quo. But speech can also be dangerous, troubling, empowering, creative. It is this dangerous speech that we protect here by giving the preacher freedom of speech. Oh, not freedom for any speech ... but freedom to speak the troubling, empowering, creative Word that is cradled in these ancient pages. We remember that every spiritual renewal, every miraculous re-formation in the history of the Church has started here ... with a new shoot of life springing out of the stumped pages of the old Book ... with a living Word of hope where there had been only dusty words of despair.
Of course, that living Word comes clothed in action: “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins”. The community that speaks the faithful Word of God wears righteousness as a shirt and faithfulness as a skirt. Remember that Jesus breaks onto the scene in the Gospels “preaching and healing”. He preaches the arrival of God’s kingdom come ... and he embodies the arrival of God’s kingdom come in miracles of forgiveness and hospitality. He ‘walks the talk’. Jesus ‘practices what he preaches’. He is Emmanuel ... the One we long for, even now. No wonder people become frustrated with the church ... with us. No wonder we become frustrated with the church ... with us! Their criticisms - our criticisms - of the church’s flawed witness to the Kingdom are a longing cry for a place where God’s will is spoken as the truth ... and lived with risky courage. This frustration is itself a longing cry: “O Come, O come, Emmanuel”.
But maybe it is not simply a haunting, longing cry. Maybe “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is actually a determined dream. Maybe the church is a community of dreamers entrusted with stewarding God’s holy dream for the earth. The pragmatists snicker at such speech: “The wolf shall live with the lamb ... the calf and the lion ... and a little child shall lead them”. This is the stuff, they say, of fairy tales not of the ‘real world’. But then the ancient stump which is the only pragmatic reality that the world knows sprouts a new shoot of hope. A dreamer is born ... one who sees that Emmanuel shall come to ransom the captive and to set the prisoner free. He marches to the holy capitol hill, to the Nation’s sacred shrine and strikes the earth with the rod of his mouth: “I have a dream ... I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood ... This is our hope ... With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
We have a dream. We have a dream that one day “they will not hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Yahweh as the waters cover the sea.” We have a dream. We have a dream that “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.” We have a dream. We have a dream that Emmanuel shall come to Israel ... and to Palestine, to Afghanistan and to America, to the Dominican Republic (the “Lord’s own Land”) and to Lesotho. We have a dream. We have a dream that Emmanuel shall come downtown ... and up on this University Hill. Amen? Amen! Then let us prepare him room.