Two summers ago we put up a new fence around our property. When I read this story I thought of the six huge ficus trees we had to cut down to make room for the fence. The guy who did the work didn’t use a stump grinder to finish the job. Instead he cut giant X’s into the stump with his chainsaw. Then, for safe measure, poured gas into the grooves which apparently kills the tree from the top down. With the trees gone, I removed the sprinklers from the area. And a couple of days later we had a brand-new fence in its place.
But that’s not the end of the story. A year later, these little green sprigs began growing out of those stumps. For a while, I would snip them off. But the more I snipped the stronger and faster they grew. Today, we now have a lovely green hedge in that old space.
Not only did the trees survive being cut down, dosed in gasoline and denied water…but they were also transformed into something new in the process, they went from trees to shrubbery. A perfect illustration of how God’s love works. Out of death comes new life.
We see this when Isaiah pronounced the coming prince of peace. Judah had been defeated and those who were hauled off in captivity believed God had abandoned them. Their life seemed hopeless. And those who remained behind were nothing more than old stumps of what they once were. But Isaiah said, God is up to something.
A green shoot from the House of David will emerge and reign with the Spirit of God’s love and righteousness. A new king will come out of Bethlehem and lead his people with “wisdom and understanding” “counsel and might” and with “knowledge and fear of God.”
And just for good measure, this ruler will be the bearer of God’s Spirit, who will transform a culture of fear into a world of peace. He will judge with justice according to God’s will and righteousness: freed from bias or favoritism.
Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, or left for dead, comes the sign of new life. This is how God’s love surprises the world. Hope emerging as a tiny tendril in an unexpected place. A teenage mom, a dirty stable, a tiny baby born with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a giant target on his back.
I had a professor in seminary who always warned us not to read Jesus into this text no matter how tempting it is to do so. St. Paul has no problem using the stump of Jesse metaphor to argue differently in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 15:12). Either way, Isaiah shows us how to wait for Christ.
For those of us who are fed up with the moral, religious, and political crisis our nation and world are facing today, Isaiah reminds us that God is up to something.
For those of us who are in dark places, and cannot muster the strength to live another day, Isaiah says hold on, God is up to something.
For those of us who are barely getting by, or living in poverty or suffering injustice, Isaiah offers hope that arises out of God’s great love for us.
No one exemplified God’s love better than Jesus, the Christ. When we look to him we see God. Through him we know who God is and who we are to God.
And so Isaiah invites you to ask where are the stumps in your life? Where do you feel chopped down, hopeless, or alone? Can you imagine or believe that even now, in your own dark space, God is nurturing the growth of something new and good?
The world can dowse us with gas, and even deny our thirst, but it cannot stop God from doing what God wants to do – creating life out of death.
When I thought my ministry was done, God was up to something – transforming my faith and leading me to a new kind of church that uses technology to reach people who, for whatever reason, aren’t hearing the Good News. Today, New Church Sherman Oaks, along with our sister church The Phoenix Congregational Fellowship, are literally reaching the furthest corners of the world to share Jesus’ story of love and redemption. As long as we have the internet, we have mission and ministry...because God is always up to something.
No matter what you might be going through, I pray these words of Isaiah speak to your heart and give you hope in your head. Because God is not only faithful, but God is hard at work. Through Christ, God is taking your pain, your fears and worries, and making something new. A new life, and new light, and new everlasting love.
The peace of God that is inaugurated with the incarnation is one where all things will be transformed. Humans, animals, and the land itself will be filled with the knowledge of God. And be reconciled and restored into God’s glory, where the kingship of Christ will reign with justice and fairness.
But here’s the kicker. All we can do is wait it out. Yet in this time of wait, I invite you to look within yourself. And ask how can you use this Advent time to spiritually mature? How can you bear the fruits of God’s love, through acts of mercy, forgiveness, and justice?
How can you see and do what Jesus does, so others can see and do the same. Our hope, and our love, are the first fruits that God uses to bring divine peace into a world that desperately needs it. In Jesus, God came to be with us, to show us how to be the shining lights in the darkness, to show how God is at work in the most ordinary and unusual of ways.
As you leave here today, how you might live out this light of hope and this light of love in such a way so the wolf and lamb can live in harmony? Here’s a hint: follow the little child who leads the way back to God’s glory?
Bartlett, David. L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Westminster John Knox Press: 2010) pp. 26-31.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”