“From a Stump”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Text: Isaiah 11:1-10)
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace from the One who was, who is, and who is to come; in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
One of my favorite books my mother read to me as a child is one I still revisit from time to time, James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl. Let me tell you a little bit of the story, in case you aren’t familiar with it.
James was four years old, happy and living by the English seashore with his parents before they died suddenly. He was sent to live with two cruel aunts (of course, because this is a children’s book, and that’s what happens), in a creaky old house on a bleak hill. He wasn’t permitted to have friends, and wasn’t allowed to go beyond the fence that surrounded the top of the hill. His life was dreary, sad and miserable compared to the life he’d known before. Standing on the hill, he could look out and almost see the sea, and his old house. And while he could see woods and fields as far as he could look, within his fence there was little grass. Nothing could grow in there, and only a withered old peach tree stood there, a tree which hadn’t borne fruit in years and was as good as dead.
In this book, the peach tree symbolizes James’ existence. A fruit tree is a tree of hope, a tree of promise. Every year it buds and blossoms, and fruit is produced which is eaten and enjoyed. A fruit tree which bears no fruit is no promise: it’s a dead stump of a promise. James’ life began with hope and promise, but after three years with these wicked aunts, it was looking more like a stump than a tree – a life which would stretch on forever with no hope in sight. Like the withered old peach tree.
Of course, the story is called James and the Giant Peach, and that’s why I’m thinking about it this Second Sunday of Advent. Through some magic (of course, because this is a children’s book, and that’s what happens), the dead old stump of a peach tree produces a fruit, an enormous one, bigger than a house, and James finds strange and interesting new friends and wonderful new adventures because of and with that peach. But the beauty of the story for me really transcends those adventures: the beauty is that the life of this boy, which was like a dead promise, an old stump, is transformed into a life of life, of wonder, of joy.
Isaiah today talks of a similar beauty and wonder: a shoot, a branch, will grow from a dead stump. God will make new life.
The people of Judah are living in fear: cowed by Assyria and threatened by attack, living in a land which has been overrun, they find it hard to see hope. The great promises of the Davidic line seem completely broken off, as if they no longer have a line of kings in which to trust, a great tree stretching back to Jesse’s son, but now only a chopped off stump. The tree of Assyria seemed dominant, powerful, unstoppable. And their own tree dead and broken.
Isaiah tells them that there is reason for hope: a new shoot will arise from the very roots of the stump. A ruler will come and bring new life and hope. This ruler will be anointed with God’s Spirit – the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. In place of uncertainty and fear, there will be peace, and a ruler who rules with justice, caring for the weak and the powerless. And there will be an end to all the divisions that plague the world – even natural enemies in the animal kingdom will be companions, and children will be safe with the most frightening of creatures. For a nation under threat of war and destruction, this is a powerful good news.
And all this will come from what looks to be beyond hope, beyond help: like a new shoot from a dead stump.
What’s most striking to me is how closely this situation resembles our own, and how potent this promise might also be for us.
Dead stumps of broken and unfulfilled promises litter our lives. The threats which face this world are vast – it’s not just one nation-state like the people of Judah feared. Terrorism, a wrecked environment that is becoming toxic to us, seemingly unending problems of poverty and hunger here and abroad, and continued violence. We can relate to people like Isaiah’s audience.
Our hearts, which long to hear Good News and hope and promise, wear out, become tired and unable to hope. Given the right circumstances, we can even die inside. Like an old, withered peach tree there often seems to be little fruit for our hearts to enjoy and cherish. That we hear these texts in the cold and apparent lifelessness of a December winter only underscores the potential for our hearts to give up, to become dead stumps of promise, unable to produce good fruit, unable to hope for spring.
This all led me to an Easter hymn this week which sings of much the same thing – we aren’t going to sing it today, but there is something very important for us in it. The hymn “Now the Green Blade Rises” has this line, which has been running through my head all week: “When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain.” That’s what this image of Isaiah is all about: when our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain, we are like dead stumps.
It happens when we measure our lives and come up wishing we were different, better, more “something.” The more we fall short of our own expectations and what we believe are God’s expectations, the colder and more wintry our hearts can be.
It happens when tragedies that happen in the world come to us, or we learn of them, which in our age of modern communications technology is all the time – we constantly hear of the pain and tragedy of others and are affected by it. It happens to us when young teens take their own lives because they’ve been bullied for who they are; when a young child is shot and badly hurt just two blocks from our church building, or others are attacked nearby; when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer and the whole world changes. As we face tragedy or know of it, our hearts can wither and grieve and go cold.
And it happens when life just seems very difficult. When we consider the state of the world and the amount of pain and suffering and threat that exist; when family problems seem insurmountable, relationships struggle, or financial concerns seem to overwhelm; when life for us or for others becomes a hard road to walk, our hearts fill with pain and are stricken.
But listen to that whole stanza: “When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain; your touch can call us back to life again. Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again like wheat arising green.”
That’s Isaiah’s promise. And that’s our Advent hope.
You see, what we’re waiting for this Advent is really Easter, not Christmas. Easter’s our real need.
The birth of the Holy Child, God-with-us, is not truly the fulfilling of Isaiah’s promise. Only when death itself is broken and life comes forth is our hope fully restored. And the touch of the risen Jesus – who is, we believe, the branch from Jesse’s tree long promised – brings peace and justice, life and hope. In a world of pain and hatred and war and violence: Jesus comes with the touch of peace. Peace like Isaiah saw: wolves and lambs lying down together, babies and venomous snakes playing together.
And that touch of peace which brings life into our cold hearts is here already with us. In the midst of the coldness our hearts sometimes have, into the dead stump of broken promises comes warmth and light. At the Lord’s Table we receive that life-giving touch of God’s love which makes us clean and whole and forgiven. The touch of Jesus’ hand comes to us through the hands of others, and that love warms us. And life springs forth from places we didn’t think would ever live again. There is nothing that cannot be transformed by this grace our Lord brings, no pain that cannot be eased, no death that cannot be ended with life.
And here is our real joy: how this healing Jesus brings to the world will happen. The Promised One of Isaiah touches us with life that we might be light and life to the world. It is no accident that when we baptize, when we confirm, and when all of us affirm our baptism together we pray for the same spirit Isaiah promises the Messiah will have: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
Because we are now Messiah, we are Christ – we are the anointed ones who, washed in the waters of Baptism and sealed by the Spirit with the very cross which the Christ used to defeat death, we now become the touch of God. We are sent to be bringers of peace to our families, to our community, nation, and world. To stand with lights and fire in a cold and dark world, as so many of our neighbors did in Powderhorn Park last week, and claim that there is life and light, in spite of how things look. To claim that our God can bring life to dead stumps, and is in fact doing this. Filled by God’s Spirit, we bring this Good News to the world.
This becomes how we live into our Advent hope: we become proclaimers of it with our very lives and actions.
We need the reminders Isaiah gives us today ourselves – for our hearts are often wintry and cold and withered, and we forget, we forget that God is with us and bringing healing. And we need the reminders because we sometimes forget that we are anointed by the Spirit to be this life in a cold, withered world.
We need these reminders because we and the whole world need this hope of Advent, this promise of Christmas, this reality of Easter: Our God brings life and warmth into the depths of our world’s coldness and pain, and touches us, calling our hearts and spirits back to life, for the sake of the world. God fill us with such hope, and bless us as we are sent to spread this Good News in our lives.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.