I am a preacher. Currently my Sunday morning gig is to supply a small United Methodist church with sermons, and to help lead their worship service. I also do some visitation ministry for the congregation. I am functionally their pastor, but that’s not my job title. While I’ve been a pastor, I am not licensed by the UMC, and the church isn’t big enough to pay a pastor (the denomination and the conference has some guidelines for what their pastors should be paid). It is a small community church, and the membership is aging out. We are lucky if there is 17 or so of us gathered on a Sunday morning and the congregation has no idea what tomorrow holds. In the meantime, I hope to speak a hopeful word for them.
My passage this Sunday comes from Isaiah 11. There is some evocative imagery there about a wolf and a lamb, a leopard & a goat, a calf, a lion a yearling, a cow and a bear, a child leader, and an infant playing in a snake pit. But the passage begins with familiar words we quote while awaiting the Christ child this season, ” A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1).
I know something about stumps (I am not an arborist, but I play one on tree-vee). Stumps are dead.
We had a giant maple tree in the backyard of the property we rent in Medford. It wasn’t a healthy tree, but it seemed stable enough. It was wide and tall and still had signs of life. But in early autumn a branch fell off onto our shed. I went in the backyard to inspect the tree and discovered that parts of the trunk were rotten. I could stick the handle of my garden hoe right through the trunk. I called our landlord and over the next several days, he had cut the tree down and only a stump remains.
Evidently the previous owner, had decided to make a raised garden bed around an existing tree, and covered the maple tree roots with soil, stressing the tree. While the tree looked alive enough for awhile, it was dying a long slow death. Now there is just a stump, left for dead.
When Isaiah had his vision, the northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria (circa 722 BCE), and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (where Isaiah was) was forced to pay tribute. While Judah maintained their independence, the golden age of David and Solomon was behind them. Judah found itself dominated by powerful nations all around. They had a noble past, but their roots were distressed under a layer of dirt. Life had ebbed from the tree.
Isaiah has a vision of the dead stump of Jesse—the Davidic monarchy at its end (Jesse was David’s father). Lifeless. I am sure Jesse’s stump wasn’t from a maple tree. I picture one of those mighty Lebanon ceders the Old Testament keeps mentioning, only dead. Just a stump, until a green shoot grows from its center. It was a renewal of hope in a Messiah—an anointed King in the line of David—a green shoot from the stump of Jesse. And with this shoot, hope grows.
Joan Chittister, in Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope (Eerdmans, 2003) writes ” Everywhere I looked, hope existed—but only as some kind of green shoot in the midst of struggle. (preface, ix).” With hindsight and a high Christology, we read of the green shoot in Jesse’s stump and wax eloquent about the Coming of Christ. I am not sure how comforting this was for Isaiah’s hearers, who remembered that stump and the grandeur of yesteryear. But as Chittister says, “Hope, I began to realize was not a state of life. It was at best a gift of life” (ibid).
Advent hope, then and now, is a gift of life. It is a green shoot in the midst of struggle. A green shoot in a stump of a failing monarchy doesn’t sound much like hope. But it became the hope of salvation for the whole earth. Christ’s return sounds to us like pie-in-the-sky escapism, but it is our hope for the renewal of all things, here. A green shoot in the midst of struggle.
I don’t know what you are going through and what it means for you to hold out hope. I don’t know what it means for our world threatened by violence. Or our a country with ever-deepening divisions. I don’t know what it means for the church I pastor that I’m not the pastor of. But each of us, are more than the stump of what was. Hope grows. A green shoot—life where we least expect to find it.