December 8, 2019
The Second Sunday of Advent
(Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12)
Although The New Interpreter’s Bible says “Few texts in biblical literature are better known or loved” than Isaiah 11:1-10, it’s unlikely that this reading has left you quivering with excitement. In fact, you could argue that it’s a ridiculous exaggeration. At most, you probably simply remember as being one of the passages most often read during the Advent and/or Christmas season.
There are a few texts that are surely “better known or loved” than this obscure text in Isaiah, like say:
• Psalm 23
• The story of creation
• Moses and the parting of the Red Sea
• The Ten Commandments
• David and Bathsheba
• David and Goliath
• The story of Ruth
• The story of Jericho
• The nativity story in Luke 2
• To name a few!
So, what’s to be done with this text? People today probably don’t care that Jesus came from the stump of Jesse.
But some people care about stumps. George Kenny of Allyn, Washington, for example.
Kenny is an artist, but to see his work, you may want to put on a pair of hiking boots. That’s because his “brush” is a chainsaw and his canvases are tree stumps and trunks.
About a year ago, Kenny spent a day at Columbia Springs, a 100-acre environmental center in Vancouver, Washington. He’d been invited by the center’s executive director to make art of some of the stumps and trunks in the site’s forest. Using his chainsaw as a carving tool, Kenny spent the day making seven chunks of dead cedar into eagles, owls, herons, salmon and other figures, all of which remain on site in the woods.
Figuratively, at least, the dead wood comes alive again.
I recall some years ago when I would go to the San Diego Zoo at Christmas time for their annual “Jungle Bells” program. They had these two talented ladies that would use chainsaws to cut gigantic blocks of ice into various animals. They would do the performances in entertaining ways and had a knack for managing to create them in such a way as to keep you guessing until nearly the end.
In the Isaiah text, there’s a dead tree stump or gigantic block of ice as well, but the prophet tells us that God is going to do some awesome art with it … messianic art.
Isaiah’s message here is basically this, that Isaiah’s words about the next king were to say, “Here’s our immediate hope,” and his words about the peaceable future were to say, “Here’s our ultimate hope.”
Congregations are not that different from the Hebrews of Isaiah’s day when it comes down to it.
• Assyria is long gone, but terrorists abound.
• The United States is not under a king, but its political system, with its vicious partisanship, can, at best, be described as gridlocked. (Although, our current president wants to be treated as a king.)
• Few people these days see government as a very effective apparatus for the common good.
• Each day, there’s more bad news. Millions of people don’t even follow the news anymore, and many who do refuse to check the news before going to bed so their sleep is not disturbed.
Our hopes are raised periodically by the promises from new and rising political stars. But then our hopes are crushed by the reality that follows elections.
Like the ancient people of Judah, we can benefit from being reminded of the ultimate hope.
After Jesus was crucified and resurrected, the Apostles read Isaiah through a new lens. They looked at the first part of this passage and saw not Ahaz’s successor, Hezekiah, who was a better man and a better king than Ahaz — although even he eventually disappointed Isaiah by becoming too friendly with the Babylonians.
No, they argued that the only one who really fulfilled this text was much further down Jesse’s line, Jesus Christ. Thus Paul, preaching to fellow Jews on one of his missionary trips, referred to their common history and said, “God made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘Then he removed him and raised up David as their king; of him he testified, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will carry out my every wish.’ From this man’s descendants God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus...” (Acts 13:22-23).
The lineage from Jesse, which is not very important to us today, was super-important to the Jews of Jesus’ day because it was a reference to Isaiah. The savior to come, Isaiah said, would be from Jesse’s line. So, as people began to suspect that Jesus was the messiah, the fact that he was “of the house and lineage of David” was huge!
Isaiah went on to say that when this new “shoot” from Jesse reigns, “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat ... They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord.” Clearly, this is a world quite unlike today’s world. And that’s exactly right: it’s another world altogether, another kingdom entirely.
But this is the nature of hope, isn’t it? Biblically speaking, hope, along with faith and love, make up the “big three” of Christianity. They are the things that the apostle Paul said remain, and have enduring quality, when all else fails. “And now faith, hope and love abide,” is how he put it, and he meant that when looking for the qualities that are distilled from the experience of the believing life together, these three things — faith, hope and love — are the solid footing on which to stand, even if seen only darkly as through a distorting glass.
Real hope is not some sort of wishful thinking that those with strong enough gumption muster up from some inner core. No, it is rather an ultimate belief that when all else fails, when every other support gives way, our lives remain in God’s hands.
And so we wait. And this can be difficult. I know some of you were questioning my belief in hope in 2017 and again this year in regard to the rectory. It can be quite difficult, and sometimes even the best of us flinch in hope. Let me be clear …. Being positive or negative is indeed a state of mind, however one is never truly “negative” unless he has given up hope in Christ. Regardless of negativities in regard to say our government, a particular person or situation, one can still be a positive person and even have hope. To have no hope is give up on life and the blessings God can grace us with.
Debie Thomas, director of children's and family ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California makes this point: “The Biblical pattern for God’s people is a pattern of waiting. Adam waited for a partner, Noah waited for the flood waters to recede, Abraham waited for a son, Jacob waited to marry Rachel, Hannah waited for children, the Israelites waited for deliverance… the list goes on and on. ... In my church, we ‘proclaim the mystery of faith’ every Sunday morning: ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.’ We rightfully pin our hopes on that last claim, and yet, in our humanness, we grow weary of waiting.”
Like Kenny in Washington, working on his stump, it takes time before the image emerges, but in time it does.
What we see in Scripture is an emerging picture of Jesus of Nazareth, our ultimate hope.
And this hope gives a perspective from which to view the threats and worries of life. Isaiah’s words remind us that those things are never the last word. Our hope is anchored in Jesus, the living art from the stump of Jesse.
Let’s take that hope and use it to sustain ourselves when the threats and worries of life rage or stump us.
Let us pray.
In today’s Gospel we read of John the Baptist – A Voice Cries in the Wilderness, Prepare a way for the Lord, Make His paths straight. In today’s world this message is also an appeal to us. We pray that we be not silent onlookers but that we have the faith and strength to be true and active witnesses to his Word. We pray to the Lord.
In today’s Second Reading, St Paul calls for tolerance and asks us to treat each other in the same friendly way as Christ treated us. We pray for an end to racism and the language of racism in our society. We pray to the Lord.
On Tuesday next, December 10th, the world celebrates International Human Rights Day. We pray for a world that will respect the God-given rights of all, especially those who suffer from hatred, discrimination, poverty and war. We pray to the Lord.
Tomorrow, Monday, we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We pray that we, like Mary, listen to the word of our God and happily do his Holy Will. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those who struggle with depression at this time of year. May they find comfort, love and medical support to ease their journey through their difficulties. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Father God, how do we see for the first time a story we've read so many times? Give us new perspective. Help us not to assume we know all there is to know, but to open our hearts and minds to your Spirit and the new truth you may be teaching us today. Perhaps the truth will not be new, but a lesson we've heard and simply need to be reminded of again. Wherever it is you are leading, let us be willing to follow. Whatever it is you want to teach, let us be open to listening and obeying. We confess to you, O God, that we have fallen asleep. We often go through the motions and live our daily lives without much thought outside of ourselves. Forgive us for our shortsightedness. Forgive us for not being awake to the wonders and signs that you are doing something new in our world and in our lives. Help us to seek you in the face of others. Call us into your ways of love and justice, so that we might be fully awake, watching and waiting for your return in our world and in our lives in a new way. Help us to live in hope! We ask all these things through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA