Hancock Church Sermon – Rev. Dana Allen Walsh – December 8, 2013 – Isaiah 11:1-10


“Feeling Stumped”

Yesterday, Sean and I brought Leighton to buy his first Christmas tree from a local tree lot. It was not the most idyllic experience, the nearby, graffitied town pool has been turned into a tree lot for the month of December and that’s where our tree came from. There wasn’t sleigh bells and snowfall, but it did the job.

How many of you have gotten your Christmas tree?

Can I see a show of hands?!?!

Maybe you bought it at Wilson’s farm or Home Depot. Or perhaps you chopped down your own tree. You drove a little ways, hiked in the cold, and picked out the perfect one.

Perhaps, you’ve never chopped down your own tree before, because you’ve watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and feared turning into Clark Griswold, who in the pursuit of the perfect tree, wields a chainsaw and cuts down an evergreen the size of the Prudential building, while his frost-bitten family stands by. In the movie, when they get the tree home, Clark is covered in sap, a squirrel jumps out of it and his daughter’s eyelids haven’t defrosted yet.

Yes, seeing that is enough to make you want to ditch the whole tree idea or at least get an artificial one.

While I do my Christmas tree shopping at the local swimming pool, I have fond childhood memories of hiking out and chopping down a tree. I remember that after using the hand saw to cut down the tree, a tiny stump would be left behind. But these stumps can be dangerous. They are difficult to see and easy to trip over. They are hard to get rid of, a pain to mow around, and quite expensive to remove – because their roots are deep.

Today, in our scripture, we hear about a stump; in the words of Isaiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

To most people, these shoots are an unwanted eyesore. These little shoots are actually known by the unflattering name of “suckers,” and there are all kinds of remedies on the Internet for how to seal off a stump and prevent it from giving out new shoots of life. Having these branches growing out of the tree stump can make it look even more unpleasant and ragged.

The stump here is a metaphor. Israel’s enemies had tried every way they knew to seal off the stump of Jesse that was the root of the throne of David. Jesse was the father of David, the great king, who represented the glory days of Israel, the pinnacle of their power and prestige, the moment they most loved to recall and the hope they held onto for their future. But all of this glory and security and success had been cut off, cut down, taken away.

The great empire of Assyria had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. The descendants of David’s glorious kingdom knew the bitterness of conquest and exile, of constant threat and war. Life was violent and unfair, the people were suffering, and they had to wonder if God had left them on their own. There had not been a viable king on the throne of Israel for generations. And yet, somehow, there was life still stirring in this burnt-out old stump.

We’ve all had times in our life when we felt like an old stump. Whether we’ve been struggling with a chronic illness or the exhaustion of constant busyness, whether we’re weary from arguing with a loved one, or experiencing a spiritual low-point. We know what it feels like to be cut off, cut down, disillusioned and defeated.

But just when we’ve assumed that the stump is sealed off and settled into our old assumptions, something unexpected may happen. If that new life that had been stirring springs forth, it might take us by surprise. Like in this true story from the Manchester Evening News:

Last Wednesday a passenger in a taxi heading for Salford station leaned over to ask the driver a question and gently tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention.

The driver screamed, lost control of the cab, nearly hit a bus, drove up over the curb and stopped just inches from a large plate window.

For a few moments everything was silent in the cab. Then, the shaking driver said, “Are you OK? I’m so sorry, but you scared the daylights out of me.”

The badly shaken passenger apologized to the driver and said, “I didn’t realize that a mere tap on the shoulder would startle someone so badly.”

The driver replied, “No, no, I’m the one who is sorry, it’s entirely my fault. Today is my very first day driving a cab. I’ve been driving a hearse for 25 years.”

When we settle into the routine of expecting nothing, and then we get a tap on the shoulder, it might scare the daylights out of us. When we assume the tree stump is dead and worthless, and then a shoot springs forth, we are surprised, maybe even annoyed. When we expect Christ to come into our world as a great and powerful King on a throne, and instead we get a helpless baby in a manger, we are startled and maybe even disappointed.

It’s not what we expected. New life has come, but it’s fragile and vulnerable. Hope has come, not as powerful King or mighty redwood, but as a baby, as a green sprig.

Neither a baby nor a wee branch are going to last long against any enemies. And that is why we hear the angel’s refrain, “Be not afraid.” The text goes on to paint a picture of a time when God’s peace will reign in the world. When the lion and lamb will lay together, when a child can play at the hole of the snake’s den, when “they will no longer hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

It sounds calm and peaceful, but unrealistic. Instead we might agree with Woody Allen when he said, “The lion might lay with the lamb, but the lamb isn’t going to get much sleep!”

As a parent, I no longer lose sleep because of diaper changes and feedings, but because I worry about my little lamb in this world. It feels like there are snarling lions just waiting to pounce and there are coiled snakes ready to unleash their venom. I yearn for that holy mountain of peace, where children can safely play, where the fragile and vulnerable of our society don’t live in fear of neglect, pressure, or violence.

In a few days, we will honor the 27 lives lost a year ago in Newtown, CT. We mourn for those children and for children everywhere who are victims of senseless violence. We mourn because gun laws remain the same and little has been done to curb this violence in our cities and our suburbs. We mourn because we feel stumped by a culture of fear and gridlock, without seeing much progress by our elected leaders.

But in the face of our frustration, I cannot help to think of the great Nelson Mandela, who did not allow himself to be defeated by oppression, brutality, and racial inequality. Even after spending more than 25 years in prison, some of which was spent in solitary confinement, rather than succumbing to bitterness and anger, he spoke these words:

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

We, too, can be optimists, because God promises us that the very last word will indeed be God’s. God is not finished with us yet. Even when we feel stumped, there is still hope.

In a few weeks, the Christ child will be born among us, as both the lion of Judah and the lamb of God. In this wee babe, we meet divine vulnerability and divine strength. And through Christ comes a halting of aggression and banishing of fear, where the justice of God and the peace of God will be one together.

But the justice and peace that we desire will not suddenly bloom, instead, it’s something we need to carefully look for and when we find it, nurture and tend to it. The tender little shoot of hope will be there, in the most unexpected place, and our job is to help it to grow in our hearts and in our world.