A Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 11:1–10
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
The message and imagery of the season of Advent in the church is in stark contrast to the other messages around us this time of the year. All around us there are jingle bells and happy holiday music. There are lights on trees, warm smiles, and a willingness to lend a hand to help those who are less fortunate that far exceeds that willingness the rest of the year.
But if you came into the church during the season of Advent hoping to be gently sung to with happy holiday music, you came to the wrong spot. Instead, our vestments are dark blue, symbolizing the darkness of night, the darkness of this world into which the Christ child is preparing to enter. The songs are almost all set in a minor key, many warning of the coming of Christ and the last judgment. In the message of the Scriptures and the prayers is a call to repentance and change of life. Only in the season of Advent do we get the gospel reading where the primary character, John the Baptist, calls those who are listening to him a brood of vipers. This is called in the world of public speaking of establishing a rapport with your audience.
At least with the first lesson for today, with its familiar image of a shoot springing from the stump of Jesse, there seems to be some comfort. The lesson sounds to us like a more hopeful regarding the coming of Christ, the person who will finally bring righteousness to this world. It envisions a new age in which the wolf lies down with the lamb and a little child will lead us all. But if you thought I was going to let you have the first lesson as a comforting image for the second Sunday of Advent, you apparently have not gotten to know me at all.
After all, there is a hint to the judgment of this message and the very first verse, about the shoot springing from the stump of Jesse. After all, you don’t get a stump out of nowhere… someone had to have cut that tree down first. And the idea of cutting down the tree of Jesse’s family, Jesse, the father of David, the Davidic line itself… Cutting that tree down to a stump would be unthinkable for the Israelite people.
Interestingly enough, this message of the cutting down of a tree in our reading is actually a continuation of a stream of prophecies from the previous chapter. In the 10th chapter of Isaiah prophesies the coming of God’s justice upon the nation of Assyria. The prophet declares, “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.” And then our reading begins, “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
In the tenth chapter, God is chopping down the mighty tree of the Assyrian Empire, that is what happens before the announcement of a new shoot from the stump of Jesse’s family tree. Because, of course, God had cut down the tree of Jesse’s family, the Davidic dynasty of kings, when they continued to practice unfaithfulness, both to God and to the poor. That is why God sent the Assyrian Empire to invade and conquer the nation, to cut down the tree of the Davidic dynasty. God knows that the Assyrian Empire has its own sins and God will deal justice to that Empire as well. But the coming of God, a coming we long for in the season of Advent, is with an ax in hand.
We see this the gospel reading as well, where after John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees who have come to listen to him a brood of vipers, he also tells them that they cannot rely upon their own family tree, their connection as children of Abraham. He says if God wants to have children of Abraham, he could call them forth from the stones. And then John the Baptist says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And if you think John is tough, he says the one who is coming after him, Jesus himself, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, that Christ will separate the wheat from the chaff, and will burn the chaff with an unquenchable fire.
And I know that this does not seem like a terribly comforting message, particularly in the season of Advent. And that’s not just because all around us everyone’s been celebrating Christmas for like three weeks already, it’s because you and I know the world is dark. It’s because you have seen real darkness in your own life. It’s because you have seen darkness in this world that unsettles you and so you want, all of us want, so very desperately to believe that God is coming to set this all right and to bring light where we have been unable to even strike a match.
The thing is, for God to bring a green shoot, for God to bring a new life, sometimes some things must be cut down. For new life to come, sometimes the fire must burn. Science tell us this, even though forest fires terrify us. In actuality, in normal circumstances, a forest fire is a healthy part of the life of a forest, it cleans out the undergrowth and makes room for new life to occur. Without a forest fire every once in a while, the forest could not be healthy, could not be vibrant.
The prophet Isaiah is inviting the people of God to have is a hope that persists in darkness, one that is honest about the need for the coming of Christ to include the ax of God’s justice. It is hope that knows that sometimes God does need to cut away darkness in this world, darkness in the church, and even darkness in our own lives—that sometimes God needs to cut down the darkness in order for the new life to come.
Over the past 10 years, participation in the church as fallen even more sharply than people and expected. Almost no dioceses in the Episcopal Church are growing, very few of them are even doing a good job of maintaining. In our diocese over the past 10 years our average Sunday attendance has fallen 28.1%. That’s even a bit worse the in the province as a whole, where average Sunday attendance has dropped by 27.8%. It feels sometimes like our beloved churches being cut down, and it’s hard to believe that a shoot of new growth can come out over this loss.
I know it’s tempting to point the finger at all kinds of things that we think are causing this, but pointing the finger in the church has very rarely actually made anything better. What has made things better is looking for the new life God is trying to bring about, the green shoot springing up from what has been cut away.
I love that in the vision of the peaceable kingdom in the second half of the first reading, where the wolf lies down with the lamb, what you get in each pairing is a predator lying down the prey. Even a toddler (or more accurately, the parent of the toddler) won’t be afraid of the hole of a poisonous snake. Both predator and prey will be transformed.
I think this is how God brings new life from the cut-down and dark places in our lives, by inviting us to begin to tell ourselves another story. If you have experienced being a victim in that darkness, know that God is inviting you to own wholeheartedly your existence as a beloved child of God, that you are much more than the victim of that which is been done to you. And if you have ever been the aggressor—and let’s be honest, in some ways every single one of us has been an aggressor at times—God is inviting you to lay aside that narrative as well and to start being the person who builds peace.
Because the amazing thing in this tenth chapter is that all that God has cut down will actually be redeemed. Even the violent Assyrian empire will be included in God’s redemption. After all, Isaiah says, “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him.” The ax of God’s justice is to save both prey and predator, to rescue both oppressor and oppressed from the darkness of this world, from the darkness of our own lust for more power, more money, more comfort.
There is a shoot springing up in the church today, a shoot of new life that invites us to begin practicing Christianity differently, to let go of the power the church used to have, to let God cut down the church as the respectable social institution that you have to go to if you want to move ahead in society. Cut that tree down. In the green shoot springing up, God is inviting us to stop trying to rescue the church of the past and instead to begin looking for the church of the future, a church where the membership may be smaller, but those who are here are here for a reason, because they have a true and abiding devotion to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, because they are willing to give fully and sacrificially and generously of themselves to the work of making that love ever more known in this dark world.
And in your life, in the dark places that you know, in the places where things have been cut down, there is new life as well. There is always a new life God is seeking to bring forth in you, something different than what was before. Have faith, have hope, and let the light of the Advent season shine upon you. Look for the new life God is bringing to you, and rejoice. Amen.