St John and St Stephen, Advent 2A. Isaiah 11:1-10 7 Matthew 3:1-12. December 8, 2019.
Isaiah 11. A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
On this Second Sunday in Advent I wonder: What might God be saying to us through the image of a tree?
I thought I’d start today with the phrase “I wonder” because (& I don’t know if you know this) it is being used to great effect in our school, St John’s.
Wonder, trust and achieve is a school motto and don’t those words strike you as being in the perfect order?
Someone has thought this through!
There’s a debate in education at the moment about achievement and excellence and those things are very important, but we might want to ask, as Christians, are we more than our achievements and our excellence?
A Christian anthropology might want to say that wonder is vital to our identity as human beings.
Many adults have lost the art, but children can still wonder.
And sociologists tell us that trust is the most basic requirement of a stable existence as we begin our lives in the world.
So to wonder, trust and achieve is, to my mind, spot on (forgive the school-based mini digression).
So this second Sunday in Advent, I wonder, what might God be saying to us this morning through the image of a tree?
We have several images of trees with us here already in church.
We have our Jesse Tree on which we hang the stories of our faith week by week – to remind us that we’re part of the Judeo-Christian family tree ourselves. We’re part of the story.
We have our Advent wreath (okay, not exactly a tree, but there is greenery and candles…), and it helps us reflect on our journey through Advent as we light a different one each week.
Last week we began with the first candle for the patriarchs, this Sunday we think of the prophets of the Old Testament, voices that cried in the wilderness, literally and spiritually, culminating in the last of the OT style prophets, John the Baptist.
This Sunday the lectionary is using John the Baptist as a bridge, if you like, between OT prophets and what is coming after. He gets a Sunday all to himself next week!
If you recall, although Jesus spoke of John the Baptist as the greatest prophet, he added ‘whoever who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he’ – so something is developing as we move through the Sundays in Advent, travelling as we are from the old to the new, towards the dawning of the kingdom age.
And, continuing images of trees, we have our Christmas Tree! But before we imbibe the spirit of the Christmas tree and its lights and decorations, and its sense of “here we are at Christmas already”, we’re going to linger for a while in Isaiah 11, and meditate on yet another tree.
This is not a very pretty tree – it might not look very healthy – in fact, it’s just a stump.
You will have seen stumps of trees. It’s not often that when a tree is felled, someone is able to come along and pull out the roots entirely as well, so the stump is left, and often it just sits and rots.
In the chapter before our reading, in Isaiah 10, we have images of destruction as Israel’s enemy Assyria is compared to a tree that is comprehensively felled. Nothing will be resurrected from that stump – it has felt the full force of God’s judgment.
But from the stump of Jesse, something new is growing: ‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse’ (or ‘the stump of Jesse’).
This is where we see a tree as a vital image of growth and health. All was looking as though it was over – it was looking final for Israel, because of her unfaithfulness.
Sometimes in our lives things can look pretty final. Mental health issues, relationship breakdown, a failure of our physical health, a set back for one of our children; things can sometimes look very final, very much like a stump.
Stuck in the ground. Going nowhere.
But like those times when you looked down at the pavement and saw a shoot seemingly coming through the tarmac and wondered: how do they do that? – things that God is growing in you, have a habit of coming through anyway.
There’s something about a shoot poking out through a stump that speaks to us of hope. There’s ‘a dearest freshness deep down things’, was how the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it.
It’s often when the other bits of our life have been hacked away (branches, twigs and leaves, and even most of the trunk) that our true self has a chance to come alive again.
There’s still goodness in the ‘stock’ – or the essence of you.
If you’re in a situation where bits of your life seem to have been lopped off, and are still being lopped off in a very uncomfortable manner, maybe God is revealing the fundamentals of you, the essence of you, in a new way?
So we have the new shoot growing out of the stump, and this is a sign of hope. The worst place we can be in our lives is a place without hope. If you know someone who is struggling, and you only pray for one thing for them, pray they don’t lose hope.
So what is the stump of Jesse?
It’s back to the family tree image. Jesse was father to David, who appeared to be just the obscure son, the one in the fields, but turned out to be a man after God’s own heart.
Despite violence, deception, marital and parental disasters, David, son of Jesse, would become part of the very line of the Messiah.
And for the record, there were some remarkable women in that family line as well, including Ruth who wasn’t even a Hebrew, but who left her own people to be faithful to the God of her mother-in-law.
God moves in mysterious ways. It’s a cliché but all through the story of our faith, God is in our failures and mess ups and is weaving them into a seamless garment that is taking on the unique colour and texture of our life – not our perfectly planned life that never actually came to pass – but the real life that we’re living right now.
So it’s lovely we’re talking about trees and tree stumps and shoots that come out of stumps, and family trees, but as we ponder these Advent readings, of the peaceable kingdom and the call of John the Baptist to prepare the way, it’d be disingenuous not to mention judgment.
Preachers used to be exhorted to preach on the ‘four last themes’ during Advent: namely death, judgment, heaven and hell.
So, not too much pressure then.
I remember being at Douai Abbey in 2007, the year I started training. Henley Deanery Clergy were gathering to hear Stephen Cottrell, then Bishop of Reading lead an Advent quiet day and I was kindly invited. At the outset Bishop Stephen announced his intention only to speak on those four themes.
You could see all around the room guilty clergy thinking about all the children’s talks about kind and helpful reindeers that they’d left half written on their desk, and I can tell you it did go rather quiet as + Stephen started his Advent reflections.
I seem to remember they contained an anecdote about his son, who couldn’t sleep. In the middle of the night dad Stephen was woken by crying on the stairs. He tiptoed out to see what was taking place and sat down beside his son, and waited till his son was ready to say what was wrong.
He waited quite some time. But he was patient.
And then haltingly, his son began to speak.
And as his son talked, he (his loving dad) listened.
Because he loved his son so much, he knew that whatever was said, he would still love his son, and still listen, and still be there.
And then Bishop Stephen said: “I wonder if that’s a helpful image of what judgment is?”
Giving an account to your heavenly father about what’s gone wrong.
I don’t know how that strikes you – intellectually, emotionally – as a definition of judgment?
I think at the time (before I had theological training!) I still retained images of eternal judgment being a rather uncomfortable concept, at least for those who reject God’s love, and I thought: surely it’s a bit more fearsome than that?!
What about ‘he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked’ (Isaiah 11)?
Or, ‘he will clear his threshing floor and he will gather his wheat into the granary and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’?
The Church of England’s introduction to Advent, in Common Worship, helpfully informs us that the choice of readings ‘challenge the modern reluctance to confront the theme of divine judgment’.
Emotionally though, what does it feel like to long for judgment, or a judgment? Ask anyone who’s been unjustly sentenced to prison, and you will find out.
Judgment may be less palatable to those whom society has treated rather well, than to those at the bottom of the heap.
As regards the biblical narrative, maybe judgment has more to do with imagining and creating a just society than with who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ for eternity…
There is certainly a very compelling vision of a just society in Isaiah 11. The innocent get justice; the evildoers get their come-uppance. That’s what we all really want, isn’t it?
And the beautiful vision embraces ecology too – in a wonderful reversal of ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’, the lion lies down with the lamb, the toddler plays with a snake without being harmed. In a world where ecological disaster is playing out before our eyes, and many are crying out in an increasingly bleak wilderness, Isaiah’s vision is like a return to Eden.
So, to end, what might God be saying to us through the image of a tree that is felled but not destroyed?
The house of Israel seemed to have reached a dead end, but God was not finished with it yet! With God, dead ends have a habit of turning into new beginnings.
And in our church, may God lead us into pruning and growth in all the right places.