Guest Sermon: Stumps and Children

Rev. David Popham preaching at Church of the Holy Cross on December 8, 2019.

December 8, 2019
Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10

by David Popham, Hawai’i Conference Minister

The text before us today is very familiar. No doubt, some of you can site it from memory. From the beginning of the church, we Christians have found in these verses an interpretation of who Jesus is as the Christ of creation: He rules with wisdom and understanding, with strength and knowledge, and he judges fairly. His reign brings in the everlasting peace where predators and prey live in harmony, all guided by childlike innocence that is not corrupted by the duplicities of adult anxiety. This scripture appears regularly at Advent time to point us toward the coming Christ and the kingdom of peace which he brings.

This text is also situated in an extremely messy part of Israelite history that would see ten of the twelve tribes of Israel removed from the world stage. Those duplicities of adult anxieties I just mentioned play like wild stallions behind this text. Our passage is enveloped in what is called the Book of Immanuel and compose chapters 7 – 12 of Isaiah. The Book of Immanuel is a series of prophecies and guidance during the time of the Syro-Ephraimatic war. A war in which the empire of Assyria ruthlessly and horrifically suppressed a rebellion by Syria and Ephraim; Ephraim being another name for the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

You can imagine the palace intrigue and diplomatic missions all aflutter. Secret meetings in secret chambers to plot rebellion, recruit allies, and plan for war. Powerful families seeking to stake their claim to wealth and rule and fame. The overthrow of an empire is not for the faint of heart. Rebellions need numbers to counter the larger forces of the empire. Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, was being courted to add her men and resources to the fight and take glory in the overthrow of the Assyrians.

God, however, had a very different word for Judah and that word is what constitutes the Book of Immanuel. God said, “You will not seek to join or aid your brothers and sisters in the rebellion. War will come to the very doorstep of Judah, but you are not to raise a military hand, for I, your God, will protect Jerusalem.” War did come and like an axe against unwitting trees, without mercy Assyria cut into the rebels and left nothing but stumps in their wake.

The mighty tree of Israel was chopped down. Ten of the twelve tribes no longer exist as clans of Israel. Judah bears the full emotional and spiritual sock of the war: Who are we without the branches that we shared? How small are we without our kinfolk in the land?

A stump, says God, is all I need for a shoot to come forth.

In an instable and frightening time, during grief and emotional turmoil God’s work to transform a culture of fear into a world of peace begins with a stump. Says the Hebrew Scripture scholar, Stacey Simpson Duke, “Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, left behind, comes the sign of new life – a green sprig.”  Here we see how peace gets its start – a tiny tendril of hope in an unexpected place.

When we pray for peace, and when we work for peace, we often think that peace will arrive fully formed with all that makes for peace in place. But that is not they way of peace. Peace must start somewhere and often it starts small. The good news of this passage is that it starts in the areas of life we feel are most cut off. Imagine, those areas of your life that are points of embarrassment and injury are the vary places God seeks out to begin a new work, a work of peace and wholeness, a work of shalom and wellbeing.

I know I can name those areas in my life. I assume you can name those areas in your life as well. The stumps that remind us of what we once were, but no longer are. The stumps that whisper to us of dreams long delayed and now dormant. The stumps which are all that remain after others have cut us up. There, points our text, God is not done with you there. The shoot will sprout from the stump of – Jesse, of David, of Mary, of Eric, of Eileen, of you.

As a preacher this is where I would close the sermon – out of the areas of your life that you feel have died, God brings new life. But this is not where the passage stops. The prophecy pushes us further by indicating the consequences of living a peace-filled life.

Let us return to war weary Judah. She is being pressed by her allies Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel to join the rebellion. They are being crushed and need reinforcement now! Judah is also being pressed by Assyria to remain a good little vassal kingdom and remain silent and, therefore, complacent in the defeat of the rebellion. Hung if you do. Hung if you don’t. Judah is like prey among ravenous predators: a lamb with a wolf, a goat with a leopard, a calf with a lion. All being led by a child.

Into this situation God speaks a work of universal calm which is in direct opposition to the reality which Judah perceived herself to be in – predators all around. Yet. when God has touched your stump and you live from the place of shalom and not fear then everything is transformed. In contrast to the brutality of life which informed Judah’s decisions, God offers the image of cosmic peace where old and bitter enemies find coexistence with one another.

If it is the metaphor of the stump which defined the first half of the text, it is the metaphor of the child which defines the second half. The entire Book of Immanuel is dominated by the image of the child who will be born and called Immanuel, the shoot from Jesse’s stump, the hope of our Advent desires. Psychologist tell us that we do well to let our inner child out and to balance our anxious adulthood with wide-eyed wonderment and belief that the world can be a better place.

This is why a child shall lead the predator and the prey, for an adult would never believe the two could get along. What we see here in the midst of stumps and shoots, of predators and prey and children is God’s vision of life lived from a place of hope and peace instead of a place of violence and fear.

When asked “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus echoed the metaphor we find here in Isaiah. “The truth is, unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:1-3).

My hope for you this Advent is that you not only discover and welcome the Christ child into your life, but that you also become childlike in your spirit. For your sake, for the world’s sake, for the sake of God’s kingdom may you discover God’s power to bring new life out of old stumps and may you rediscover the wonder of childhood in order to consent to God’s vision where the wolf lies with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the calf with the lion and the child leads us so that there is no hurt or destruction for the knowledge of God is like the waters that cover the sea.  May it be so – Amen.

Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Stumps and Children

Many thanks to the Rev. David Popham for giving permission to share the text and recording of his sermon today.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on December 8, 2019

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