Ralph Connor Memorial United Church

The Little White Church on Main Street, Canmore, Alberta

Sermon: December 1, 2019 – Advent 1 – Isaiah 11: 1-10

A shoot, growing from the stump of Jesse.

How appropriate, in this year when we’ve chosen to build our Advent themes around the classical elements of wind-fire-water-and-earth, to begin with a vivid visual metaphor from nature, of the kind of tenacious, powerful leadership that we see in Jesus Christ.

click here for PDF

Rather than going immediately to words, let’s spend time “seeing” this stump and wondering about it, because the varied ways we visualize this stump of Jesse and its new growth can open us to its breadth of wisdom. (>see gradual array of images)

Image 1: a shoot growing from a smoothly-cut stump

We see here the stump of Jesse the way I’ve generally imagined it: a tree, cut down by human effort, a smooth stump left behind, and a little shoot of that same tree, pushing its way upward.

What a wonderful image and metaphor, especially in these days of eco-anxiety.  A tree has been felled by human activity, but that is not the end of the story.  A shoot emerges – tiny by comparison to the previous growth, even tiny relative to the stump.  It seems fragile, but its resilience proves more important than its fragility.

This shoot in this picture, is of the same genetic material as the stump, and nourished, not by its own resources or its own internal gumption, but by that solid, rooted stump.  When we look at this tiny shoot, we are likely first drawn to its gutsy little energy, persevering against great odds, and so we should be.  But the solidness of that stump, and roots reaching deeper into the soil than we can see or imagine, also plays a role here… so we think of the power of mentors, elders, the wisdom of the ages.

God is seen in the resilience of this tender shoot – the reappearance of life in that stump is nothing less than a resurrection of hope.  Resilience is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as, “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress… [or] ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”  They also make the important point that “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”  That is such an important thing for us to know:  we can learn, cultivate, optimize resilience, even as the news about the future of this planet is so grim.   I’m also taken by the line within today’s reading from Isaiah 11, “and a little child shall lead them” in a year when teenagers have called the world to wake up and feel the urgency of the climate crisis – and have had to show not just their commitment to the cause, but their resilience as any number of armchair experts have taken their best shots over social media.  Resilience – the insistent assertion of life in the face of death– is one of those places where God lives in us, a quality that Isaiah counted on when looking to better times ahead.

Image 2: moss growing on a decaying stump

Other times, the shoot or new growth we see on a stump, isn’t the same plant that originally grew.  Moss grows, or a seed from a nearby tree uses the decaying stump as a seed-bed.

For those of us that think that life will be predictable, unchangeable, and homogeneous, this image is a good corrective.  When we sense that something we love is dying, it’s natural to want the process to reverse, for things to be just as they were.  When a marriage is failing or a career hits the skids, we scramble to reverse the flow.  When a loved one’s prognosis is “incurable” we confront God and/or the medical professionals, to get a different answer.  When we look at the numbers and see the steady decrease in Church participation in Canada since 1964, and the corresponding rise in average age of worshippers, we want the next generations to be the same Church that we were 30 and 50 and 70 years ago.  But these wishes, no matter how understandable, will typically get us nowhere.  If something new is to arise following a death, we need to open ourselves to God’s process of resurrection, and the possibility that what happens next might not look much like what was before.

God is seen in the creative diversity of “what comes next” – the resurrection of ‘the new body’.   So when a relationship or career ends, we learn to re-claim under-used or devalued parts of our personality, to open ourselves to something new. When mobility or sensory changes put an end to favourite activities, we adapt, or expand our interest. When a loved one dies we seek, as grief therapist J. Richard Worden puts it, “to find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life.” And we acknowledge that the next generation of Church life may not look anything like what we have seen thus far: it is likely going to be way more inter-cultural than it has been, and it is will need to be way more radically inclusive of the full spectrum of human sexuality than it has been, and it might be based on gathering around the things Jesus did, more so than gathering around the things Jesus said.  In all of these instances the new thing, the resurrection, will be energized by the love of Jesus, and rooted in God.

Images 3 & 4: tree with a split trunk; new shoots growing from charred bark

We think of trees that obviously had some sort of trauma in their early years, leading to an unusual growth pattern.   Or related to this, while not a ‘stump’, we think of the new growth that comes after fire.

Although I have usually pictured the stump of Jesse cut by an axe or bucksaw, that’s not necessarily so.   Perhaps there was a lightning strike… or disease… or another tree that fell on it as it was just ready to branch out.  When we see new growth in these situations, it is particularly moving, because we can imagine the terrors that happened along the way.  To see a burnt-out forest is shocking, for we know that it wasn’t just trees that lost their lives – lots of little woodland creatures breathed their last in that time of catastrophe.  Yet to see the new growth in that environment is so uplifting.

God is seen in this recovery from trauma, this form of resurrection.  One of the most important aspects of our work in Living Into Right Relations with the First Peoples of this land, is to learn about the multi-generational trauma caused by the Indian Residential Schools; for just as it took many generations to extinguish traditional practices, those things aren’t going to come back to life instantly.  So we will be generously supporting the 2nd annual Stoney Christmas, as the people of Morley attempt to reclaim a local tradition of ‘feast’, from years gone by.  And we will continue to believe and walk with traumatized people of all backgrounds and all circumstances,  when they speak of the traumas they have endured and the supports that would help them find healing.  This process of reconciliation, of new life, is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of justice and faithfulness and righteousness yearned for by Isaiah.

Image 5: the Tree of Jesse (Chartres & Canterbury Cathedrals)

There was a fascination with the stump of Jesse and the resultant Jesse Tree back in the Middle Ages.  In those days there was basically only one approved way for Christians to read this scripture, and that was to assume that Isaiah was foretelling the birth of Jesus.  Along this line, both Chartres Cathedral in France, and Canterbury Cathedral in England, had stained glass windows dating to the 12th century, depicting the 43 generations from Jesse – father of King David – all the way to Jesus.  This image of Jesus’ Jewish lineage remind us of the inextricable relationship between Christianity and Judaism are, not to mention Islam, also rooted in the same faith history.  These three traditions may be been pictured as branches of a single tree, or perhaps like Aspens: each tree a part of one single organism.

Especially in the season of Advent, when we tend to read Hebrew Scriptures through twenty centuries of Christian interpretation, that sense of organic interconnection gets strained.  It’s not hard to see how Christian Bible interpreters through the ages believed that these words in Isaiah 11 described Jesus, and only Jesus:  “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…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.” (Isaiah 11: 1-4, 10).   Yes, that does sound like the person and loving power of Jesus, and my hope and faith in Christ’s new realm does get a boost when I hear these ancient words.

And yet I am so hesitant to put words in Isaiah’s mouth, saying that this is what HE saw in his words, for that comes dangerously close to a form of religious imperialism that I want no part of.  I can hear what I hear and see what I hear in Isaiah’s words, but also need to hear and respect that Jewish believers will hear them quite differently.

God is seen when we exhibit this deep respect for one another.  Isaiah (11:7) paints beautiful word pictures of natural enemies transformed: “The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox….they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” – and that level of transformation, of letting go of permanent biases, rivalries and grudges, is to be the ‘new normal’ in this promised realm of God.  As we learn how to let go of these long-held animosities, to really listen to one another across differences of ethnicity, philosophy, politics, or spiritual inclination, our own thinking becomes clearer and we might even be re-shaped, by new insights we could not possibly have seen on our own. With the rapid rise of religious fanaticism and intolerance, and the global encouragement of Xenophobia and disrespect of all kinds, we seek and pray for many new, tender shoots of wide embrace to grow from the stump of Jesse.

Conclusion

I invite you in the coming week, to allow these words to bring you the Spiritual gift of hope.  In whatever way is meaningful for you, imagine the sounds and sights and scents of woodlands escorting you to this image, of new growth where all may have looked barren and hopeless.  And be open to the magnificent presence of God: the God who is present in resilience and resurrection, diversity and newness, recovery and reconciliation, respect and transformation.  May this holy hope take root in your life this day and in all your days, Amen.

References cited:

American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience

CNN, on the Climate Crisis. https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/28/health/climate-crisis-global-tipping-point-intl-hnk/index.html

Wikipedia, “Tree of Jesse”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_Jesse

Worden, J. William. Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy.  4th ed.  NYC: Springer, 2008.

© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.