Isaiah 11: 1-6 (7-8) 9-10
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The 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. 3His 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; 4but 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. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The 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… 9They 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. 10On 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.
So, once again we read yet another passage about that future vision that God holds for us—you know, the one that we’re walking toward, the one that we are supposed to be a part of bringing to be, the one that God promised us. We are given a vision of a shoot, a new shoot that will come out of the dead and decaying stump of the past, a branch that will come out of the original roots of our faith and our lives. It doesn’t replace the old; it just continues growing.
I have a picture of an olive tree that I took in the Garden of Gethsemane. Olive trees will actually live for centuries, sprouting new life over and over again. If you look at this picture, the thing on the left side that looks like a dead and decaying stump (because, well, that’s essentially what it is) is what is left of a tree that was probably in that place 2,000 years ago. Imagine…that is what is left of a tree that might have been there that night before the Crucifixion as Jesus prayed and submitted his own life to God. And from that stump came another shoot, that grew into a tree that is probably about 1,000 years old. And to the right of it is yet another stump that may be 200 years old or so. And from that is a newer shoot, a live, growing tree that is just a few years old. It is a picture of new shoots, new creations that God is always creating and always nurturing into being. But they exist together, sprouting from each other’s strengths into new life.
So, how do we live as new shoots? How do we embrace that vision we’ve been given and make it part of us? The message that Advent brings is that God loves us enough to keep showing up—in a vision laid out for us to embrace, in Emmanuel, God-With-Us, and over and over again as God walks with us through our own becoming a new creation. Maybe the question is whether or not we are holding on to what we know or are we new shoots, giving the old new life? This is not just a rehash of the same old thing. William Sloane Coffin once said that “believers know that while our values are embodied in tradition, our hopes are always located in change.” But change is often uncomfortable. Change is unpredictable. Change is hard. Maybe we can just get through this busy season and then change.
A couple of years ago, the Today Show had a feature story about some young Panda bears who had been brought up in captivity. But the plan was to eventually return them to their natural habitat. So, in order to prepare them for what was to come, their caretakers thought that it would be better if they had no human contact. So to care for them, the people dressed up like panda bears. In order to show them how to be pandas, they became them.
I think that’s been done before! In its simplest form, the Incarnation is God’s mingling of God with humanity. It is God becoming human and breathing a piece of the Divine into humanity. It is the mystery of life that always was coming into all life yet to be. God became human and lived here. God became us that we might change the world. God became like us to show us what it meant for us to be like God envisioned (not to be God, not even to be “Godly”, but to be just like God envisioned we could be) in the world. God didn’t walk this earth to teach us to be divine; God came to show us what it means to be human–caring, loving humans that envision that the world could be different. The miracle of the birth of the Christ child is that God now comes through us. We ARE the new shoots of transformation.
So perhaps the reason that the earth is not yet filled with the knowledge of the Lord, that the Reign of God has not come into its fullness, that poverty and homelessness and injustice and war still exists is because we do not dare to imagine it any other way. This is not some vision of an inaccessible utopian paradise; this is the vision of God. The passage says that a shoot shall come out of the stump and a branch shall grow out of the roots. In other words, life shall spring from that which is dead and discarded. Because in God’s eyes, even death has the foundation, the roots of life. Even death will not have the last word. We just have to imagine it into being. So, imagine beyond all your imaginings; envision a world beyond all you dare to see; and hope for a life greater than anything that is possible. Imagine what it means to become a new shoot and prepare yourself to be just that. And then you’ll start to be.
Only those who live beyond themselves ever become fully themselves. (Joan Chittister)
Grace and Peace,