December 4, 2016 Matthew 3: 1-12, Isaiah 11:1-10
Stumps, Roots and the Coming of Christ
Matthew 3: 1-12
Today’s Gospel lesson is one that will be familiar to many of you. It is the story of John the Baptist proclaiming repentance in the wilderness. Scruffy locust eating John, is the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, cousin to Jesus of Nazareth.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
If ever there was a piece of scripture that makes me want to weep and fall prostrate and repent it is this one. Proclaiming repentance that is John the Baptist cry, repent so that you can prepare the way for the Lord. Repent and be sure that the tree of your life is bearing good fruit in all ways so that your heart is clear and your intentions are honorable so that the ax, lying at the root, does not have to be used. Repent and be sure your soul is a smooth byway for Jesus to enter. If not, then examine and de-clutter. Scrutinize and expunge. Study and edit out the nemesis that keeps you from bearing good fruit.
Advent is not some grand baby cake eating, gift giving shower for Jesus. Advent is much deeper than that, it questions our worthiness, our readiness, and our willingness to receive the life and ministry of Jesus. Advent readies us for this tiny baby Christ.
Isaiah 11: 1-10
Now as we prepare to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah we remember that John the Baptist preached from the words of Isaiah, he warned that the ax is not far from the root of the tree lest the people do not repent. His words seem harsh but he knew his scripture and whose prophetic shoes he was filling. To put this in context we need to know that in verses before our passage in Isaiah he says, “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 ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.” Yet the people of Israel did not repent, they did not change their ways. And the branches of their lives were lopped off until there was nothing but a stump remaining.
But Isaiah changes the tenor of his message, and now he peaches a peaceful Kingdom, one with hope. Chapter 11 beginning at the first verse.
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 ox.
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.
The stumps and roots of Jesse. Jesse is the son of Obed and he is the father of King David and of course we trace the house and lineage of Jesus back through this Davidic line. But a lot of history happened between Jesse and Jesus.
The three books of Isaiah are beautifully bound together into one book that tells the story of God’s presence and the lives of the people of Zion or Israel. In the first book he warned them of God’s impending judgment and this is where our passage is from today, then in the second book he spoke words of comfort to God’s people while they were in exile in Babylon. The third book addresses the dire situation that they found when they finally returned home to a devastated land.
Isaiah, among others, was their prophet! He was politically astute at domestic politics and he also knew the international scene around them; Isaiah’s charge was to take care of Israel. They needed someone who could be the ‘go between’ if you will between them and God. Old Testament Palestine, as it was called then, was a divided kingdom, Israel to the north and Judah to the south. They were churning through king after king, not at all organized.
Things were beginning to crumble and eventually it would. So they needed hope that there would be someone who would lead them forward to a place where God’s kingdom would be as peaceful as a lamb and an a wolf curled up together, serene as can be on a comfy sofa. But they also needed someone to do the tough work, someone who could issue words of warning to help them get to that place.
Today I want to focus on the metaphor of the stump and the shoot because it is out of this metaphor that Christ arises as the symbol of salvation. Like deadheading in your garden on a warm summer’s day, God goes a deadheading in a major way when the treetops are lopped off and there is nothing left but a forest of stumps.
Stumps. I know what that’s like. Seeing a stump where there used to be a large tree that made its home for at least a hundred years in the front of the parsonage is jarring. About 5:00 am on a fine early morning this past summer the sky was just beginning to show some light and I heard a sound that I couldn’t quite distinguish but it was rather frightening.
It was a crackly sound, then a thud followed by silence. I decided to brave it and I looked outside the window. There, a very large branch section of the tree had completely split from the trunk. Well, what we had suspected was that the tree was hollow on the inside and couldn’t safely be salvaged. It was no longer bearing ‘good fruit’. It had to come down and this beautiful tree that provided shade in the day and a gorgeous palette of color in the fall was to no longer be.
So it was taken down to a large stump about the size of a medium round kitchen table. It made me sad to see the open space where this one large tree had lived. But that night in its place the open expanse of the sky soothed my grieving spirit and there was the gift. I could see star after star after star and from the window at the head of my bed. I could watch Orion gracefully glide across the sky as the night progressed. Therein was the salvation for my soul.
Within a few days Don Feurerstein came and took the stump out before any shoots had the chance to grow but a flowering cherry tree was planted very close to its place. Something beautiful had come out of something that was rotted and dead. Life from death. But it wouldn’t have happened if we had not been attentive to what was desperately needed. The taking down and the clearing out.
And that’s the way it is. And that is the way it is especially for Advent. John the Baptist, Isaiah the prophet calls us to clean up our act. To lop off the extraneous stuff that gets in our way of healthy, God filled living. To prune back the wild and unruly tendrils that strangle any potential to be guided by the spirit. To deadhead that which kills us and prohibits any possibility of life. What needs to be taken down to a stump for you so that Christ can grow in your heart? The true grace of Advent is the time now taken, given to reflect, to expunge and to allow and wait for our Savior to come. O Come, O Come Emmanuel.