Sunday, December 4, 2016

"The Persistence of Hope" (Isaiah 11:1-10)

We have all seen it.  The image is simple.  It is a plant that has the guts to sprout in a crack in a sidewalk or driveway, surrounded by concrete in all directions, in an attempt to establish itself.  In our minds it is a futile attempt because we know that it doesn’t have a chance . . . someone will pluck it up . . .  or maybe spray it weed killer . . . or run over it with a tire from a car or truck.  True, it makes us smile at its persistence, but we know that it will never survive.  It is a “goner”.  We have all seen these errant plants.  

Now, I have a confession to make . . . I am not the best lawnkeeper or gardener when it comes to maintaining a yard.  I am happy to keep my yard mowed and green . . . I attempt to keep the weeds under control . . . and, yet, year after year--in the cracks of my driveway and sidewalk, these persistent plants keep showing up.  Not just once, but several times over the growing season.  They amaze me with their persistence to survive and grow where they should not be.  Despite my best efforts they keep showing up . . . they won’t give up . . . they are determined to grow and fulfil their destiny despite the odds against them.  I must admit, I have to admire that.

Our reading this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah.  We should be quite familiar with the story of Isaiah and his time as a prophet with God’s people.  We know that he attempted to warn God’s people that their attitudes and actions were going against the desires and will of God . . . that their attitude and actions were disrespectful of God . . . that they were pretty much ignoring God.  Isaiah warned them that this would not be good and that the consequences would be nasty.  And, sure enough, it came to be.

The people of God were overrun by their enemies--the Babylonians, defeated, stomped, destroyed, and made captives in a strange land far from the familiarity of home.  In being crushed, the Babylonians yanked the foundation of  faith from the people of God.  All that they knew and understood was taken away from them, and they were left to deal with this traumatic event in their lives with nothing more than shattered faith.  They were struggling with finding something to hang on to . . . something that would get them through the night.

Central to that grasping for anything to help, was the feeling of revenge . . . an “eye for an eye” feeling in which the people of God wanted to inflict the same sort of pain and hurt that they had experienced upon their captors.  But even that was not going to happen.  The God that had been their protector has seemingly abandoned them . . . there would be no revenge inflicting pain and hurt upon the captors.  No, what the people needed was a rescuer . . . someone to come and take them away to allow them to start all over.

These were the people that the prophet Isaiah had to deal with once they were in captivity . . . a broken, hopeless people.  With this in mind, the prophet offers them hope.  The problem is that the hope that he offers them is not quite in the form of hope they desired or expected.

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse . . .”

As I stated earlier, I am not much of a gardener, but I do know that when I cut down a tree I am doing so because I no longer want that tree . . . I want it gone.  Isn’t that why we cut down trees . . . to get rid of them.  They are no longer of use to us.  Imagine then my reaction to seeing a shoot popping up out of the stump.  Reminds me of that persistent plant that keeps showing up in my driveway or sidewalk.  Out of something useless and what I thought was dead, comes a shoot . . . a silly, persistent shoot that thinks it is going to make it.  What do I do?  I cut the shoot.

But the shoot comes back.

The image of the God’s people’s rescuer is that of a fragile shoot that pops up on a stump of tree that has been left for dead.  Not quite the powerful image that the people of God want; after all, the shoot--like any shoot growing where it supposedly is not suppose to be growing, is that it is weak and doesn’t stand a chance.  This is not what the people are looking for; no, they are looking for that powerful warrior who rides in to conquer the oppressors and set the people free . . . not some flimsy, wimpy shoot coming out of a stump.

Then to top it all off, as Isaiah describes this rescuer, he provides a description that goes against the views of the world in which the people are actually living.  This rescuer will not be like what the world knows.  This rescuer will be the complete opposite.  This rescuer will be having enemies lying down with one another . . . eating with one another . . . there will be peace and justice . . . there will be a new way of doing business . . . of living.

Again, this is not quite what the people were hoping for.  Like any person who has been hurt there is always that feeling and desire that those who have hurt them receive the same consequence for their actions.  The old “eye for an eye”.  It is only a natural feeling and something that the people remember from their past relationship with God.  It is one of those straws that the people grasp for and hope to hold onto to get them out of this terrible situation.  Yet, in their pain and suffering they cannot see . . . or won’t admit to . . . that their relationship with God has changed.  It has changed drastically.

Now they are given the image of hope that is difficult to comprehend . . . a shoot from a stump . . . a plant poking its head up through the concrete of the driveway.  There is no way this can be a symbol of hope that will carry them through these difficult times.  And, yet, the prophet is adamant about this hope . . . certain in the words that are being spoken.  So certain is the prophet that he tells them that not only will this rescuer save them, but this rescuer will save the world: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.”

There is an advantage of 20/20 hindsight.  As the followers of Jesus we know who that shoot of Jesse’s stump is . . . we know who that rescuer is.  It is Jesus himself.  Jesus, a person like no other . . . a person who seemingly goes against the known mores and morals of the world we live in . . . a person who calls us to a world that is not like this world, but of God’s desires and will . . . a person who leads not in the ways of power, but through love.  We know this shoot to be Jesus . . . for over two thousand years we followers have known; and, yet, each year we deal with the same image of hope since the time of Isaiah.  Over and over again, the image of this persistent plant popping up through the concrete keeps showing up.  


Well, I am not the smartest person in the world, but I would guess that maybe it keeps showing up because we keep plucking up that image of hope and throwing it away.  Or we ignore it.  I don’t know, but I do know that it keeps showing up each and every year that we celebrate the season of Advent.  And, I also know that it will not go away until we embrace it and begin to live it despite what the world around us thinks.

“Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”  That was a quote that was recently on our church’s Facebook page.  I like it, but for this morning I would like to change it.  I think that it should say: “Hope is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this hope is to see what you believe.”  In other words, to embrace that which is our hope and to live it each and every day.  Instead of plucking it up, cutting it off, dousing it with weed killer, or running over it with our car or truck tires, we embrace it and allow it to grow into what God intends it to be.

On this second Sunday of Advent the theme is always the peaceable kingdom . . . Isaiah offers such a picture this morning with his description of the rescuer to come.  The gospel reading this morning, offers another picture.  The second Sunday of Advent points to God’s Kingdom of what could be if we chose to truly follow the one who leads us in that direction.  That person is Jesus.  He is the shoot that comes from Jesse’s stump.  He is that persistent plant that grows where no one wants it to grow . . . constantly showing up over and over again . . . year after year . . . generation after generation.  And, the odds are that he will keep popping up until the world finally gets it.

Thus it is that Isaiah offers the people an odd symbol of hope . . . persistent hope.  I am not sure he was thinking of those persistent plants that keep showing up in our sidewalks and driveways, but he understood how the power of persistence . . . especially when it came to hope.

As followers of Jesus we hope for . . . and, strive for . . . that peaceful kingdom of God that is not like that of the world in which we live.  A kingdom that is based on love and grace . . . where a “wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat; the calf and the lion and yearlings together; and a little child shall lead them.  The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.  The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.  They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the earth.”
We are not there yet.

This Advent season will we embrace the shoot of Jesse’s stump . . . embrace it and make Jesus’ ways our ways; or will be pluck it up, throw it away, and continue to conform and make ourselves in the image of the world around us?  Isaiah spoke of hope.  Again, this year, we are offered hope.  The choice is ours.  Let us be persistent in our hope . . . and, let us live our hope.  Amen.

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