Chilmark Community Church
December 4, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Our sacred texts are full of physical metaphors for our use during Advent. This week, Isaiah offers us the image of the tree as a figure through which to understand God’s work in bringing about new life out of what seems to be utter hopelessness. Just before the verses we heard from today’s text Isaiah wrote these words about the destruction of the Assyrian army that was advancing on Israel:
“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 axe, and Lebanon with its majestic cedars will fall.” This is an image of forestry management writ large.
As the Assyrian army advanced with their spears erect, they, indeed, looked like a forest, like the cedars of Lebanon. But, in one night they were decimated. According to Isaiah, God acted in Israel’s be half, much as a forester might act when managing the woodland resources – God removed the advancing overgrowth that threatened what was left of Israel.
With barely a breath between the lines, we read next “a shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Armen and I have had many occasions to house sit for friends in Chilmark over the last 10 years or so. There are a lot of plants in the house and it has been my responsibility to keep them watered. Near one window in the living room there is a bare branch in a large flowerpot. It is strung with little white lights and is quite lovely when it is turned on after dark. That bare branch has been there for a long time. For a number of years I thought the branch was just an interesting foil for little white lights in the winter time. There was never any sign of life on it. Nevertheless, I dutifully watered it along with the other plants surrounding it – – just in case.
Then, one year, for the first time, I noticed tiny green buds at the ends of the branches. Over the two months that we were house sitting that year, the buds grew into large dramatic and beautiful, healthy green leaves. It was such a living image for the possibility of something new and alive growing out of something that seemed to be dead. I later learned that the branch is, indeed, a fig tree. But that will lend itself to another sermon at another time.
Last year, we decided a couple of the oaks in our back yard had to come down. They had been attacked by borer wasps and there was almost no foliage on them. A sure sign that they were dying – or dead already. All around our neighborhood oaks were dying and needing to be removed. So Armen took down the dead trees. This summer, barely year later, there is lush green growth coming out of the stumps.
Isaiah prophesied that a shoot would grow out of the stump of Jesse. Out of the humble beginnings of Jesse, the grandson of Ruth and Boaz and the father of the shepherd boy who would become King David would come yet another king who would rule a kingdom of peace and wisdom and justice. Isaiah prophesied that new life would emerge out of an Israel that was almost dead, decimated by war and violence, deceit and corruption.
Isaiah preached a message of profound hope to Israel for a new way of life under a new kind of king – a king who would be filled with the spirit of God – the Ruach Hakodesh – the spirit of holiness. This new king would be full of wisdom and understanding – he would be strong and wise. He would know God and would lead the people to know God.
Our faith ancestors envisioned the growth of the human family as “treelike” – hence the term “family tree.” These familial “trees of life” provided safe shelter as well as life-sustaining nourishment for all creatures, great and small dwelling in and under their protective branches. But the family tree of Israel had been seriously damaged by war and exile. Loyalty to God was fraying at the edges. Ineffective leadership was the frosting on the proverbial cake. Israel had been cut down to nothing more than a stump.
Into this time of near death, Isaiah brings a word of hope. “A shoot will spring up from the root of Jesse……” A few chapters later, God says “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth. It shall spring up as the grass does from the earth; or it shall bud forth like the opening leaves and flowers – beautiful images that hint at the way in which God’s purposes come to pass.
As we know, at the time of the writing of Matthew’s Gospel, Israel is struggling again under the heel of the foreign domination – this time it is Rome. And again, the people are faltering in their faithfulness. The religious community is fractured. Fear abounds.
Into that mix, Matthew gives us a vivid image of John The Baptizer calling Israel to repentance. Camel hair and leather, locusts and wild honey – – kind of a wild man – – but people were listening. John was the “awakener” – – calling Israel to prepare for the new thing that God would do next to save and to heal God’s people –to bring new life out of oppression and tyranny, out of fear and sorrow. Calling the people to watch for that shoot that was promised.
The imagery of God, the forester, laying an axe to the root of the tree was a powerful one because it carried with it the memory of God’s decimation of the Assyrian armies in Israel’s behalf centuries before. But this time, the tree to be destroyed was the tree of internal corruption among religious and political leaders who collaborated with Rome.
John’s rant was aimed at people who should know better – – at people who ought to have been responsible for the bearing of good fruit – for leading Israel in the ways of God. John’s call to repentance brought with it dire warnings that reflect the violence of the time. “The axe is at the foot of the tree – – every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The time was ripe for the appearance of a messiah and it is no wonder, then, that the early church embraced Jesus as the shoot that would spring from the stump of Jesse.
The hope for a messiah has been part of Jewish and Christian thought for centuries as people of faith have yearned for the kind of leadership that would take us to a place of wholeness and well-being – – to a time when the earth would be in such harmony that the unthinkable could happen – – that wolves and lambs and leopards and young goats, and cows and bears could all lay down together and the goats and the lambs and the cows would live to tell about it!
As our celebration of the Incarnation draws near, we, too, look with hope for the One who will satisfy our yearning for wholeness and peace and well being.
The real world is a messy and complicated place, and getting messier every day. There are many hard questions and no easy answers. The gap between rich and poor grows wider daily. Like lambs and wolves, we have a very uneasy dynamic between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Migrant workers who harvest the food we find at the Stop and Shop cannot put healthy meals on the table for their own families. Violence in the streets and our current prison system attest to the venal racism that continues to infect our society. No matter how hard we try we cannot seem to create an economy and a health care system that will care well for human beings in every walk of life Fear and anxiety and mistrust threaten the fabric of life as we try to anticipate what lies ahead in 2017. It would be so easy to join our ancestors in their drift away from the center of all Life.
But it is Advent. The great promise of the coming of Jesus is that through his willingness to be fully human, he shows us we all have the capacity to live up to the potential given to us as human beings created in God’s image. The hope for a messiah stays alive because inside each one of us is the desire for the healing of the world. We deeply want to be made whole – to throw off all that seduces us into being cruel or indifferent or uncaring – – we deeply want a world made whole.
With the birth of Jesus comes the hope that we can be liberated from whatever it is that binds us to the dubious comfort of the status quo. When the power of his life and teachings reaches into the inner places in our deepest being, our energy becomes infectious. Little by little we find the power and the direction to do and be the large and small things that make the world a better place. We find in Jesus’ life and teachings what we need to become healers for the world. And this is how the messiah comes – – through all the large and small ways that Jesus inspires us to be in the world – – through our willingness to be vulnerable to his life and teaching – to do justice – – to love mercy – – to walk humbly and courageously with God. Indeed, the messiah is always coming into being – – a new thing springing forth – rich, newly green, alive – – emerging into this time and this place out of what might appear to be frustratingly dangerous, ineffective, lifeless and dead. We are challenged and invited to have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to welcome a messiah who is always coming into being.
This morning, we are given a symbolic meal to remind us of where our center of gravity is – where our promise of abundant life resides. Now, more than ever, we need to keep returning to that center for guidance, for comfort and for strength for the days ahead.
Last week we lighted the candle of hope. The reality of Jesus is our hope. This week we have lighted the candle of peace. Peace comes when we live out the reality of Jesus in our lives. Peace is knowing that God is at work everywhere at all times and in all places and in each one of us – – May we be a rich, green, dense, grove of trees in which God can take great pleasure from the good fruit we produce – – may we be the new thing that God is bringing forth in this Advent season. May we be living proof that, indeed, the messiah we yearn for is already at work in the world.