Isaiah 11:1-10 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.
Romans 15:4-13 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Stumps, Shoots, Snails and Swans...
Prophet/visionary/dreamer Isaiah, has a beautiful view of Shalom- of the peaceable Kingdom. His vision of the, 'impossible for us to imagine' community; where everyone is reconciled, our weapons have been melted down into farm tools (swords to plowshares), and there is no war, no pain, no worries, includes all of creation. Even animals who are natural enemies now, as Thom Shumann says,"get an apartment together, lay down for nap time together- sit down to eat together." Further… "The nursing child shall play over the hole of the snake, and the toddler shall put its hand on the snake’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain."NRSV
That’s some vision! It sounds wonderful, but it's a little scary too… that everything we now know to be true, even in what we have come to know as the natural order of things, will someday be turned upside down! Everybody and everything gets along and lives in peace and harmony and joy!
One year, the "new" worship elder (in charge of decorating the sanctuary) decided to pick up on a theme from an earlier sermon, about enjoying every moment of your Christian journey- that every day can be a celebration. Instead of the traditional white and gold poinsettias for the chancel, she ordered, white, salmon, purple and bright blue! (A true party feel!) When she proudly brought me into the sanctuary to see the extra large blooms, I was speechless! While they were beautiful, it looked like giant cupcakes had landed in the middle of the gothic sanctuary, and the only "carol" I could hear playing on Christmas Eve was the theme from Ringling Brothers! In the back of my mind, I could already hear the complaints from the old guard... "I knew we shouldn't have trusted her," "What a mess, she's ruined Christmas." My fears materialized that Sunday, and despite my best efforts, the worship elder was crushed.
We don’t always like “different” in church; we like our traditions, we like things the way they’ve always been… we like what we have come to expect. We love to see ourselves as open minded, and willing to try new things. If you ask, even those of us who consider ourselves to be traditionalists would say we are, “traditional, but not inflexible.” But when it comes right down to it, some of us are not as 'flexible' as we would like to think we are…
Isaiah was talking to a people who were much like us. The passage opens with trees that have been cut down and are now just stumps… things that have stopped growing. In fact, the people themselves were responsible for the chopping. Their relationship with God had become stagnant and lifeless; they functioned by rote- they had made faith into a ritual- had made the law into a check list of do's and dont's. God simply wanted relationship with the people, wanted them to love God and each other- to work toward peace in the world. They had turned away from their mission and their God and by doing so had made themselves unable to bring about anything! They were as unmovable and as stagnant as an old stump.
But out of that stagnation, God springs up a new way- new life- a new shoot right out of the old stump, that will once again enable people to help bring about God’s design for the earth! The shoot holds a promise- a Savior, a Messiah. To the people, I’m sure these words sounded hopeful. Relief… promise… savior… But they probably didn’t accept what Isaiah was saying anymore than some of us will accept our own traditions being "renewed".
Paul faced the same problem when he was talking to the Roman Christians. They were having their own problems with, tradition verses new way of life- that now that they had found this savior- now that they were, for all intent and purposes, 'the shoot', they could just exclude everything and everyone else.; they could concentrate on growing only themselves.
But Paul tells them, "No- just because you are in Christ, you still need to remember where you came from- and the teachings of where you came from; hold on to the stump you are growing out of, because it is your foundation." And he quotes Isaiah’s words about the shoot- and goes on to say, in essence… 'it’s not for you to decide who is in and who is out, and who God calls and who God doesn’t. You need to let go of your ideas about how you think God works and just let God work!'
There is an old legend of a swan and a crane... (author unknown) A beautiful swan perched by the banks of the water in which a crane was wading about seeking snails. For a few moments the crane viewed the swan in stupid wonder and then inquired: "Where are you from?"
"I am from heaven!" replied the swan.
"And where is heaven?" asked the crane.
"Heaven!" said the swan, "Heaven! Have you never heard of heaven?" And the beautiful bird went on to describe the grandeur of the Eternal City. She told of streets of gold, and the gates and walls made of precious stones; of the river of life, pure as crystal, upon whose banks is the tree whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations. In eloquent terms the swan sought to describe the hosts who live in the other world, but without arousing the slightest interest on the part of the crane.
Finally the crane asked: "Are there any snails there?"
"Snails!" repeated the swan; "no! Of course there are no snails in heaven."
"Then," said the crane, as it continued its search along the slimy banks of the pool, "you can have your heaven. I want snails!"
Interesting, isn’t it? How we would rather hang on to the snails- the things of our faith that we have made into the important stuff... the things we have put so much stock in- our understanding of what God must be, our version of how God works, the things we look for in a God, or in a church, or in other people. We are secure in those things and can’t imagine a place where those things don't exist; where they are not needed, or even desired.
I’m not talking about Christmas flowers either. I’m talking about our desire to make God into a God we can understand… a God who works the way we want God to work- a God who punishes those we think should be punished and rewards those we think should be rewarded. A God who enacts justice in our world, but our version of justice! Who forgives, yes, but only the people we deem worthy of forgiveness! In other words, a God we can control! And for some reason, we can’t let that go- we choose to stick with snails even when there is a swan pointing us to something that is clearly more beautiful than we can imagine!
In our defense… this isn’t such an easy thing to do- to give up our snails. We only know what our experience has taught us, what our culture and our even our religion has taught us… our world is one of bottom lines and numbers, where we slap a definition on everything, and fill in the blanks for things we don’t understand… where absolutes are the ideal- because my goodness, what would happen if there were questions out there we couldn’t answer?
But what if God actually was beyond our understanding and big enough to do the things we can’t comprehend? Like include the ones we think “don’t have it right.”… or forgive the ones who we have deemed unforgivable- it’s much easier to believe in a God who’s mind is as small and closed as my own…
And if you are still reading this, and still thinking... "No way! Not Me! I’m open minded… I’m flexible… I can let God be God" … All I can say to you is, that you would be the first… because through the ages, human beings have struggled with exactly this same thing- even Paul, who wrote so strongly against it admitted his own struggles in fully grasping the immense grace and unconditional love of God.
Yet there is hope… praise God... there is hope… new shoot hope…. new life hope… It’s the hope that comes in the form of a baby- the 'little child who shall lead them'- the hope that comes in the toddler who plays without fear, in the one who came to save without criteria, who forgives without repentance… the one who can help us to stop searching for snails and instead see like the swan and look toward him … Jesus the Christ.
"Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope![i]