A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 5, 2010
Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13
Evidently, it didn’t take a very big spark to get a fire going… not in the belly of a prophet, anyway. When folks like Isaiah caught hold of a dream – or perhaps we should say, when a dream caught hold of them – they had about as much chance of seeing their vision come to fruition as they did to shake hands with the Messiah himself. But that didn’t stop them from having the dream anyway. Nor did it keep them from sharing it.
But then again, maybe Isaiah was more of an artist than he was a prophet. I’ve been told that artists are able to see things the rest of us cannot.
Did you close your eyes when the scripture from Isaiah’s prophecy was read? Probably not. Do it now (some of you will be doing it in a few moments anyway, so go ahead… you have my permission). With your eyes closed, envision the picture the prophet has painted for us. What you see are animals of prey existing peaceably side-by-side with domesticated animals, the kind the animals of prey normally feast upon. You’ve got wolves and leopards, bears and lions, the fiercest beasts imaginable. And next to them, as contented as they can be, are what normally would be their evening meal: lambs and cows and oxen.
That’s the picture we find in one corner of Isaiah’s canvas. In another corner you see a small child playing with his toys, and next to him are venomous snakes. Wait! Those aren’t toys he is playing with, they are the snakes! And they are as docile as puppies.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain…
says the LORD. Why?
For the earth will be full of the knowledge
of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
But that’s not all there is to the prophet’s painting. What we will find out is that this is a very busy canvas. In the center of Isaiah’s image you will see a tree stump. Nothing fancy about a tree stump. In fact, I’ve got one in my front yard. Used to be a river birch until I had the thing cut back. I found that river birches are messy, messy trees, so I decided to have it trimmed. Well, you get what you pay for. The next year that river birch died. So Marco Caputo came over cut it down for me. I’ve tried to make it look more presentable by putting a large planter on it, but in truth, no matter how you dress it up, a tree stump is just a tree stump. Nothing fancy or pretty about it at all.
Except that out of the side of that tree stump are growing several plants. What happened is that one of the previous owners of my house planted some variegated whatchamacallits next to the tree, and eventually, as the tree grew, the plants found themselves rooted, not in the ground adjacent to the tree, but in the side of the tree itself. That’s the way trees do. If another plant gets in its way, it will simply become rooting ground for it.
And that’s the way it is in Isaiah’s painting. A tree stump has a shoot stubbornly growing out of it. And from that shoot comes a branch. We know that as this branch grows, it will itself become a tree, taller and mightier than the stump from which it has grown, and it will overcome anything that gets in its way.
I grew up on a five-acre place outside of town. We had several huge oak trees that were just perfect for climbing on a warm summer’s day. When I say “huge” trees I mean the kind that in order to climb them you had to nail boards on the tree trunk so you could make a ladder up it. When we lived in Florida, these folks down there tried to convince me that their scrawny pin oaks were pretty good size. So I showed them a few pictures. Now, that’s an oak tree, I told them.
When electricity first came to that part of the county, they didn’t bother putting in power poles when a tree would do. Things were a bit more rustic back then. So when we first moved there I noticed those bell-shaped glass electrical line conductors that had been affixed to a couple of the trees. Some of you, uh, more veteran members of our fellowship, you remember them don’t you? You can still find them occasionally in antique shops. They fetch a pretty penny, so I hear.
Well, it didn’t take but a few years for those oak trees to simply grow over and around those glass cylinders. They would just swallow up anything that got in their way. It is the nature of trees to do such. Well, that’s the vision of Isaiah. This shoot will become a branch and it will grow and grow and become greater than the tree from which it has emerged.
So what is the prophet saying? Judah, the beleaguered people of God, are the tree stump. Isaiah calls them the “stump of Jesse.” Jesse, of course, was the father of the noted king David. They have been devastated by exiles and evil kings and all manner of things that God never intended for them to endure. From these people will come One who will lead them from their bondage, One who will emerge from their midst like a shoot that grows out of a tree stump.
The spirit of the LORD will rest on him, says Isaiah,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
Later, Isaiah will talk about this Coming One in different terms. He will tell us how unaccepted he will be, refers to him as a Suffering Servant, talks about how he endures the persecution of those who do not catch his vision of righteousness and justice, and how they will beat him and treat him unmercifully. Isaiah promises us that this One will have no place to lay his head, which is his way of saying that he will have no home; that few, if any, will truly understand him or his mission. And he will tell us how this One will utter not a word in his own defense, but will take upon himself “the iniquity of us all.”
But right now, the prophet pictures the Coming One in terms of strength and might and knowledge, and tells us that “his dwelling will be glorious.”
What do you think we should make of this? One thing for sure, it’s not the way the world works. Are we to understand, then, that our world, and the way the world operates, is the opposite of God’s intention and purpose?
Edward Hicks was a nineteenth-century Quaker and minister. It is something of an understatement to say that he was obsessed with Isaiah’s vision. You see, he was also an artist, and painted this scene from Isaiah sixty-two times. He called it “The Peaceable Kingdom.” “All the animals are there, and a child among them, and in the background a delegation of Quakers in peaceful conversation with some Native Americans. Over time, the paintings changed, however. Hicks grew increasingly discouraged by the conflicts of his time, especially within his religious community, and began to make the predators in his paintings more terribly ferocious.”1
Perhaps what Isaiah is trying to convey is that just when our dreams of peace and love are dashed, and we think there is no hope, that is when God does his best work. I mean, a tree stump is a tree stump, right? Nothing can emerge from a stump. Can it? Perhaps it can when God breathes his Spirit into it. We are told in scripture, by those who faced unbelievable persecution – difficulties you and I could never imagine and certainly will never have to endure – that nothing is impossible with God. I guess what it comes down to is this: do we really believe that, or do we merely pay lip service to such platitudes?
This is the season for platitudes, isn’t it? I was always struck – humorously, I should add – by the fact that at Christmas even the antagonists on TV soap operas turned friendly and nice, at least for one day. Of course, as soon as Christmas was over they went back to being their regular snidely selves. But for that one day…
The question is, how do we embrace Isaiah’s vision and become partners with God in his desire to make right that which is wrong, and to correct that which is upside down and cattywampus to his eternal desires? Isaiah would tell us that our hope emerges from something that, with all intents and purposes, is dead… finished, lifeless, without purpose. God is able, even from a stump, to bring forth a green shoot that will become a branch and then a mighty tree.
But that picture is hard to see in a world that is dog-eat-dog… or should I say dogs, cats, mice, and rats? I am reminded of what Frederick Niedner tells us. He grew up on a farm in corn-growing country… Indiana, I think. Every fall, he says, the harvested ears of corn went temporarily into corn cribs of various shapes and sizes. Later in winter or spring came the time to empty the cribs into a shelling machine. The noisy machine would spit out the cobs and make feed of the kernels. Then, they would shovel out the cribs and make them clean for the next year when they would repeat the process.
Niedner says that when only a foot or two of ears remained in the bottom, dogs and cats would come from all over and begin to circle the area. Why? They knew instinctively what was going to happen next. Mice and rats who’d lived comfortably in what he calls this “fleshpot” would make a break for it, and as he puts it, “the cats did not invite the mice to play.” Instead, “carnage and judgment ensued.”2That’s our world, isn’t it? We don’t live where lions and bears lie down with lambs and oxen. Well, neither did Isaiah. For years the Babylonians had circled the Judean cribs, waiting for them to make a break for it. For generations, the people of God had been devoured by their larger and more powerful neighbors. For a long, long time they had endured the difficulty that comes with being the little guy, and now, after being picked on and picked over for so many generations, they were about as lifeless as a tree stump.
Do you ever feel that way? If so, this Advent season offers you a tiny glimpse of God’s purpose and hope for you.
Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament scholar. He points out that the prophets always talk about “what if.” They’re always casting their vision beyond the present moment to that day and time when peace will prevail, when God’s purpose will be done, when all things will be made to be the way God originally intended them to be. Brueggemann suggests that the prophet’s words start to become true when we begin to live as if… as if they were already true.
The truth is, though, that we live in a world full of flaws, and we ourselves are flawed. But, “imperfection is the wound that lets God in.”3 When we let God in, we have surrendered to his will. When we surrender to God’s will, good things happen. And when good things happen, Jesus, the One who embodied Isaiah’s outlandish vision, comes to walk with us and show us the way of his kingdom.
If there is anyone who can make something from nothing, it is the One whose coming we anticipate in this season. May Isaiah’s vision come true for us because we see through the eyes of an artist.
Lord, this Advent and Christmas season, may we see what Isaiah has seen. And may we follow you toward a greater vision of what your kingdom is about. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Paul Duke, Feasting On the Word, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), p. 31.
2Frederick Niedner, “Holy Fishes,” The Christian Century, November 30, 2004, p. 18.
3Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, quoted by Harold Kusher, How Good Do We Have to Be? (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996), pp. 53-54), cited in Pulpit Resource, Vol. 32, No. 4, Years C&A, 2004, p. 44.