To read the Isaiah 11 text click here: Isaiah 11:1-10
Images of the Kingdom: The Stump
Have you ever noticed how no matter what happens you can never keep nature at bay? For example, after a major forest fire, when acres and acres are nothing but black and charred remains, when it looks like an explosion had occurred and nothing remains, that all you have to do is give it a little time and a little rain and then watch and you will see little shoots of life begin to emerge. It is not all destruction. There is life there still and this life will reassert itself and reclaim the devastation in time. We can see this same thing manifested in a whole variety of different scenarios. Chop down a tree, leave the stump – Do you think it is now completely, irreversibly dead? Think again…
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…
Isaiah was an 8th century BCE temple prophet at Jerusalem and he lived through some terrible events. The nation of Israel had been one, unified nation from King David through King Solomon, but after the death of Solomon they had fallen into a civil war which eventually led to Israel breaking apart into two separate nations: The Northern Kingdom – also called Samaria – consisted of 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel and their capital was in Shechem. The Southern Kingdom – also called Judea – consisted on the remaining two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) and their capital was in Jerusalem. Only the Southern Kingdom focused their worship at the temple (this was one of the issues that led to the civil war!) The Northern Kingdom worshiped at Mount Gerezim (for an interesting discussion of this see Jesus’ dialog with the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John, chapter 4 – especially verses 16-26).
During the time of Isaiah the Assyrians swept down from the north and attacked the Northern Kingdom. Instead of rushing to the aid of their northern brothers and sisters, the King of the Southern Kingdom negotiated a treaty with the Assyrians and then stood on the sidelines. They watched and did nothing as the Assyrians completely obliterated the Northern Kingdom. The Assyrians had a well-earned reputation for being particularly blood-thirsty and unusually cruel, and they unleashed all of this on the people of the Northern Kingdom. By the end of it all nothing remained of Samaria. Thousands had been massacred in the most brutal way. Cities and villages burnt to the ground. There was no exile this time, because there was no one left to exile. And the Southern Kingdom had simply stood on the sidelines and watched it happen.
The image of the cut off tree, destroyed with only a stump remaining is an image that comes out of this experience. Isaiah is surveying what is left of Samaria and there isn’t much. The people of the Southern Kingdom are filled now with grief, terror, fear and guilt. Who knows, maybe they are next (actually they are – but not right away – it will be another 100 years or so before the Babylonians sweep through and destroy Judea). The biggest casualty is hope – hope is gone. Samaria is gone – completely. The stump is cut off down to the ground and then burned. There is nothing left. They are gone forever.
But wait says Isaiah – not so fast. Look carefully at that stump and what do you see? Why a little growth, a little green shoot has sprung up from the roots and has worked its way through the destruction and into the light. It is growing. This image is an image of the word of God that Isaiah saw. There is hope. In fact, says Isaiah, there is always hope. God will bring life from death! God will bring growth from destruction! God will bring light into the darkest night!
And for us it is Jesus who is the foundation of our hope. God has entered into the world of human experience in Jesus – God has entered into the darkness – God has entered into the pain, the suffering and death – God has entered into human hopelessness and has brought light and life and promise and hope! This is what Advent and Christmas together proclaim to us – look there is a little green shoot growing out of that stump – there is hope!
What are the stumps in your lives? What is it that leads you into hopelessness? What dreams and expectations of yours have been shattered? What losses, what illnesses, what struggles and failures have led you to a sense of cynicism or hopelessness? The prophet speaks to you to say: Look and see – out of the rubble, through the rock, out of the charred remains, out of that stump there is growth, there is life, there is hope. Can you see that little green shoot? Well, it is there. For in Christ, there is always hope! And Christ will bring life and light and hope to us – now and always!
John the Baptist cries out as a voice in the wilderness! Isaiah stands with him. Together they stand among the charred remains of the stumps of life, of death and destruction and both of them are crying out the same joyous message – “Prepare the way of the Lord!” Hope is alive – a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse and this shoot is hope!