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Sunday, December 22, 2019

“…Name Him Immanuel”

An Advent sermon based upon Isaiah 7: 10-17
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Cycle A), December 22nd, 2019

It’s almost Christmas.  Are you still a believer? 

Questions about ‘believing’ in Christmas often surface this time of year.  Relationships can be hard.  Life can get dark.   Besides that, many of us aren’t children any more.  The days of wonder and surprise move beyond us too.  It can be difficult for anything to surprise us anymore.  Christmas holidays can even be a drag, a demand, or even  burden that we wait to have lifted.   Do you still believe in Christmas? 

Of course, an answer may come from having ‘children’ or ‘grandchildren’.  Some people regain ‘faith’ in Christmas through them.   For others it may be more difficult.  Even the true meaning—-the ‘reason for the season’ can seem beyond all reason, having little and anything to say to us at all. 

One of the most popular answers ever given about Christmas came in the form of a newspaper editorial many years ago,"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"   Actually the title was a question that evidently stuck a nerve: "Is There a Santa Claus?"   That editorial appeared in the September 21, 1897 edition of The (New York) Sun.   It became part of popular Christmas folklore in the United States and has been the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the entire English language.  But do you know the story behind both the question and the answer?

In 1897, Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, a coroner's assistant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia O'Hanlon (1889–1971), whether Santa Claus really existed. O'Hanlon suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, assuring her that "If you see it in The Sun, it's so."

By giving his daughter Virginia instructions to write to the Sun Newspaper,  Dr. O'Hanlon had unknowingly given one of the paper's editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, an opportunity to address the philosophical issues behind it.   This proved to be quite interesting because Mr. Church had been a war correspondent during the American Civil War.  As we all know, it was a time when American’s saw great suffering resulting in a great lack of hope and faith in much of society.

Although the paper ran the editorial in the seventh place on the page, below an image of the newly invented ‘chainless bicycle", it was both noticed and well received by readers.  According to Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story, at that time Mr. Church was a hardened cynic and an atheist who had little patience for any kind of superstitious beliefs.  He did not want to write the editorial, and refused to allow his name to be attached to the piece.  But despite this, Mr. church’s response became one of the most reprinted editorials in any newspaper in the English language.

Virginia’s letter was brief:  DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.  Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.  Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’  Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?  VIRGINIA O’HANLON.  115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.

Mr.  Church’s response: 
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished… Is it all real?

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

Isn’t that a letter worth our consideration and contemplation again and again, especially in a world that is becoming skeptical once more, but this time it’s not ‘belief’ in Santa, but it’s an increasingly skepticism about God, faith, church, and even about Jesus Christ and Christmas too.  Should today’s Virginia still believe in the true meaning of Christmas? Should ‘Virginia’ still trust in God?  

In today’s Bible lesson we encounter the King of Judah who was unsure about trusting God.  King Ahaz was having difficulty in believing, like Virginia, and just like we can too.  Belief or trust in Israel’s God has become more challenging in a science-dominated, secular, self-centered, and skeptical age, hasn’t it? 

Virginia wrote to the Newspaper because the older she got, the more she knew about the ‘world’, the harder it is to trust and believe as a child. ‘When I became a man,” the apostle Paul acknowledged, “I put away childish things.”  In our times, belief in God has become one those ‘childish things’.  
Back in 2010, one of the largest statues of Jesus ever erected, measuring 108 feet from head to toe, was raised in a Polish field near the small town of Zwiebodzin.  The video on Youtube is fascinating to watch as a crane raises first the outstretched arms and then the head is placed on the body.  That statue rivals the vast Christ the Redeemer statue that watches over Rio de Janeiro.  

After it was erected, The New York Times interviewed the Catholic Priest who organized the project who said “I hope this statue will become a remedy for this secularization.”  The Right Rev. Sylwester Zawadzki, continued “I hope it will have a religious mission and not just bring tourists.” The article goes on to say that in Poland, where 90 percent of the people say they are Roman Catholic, actual church attendance has dropped to 40 percent in rural areas and 20 percent in the metro areas.  When the non-church goers are interviewed about why they don’t attend, they say that the church is not relevant to modern times.  They see the church as hypocritical or too involved in politics.  No matter how big the statue is, these folks are not coming back to church any time soon.  A big statue of Jesus in Poland, just like an Ark In Kentucky, might be reassuring and inspiring to the faithful, but it doesn’t reflect what’s happening in the world around us.  The image Jesus in the hearts and minds of people is getting smaller and smaller.

Would a ‘sign’ from God help you keep faith and trust in God?  There are times when we all need some tangible assurance about our faith.  What is a bit shocking about this story from Isaiah is that it was the prophet who offered the King a sign, rather than the other way around.  And Why doesn’t King Ahaz take Isaiah’s offer?  Why is he so hesitant?  Wouldn’t anybody want proof that God can be trusted?

A pastor in New York writes at his blogsite, the blooming cactus, how he once figured out how to get a sign from God.  As a teenager, he was feeling a great deal of uncertainty. So he got out his Bible and thought that he could get an answer or sign from it.  The bible has all the answers, right?  So he got it into his head that he could let his bible fall open.  If it fell open to the New Testament, the answer was “yes” and if it fell open to the Old Testament, the answer was “no.”  He wanted a “yes” answer, so since the Old Testament has twice and many pages, he tried to not stack the deck in his favor.  He pledged to follow whatever answer he got from this test.

He carefully set up his Bible, trying to balance it to give the Holy Spirit a fair shot, like a basketball referee throwing a jump ball up in the air.  He then let the Bible go.  The bible fell sharply on its side – unopened!  He hadn’t counted on that.  At first He got angry, then felt stupid, but finally decided, this was truly a sign.  It was a sign that God trusted him to make some decisions himself.  He realized God has given us a brain for this reason: having to decide is how we grow as a human beings.  We should read the bible, have faith, and learn something too.  We should not use the Bible like a magic hat.  ‘Too many people use the bible like a drunk uses a lamp post, more for support than for illumination’ (W. S. Coffin).  The young pastor realized he needed to ‘put away’ childish ideas like that.

King Ahaz certainly needed answers.  Three Kings were trying to force him to go to war against a growing threat from Assyria, Ahaz didn’t know what to do.  If he fought with them, and they lost the battle, Assyria would crush them all.  If he didn’t join them, they could gang up on him and remove him from his kingly office. 

King Ahaz had consulted astrologers, soothsayers and fortune tellers and tried other religious practices to try to figure out what to do.  He even put an idol of a serpent in the temple and restarted the practice of human sacrifices trying to gain favor other gods.  None of this ever worked.  Ahaz had avoided God’s prophet, because he would seem to agree with what Isaiah was preaching; namely that the king would have govern with justice and righteousness.  This would mean not using government money just to build weapons for war, but using money to help those who were weak and oppressed.  This is why Ahaz didn’t want to ‘ask’ for a sign. If it came true, he would have to do what God commanded. 

Ahaz was right, wasn’t he?  If you trust God, if you seek God, and if you actually make room for the true meaning of Christmas in what you do, God can show up and the true God will ask something from you.  Sometimes, like King Ahaz, God may be calling us ‘give’ ourselves and be part of God’s answer in the world.  

It can be like what happened to the Sunday School class in a church I served years ago.  I shared with them a chance they could have to adopt a hurting family and help them have Christmas.  So, that class had a choice to make: Would Christmas just be about them, and their families, or would they allow God to give them a ‘sign’ that asked something from them? If they would, God might just show up with and in them, in some deeper, caring, and redeeming way. 

And do you know what that Sunday School class did?  They took God up on the offer, and according to their teacher, it was ‘the greatest Christmas party their Sunday School class ever had’.  When they decided to be with God, and do something with God, it was right there that they discovered how God was ‘with’ and ‘in’ them in their own lives and church.

This is the ‘sign’ God wanted to give Ahaz, whether he wanted it or not.  Through the prophet Isaiah, God wanted Ahaz to know that God wanted to be ‘with’ him, even he didn’t want to be with God.  Ahaz was the King of Judah in Jerusalem, and he was sitting on David’s throne.  Of course, God wanted to be with him, to encourage him, to spare his throne, the city, the nation, and the king too. 

The ‘sign’ that God was ‘with him’ was that before a young woman could conceive and give birth and that child would know how to choose between right and wrong, the dangers to his kingdom would be gone.  This is how the ‘sign’ read in the original Hebrew, a child born to a young woman during Ahaz’s rule, would be given the name, ‘Emmanuel; God is with us.

About 732 years later, other Jews living in Israel, encountered God’s presence in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  Matthew believed Rabbi Jesus to be the ultimate fulfillment of this old Emmanuel promise.  But Matthew, and Luke too, in quoting the story from Isaiah, used the word ‘virgin’ rather than young woman.  Why did Matthew and Luke do do this?  In would have been just as well, maybe even easier to believe, if they would have stayed with Isaiah’s original word in Hebrew, meaning ‘young woman’ wouldn’t it?  Why did both of these gospels, claim Mary too have been a virgin.  Wouldn’t Christianity be easier to explain and follow, if they had settle for Jesus being a little more like the rest of us? 

Well, the first part of the answer comes through the story Luke tells us, reporting how Mary ‘had not yet known a man’ when  the angel overshadowed her’ and this child was ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’.  That’s one reason Matthew didn’t use the Hebrew text, Mary’s testimony was different.  Interestingly, in the first Christmas story, in a man’s world, the first believers took a woman’s testimony over a man’s.  That was a miracle in itself.  The second reason Matthew and Luke were quoting the Greek translation of Isaiah.  In the Greek the word could be translated either way.  Why 200 yeas before Jesus, Greek Jews choose to use this word is still a mystery.  The only answer to this is textual mystery is in the Christmas story itself: that in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God gave the most unexpected sign that ‘God is with’ us, both Jew and Greek. 

Do you know why I believe that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, through a woman named Mary, who was at that time a virgin, and all this happened with the seed of a man?  Well, not only has the church preached the virgin’s conception by the Holy Spirit since its beginning, we should also believe in this ‘holy conception’ too. 

But, let me also be very clear, that I don’t believe in the Virgin Birth because I believe this is gynecologically possible.  It has been said to happen in a some rabbits, and it may appear to happen in cloning, but still don’t believe that virgins give birth. It’s not possible to me; but ‘with God all things are possible’.  The reason I believe in Christmas is because of Easter.  It is because God raised Jesus from the dead, and because of the resurrection hope, that I believe Jesus, who was ‘with God’ from the beginning was ‘conceived of the Holy Spirit’ as the ultimate sign of ‘Emmanuel, God with us’.  

This is how I get to Christmas, not simply by trusting in the virgin birth, because Buddha, Vishnu, Zoroaster, and others ancient religious leaders were claimed to be born of virgins too.  No, I only get to Emmanuel, God with us,  through the Christ who died on the cross, who was raised from the dead and now lives in me through the same Holy Spirit who conceived God’s truth in me.  To paraphrase Mr. church, ‘Yes, Virginia, I believe he exists just like I believe generosity and devotion exists’.  In other words, because ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,’  I can now know that God is with me, for me, in me, and can be in you too.  In the life of Jesus, and through Jesus’ life in me, I have a continual sign of ‘Emmanuel’, God with us’.

But of course, this sign of God’s presence can seem to come and go, can’t it?
And this difficulty of discerning God’s saving presence is exactly how Isaiah’s prophecy concludes.   In verse 17, Isaiah returns to the language of desolation and destruction, referring to how  Ephraim (Israel) broke away from Judah…”  The point is that Ahaz had better trust God now, because a very dark and difficult day to trust in God is coming. God’s news is for now, but to ignore it, reject it, or to refuse the God who gives the sign of his presence now, will mean a ‘missed opportunity’ to receive this promise given through this child. 

As Isaiah emphasizes later, ’ For unto us, a child is given…”, which means now! (Isiah 9:6-7).  To ignore or refuse this sign of hope was the opportunity Israel couldn’t afford to miss.  But unfortunately, they did refuse to put their hope in the child, and the same happened in Judah too.  It happened again in Jesus’ day, when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem rejected the form of ’government’ God placed ‘on his shoulders’ when Jesus preached God’s kingdom rule of love.

What’s important is to for us to realize God’s ’sign’ in this child is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss either.  God’s offer of love and grace has come, but refusing God’s presence and promise love still invites darkness, destruction and death.  This why the Bible says, ‘Now is the acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation’. We only have so much time to get see the sign and get it right. 

Recently, I learned a term used in part of the hurting, inner city black community.  I can’t repeat it all because it’s coarse, street language, but it goes something like, ‘The hate people give to the young will come back to bite us all’.  The point is, you only have a brief time to bless the child, to accept, learn and give love, or hate will grow up to haunt the world in judgment and retribution:  the hate you give and the love you fail to learn to give can come back to bite us all. 

As we began this message, in the question to the Sun Newspaper, a child named Virginia was growing up too.  Someone needed to help Virginia understand the true meaning of Santa, just like we must keep pointing our children and the world to the original meaning of Christmas.  As Isaiah preached even more directly in another place: “Come to the LORD while he is near”, implying that now is the time, because times will come when God seems far away. 

The prophet’s offer of a sign, to bring about trust, belief, faith and hope is the same offer Jesus’s love gives us.  But don’t misunderstand. God’s love is not a blank check to believe what we want.  One of my German language teachers once told me how his father had been in the SS, an officer in Hitler’s army.  My teacher was very young, but remembered his parents closing the curtains, making his home dark in broad daylight, so he couldn’t see Nazi soldiers marching Jews to their death out their window. ‘Those times dark and confusing’, he told me.  We we told we were doing right, when it turned out we were doing great wrong.’  Even ordinary soldiers in Hitler’s army wore belt buckles inscribed with the words “Gott mitt unz.” (God with us).  That’s how dark it can get.  Isaiah spoke of this moral and political darkness too, when people call right wrong, and wrong right.

Ahaz was given a sign from God on God’s terms.  This is still the opportunity of Christmas; it is the not the promise of a child to receive presents, but it’s the sign of this child who will ‘save us from our sins’, if we go beyond seeking our own answers, but answer God’s sign to receive and give God’s love.

Isn’t this the Emmanuel sign we need, even when it’s not the one we always seek?  What is so amazing is that God does come among us, not in anger or wrath, but as a child, so vulnerable that we might receive, rather than reject him.

On this last Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas, the last verse of “O Come, O Come, Immanuel, points to God’s offer still being made to us, through the birth of God’s Son, as Mary’s child:
O come, dear child of Mary, come,
God’s Word made flesh within our earthly home;
Love stir within the womb of night,
Revenge and hatred put to flight.
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.
Now, as God’s offer draws near to us again, who will also draw near to God, and accept the offer of God’s ‘sign’ of love and hope in you?  Now, is the time for you to name Jesus your Emmanuel!  Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

“Streams in the Desert”

An Advent sermon based upon Isaiah 35: 1-10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
The Third Sunday of Advent (Cycle A), December 15th, 2019

Going any where over Christmas?  What about Southern California?  Not a bad thought, is it?

Have any of you ever driven from North Carolina to California?  If you take the most natural route from here, on I-40 through Texas, you’ll have to go through desert.  You’ll have to take some long, lonesome, nowhere roads through some of the most empty, abandoned, and seemingly lifeless areas of America. It’s the kind of place the street signs tell you you will put your life at risk if you don’t stop and fill up.  It’s the kind of place, speed limits are largely unregulated or disregarded.  The only good thing about that part of the country is that you can get through it driving very fast. 

I’ve never driven in that part of the country, though I’ve flown over it.  It looks just as  deserted and dangerous from above.  However, I’ve also seen pictures of how beautiful the desert can be in the spring, or when the seldom rains fall.  Flowers  blooming in a desert can be spectacular.  

The closest I’ve ever to experiencing the desert is when, while living in Europe I woke up to find red dust and sand on my white VW.  The Newspapers reported how strong winds carried dust out of the Sahara Desert across the Mediterranean Sea during the night.  Can you imagine that much sand traveling over 2,000 miles?  But then again, the Sahara Desert is one of the harshest places on planet earth, being larger in square miles than the entire United States.  That’s a lot of desert.

In today’s text we encounter the wilderness of a desert.  The prophet Isaiah and the people of God living in Judah knew a lot about the desert.  When you leave Jerusalem and head south, you are traveling on the ‘desert road’.  In the book of Acts, Philip was instructed by the Spirit to ‘go down on the desert road’ and share Jesus with an Ethiopian who riding in a chariot and was reading from this very scroll of Isaiah.  It was on a ‘desert road’ that Philip told the Ethiopian that Isaiah 53 pointed to Jesus’ own suffering for human sin.  And on that desert road they came upon a pool of water and the Eunuch was baptized in Jesus Christ.  All this happened on a road that was going to and through a desert.        

Isaiah paints some powerful, unforgettable images of a desert.  His images depict a physical, geographical desert that his hearers; his people, knew quite personally. The city of Jerusalem was located on the north side of a desert in rugged terrain only made inhabitable because of the large Gihon Springs located caves nearby in the Kirdon Valley.  King Hezekiah, a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, built an large reservoir to store the water and tunnels to carry it into the city, becoming one of the most elaborate water systems in the ancient world.  Without a water source, their would have been no Jerusalem because their would only be desert and at least wilderness.  Still today the city of Jerusalem has less than 42 days of rainfall each year. 

So, when we read Isaiah’s word pictures about, wilderness, desert, or dry, parched ground, we have, at least, some idea of what he means.  We know how scarce, how tentative and how challenged life can be.  We’ve watched how even the strongest, most adventurous young people can be beaten down and weakened to near death when they’ve gotten lost in some secluded wilderness.  They go in hiking or jogging strong and determined, but they come out on stretchers, sunburned, starving and sometimes, near death, or worse.

Trapped in a barren, dry, dangerous place is exactly how Isaiah imagines the spiritual depletion and despair of God’s people.  He imagines people encountering, going through, and even experiencing first hand the abandonment, loneliness and emptiness of living their life in a spiritual desert.  This is what he means with images of ‘parched land’, ‘weak hands and knees’, ‘wild dogs’, ‘dangerous animals’, and ‘fearful enemies’ where people walk with ‘sorrow and sadness’.   I know it’s hard for us to contemplate such a negative, lonely, taxing place, especially at Christmastime, when we seek merriment and joy.  But we do seem to be entering times of spiritual loneliness and abandonment, whether we want to think about it or not.  Isaiah’s wilderness imagery has more to say to us than ever before. 

Even at Christmastime, churches and the spiritual and religious message of ‘peace and goodwill’ toward all isn’t what it used to be.  No matter how liberal, moderate, conservative, how fundamental, traditional, or how contemporary the Southern Baptist churches are; no matter how much revival, renewal, discipleship, evangelism, strategy and missions has been preached, proclaimed and worked out.  In these past 20 years, baptism and membership statistics have consistently and continually been in a state of decline.  Around 100 America churches close their doors each week.  Six to 10,000 close each year.  New churches are being formed, but not at the same rate as churches are dying. If trends continue, and it seems obvious they will, in the not too distant future, there will be fewer and fewer American churches.   

And who cares?  Most younger people certainly don’t.  Most of them have already left the traditional, mainline, historical, neighborhood church.  The fastest growing religious majority in America today are not the ‘moral majority’, but are the religious ‘nones’.  These are those whose preference of religious faith or church is having ‘none’. 

And what declining churches and increasing absences means for the future of the American churches, of all stripes and denominations, is spiritual wilderness and desert.  While a few churches are fairing better than others, at least right now, all American churches, like European churches have already experienced, are having to be church and do church in a barren spiritual territory we’ve never known before. This is the spiritual territory of ‘dry ground’, ‘weakness’ along with ‘sorrow’ and ‘sadness’, especially for those who remember what and where we used to be.

A ROAD WILL BE THERE…. (v. 8)   
Is there any good news?  Well, hopefully, yes!  Isn’t this the Bible we’re reading from?  The overall message of Scripture is one of inspiration and hope.  In today’s text, the most positive word this prophet has to say about this desert is that Israel’s God builds a road, a highway, that goes right through it.  

This ‘road’ or highway, going through the deserted, wilderness place of life and faith is a road of many surprises.  It’s a road where God’s people see flowers blooming and surprising miracles and wonders taking place, even in the spiritually deprived wilderness.  It is even in this wilderness where the ‘weak’ are strengthened, the cowardly become courageous, the blind able to see, the deaf begin to hear, cripples overcome their handicaps, and the thirsty encounter water gushing forth like ‘streams in the desert’.  The point Isaiah is making is that even in a desert wilderness God’s glory can be seen.  Even there, or here, where we also find ourselves, God’s salvation will be experienced.  In good news is that in this most spiritually barren place, where the church of Jesus Christ finds itself today, life, beauty and happiness can be known and experienced too. 

How does a ‘stream’ of life, hope and grace flow there, here?  We are told that it happens because God build a ‘road’ through the wilderness which is also ‘a way’ for God’s people to walk.  As Winston Churchill was quoted, ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going.’   You certainly don’t want to stop living right, stop doing right, or stop getting right when your in a spiritual wilderness.  This is certainly not a place to stop, or you could be eaten alive.  Remember the line in the famous story, The Wizard of Oz: ‘We’re off to see the wizard?  ‘We’re off’ means keep going!  Remember the luring sound of the sirens in Homer’s ears?  Homer, keep going!  And do you remember in Scripture how the devil came to Jesus trying to get Jesus ‘stop and take a look?  But Jesus kept going and moving toward his calling from God.  Jesus didn’t stop going God’s way, even the wilderness. Jesus didn’t stop and listen to the devil’s tricks, especially not there, or he would have been eaten alive.  The same thing could happen to us, when God builds us road through it and shows the way, and we stop walking on the road he’s been revealing to us all along.  Even when the winds of culture are against us, ‘Church, don’t stop!  Keep going!’

This road that takes God’s people through this barren, dry, and dirty wilderness is known as ‘the Holy way.  The way through, out, and beyond this god-forsaken wilderness is not just any way.  It is, as one translation puts it, God’s way through the barren spiritual wilderness is to be holy, just like God is holy.  I imagine you didn’t see that coming, did you?  Being holy might be the last thing on our minds when we’re going through a spiritual drought, right?  Who cares, who knows, or who wants to know, how to live the ‘way’ that God calls us to live when it seems no one else is living this way?  But God’s true people know they must live God’s way.  As Isaiah reports, when God’s holy highway is found, ‘the redeemed will walk on it’ (v. 9).

This is how Isaiah preached the good news to God’s people in his day, but what does this mean for us, in our own wilderness wanderings through spiritual drought and desolation?  Besides, what was the prophet talking about?  Was he talking about God’s people ‘returning’ after their destruction and exile in Babylon?  Yes.  Was he also talking about the ‘glory’ and ‘miracles’ when the Messiah, Jesus came to save ‘his people from their sins’?  Yes.  Could Isaiah also be talking to us about how God builds a highway that should be a way of life for us to live, even when the church and the Christian Faith seems to be going nowhere fast?  Yes, yes, yes!

How might there be a ‘holy’ way built for us to walk on that keeps us faithfully moving forward, when God seems far away, when faith seems dried up, and we feel like we are left out in a wilderness to die alone?  What might this holy highway be that is helpful, hopeful, and healing?  What way leads us through wilderness of where we are?  Can we name it, find it, and know how to walk on it?

One of the most discussed religious books of the decade is The Benedict Option, written by the editor of political magazine, The American Conservative‘.  In this controversial bestseller, Rod Dreher calls on American Christians to prepare for the coming spiritual Dark Age, or spiritual wilderness by embracing an very ancient way of living the Christian life he names as The Benedict Option.

In this writing, Rod Dreher argues that the way forward or through this spiritual wilderness is actually the way back—all the way to St. Benedict of Nursia.  St. Benedict was a sixth-century monk, who was horrified by the moral and spiritual chaos that followed Rome’s fall.  When he encountered how people lost their moral knowledge, how a sense of community broke down, and how people lost the ability to do the most necessary and needful skills, like raise their children or grow their on food, he left the city, retreated into the countryside and created a new way of life for Christians. He called the church away from the the city ways into newly formed communities based on principles of order, hospitality, stability, sustainability and prayer. His spiritual centers of hope were strongholds of light throughout the entire time Dark Ages, and saved not just Christianity but Western civilization as well.

Today, Dreher says, in our own increasing spiritual wilderness, a new form of barbarism rules the social and political airways. Many believers are even blind to it, and their churches are too weak to resist it, and will finally succumb to it.  In other words, the way we have done things, both politically and religiously, offers little help in this spiritual crisis.  What is needed is a renewed ‘holy’ way of life and living.  What is needed for the churches to create alternative, intentional, moral and spiritual communities that rescue and save.  What we need is, he says, is this Benedict Option.  Dreher believes that churches need a strategy for being holynot better than others, or perfect, but to be a people who are called, chosen, and set apart, drawing on both the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to take society through this barren place.  To do this, Dreher concedes, churches must first embrace this idea of spiritual and moral exile so they will draw away from mainstream culture to construct a resilient counterculture.  In other words, churches must learn how an alternative holy road in and through the wilderness, not unlike envisioned by Isaiah the prophet.

Is this what we need to espouse, a Benedict Option?  This is what saved civilization once.  The same kind of thing happened for the Mennonites in about 1,000 years later, when they followed the teachings of Meno Simons and turned away from the corrupted Catholic church.  We still see the Amish living a counter-cultural lifestyle in communities that aim to resist the spiritual wilderness.   It’s also the kind of thing that happened again, all over Europe, when the Protestants broke away in hopes of reformation.  They choose, through the leadership of Luther, John Calvin and others, to move away from the corruption in the established church and follow a more biblical, reformed way of faith and life.  It’s also this kind of spiritual way or journey that the Pilgrims and other Europeans choose, when they moved away from Europe to come to America as their new religious and political promised land. 

Is this the kind of spiritual calling, holy highway, that we are being called to walk on in the spiritually and socially deprived wilderness ?  What kind of ‘option’ or ‘holy way’ are we being called or chosen to take?  What kind of spiritual highway will renew our faith, sustain our churches, enable us to journey through this spiritually dry and dark day?

It’s interesting to see how Isaiah envisions ‘the redeemed’ walking on God’s holy highway through this wilderness.  He says that this holy way will not be accidental, but it will be intentional, as Fools will not wander on it (v. 8c), but in wilderness times, people will only find God’s way because they desire God more than ever before.  This eliminates all those ‘accidental’ Christians who just happen to come God’s way because they have nothing better to do.  No, today’s faith journey is more like the well-worn joke about the fellow who said you wanted to believe, but he couldn’t find God anywhere.  The preacher told him, that if he really wanted to find God, he could. 
“What do you mean?” the man questioned. 
So, to illustrate, the preacher took the man out into a lake and said I’m going to show you how to find God.  I’m going to dip you in the water like I’m baptizing you.  The man agreed to the experiment. 
The preacher dipped him into the water, and brought him up the first time, asking him,  “Did you find God?” 
The man responded frankly, “No.” 
The preacher put him under again a little longer and then brought him back up.  “Did you find God?” 
The man answered “no” once more. 
This time the pastor held him under longer, much longer until the man started struggling for air.  When the preacher finally brought him up, the man let out a large gasp for air, and screamed,
“What are you trying to do, kill me?” 
The preacher answered, “Man, when you want God as much as you wanted air, you’ll find him.”

There are no more accidental churches, nor accidental Christians in a spiritual wilderness.  The wilderness removes from God’s roll the cultural or conventional faith.  The people travel God’s road now, here, are people who intentionally desire to walk this way.  There will little place left for false or fake Christians.  As the saying goes, in the wilderness church: ‘fools will not rush in where angels fear to tread’. 

But there’s something even more incredible about the wilderness church.  Isaiah also envisions that when the faithful take God’s holy road faith sincerely and intentionally, and less accidently, the ‘redeemed of the LORD will return and come to Zion with singing, crowned with unending joy.”  This way of seeking, returning, and traveling God’s way becomes a way of ‘singing’ and ‘unending joy’.  Finding a road through the desolation and desertedness of the wilderness is not a somber or sad way, but it is a way of relief, release, and returning that takes God’s way through, which brings hope, and with hope comes ‘joy’ and ‘song’.  

I love this closing image, which describes how God’s people discover that on God’s highway  gladness overtakes them’ and ‘sorrow and sighing will flee’.  Here, I find something even more enduring than ‘The Benedict Option’, which we might call the Christmas or ‘incarnational’ option, so that ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.’  For as Jesus lived God’s way, so can we, so that the greatest ‘mystery’ in the wilderness is, as the apostle Paul expressed it:  Christ in you (is) the hope of (God’s) glory in this wilderness world  (Col. 1:27).   “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me….”  That’s how Paul explained ‘the way’ that challenged and changed his own ‘wilderness’ world. 

The main message of this text comes right ‘at the center’, where we learn, in verse 4, that even a spiritual wilderness is not ‘God-forsaken’:  "Here is your God," announces the prophet (v. 4b).  Right here, in this barren, desolate, and deserted place, God has not ‘deserted’ his people, but God comes with power to overcome the wickedness, disease, and disorder that stand in the way of God's breathtaking new age. “This is not an abstract or even eternal truth” one biblical teacher has said, but “it is a present announcement: God is showing up. Watch what happens!  Since God is the author of Christmas, and God is with us on this way; anything is possible!

Patti Davis has worked as a Chaplain in a Nursing Home.  You can’t get much more ‘wilderness’ than that.  But she says, that one Thursday, at about 1:30, residents gathered for an afternoon activity advertised as "Drumming with Connie.”  About 30 residents straggled in. They sat, as they almost always do, in a large circle.  A few people spoke to each other, but mostly they just sit and waited in silence, as if this were just another diversion to help pass the time before dinner. This was just another Thursday.

Then Connie came in. A short, rather round woman of middle age with long platinum blonde hair, she came in with a flatbed cart laden with drums. And she began unpacking. Tall drums that sat on the floor went to residents with two good hands. Smaller drums could be held between the knees; and so for those paralyzed on one side by a stroke, she had drums that hung from the neck by a strap. She had drums of every size and description, a hammered silver drum from India and a hand-carved wooden drum from Egypt. There were drums covered in hairy cowskin and drums of smooth leather, wooden drums from Nigeria and painted drums from Haiti. And for those who couldn't manage a drum, she had maracas, those gourds that are so easy to shake. And people perked up then, because it's been a long time since someone handed them something unique and valuable and said, "Here, this is for you." And eyes brightened and there was an air of anticipation in the room.

And then Connie sat down with her own drum and began to teach what she knew. "It's easy," she said. "Let's start with the sound of your own heart: lub, dub, lub, dub." This is music we all know and so it was easy, and everyone found they could make that sound with their drum. "Now," she said, "while you play I'll add a note. But you must be sure to hold the beat, because we'll come back to it again and again." And the people played their heartbeats and she added a beat here and there and soon this incredible deep bass throbbing filled the place and they were all faithfully drumming together to the same beat!  When she got louder, all the drums got louder. And when she drummed soft as a whisper, everyone drummed softly. Every drum beat in a tempo passed from soul to soul, drawing on something primitive and sacred, the heartbeat of life pounded out in a place of wilderness and desolation.  And Connie knew just how to teach this ‘way’ because when it came time to end the song, she would count down: 4 - beat, beat, 3 - beat, beat, 2 - beat, beat, 1 - beat, beat, and everyone stopped-and then broke out in joyous applause!

When a woman with Alzheimer's, who sits most of her days in her room in silence, was shaking her maraca in time and grinning from ear to ear, you knew this was special, this was connection, and this was healing. And people seemed to be dancing in their wheelchairs, drumming out the rhythm and smiling for the pure joy of it. And even the deaf could hear this sound, deep within they felt the pressure of the beat of it, and it was a wonder too. And the throbbing drumbeats filled the building and staff members wandered in and couldn't help themselves, but they joined in too. 
And if you think this couldn't possibly have anything to do with what Isaiah saw and felt in his heart, then you are mistaken.  Isaiah’s vision is about our endless search for the presence of God in the wilderness of our lives, no matter who or where we are.  Isaiah’s hope is about our yearning for something to lift us up and restore our souls. Listen again to the drumbeat of Isaiah: The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.   In this poor flesh, in our lost ways, we will find ourselves lost in the wilderness of take the ‘road’ back to him.  There are lions out there and ravenous beasts and life can get scary, but through it all, God is there, God is here, drumming out his message of salvation: Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come and save you.

Can we believe this, that God still shows up in human flesh through his Spirit in our hearts that connect to our hope in him?   This Christmas, and beyond, Let us pray that we too, will be given eyes to see and ears to hear- the beat of what God is doing through Jesus in the world around us.  Second, let’s also take the holy road and keep marching to God’s beat of faith ourselves, so that we too become signs and sounds of God’s coming kingdom to those who are watching, waiting, and listening for God.  (From Patti Davis at: (   and also from Fred Gaiser, ( preaching.aspx?commentary_id=10).

In Christ, not just at Christmas, but all along the way, God is in our midst, in the center of our lives beating out the rhythm of his presence and promise.  And just as God did surprising things in his Son who was born in this world, he can still do some amazing and surprising things here, now, in us who live his ‘way’ through the wilderness, we can find God’s flowing ‘streams’ of life and hope even in a desert. Amen. 

Sunday, December 8, 2019

“From a Stump of a Tree…”

An Advent sermon based upon Isaiah 11: 1-10
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
The Second Sunday of Advent (Cycle A),  December 8th, 2019

The Beatles started playing music together when I was five years old.  They took the world by storm, but by the time I turned eleven, they had already broke up, even though they were one of the most popular, earth-shaking, money making, culture-shaping rock groups, the world has ever known.  I guess you could say, that even being on top of the world can’t be sustained for very long.

After the Beatle’s break up, each of the Beatles, with varying talents had the popularity and money to continue on their own.  John Lennon was probably the most gifted and philosophical of the group, party due to the poetic writing of his new Japanese wife, Yoko Ono.  She was largely responsible for the lyrics of Lennon’s most famous single and Album of all, “Imagine.”  That title song is still one of 100 most popular songs ever recorded.  Most of you know how it goes:

Imagine there's no heaven.  It's easy if you try
No hell below us.  Above us only sky.
Imagine all the people. Living for today (ah ah ah)

Imagine there's no countries.  It isn't hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion, too.
Imagine all the people.  Living life in peace.
You may say that I'm a dreamer.  But I'm not the only one.
I hope someday you'll join us.  And the world will be as one.
Those lyrics were considered revolutionary, sacrilegious, and even communist then, but today they are considered a classic; a song of idyllic hope.  Interestingly, the words which say, “Imagine there is no heaven, no hell below us…” along with the words, “imagine there is no religion too” were inspired by a Christian prayer book given to him as a gift.  In an interview Lennon explained, “If you can imagine positive prayer…a world at peace with no denominations of religions,…not without religion, but without any religion that says my God is bigger than your God, then this can be true….” (Sheff, David (1981). Golson, G. Barry (ed.). All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono (2000 ed.). St Martin's Griffin).

We may, or may not fully agree with Lennon’s perspective, but his hope of a world ‘at peace’ is right up there with the most enduring visions ever imagined, including the second vision we are going to consider today from the greatest prophetic imagination  of the ancient Jewish world; the prophecy of Isaiah.

Last week, we considered Isaiah’s vision calling for God’s people to wait in hope, like we wait on Christmas.  In today’s vision from Isaiah, the prophet explains more specifically what kind of new world we wait for.  

But there are so many things ‘imagined’ in this text, it’s hard to know where to begin. 
In Isaiah’s vision of what can only be only ‘imagined’, we see a shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, we see the gifts of the spirit, and we get a closer look at what has been named ‘the peaceable kingdom’; a kingdom where predators and their prey live side by side.  Then finally, we see a world where babies play unharmed near poisonous snakes. 

Like the practically unimaginable world where all peoples turn to the one true God and allow their weapons of hate and war to be transformed into tools for agriculture and food, here we see a world where both nature and human nature will be challenged and changed because a new kind of King rules human hearts and lives.   The Jewish Comedian and Filmmaker Woody Allen, once gave his own interpretation of this vision: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep!” 

However, what Woody Allen failed to understand is that the old world has to die before a new world can grow out of it.  For when Isaiah says, ‘a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. . .” The stump, for all practical purposes, is dead.  The life it had is cut off.  The world that was, had gone.

We know this, because just before this chapter, in chapter 10, God declared punishment on the people, sending in the Assyrians to bring God’s judgment upon Israel and his people: “Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger…I will send him against a godless nation (v. 5)…against Mt. Zion and Jerusalem (v. 12).   As the chapter ends, we read these most sobering words: “Today the Assyrians will stand at Nob, shaking their fists at the mountain of Daughter Zion, the hill of Jerusalem.  Look, the Lord GOD… will chop off the branches with terrifying power, and the tall trees will be cut down, the high trees felled” (Isa. 10:32-33 CSB17).  The trees, the people -- both will be clean cut off.  Before the new could come, the old had to go.

That’s certainly a disturbing, devastating and depressing picture for any people, including our own.  It’s not only disturbing that people had to die, but that people would not change, would not bend, would not or allow anything different, and that people would not even try to imagine what God imagined, or even demanded of them through his prophets.   How tragic for them, and how tragic it would be for us too, that we would resist God’s new work among us, so that not just something, but everything had to be taken away for the new to grow?

But there is not only ‘death’ and ‘judgement’ going on here.  There is also ‘life’ and promise that returns.  Something is starting to grow in the same world where nothing new could grow before.  Can you imagine anything like this?  Can you imagine growth and life where there has only been resistance, fruitless decay and death? 

A story, perhaps legendary, is told about how a determined European atheist was so bent on denying any hope of resurrection and eternal life that when he died, he instructed the cemetery to put his body under six feet of concrete so his body could not rise.  However, after a few years went by, passersby noticed an unexpected spectacle. The reinforced concrete tomb had cracked, and a new shoot of growth had appeared in that very crack. There are of course, scientific explanations why such a thing happens?  But it was as If a miracle defied the atheists final wish, so that God’s truth goes marching on.

Who knows whether that story was true, but we all know just how resilient life is, even in our own world.  While we must decide whether we believe in resurrection, there is little doubt whether after we’re dead and gone, life will or won’t continue.  As the Battle Hymn goes, we might and will fall, but “His truth is Marching On!”  That’s the Divine Factor!

That’s the kind of image Isaiah imagines in this passage.  Something new will grow out of a tree that has been, or will be cut down.  We’ve all seen that before, haven’t we?  We’ve all cut down, or cut back bushes or trees, only to watch life growing back from the ‘stump’, the root, or from the stem.  The life that returns will, of course, be different, but life will return.  And because life has its source in the creator, sustainer, and redeemer God, life is also God’s truth that goes marching on.

So, how do we imagine new life and growth in our own world?  I’m sure it was difficult for people to envision it when they looked out across the battle fields and saw all the death and destruction.  Back in June of this year, I heard watch the news about several 95 year-old Veterans who had returned to visit Normandy, the site of the most decisive and deadly battle of the second world war. 

Strangely, even though they each had struggled with wanting to remember that day, they now said this day must never be forgotten so such carnage and chaos never happens again.  What struck me most about the whole interview, was how that terrible day had transformed each of their lives, and they hoped that memorializing it would keep challenging and transforming us too.  Today D-Day is no longer just a symbol of death, but it has become a symbol of hope, of new life, a challenge for liberty and for new hope of peace in the world.  Out of the sacrifice of all those cut down in the heat of war, came new life and new determination to learn to live rightly with their lives (The Episode was aired on CBS Morning News, June 5th, 2019).

But how do people, who are most naturally flawed and corruptible, and ‘bent’ on living self-centered, independent, and greedy lives, grow into someone new?   How can a people, as Isaiah described, who ‘enact crooked statues and write oppressive laws…., which keep the poor from getting a fair trial and deprive the needy people of justice, (Isaiah 10: 1-2)…;  how can people like this, who are ‘hell-bent’ in this vicious cycle of death and destruction, find hope for a world where sin, death, and destruction will never return?  Should we, could we, might we even dare imagine a people or a world like this?   Well, this is exactly what Isaiah does, for where the ‘tall trees’ have been cut down and the ‘forest thickets’ had been cleared, there is a persistent hope that this is where ‘a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and… (where)…a branch from his roots will bear fruit” (11:1).

Isaiah’s promise about the ‘stump of Jesse’ brings us to the human side of this promise.  The new world, the new life, and the new hope for growth does will not come without a ruler, a leader, or a people who will obey and live out of ‘a spirit of wisdom and understanding.’  God’s new growth, depends on the human choice, the human factor, that is, even as much as it depends upon new life and opportunity from God.  

Of course, we see this line of hope running straight through Jesus Christ, and we should.  Jesus was fully and finally the hope of Israel’s salvation and he is still the divinely gifted human life of the world’s hope for redemption wrapped up in human ‘flesh and blood’.  The new growth had to have a ‘stump’ to grow out of; and the royal hope for an eternal kingdom, had to be realized and portrayed in a particularly, human and earthly form. 

In a recent news report, breakthroughs in Face Recognition Technology were being analyzed.  This technology is now being used, not just to read your face to identify who you are, but it is being developed so that computers and cameras can read your face and tell what you are feeling in that moment.  This new kind of technology is believed to be necessary for reading the tired faces of employees, especially truck drivers, who might accidentally fall asleep at the wheel.  But of course, the cost of this new technology was deemed to be threat to civil liberties, because it might also be used to detect the waywardness or laziness of employees who might be doing less than they are being paid to do.

We now live in a world where the moral restraint and discipline are coming less and less from within a person, but must come more and more from outward restraints, which will can shrink the human soul and moral motivation from within.  We call that kind of world, where all the restraints are external, a prison.   But even with so many new dreams being transferred from humanity to machines, there is still no lasting hope in this world without the good of a person and without the goodness of a people through whom God’s moral ‘spirit’ and constructive and creative ‘understanding’ flows and ‘bears fruit’.  I heard Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook say in an interview, that when he was looking at the screen of his phone more than he was looking into the eyes of another person, he was using his phone too much.  He needed to put it down.  He needed to use the phone to help him have more time to be human, not less. 

I like Isaiah’s vision much better, which could even include robots too. Could you imagine that? But at the core of Isaiah’s thought is new growth as ‘the Spirit of the LORD’ to rests on a person, which is here explained as a ‘spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and strength.  It’s the kind ‘knowledge’ that comes to a person whose ‘delight’ is rather strangely, ‘in the fear of the LORD’.  For us ‘fear’ has negative connotations, but we should see it as simply meaning reverence, respect which comes out of a love for justice, righteousness, and faithfulness.

What I think is most important for us to understand, is when we read this passage today, we tend to think it only means that Jesus is this human person who fulfills Isaiah’s dream.  Of course, Jesus is the one whom the Gospel reports had ‘the Spirit rest upon him’, but then later, we also read how this same Spirit rested on the disciples at Pentecost too.  We also read how ever person who was Baptized into God’s new people, received a Baptism of the Holy Spirit too.  Thus, what Isaiah’s vision should mean to us is that God’s vision for new life and new understanding isn’t just about God doing all his work in Jesus, but God would work in us as well.  Jesus is no longer here ‘in flesh and blood’, but he only lives through his Church, through the Spirit that indwells in the believer’s heart. 

The person who ‘fears’ and ‘respects’ the Word and the Work of God for justice and righteousness, is also the person who ‘bears’ God’s fruit in the world.  But what can’t happen, is a salvation that does not include an openness to receive ‘the Spirit’ who has wisdom, understanding, and strength dwelling within us, the human person.   So, even the Divine Factor requires a Human Factor of openness and willingness to imagine and be responsive God’s purposes of life and hope.  And before God brings hope to the world, we have discover his love and hope for and in us.

Barbara Lundblad, a teacher of preachers, tells of a man who lives on her street in New York, who she’s known for years. They often met in the morning at the newsstand. Then, the man’s wife died – forty-two years together suddenly changed to loneliness. Barbara watched him walking, his head bowed, his shoulders drooping lower each day. His whole body seemed in mourning, cut off from everyone.  She then grew accustomed to saying, “Good morning” without any response.  Until one day.  She saw him coming and before She could get any words out, he tipped his hat, “Good morning, Going for your paper?” He walked beside her, eager to talk.

Barbara could not know what brought the change that seemed so sudden. Perhaps, for him, it wasn't sudden at all, but painfully slow. Like a seedling pushing through rock toward the sunlight. There must have been an explanation, yet he appeared to her, a miracle. Had he finally imagined God’s hope for growing newness within his own broken heart?   Whatever had happened, there had to also be ‘a human factor’ that worked with the ‘divine factor’ to invite the newness of hope to come in him.

But here, as Isaiah imagines it, we need to understand that the human factor for bringing about a whole new world is not just a private matter of accepting God’s redeeming grace, but Isaiah reminds us that the human factor has a social side as well.  The one who allows the Spirit to teach them God’s wisdom will judge honestly with goodness, fairness and will be open and glad to obey God’s will.  Again, this is not only a prophecy about Jesus, but it is about how we too are challenged in God’s gift of newness to live in obedience and openness to God’s Spirit for sharing God’s gift of newness for those who need it, just like we do.

Isaiah’s vision, placed in context of the closed-mindedness and short sightedness happening around him as he proclaimed this vision, reminds us how we too might  refuse to imagine a different kind of world—-a world which must include those who having difficulty or are disadvantaged.  We too might decide too soon where things can’t grow, or what can’t be.  “Surely not there!” we say. The rock is too hard, the stump too dead.  Sometimes we just won’t dare toward what might or must be.  There are times when we assume certain groups of people cannot be saved, cannot be loved or cannot grow or thrive. We don’t allow or advocate for fairness and justice for all.

Across from Manhattan in New York City, Jersey City clings to the river's edge. A woman named Ruth grew up there in the thirties. She said it wasn't so bad being a black person in those years. If you were light enough and straightened your hair, you could get a good job with the telephone company.

That’s exactly what her mother did. Every Saturday afternoon as soon as the weather was warm, Ruth and her mother Mabel got all dressed up, fit for the finest party in town. But they didn't even go out the door. They put two chairs out on the fire escape and left the window open wide with the radio tuned to “Saturday Afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera.” They sat for the rest of the afternoon, listening to the opera not from the first balcony but from the fire escape. Mabel knew most of the arias by heart and sang along with her favorites.

One day she overheard some white folks at the phone company say that black people just couldn't understand opera. She would tell that story and laugh until the tears rolled down her cheeks. And she surely was pleased when a most talented, Christian and black Opera singer from Philadelphia, Marian Anderson, was invited to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. People didn’t expect much to grow in black people in those days. But hope can be stubborn. You can try to keep people down, you can put all kinds of obstacles in their way, and yet, they push through the sidewalk. They break through the rock where jackhammers failed and they end up singing God’s new song in the sunlight for all in the world to hear.  When the Spirit is allowed to ‘rest’ on and in someone, no matter who they are, as the poet Maya Angelou wrote, even a ‘caged bird’ will find a reason to sing ( Also from Lundbld).

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse… That’s the divine factor for hope.  God is the source of life.  The Spirit Will Rest upon him…”.  That’s the human factor.  People must allow God’s life to live and inspire them to receive and live God’s hope into their lives, both inwardly and outwardly.  This brings us finally, to the the ‘reality factor’.  As we receive and receive God’s hope and live God’s dream, the dream becomes ‘blessed reality’ in the real world.  As Isaiah imagined: “The whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord…” 

Who could imagine getting here to such a reality of transformation of goodness growing in the world, when you on a lifeless stump of utter despair? I’ve sat there on that stump, perhaps you have, too.  You may even be there now -- at that place where hope is cut off, where loss and despair have deadened your heart.

Today, on this Second Sunday of Advent, God’s good word comes to sit with us. This word will not ask us to get up and dance. You may, or may not be ready to decorate your world with Christmas.  The prophet’s vision is surprising, but it’s still small. The nation would never rise again. The shoot would not become a mighty cedar. The shoot that was growing would be different from what the people expected:
For he grew up before them like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should loo at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53: 2).

A shoot did come out from the stump of Jesse… fragile yet strong and stubborn. It would grow like a plant out of dry, barren, desert, ground. It would push back the stone from the rock-hard tomb.  It would grow in humanity again, but it would also be a promise of a whole new reality, based on what God could do with life, and what humanity could do in God.

This life, not just physical, but also spiritual will grow in the heart of a man cut off by sorrow until one morning he can look up again.  This life will grow in the hearts of people who have been told over and over that they are nothing. The plant of hope will grow. It will break through the places where jackhammers fail. It will sing on the fire escape and soar from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  It will eventually transform human life, but it will transform nature, as well as, human nature.  Nothing and no one goes untouched when God’s life rests and flows through human life and is released into the world. 

What might you imagine being touched and transformed by God’s living goodness sprouting up through some deadness in your world?  We are putting up decorations to say we believe in difference and newness. We don’t just imagine, but we act. Can you imagine that? And if the sprouting sign of life does springs forth through the hardness of your own disbelief, would you feed it, tend it, and care for it?  Even God’s love and eternal goodness doesn’t keep growing in us unless we nurture and nourish it.  Yes, we can ‘kill’ God in ourselves, if we are set on it.   

But now, life and hope spring forth in this Advent time and God’s Spirit rests on us and invites us, to sit on the stump for a while, and God will sit with us. But God will also keep nudging us: “Look! Look -- there on the stump. Do you see that green shoot growing?”  Do you see where hope will grow!  Do you dare go where hope will grow?

Beyond our text, the very next verse declares: “On that day the root of Jesse will stand as a banner (a signal) for the peoples. The nations will seek Him and his resting place will be glorious.”  It says ‘on that day’.  What day is that?  Could something new be growing right now? Imagine that?  Amen.