Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Stubborn Shoot -- Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10
December 4, 2016

            There is a scene in the movie, Children of Men¸ where the protagonist, Theo, is trying to help a young woman, Kee, escape from a building that is the center of a fierce battle. This is not just another war movie. Kee is the first woman in two decades to give birth to a baby. That is the premise of the movie and the book by the same name. The human species is teetering on extinction because of worldwide infertility. The story opens with the news of the youngest human being, a young man in his early twenties, being killed outside of a bar. According to the story, the United Kingdom is the last nation on earth to have any sort of rule of law. But immigrants have been targeted by the government as anti-government, anti-law and order, anti-everything. Yet this young African immigrant, Kee, has given birth.
            Through a series of plot twists and turns, Theo is trying to help Kee reach the safety of an organization that is working to reverse infertility and restore the human race. In this battle scene, fierce fighting has broken out between government forces and immigrants. And it is this fighting that Theo and Kee are trying to escape. Theo slowly walks Kee, with the baby in her arms, down a bullet riddled hall. The baby is crying, a miraculous noise after so many years of silence. At the sound of the baby’s wail, people are reaching out their hands to the mother and child. Immigrant fighters point their guns at three of them, then stop when they hear the baby. A government soldier races up the stairs, hears the baby’s cry and calls for a cease fire. Theo keeps moving them slowly down the stairs and out of the building. Soldiers lower their weapons. Some kneel and cross themselves. Some almost smile as they stare down at the blanket wrapped child in Kee’s arms. Just as Theo, Kee and the baby move past the line of troops, someone on the inside of the building fires a shot and the battle begins again in earnest. But for a moment, a beautiful, tender, heart-wrenching moment, guns are lowered, the fighting stops, and there is a shared, stunned awe as the notes of the newborn’s weak cry pierces the sudden quiet.
            This movie, and the book that inspired it, depict a world falling into despair and chaos. It is a hopeless world filled with hopeless people. Without the possibility of a child being born, there seems to be no reason to hope, to believe, to welcome the future. The world is bleak, and the future, if there is to be one, is bleaker still. It is a hopeless world filled with hopeless people.
            This is not quite the world that Isaiah was speaking to in our passage this morning – children were still being born – but despair was real, and I suspect that chaos seemed imminent. It was a time of great political turmoil. Isaiah was prophesying from the southern kingdom of Judah, and threats of conquer from other nations were real and intense. Isaiah read the signs of the times and called on the people to take heed. In the verses immediately preceding ours, Isaiah spoke these words, “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 ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”
            If I heard from Isaiah only words such as these, I would have been tempted to give up completely. If God has despaired of us, if God has promised to bring us low, to hack down the tallest of trees, what point is there in hoping for anything? But these words of judgment are not the end. They point to something more. Trees might be hacked to stumps, but out of the stump will grow a shoot, a tenuous but stubborn shoot. The promise of God did not end in that dead stump. No, it only made it possible for a new shoot, a new promise, a new life to begin.
            Not only does Isaiah speak of a stubborn shoot growing from that cut down and dead stump, we hear words of what the world will look like when that shoot, that branch appears. It will be a peaceable kingdom. A world where wolf shall lie with the lamb, the leopard shall lie with the kid, the calf, the lion and the fatling shall be together. The cow and the bear will graze in the same pasture. The lion will eat straw as does the ox. One child shall play by the hole of the rattlesnake, and another child shall safely put his hand into the hole of the adder. There will be no more prey, no more predator, but all of creation will live in peace.
            This image of the peaceable, peaceful kingdom has been depicted in art hundreds of times. It is an image that captures our collective imagination. How wonderful it will be if the picture becomes reality – a reality where even natural enemies live together in quiet, harmonious peace!
            But this is not a sentimental, sweetness and light description of God’s kingdom. It is both a foretelling and a reminder that creation itself will be reordered and realigned with God’s promise and covenant. When this shoot, this branch from the stump of Jesse appears, everything will be changed. Everything will be new. God’s kingdom will be in our midst. No more harm will be done on God’s holy mountain. No one will be unaware or ignorant of the Lord, because a word from this King will fill the earth with knowledge of the Lord.
            How beautiful are these words! How I long for them to become reality! Yet when I hold up our present world with the world Isaiah’s words convey, I realize how far away from this peaceable kingdom we actually are.
            In our world now, predator and prey are alive and well. Wolves and lambs do not lie down together. Cows and bears don’t graze side by side. I would never let an adult, much less a little child, play by poisonous snakes. Nature is not so peaceable. We are a part of nature, and we are not so peaceable. Strife and hatred and enmity are alive and well here and around the world. I feel a deep guilt if I focus on one source of pain over another. The fires in the Smoky Mountains have hit close to the heart of this Tennessee girl. I am appalled at what is happening to non-violent protestors over the Dakota pipeline. The anger and division throughout our country worries me, and I know that I am a part of it; that I contribute to it. I can barely stand to see the images that still flow out of Syria; images of civilians caught in this terrible civil war being harmed and killed. My heart hurts at the pictures of the children – those who survive and those who do not. And my heart continues to break at the images of the refugees who continue to flee from that region, seeking safety for their families someplace, anyplace else.
            Every picture, every image, every story I see and hear and read in the news and on social media shows the direct opposite of the peaceable kingdom Isaiah prophesied. The gap between that kingdom and our own reality is wide and seemingly unbridgeable. But these words were not spoken in order for God’s children to despair. No they were given to us so that we might hope. God’s promise did not die along with that stump. God’s covenant with God’s people lives on – in that stubborn shoot. God refuses to give up on us. God refuses to abandon us to our own sinful devices. God’s promise did not end with that stump. God’s promise flourishes in that stubborn shoot.
            May our hope in God’s promise be like that shoot. We know that the chasm between God’s kingdom and our reality is wide, but our hope has not died. It may seem fragile and tiny like a shoot growing from a blackened stump, but hope is tenacious. Hope is persistent. Hope is stubborn. So too is our God – tenacious, persistent. Thanks be to God for God’s tenacity in loving us. Thanks be to God for that stubborn shoot of promise. Thanks be to God.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia! Amen.

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