The Second Sunday of Advent: December 8, 2019
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” And so Isaiah begins today.
A stump – what used to be a tree, given up for dead. What was once a proud, living thing, with deep roots and vast spreading branches – A metaphor for Israel in its glory years under King David – powerful, influential, clearly in God’s favor, was no more. Now only a stump, a remnant of what was. Israel had been a tree of promise. Now, a stump.
Some 730 years later it hadn’t changed a whole lot when John the Baptist comes along. His words of judgment declare the axe is lying at the fruit of the tree and if there was no promise of fruit – it would be cut down, made into a stump.
Now here we are, some 2,000 years beyond that, and we find many of us struggling to live under the burden of a dead tree, a stump, that once held such promise:
Perhaps it is a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, a bad diagnosis, a lost job, depression. Once what held so much promise has been ripped away. It can feel as if an axe has been swung and only a stump is left. Of course this sense goes beyond us as individuals. An endless war in Afghanistan, the proliferation of increasingly powerful storms and the subsequent devastation; senseless killings of children in our schools embedded in the violence of our culture; our cynicism toward a dysfunctional Congress, seemingly unable to work together for the good of the country.
So with all of this, my experience is that what most of us are looking for, especially when we dare to come through the doors of a place of worship, is hope. Hope in the midst of the brokenness as we look for the green shoot of life to appear out of the stump, whether it be in our personal life or in the world about us.
I think that is why we love baptisms, babies being born, marriages ordinations, and confirmations such as we are celebrating today. These are all signs of hope! All of you receiving the laying on of hands today are to be signs of hope for one another and the world. You, me, the Church, even when we struggle, are called to be a sacrament of hope, an outward and visible sign of new life coming to bear through the hearts and life of the people of Holy Communion. So we yearn for something beyond the superficial, seeking to be engaged in things that really matter in order that it makes a difference in us and in the world.
But of course there is a problem. Life disappoints us. We disappoint each other. Expectations are not realized. We elect people to office and they disappoint. One war ends and another begins. Those baptized, confirmed and married fall short of the promises and vows they make. Even the Church, itself to be a sign of hope, can disappoint as it fails in God’s mission to be the Body of Christ on the earth.
You see, hope is more than desiring the best or mere wishful thinking. It is even more than seeking a spiritual relationship with God by well-intentioned people such as you. But how? How do we see hope in the midst of this life when so much can seem like a lifeless stump when we are feeling overwhelmed by all that tears us apart?
Look for a moment at the Diocese of Haiti. Numerically it is the largest Diocese of the Episcopal Church. I have had the privilege of traveling there several times to show solidarity in the midst of their suffering. To see the poverty of that country, the devastation after hurricanes and earthquakes, if anyone has a reason not to hope it is they. What one finds when engaging the people however, is hope. Every celebration of the Eucharist I have attended there, every Bible study and prayer group, is filled with life, expectation and a zeal for hope. I have experienced similar sensibilities whether it be in the people fleeing violence in El Salvador or in the squalor of Calcutta, India—hope, even joy, rooted in something beyond their immediate circumstances.
Or look at the example of Nelson Mandela. 27 years behind bars. Beat down. Tortured. But what is the enduring gift of his life? Hope! Isaiah places his hope in the one coming as the spirit of the Lord rests on him. – wisdom and understanding, righteousness and faithfulness. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the child over the pit of the poisonous snake. The point of these images is that in God every relationship is remade, renewed, changed!! For John the Baptist, the axe is the symbol of the possibility of new life after the dead, unpromising, lifeless wood is taken away.
All of this leads to the unmistakable truth of this Second Sunday of Advent. Our hope is not in a program, or good intentions, trying harder, being more spiritual or in anything else. It is to be found in the One who is coming and whom we adore this day. Isaiah looked for God to raise up a new leader for God’s people. John the Baptist announced that he had arrived. We know him as Jesus the Christ, born in Bethlehem. We dare to proclaim in every Advent that our hope is in Jesus, for the promise of God’s vision of justice for all people was born fully in him. All is reconciled through him. The stump of life, personal and that of the world, only has meaning as it rests in the hope of the One who is the Prince of Peace as he is the shoot emerging out of that stump.
Perhaps the prayer of Advent is the scariest of all for us to pray: “God, put your axe to my life and take away all that is not of you, so that I may know that my hope rests only in you.” Our response? Go. Pray it, live it, act it, on earth as it is in heaven.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.