Here is the sermon I preached at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Brownstown, IN for the 2nd Sunday in Advent
Perhaps you have heard of the classic poem from the middle ages by Dante called Divine Comedy. A famous line describes the sign on the entrance to Hell: “Before me things created were none, save things Eternal, and eternal I endure. All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” To Dante it was clear that Hell is a place where hope is not.
Our world today knows even more about that than when Dante penned the phrase long ago. We’ve moved on from a time when we believed that through human achievement we could conquer most problems. Sure we solve some problems through technology and advancements in different fields- but in the big picture problems abound. Sometimes we even create new problems that previous generations never had.
Perhaps the only people who still believe that the Human spirit can overcome all challenges and problems are those who have no faith in God and need to believe in human achievement in order to believe in something. But such human hope is always dependent on variable circumstances that change day by day.
It is easy to lose hope. Yet the message in God’s Word for us this morning is that when hope seems the lowest, is when hope abounds all the more through the power of God. This is a different kind of hope, that which is fixed on the steadfast love of God- and as a result is sure and certain.
John’s message came when people did not have very high hopes. Little remained of what was once a glorious kingdom under David and Solomon. Following their tenures as king there was only the occasional righteous ruler such as Hezekiah. But otherwise it was a downward spiral of wickedness among the rulers, and even division between two nations. What was once a mighty nation was now- a mere stump. Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, Babylonians and now was weaker than ever.
Life was difficult in Israel, the Romans had long since occupied the whole territory and Israel had only its own civil wars and in fighting to blame that Rome ever came to their land in the first place. Part of the occupation was the establishment of vassal kings such as Herod who were part Jewish in identity and part Roman ruling elite in lineage. As a result the purity of beliefs in Israel was irreversibly tainted.
Spiritually Israel was not what it once was. Pharisees and Scribes made pretense of being God’s people, yet cared only about themselves and their appearances. John calls them a brood of vipers who only bore sour fruit in their lives and in their faith. Perhaps when hope is lost it is tempting to put our faith in material things that don’t matter- the latest and greatest our society has to offer both materially and spirituality.
In this context of failures in Israel, John has a message of renewal unlike any other. The best of all possible news: a Savior is coming.
Israel was an old stump, forgotten about, decaying, and only a mere semblance of its former glory. Out of that stump a shoot grew. Hope grew out of the Root of Jesse in the form of God himself. Clearly this shoot described in Isaiah chapter 11 is Jesus. Jesus is repeatedly named in the scripture as a son of David, he is the branch from the root of Jesse.
We hear about the quality and nature of this shoot in our Old testament reading Isaiah chapter 11. Listen again to what it says about what this shoot from the stump of Jesse was going to bring to Israel: 2And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
How did an old stump like that produce such a glorious shoot like God’s Word describes? Consider what this reading is describing about this shoot. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him- Jesus has the very spirit of God! At his baptism in the Jordan River the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and remained with Him. The secret to the growth of this shoot is God’s gift of unconditional love in visiting us with His presence.
Since we also have been baptized into Christ we can think of what gifts we have with God’s presence among us. The first we hear in Isaiah chapter 11 is the gift of wisdom and understanding. In Luke chapter 2 we hear about how Jesus grew in wisdom in his youth. Because he first grew in wisdom we also can have wisdom in Him.
Society ranks wisdom as one of the most valuable commodities in the world. Wise counsel for how to live or deal with problems or invest money is always sought after. Those with the highest credentials in academic achievement or job experience are seen as experts whose services are worth great sums of money. The church may even be tempted to follow the counsel of experts, at a price, in order to achieve secular goals of success.
Yet true wisdom is not bought with a price but instead is a gift of God. James chapter 1 declares: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” God generously gives us wisdom, it is a gift from above, just like Jesus.
We find in the Psalms the familiar connection between wisdom and our connection with God. Psalm 111:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, all those who practice it have a good understanding.”
We are so often like a stump we are wearied by trials and disappointments in our lives. Like all human kind we decay away from the original perfect design in which God created us. In our state of brokenness we are tempted to look at the stump that is our life and assume that we need to scrap everything and start over with something different.
Often what is most appealing as a solution are the empty promises of this world. Wealth, success, victory over rivals, for those of you who are teenager, perhaps it is choosing to compromise on your values in order to fit in and become more popular. For some it may mean seeking a spirituality of our own choosing that fits us perfectly. Whatever false idols appeal to us most and seem to fit us most. Tragically we forget the roots we have in Christ under the stump.
Think of what it means when we have a stump where a tree used to be. The tree was perfectly designed by God to have life and prosper. Yet due to the ravages of our fallen nature, that which was created wonderfully became diseased and fell down. No matter what we try to put in the place of the stump, say an artificial decorative tree, it is less than what the original is. What is needed is to wait for the shoot from God’s original design.
Out of our state of brokenness that looks so meager or worthless by the standards of this world, a shoot comes up, the life of Christ in us! And it is a shoot that is able to grow into so much more than what we could replace on our own.
The hope of this shoot arising from a stump opens us up to welcome and love one another so that all together we may abound in hope. Jesus comes to us today to bring us new life in the midst of that which is dead in us. The root of Jesse springs forth into our lives. He is our hope when we feel grief this holiday season, when the losses in our lives weigh us down.
He is the hope of St. Peter’s . If you have a perception of the livelihood of the congregation and think that it is not what it should be or what it used to be, remember that our life as an institution is always going to become likened to a worn out stump.
Instead of lamenting how the church is not what it should be, or wanting to impose solutions by human wisdom, what if instead we sought after God’s work in our midst, God’s presence in the form of the unexpected gift of our Savior- a shoot from the stump.
Very often the unexpected gifts that we receive in life are some of the best gifts. John’s message in the wilderness to repent and prepare the way for a Savior was a surprise and the best news of all. Although this was the message of God’s Word from the start, hundreds and hundreds of years had passed since Isaiah first foretold the shoot growing out of the root of Jesse.
Sometimes we think of John as a messenger of doom, as he urges the vital necessity of repentance. He calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers- we can tell that he is serious and doesn’t intend to mince words. Yet behind this message of repentance is the good news that a Savior is coming for whom we need to repent and prepare the way for. John brings a message of great consolation. (As we sang earlier- he brings glad tidings from the king of kings.) The message of repentance is always given in light of the good news of our loving God who comes to judge the world in righteousness. May God grant this perfect judgement to us, in Christ Jesus, Amen.