Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
In our passage from Isaiah today we hear, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” This line is referring to the coming of a new king from the family of Jesse. Jesse was King David’s father. Now the dynast of King David had been out of power for some 600 years before Jesus’ birth, so the prophesy would have been heard as very unlikely—but hopeful, since the people loved David. In this passage there is the promise of a new day for the people of Israel. This passage informed our Christmas story from before Christ’s birth.
After Jesus’ birth and death, this vision becomes part of the Christian story—the ancient prophesy of a Messiah was fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. The Gospeler, Matthew refers to the prophesy in the passage that we hear today—God is able to raise up children to Abraham (who is too old to have children with Sarah, just as the new king will come from long dead dynasty of Jesse (and David)). Paul and his community repeat the story about the root of Jesse as a way to build up the message of hope for the Romans after Jesus’ death.
With this sense of continuity, from the prophet Isaiah through the gospels and the letters of Paul, we can think about our Christmas story, the story about Jesus coming into the world as part of a bigger story, the longer and more complex story about how God breaks into the world and makes all things new. So today, I’d like to focus on the Scriptural images of what God’s breaking into the world looks like. We know the story of the birth of Jesus as one of those images, but today we have other images that contribute to our Advent contemplation.
As we prepare for Christmas, we are preparing for God to come into our lives in a new way. Let’s hear today’s Scripture listening for who God is, how God will come, and what God will do. This is theological reflection—what will God be like when God comes into our lives. I’d like to highlight three images that come from our readings today. First a new environmentalism, God creating new life in places were humans have destroyed nature. Second, a time of righteous justice, when the poor and the meek will be given all that they need. And third, a time of wisdom, when God’s knowledge will inform and guide all of God’s people.
In our Hebrew Bible passage, we hear about God creating something new in nature. Out of a stump, out of tree that has been chopped down, there will be new shoots. This is an amazing image. We hear about a tree that seemed totally dead, and from this a new shoot grows. What can God do in nature? Are there places where it seems that nothing can grow and then we find something beautiful taking root? This is about a new kind of environmentalism. Even in places where humans have cut down the trees, God can repopulate the forest. The passage from Isaiah builds up this image of a new kind of planet in which all creatures can live in harmony—the “wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” A time when the resources of the world don’t get divided up so that some live and others die. The wolf doesn’t get to eat all the sheep—in God it will be possible for both animals to live.
Last week, our Outreach committee met and decided where to make donations. One of the new ministries we decided to support is a project on the island of Borneo (Malaysia and Indonesia). The rainforest in Borneo has been destroyed because the people there needed to cut down the tropical trees and instead plant for palm oil—a product that is used in many food products, for biofuels and cosmetics. The people in this region are very poor, so logging was the logical way for them to survive. But the destruction of the rainforest has had devastating effects—they have destroyed the last habitat for the orangutans, and eliminated biodiversity. The production of palm oil, combined with deforestation also makes Borneo a major contributor to green house gas emissions. The project that we are supporting will pay the local people start planting trees instead of cutting them down. It will pay them to start different kinds of economic projects so that they will have alternatives to working on palm oil plantations. (You can talk with Nancy Barnes about this project if you’d like to learn more about it.)
I see in this project, a new shoot from the stump of Jesse. While the rainforests have been cut down, with God’s help (and our work), there is the possibility for a new forest to grow again. Even though the orangutan’s habitat has been destroyed, God is hoping with us, that we might save these creatures by conservation efforts and growing trees so that they might one day return to their habitat. The people of Borneo have been so poor that it seemed that there was no way for them to survive without participating in the palm oil industry. But projects like the one that we are contributing to provide hope that they might thrive with different sources of income—so that they could be part of the solution to global warming, rather than part of the problem. With this project and others like it, there is the hope that both people and orangutans could thrive on their island. God is promising that there will be enough so that the people can eat and the orangutans will also have their forests.
At 10 a.m., during my sermon, our young people are doing a tour of our garden here on the hill, they are looking for God’s creative work, sending up new shoots in places that were dry and barren during the summer drought. They are finding the stumps of trees that we cut down, and looking for new shoots sprouting from these stumps. As we contemplate Christmas coming, are there places in our community where shoots can spring from stumps. Are there vacant lots where gardens could be built? Are there neighborhoods that have only concrete where trees could be planted? Are there wetlands that can be restored, or habitats for birds or animals that can be preserved? Is it possible in this urban area to keep some space for the animals and birds?
The second theme is one of righteous judgment. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” In this passage we hear the hope of a time when the poor will be lifted up and those who have no power in our society will get a fair deal. This was the hope of the prophet Isaiah and it is the hope that we have in Jesus. Jesus was born in the most humble of circumstances. His parents didn’t even have a room to stay in. That night in Bethlehem, there was not one apartment that they could rent. This sounds like Marin today. The rents here have gotten so high that workers can’t afford an apartment. There is very low vacancy and people can look for a place to live for weeks or months. When they find a place, it’s too expensive for them. Young people in our community are forced to stay with their parents or to move away because they can’t afford to live here. But the prophet Isaiah promises that these poor people will be judged with equity.
Jesus preached and taught, healed and witnessed. With his example, we know that there is the possibility that the weakest will not be left behind, but they will have what they need to survive and thrive. And we know that God is working here with us to expand that vision. When we share a meal with our neighbors at the Wellness dinner with the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy we know that the poor can be judged with equity. If we share, there is enough for everyone here.
And today, this is the message about St. Nicholas too. St. Nicholas was a very wealthy 4th Century Greek Bishop (in an area that is now part of Turkey). While there are lots of legends about him, the one that we celebrate today is that he took sacks of gold and gave them to the poor. He did that because he knew that if the poor people didn’t have money that they would have to resort to illegal or immoral activity to survive. But if they had enough money to survive, then they could contribute to society in positive ways. As we celebrate St. Nicholas Day, we can model our own lives on his, sharing our wealth with others who need it—giving gifts that will help people be their best selves, helping them to contribute rather than resort to illegal or immoral behavior.
And this leads me to our third theme—the theme of God’s wisdom and knowledge coming to all of us. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Isaiah promises that a new Messiah will come into the world and that person will be filled with God’s spirit, God’s wisdom and understanding, God’s counsel, God’s knowledge. Jesus fulfilled this promise—and he shared this knowledge with all of us. Now as we prepare ourselves during Advent, we can be looking for this knowledge and understanding. We can ask where we hear voices with God’s wisdom? There are so many places where human knowledge fails. But are there places where we hear real truth? On Thursday, we had a great Bible study class. (If anyone is interested in joining our Advent Bible study, you are welcome. We are meeting every Thursday in December.) We are reading a book called “Finding Bethlehem in Bedlam”. The book asked us to reflect on Christmases in our past that were really meaningful. Our conversation was quite amazing. We talked about quiet Christmases when people didn’t have many presents, but instead connected to people they loved. There were stories about years when Christmas Day was spent in service rather than in indulgence. There were stories about prayerful Christmases. One member of the group talked about how the tree and the gift giving was a very secular tradition—not connected to Christianity. But Christmas happened in the Christmas Pagaent and in the lighting of candles on Christmas Eve.
In these stories around the group, we had real wisdom, real knowledge. The Spirit of God was active in our midst. We have inherited that wisdom from God. As children of God, brothers and sisters with Christ, we have the knowledge that we need to live as God wants us to live.
And so, I conclude today’s Advent reflection with images of God coming into the world in new ways. We are invited to participate in bringing forth a new environmentalism, growing new shoots from stumps long dead. We are encouraged to participate in bringing righteous justice, looking for equity for the poor among us. And we are encouraged to embrace the Spirit of Knowledge that lives in us, bringing forth the wisdom that comes from God. As we talk and listen to one another, we have an opportunity to know God working with us here. We can contribute to the story of hope that comes to us from our ancestors—from the prophet Isaiah, from Paul, from John the Baptist via the Gospels, and from Christ who was born in the most humble circumstances to unite us with God and bring us to his heavenly Kingdom.
Let us pray that this Advent, we might be a new branch coming from the root of Jesse, bringing God into our broken world. Amen.