“When We’re Stumped”
Isaiah 11:1-10 & Isaiah 2: 1-5
The country of Assyria loomed like a dark shadow threatening Israel for many years, years during which several books of the Old Testament were written. So as we read books like Amos and Hosea and Isaiah, we do so knowing that lurking in the background is this monster Assyria. It was a large nation, and a powerful one, and one bent on expansion and domination. It had a mighty army, and a desire to conquer more and more territory and enslave the inhabitants. And it was a cruel nation, intimidating those whom it conquered through threat and torture and death.
Assyria had come from the north of Israel, gradually moving south and subjugating Israel’s neighbors to the north like Syria and Phoenicia. Then it had conquered the northern part of Israel itself, the northern half of the divided kingdom, breaking down the capital city of Samaria and taking most of the people away to slavery. Isaiah chapter 10, the section immediately preceding the verses we’ve just heard, describes the situation the southern half of Israel faces now: Thus says the Lord: “Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger, the club in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. Shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols what I have already done to Samaria and her images? He has gone up from Rimmon, he has come to Aiath; he has passed through Migron, at Michmash he stores his baggage; they have crossed over the pass, at Geba they lodge for the night; Ramah trembles, Gibeah has fled. Madmerah is in flight, the inhabitants of Gebim flee for safety. This very day he will halt at Nob, he will shake his fist at the mount of daughter Zion, the hill of Jerusalem.”
Those last few verses list the towns leading down the highway from Samaria to Jerusalem. They describe the advance of the Assyrian army from the town of Rimmon to Migron to Ramah, coming ever closer to Jerusalem—as if we heard of an invading army taking over Danville, then Georgetown, then Ridge Farm, then Chrisman. Finally the army is within sight of our town, just a few city blocks away. The enemy is here, knocking at the door. Capture looks inevitable. The end has come.
So the setting for our passage today is a mood of hopelessness. The only part of Israel that remains uncaptured, essentially, is the one city of Jerusalem. The forces there cannot possibly stand up to the Assyrian war-making machine.
The only future imaginable looks like this: There will be a siege, when the Assyrians block any supplies from reaching Jerusalem, and the food will gradually run out and the people will become weak, and the Assyrians will break down the city wall and kill the king and take the people into slavery. The days of Israel as an independent nation will be over. The line of King David, and the prospect of a glorious rule which was to have no end, will be wiped out. The people of Israel will disappear into exile and be no more. The people of God have come to a dead end.
So the image used as we begin chapter 11 . . . is a stump. Where once there was a large tree, where once there was beauty, where once there was life and the seeds for new life, there will only be a stump—a sawed-off, hard, dry, lifeless reminder of what used to be. A symbol of the end.
But Isaiah 11, as we’ve just heard, following this setting of hopelessness, is a poem of hope somehow. The writer believes that out of this dead-looking, sawed-off stump there will yet come new life—a shoot, with fresh new leaves; a branch; a new beginning. He calls it “a stump of Jesse,” because Jesse was the father of King David, and it looks like Jesse and David’s line of kings, their descendants, has been cut off.
But this stump of Jesse, this dead-looking former source of kings, will yet produce another king, says Isaiah. In spite of how things look—in spite of the mighty army surrounding the city, and the imminent unseating of the king, and the dead appearance of the stump—there will be a new shoot from that stump, a new king, a future.
There is still hope.
The church has looked back, especially during its seasons of Advent, as we’re in now, and seen in this promise of a new king from David’s line, the promise of Jesus Christ. For Jesus of Nazareth was a descendant of David’s, many generations later, and even emerged from the city of David, David’s hometown of Bethlehem. He is a different kind of king than the people of Isaiah’s time expected, of course, and at a different time; he will not be leading ranks of soldiers against Assyria, or any other military force. But he is a king, from Jesse and David. And he certainly fits the description in the verses that follow; “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.”
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear,” the passage says. In other words, he will not be swayed in his judgments by whether a person is well-dressed or wealthy, as judges of Isaiah’s time were known to be. And he will not judge people based on gossip or hearsay, as many more people since the judges of Isiah’s time have been known to do. Rather he will judge with fairness and righteousness for all people, poor or rich, meek or influential. And the gospels speak of Jesus being able to see what is in people’s hearts, in their inner thoughts, and evaluating them that way.
He will provide equity and righteousness for the poor and meek; to have Jesus Christ as king means we have a good king, as well as powerful. There will be none of the usual prejudice against certain classes or categories.
“With the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked,” verse 4 continues. The point of the verse, Otto Kaiser writes, is to illustrate his power: He needs no army, no guard, no henchman, no sword to implement his verdict. One word from his mouth is enough to do away with any evildoers.
And “righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins,” always part of him, always present. He will be righteous and will be faithful, even to the point of death, even death on a cross.
This is the king that will yet spring forth like a fresh young shoot from the seemingly-hopeless situation of Israel.
And also, in the characteristic described at greatest length in the passage, he will be a bringer of peace. Even the lambs and young goats and little children will not fear in the presence of the wolf or leopard or bear—that will be the kind of peace present in his reign. The lion will no longer be fierce; even snake dens will be safe places for infants—that will be the kind of peace present in his reign. No one will hurt or destroy, on all of God’s earth—for the knowledge of the Lord will be everywhere, just as water covers every part of the earth reserved for seas. The new king brings peace.
Now remember the setting for this promise again: It’s a rather outlandish proposition, don’t you think, predicting this kind of peace while the Assyrians are pounding on the door, yelling threats and promises of destruction, their many victims strewn out behind them. How can the writer promise this kind of peace?
And reading the promise today, it’s no easier to believe, is it? We see our own cruel armies, in the very same part of the world Assyria inhabited, doing unspeakable violence—the armies of ISIS. We see individuals murdering multiple victims in our country, some of them claiming to be motivated by groups like ISIS, others speaking of saving babies. We see tens of thousands of refugees fleeing situations or threats or violence. We see young African Americans being killed, some by police, more by gangs. And that’s just the beginning of our discouraging list today. How could this poet predict peace? Things are getting worse, not better. War and violence are everywhere; we can’t fight them. We’re lucky if our own neighborhood is safe, let alone the whole creation. It’s hopeless. It’ over, We can’t fix it We have no answers. We’re . . . stumped.
But: “A shoot shall come out of the stump,” Isaiah wrote. “And the wolf shall live with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion together, and a little child shall lead them. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
Professor and writer Walter Brueggemann, the Monday night Bible Study’s favorite lecturer—not—has tried to make sense of this promise of peace, in light of our contemporary situation and this Isaiah passage: “Try to ‘take the poem,’ he writes, ‘as a vision of a new humanity in which God raises up new life where we least expect it. Think of the stump as any closed-off possibility, any place in life that has failed and collapsed and ended in despair. It is like an old potted plant, dead and thrown into the compost pile, forgotten and abandoned.
“And then you look later: Out of that deadness has come a new shoot, a plant, perhaps blooming with new possibility and promise. The poem’s vision is of a king, but it is in fact a deep claim all over the Bible that God raises up: new human actors, new human characters, new possibilities.
“Every such raising up of a ‘shoot’ from a ‘stump’ is a miracle. Think of a place where you are ‘stumped,’ and imagine there a new ‘shoot’ of life, energy, and possibility, where none is expected. That newness lives . . . on the lips of the faithful God!
“How does it happen that a new shoot comes from an old stump? What is it that causes shoots to come from stumps? Isaiah knows. The Spirit, the wind of God, is the inscrutable, inexplicable, irresistible force of God’s purpose that blows, uninvited, into our lives. We can be blown away when the mind of God blows—strangely filled with power, resolve, daring, imagination.
“So a neighbor, at the risk of losing face, forgives a neighbor, and peace breaks out in the neighborhood. A hurting member of an estranged family commits an act of honesty or generosity, and permits the family to begin again. A teacher asks students to reimagine the world, and peace is kindled. A politician moves beyond business-as-usual and carries hard-nosed people into new possibilities. A church gets its mind off itself, its own survival and budget, and moves against normal ways to let God’s new ways permeate its life.
“When asked about the strange departure from the old predictable ways, the explanation is often not very clear: ‘It just seemed the right thing to do,’ a person will say. ‘I couldn’t help myself.’ Or even ‘I don’t know what got into me.’ But Isaiah knows what gets into people, knows what got into the stump that caused the new shoot. It is wind. It is the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God, to push us outside of ourselves, to give ourselves over to the purposes of God that are larger than our tired, controlled selves.” End of quote.
When we see only a few starving Israelites against a powerful Assyrian army, or a solitary struggling king of Israel against on unstoppable policy of executing such kings, or refugees on floundering life rafts, or the abstract notion . . . of obeying the law . . . against the strong temptation and then decision to take, steal, or hurt—when the scenario is reduced to such visible, practical things, the picture may look hopeless. The dream of a peaceful world seems dead, the tree cut off. Only an ugly lifeless stump remains.
But when the Spirit of God enters the picture . . . then the words of Isaiah come again: A shoot shall grow from the stump, a branch from the roots. And there will be a time of peace, where none will hurt or destroy on all of God’s holy mountain, when the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Even as Assyria pounded on the gates, Isaiah wrote of a new king, guided by the Spirit. And Jerusalem did not fall, and the Assyrians went away; and later Jesus came. Even when our prospects for peace look most hopeless, we have the same promise—God’s Spirit will come.
I’ve never been much of an agriculturist myself; Laurie is the gardener in our family. But another fellow minister, William Leety, of Covenant Presbyterian church in Scranton, Pennsylvania wrote of his experience with farming:
“My one great horticultural success . . . succeeded in direct proportion to my ignorance; and it caused a considerable upheaval to my backyard. Knowing that I drink iced tea with lemon and a mint leaf, a friend delivered a clump of curly mint for me to plant in the backyard. So I spaded some space by the garage that once was an old chicken coop, and I planted the curly mint in what had been the chicken yard, imagining a constant three or four stalk supply, to flavor tea or to scent the kitchen. And that first season, the curly mint grew beautifully, yielding all I’d hoped, and even a little more.
“The next spring . . . it emerged from the chicken yard with a vengeance. In fact its shoots had run far underground and were erupting in a six-foot area of the backyard. The roots in the aged chicken manure marched the mint like a subterranean army into my nice grass! To sever the shoots, I sank a spade down deep at the edge of the garden. I let the lawn go unmowed for two weeks, and began pulling up the curly mint, shoots from which tore up the yard all the way to the garden’s edge, leaving a large bare patch.
“I sank a six-inch-deep wooden edge around the garden to protect it, only to discover later that summer that shoots from the mint had gone around and under and through the cracks of the wooden edge, erupting again fresh and sweet into the yard.
“The shoot from Jesse’s stump . . . grows gracefully defiant to the ways of the world, anywhere fools plant it, anywhere God plants it. There’s no stopping the shoot . . . that grows from the root of Jesse.” End of quote.
That’s one thing our Advent season is about. Whatever aspect of your life today may seem grim, or hopeless, or stumped . . . “there’s no stopping the shoots.” There’s no stopping the creative possibilities . . . of the Spirit of God.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for the hope you promise. Help us to hear and believe your promises, and to move forward as a people of hope and faith. Amen.