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Isaiah 11:1-10


They are absurd images Isaiah gives us this morning, aren’t they? A wolf living with a lamb? A leopard lying down with a kid? Calves and lions living together, with a little child leading them? A nursing child playing over a snake pit? Absurd! Irresponsible! Sounds less like a peaceful kingdom and more like a recipe for a bloodbath! “Woody Allen once gave his own interpretation of this vision: ‘The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep!’ (Lundblad).

Of course, the most preposterous image in this whole text comes right at the beginning: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” How can life come from death? “The stump is dead. God had said it would be so. Just before this chapter, God declares punishment on the people: ‘the tallest trees will be cut down and the lofty will be brought low.’ The trees, the people- both will be clean cut off” (Lundblad). But that very same prophet brings us a message of hope: “A shoot shall come out of the stump.”

There is a subversive power in this verse.

There is a subversive power in our prayers for peace.

The roads that lead to Camp Fowler, in Speculator, New York, where I grew up as a camper and then worked as summer staff during and after college, twist and wind through some of the most beautiful areas I have ever known. Whatever the season, the beauty of the Adirondacks overwhelms even the most cynical person.

If you drive to Fowler from south of Albany, your journey will take you up Route 30, through Amsterdam, past Northville and Wells, until you find yourself in Speculator.

Along this road used to stand a house that had been abandoned years before. It was not a remarkable house, save for the fact that a huge tree had grown up right through the middle of it, splitting the roof, and spilling out branches in a huge canopy over it.

Think about how long that house must have been left abandoned so that a tree could grow up through it. Think also about how that tree began its life; “a tiny seedling pushing out into the sunlight,” perhaps a small hole in the roof giving it just the right amount of light and water from rain to nurture it. “A tender shoot no bigger than my fingers had broken through” the foundation, the flooring, possibly moving walls, definitely tearing through the ceiling. Sure, I know such things are possible, but also consider how slowly that change occurred; how stubborn, tenacious, and determined that fragile little seedling had to have been to become what it did (Lundblad).

Every time I drove by that house, I considered what a miracle that tree was.

There is a subversive power in our prayers for peace.

As an English Teacher at The City School in Philadelphia, I considered myself quite lucky to be educating young people in an intentionally Christian atmosphere. I could weave into my lessons on Beowulf and Hamlet ideas about faith and Christian service.

It also allowed me opportunities to provide care for students, some of whom had never known what it meant to be loved as a brother or sister in Christ.

One day after lunch, I went into the faculty lounge to make some copies of an exam I would be giving, to find one of our senior girls crying at the table. It was not uncommon for students to use this space to do homework or take make-up tests, so I was not shocked to see her there, but I was concerned to find her crying. Putting aside my work, I sat down across from her, and we talked. I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t remember what I said. To be honest, I completely forgot about this interaction completely.

Until, months later, on the day of graduation, when she came up to me and gave me a card. When I read that card later in the day, I was surprised to see her reference that interaction and how much it had meant to her. She told me how grateful she was that I had taken the time to talk to her, to comfort her, and to help her work out what her problem had been. I remember how unexpected that felt.

One of the things I always reminded myself when working with youth, whether in a camp or school settings, was that I would not see the results of my work with them. All I could hope for was that I could plant seeds that would eventually grow into something strong and beautiful. This was one of those rare moments when I got to see how a seed I planted, albeit unintentionally, grew “like a seedling pushing through rock toward the sunlight” (Lundblad).

There is a subversive power in our prayers for peace.

Barbara Lundblad, Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, shares a story that speaks into this.

“We often decide too soon where things can’t grow. ‘Surely not there!’ we say. The rock is too hard, the stump too dead. There are times when we assume whole groups of people cannot grow or thrive. Across from Manhattan, Jersey City clings to the river’s edge. My friend Ruth grew up there in the thirties. She said it wasn’t so bad being a black person in those years. If you were light enough and straightened your hair, you could get a good job with the telephone company.

“That’s exactly what her mother did. Every Saturday afternoon as soon as the weather was warm, Ruth and her mother Mabel got all dressed up, fit for the finest party in town. But they didn’t even go out the door. They put two chairs out on the fire escape and left the window open wide with the radio tuned to ‘Saturday Afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera.’ They sat for the rest of the afternoon, listening to the opera not from the first balcony but from the fire escape. Mabel knew most of the arias by heart and sang along with her favorites.

“One day she overheard some white folks at the phone company say that black people just couldn’t understand opera. She would tell that story and laugh until the tears rolled down her cheeks. And she surely was pleased when Marian Anderson was invited to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. People didn’t expect much to grow in that part of Jersey City. But hope can be stubborn. You can try to keep people down, you can put all kind of obstacles in their way, and yet, they push through the sidewalk. They break through the rock where the jackhammers failed and sing in the sunlight for all in the streets below to hear” (Lundblad).

Our prayers for peace have a subversive power.

Our prayers for peace, while powerful, do not work quickly.

Our prayers for peace may seem small, but they have the incredible ability to tear down walls of division.

“‘A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…’ Who could imagine anything growing as they sat on the stump of utter despair? I’ve sat there myself, perhaps you have, too. You may be there now- at that place where hope is cut off, where loss and despair have deadened your heart.

“God’s Advent word comes to sit with us. This word will not ask us to get up and dance. The prophet’s vision is surprising but small. The nation would never rise again. The shoot would not become a mighty cedar. The shoot that was grown would be different from what the people expected:

“For he grew up before them like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2).

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse… fragile yet tenacious and stubborn. It would grow like a plant out of dry ground. It would push back the stone from the rock-hard tomb” (Lundblad).

It grows tough and firm like a tree growing up through the roof of a house; it springs like a seedling in the heart of a young woman; it tears down divisive walls of racial prejudice.

“What if we believe this fragile sign is God’s beginning? Perhaps then we will tend the seedling in our hearts, the place where faith longs to break through the hardness of our disbelief. Do not wait for the tree to be full grown. God comes to us in this Advent time and invites us to move beyond counting the rings of the past. We may still want to sit on the stump for a while, and God will sit with us. But God will also keep nudging us: ‘Look! Look- there on the stump. Do you see that green shoot growing?’ (Lundblad).

This morning, I want to encourage all of us to be stubborn and tenacious in our prayers for peace; to look for the fragile shoot pushing up in places it is unexpected.

May our prayers for peace be stubborn and determined, nurtured through everyday interactions, that they may be able to break down the barriers that might seem to refuse to give way. For when the shoot grows forth from the stump, all things will be made new. Amen.

Works Cited

Lundblad, Barbara. “Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 8 Dec. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.