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Hope from the Roots
An Advent Sermon on Isaiah
A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
Preached at Christ Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
In my back yard there’s a stump, gray, old and rotting. Many years ago there was a sugarberry tree there. In the winter its fruit would feed robins and cedar waxwings, and in the summer its leaves would attract the caterpillars of Tawny Emperor, American Snout, Mourning Cloak, Hackberry Emperor, and Question Mark butterflies. Those caterpillars in turn would feed an abundance of birds from migrating warblers to resident chickadees. It was a place of abundance, but a strong storm damaged it beyond repair and it had to be cut down, leaving only the stump.
We could have had the stump removed, but we decided instead to let fungi have their play the grass grow up around it. Then in a surprise, a new sugarberry began to grow from the ground beside the stump, its branches twisting up from the roots. What had seemed dead and lost was alive again.
Isaiah knew something of stumps like this. He knew that many a cut tree still has life beneath the ground, and that even when all seems lost, in the dark silences of the earth, a tree can grow again—a second life springing from the roots. And it was from that knowledge of trees that Isaiah found hope for a different kind of tree—Israel with its many branches.
For Isaiah, Israel had come to be embodied in a figure—the king sitting on the throne established from David’s line. As an American I’ve never been much for monarchs. And I admit, that even Queen Elizabeth the II gave me at most an ambivalent shrug. But at her death I was chastened by the reflections of some English friends. I came to see through their eyes just how much this monarch embodied the whole ethos and identity of Britain. For her to die was to see some of that identity die as well.
For Isaiah, the Kingdom of Israel was like that. The whole world of Israel and Judah as God’s people had come to be represented in one person, the king of David’s line, born from Jesse, David’s father. And that person was now throwing away the kingdom, ready to sell out for the sake of safety. Isaiah could foresee that such a move would not end well and that soon enough Israel and Judah would be lost, like a tree cut down to the stump. And that is in fact what happened. Ahaz the king ignored Isaiah’s advice and soon Judah found itself the vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, the David throne sold out.
Most of us are unlikely to be worried about the preservation of some symbolic throne, but we have our own trees that have died—cut to where only a stump remains. It may be a lost relationship, a failed career or diminishing health. It may be a child struggling through the pressures of growing up or a person so tired by life that they long for a permanent break. Whatever the dying branches or cut trees, Isaiah’s vision has something to offer us. New trees can grow from old stumps, the roots beneath the ground can burst forth with new life.
And the helpful thing is that Isaiah was able to imagine such life when all seemed hopeless. The kingdom was being lost right as he spoke, and he could foresee the consequences that would lead Judah in exile soon enough. But Isaiah didn’t base his hope on some solution on the horizon, some fix for the despair of his situation. So often we think of hope as the fulfillment of some wish, but those hopes are sure to disappoint. Instead, Isaiah’s hope was based not on the fulfillment of a want but on trust—trust in the God of hope he knew would bring life and renewal in the end, the God who loved Israel and sought its good. It’s that kind of hope we are called to practice; a hope rooted in trust. Trust in the God of hope is the only hope that we can rely on, the only hope that even death cannot destroy. Isaiah saw the kingdom of Israel cut down, but he trusted that from the stump of Jesse, from the line of David, a new king would arise—one who would bring about a final healing of all things, a flourishing that would continue without end.
Hope of the kind Isaiah had; the kind that we are invited into this Advent season is not something we have as a possession. Instead, it is a gift that we practice. Trusting that God will bring healing even after all seems lost is an act we must continually learn. But there are some ways we can live into this trust, practices that will help us become a people of hope.
First, in order to welcome hope we have to leave the stumps and let the ground lie fallow. If we had not left the stump in our yard, letting it be, no new tree would have grown in its place. So often we want to do away with the disappointments of our lives; to leave behind all the signs of the failure, to ignore the grief that has interrupted our joy. But Isaiah didn’t do that. He looked straight into the void and despair of Israel’s near future. He saw that the throne of David would soon be empty and that the tree of Israel’s life would be cut down. And yet it is even as he faced that grief that he was also able to trust that God could raise new life from the ground our lives. We too should learn to leave the stumps and let the ground lie fallow so that hope can have a chance to grow. The places of our grief is the ground from which God is able to bring about new life from the roots.
The place of roots is a place of silence and waiting. It is a place of mystery where we don’t know exactly what will come, but we trust in the one who will bring it. It was years before the tree in my yard returned to any fullness. Life was growing beneath the ground, but I could not see it until it sprang up. When we face the places of darkness and despair, death and loss, our temptation is so often to ease the tension of our loss. But if we follow the example of Isaiah, the way of resurrecting trees, then we will learn to wait in silence, like an ember in the dark, barely visible but ready to burst into flame. A daily prayer of waiting before God, learning to live into the daily rhythms of our life, is the way that our hearts can become grounded in the depths of the ground, a place where life can spring again whatever might happen on the surface.
The life that springs up from the depths will likely come when we least expect it and take forms that are surprising. Whether children of Abraham from stones or Gentiles drawn into the light of God’s kingdom, when we practice the hope of trusting God we should be prepared to be surprised. But whatever surprises come, whatever mysteries we enter, we can trust in hope that God is working from the stumps of our lives to bring about a new reality.
In my backyard, the sugarberry that sprung up from the roots of the stump is now over fifteen feet tall. Its fruit is once again feeding the birds and its leaves are a nursery for butterflies. Around the stump rabbits have made their nests, their young letting us move close, the relationship between predator and prey finding a momentary peace. A ribbon snake made her home beneath the stump and my children hold with the snakes without worry. It’s not quite the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of lions and lambs, or children playing over the adder’s nest, but it is a move in the right direction, a surprising burst of life born from fallow waiting. The stump and the tree beside it remains a sign to me of the hope I’m called to practice, trusting the God whose power is at work within us, abundantly accomplishing more than we could ask or imagine.
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