(This image is a German painting of the Tree of Jesse from Wurzberg from 1240 to 1250.)
When times get tough, people are inclined to hope in a greater power outside themselves to come and rescue them. Some people hope that a good relationship with save them, that a knight in shining armor will sweep them up, or they will find the princess whose foot fits the glass slipper. Relationships that start like this usually end badly. As one of my case managers says to her woman clients who seem co-dependent with their significant other, “A man is not a plan.” People are prone to looking for political leaders to save us. When Barack Obama was inaugurated, I felt sorry for him, because there is no way he could live up to the hype and expectation placed on his head. How quickly a golden crown can change to a crown of thorns. On inauguration day, the satirical newspaper, The Onion, (which fits my warped sense of humor) ran the headline, “Black Man Given Worst Job in the United States.” While half of Americans are arguing over whether Obama or Sarah Palin is the next messiah, the other half have given up on politics and don’t vote at all.
Other people look to gurus or apocalyptic preachers for answers and help. Apocalyptic writings often spring up in turbulent times. Hal Lindsey was popular in the wake of a nuclear arms race and oil embargo in the 70s, and predicted in the book, The Late Planet Earth, that the world would end by 1988. Then he moved the date back to 2000, and now, still prophesying on TBN, he believes that Barack Obama is the anti-Christ and that the European Union will be the new Rome and rule the world as Anti-Christ. Now if they could just have a stable currency! My advice is to not listen to apocalyptic leaders unless they have at least stopped investing their royalty checks. After all who needs money if the world is coming to an end.
Let’s face it, hopes that a human being, even a great one, has the answers we seek almost always leads to disappointment. So how shall we understand the Prophet Isaiah, and his great hope for a king who will govern with wisdom and bring peace? Or what of John the Baptist’s announcement that a messiah would come, judge the sinners and baptize the true believers with fire and the Holy Spirit? Can we trust these words to be anything more than pale hopes for a great rescuer? What makes these scriptures meaningful after nearly 2000 Advents?
Isaiah is my favorite prophet, because he is a pessimistic optimist like me. You may wonder, “What is a pessimistic optimist?” Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr coined the term to mean that while we may be greatly cynical about human nature and our propensity to sin, we can still be fundamentally optimistic because of the grace of God works in us and through us. Isaiah fits this description, because he could equally chastise a king for a terrible foreign policy decision, and yet he gives us remarkable poetic images of peace and hope. Let’s look at images in today’s text, his vision of natural enemies like a wolf and lamb making peace and a shoot coming from the stump of Jesse, to better understand Isaiah’s hopes.
A shoot from the stump of Jesse is a loaded image. Jesse was the father of David, the same David who slew Goliath and became the first great king of Israel to establish the dynasty that still existed in Isaiah’s day. When he suggests that a shoot will come from the stump, this sounds like a cynical view about the Davidic dynasty. It’s a stump. It is cut down and useless, seemingly at an end. I was thinking about the image of stumps, and it occurred to me that we call a political speech a “stump speech.” The dictionary says it stems from the 19th century practice of politicians standing on a stump to speak so people could hear, but I’m not so sure. The word “stump” can mean “to baffle” and to “stump around” is to walk clumsily. So beware of stump speeches. Now you can see that within Isaiah’s hope there is a bit of satire as well.
Isaiah had good reason to be cynical. His prophecies began in the reign of Ahaz, who was one of the worst kings ever. He was immoral and he started following pagan idols, which he put in the Temple in Jerusalem, and worst of all, he lost his ill-conceived wars and he revived the practice of human sacrifice, even sacrificing one of his own children to the god Baal. Stump indeed. His son Hezekiah, seemed to learn from the mistakes of his father. Hezekiah is praised in the Old Testament as a good king. He took the idols out of the Temple and reformed worship. The biblical books of Ecclessiastes, Proverbs, and the Song of Songs, now known as Wisdom literature, were written during his kingship. Hezekiah built the Broad Wall, which enclosed and protected the western suburbs of Jerusalem, and dug a 500 meter tunnel known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel (still there today) that brought spring water underground, ensuring a source of water to the city when it was besieged by the Assyrians. Before attacking Jerusalme, the Assyrians had wiped out 46 cities in their campaign, but according to Herodotus, they lost 180,000 men due to a plague of mice and so retreated and Jerusalem was saved.
So it makes sense the Hezekiah is the shoot from the stump. He is wise and knowledgeable and secured the peace over against a great conqueror. That’s an amazing record. One would think he could make a wolf to lie down with a lamb, a leopard could sleep with a kid goat, the lions might just eat grass like an ox and a child could play next to the den of a poisonous asp. All of creation should rejoice at what Hezekiah accomplished. Maybe Isaiah is laying it on a little thick, but Isaiah was highly critical of Hezekiah for inciting Assyria’s wrath in the first place by not paying tribute, so if he saves the city its OK to go a little overboard.
When the early Gospel writers were trying to find the words for Jesus, it makes sense for them to return to the writings of Isaiah, and the praise of the good king Hezekiah. Remember that Jesus too is of the line of David. So he too is heralded as a Prince of Peace, but not merely on earth as a king, but as one who also lives and reigns in heaven with wisdom, righteousness and justice. Now remember, there was no king of Israel in Jesus’ day who could rule with righteousness. They were occupied and oppressed by Rome, so Jesus, rightly understood as the messiah by the Gospel writers, became the ruler of the human heart and soul, who could rule from heaven and for all eternity. No matter how bad the current occupation by Rome, or indeed no matter how bad any political leader may be, Jesus commands our soul’s true allegiance. The Apostle Paul picked up this theme, and it united people of many lands who felt oppressed by Rome, and gave them strength to endure and even resist Rome, and to create an alternative kingdom built upon love and grace rather than military might and coercive power.
We, who have gathered today on this second Sunday of Advent, are here to proclaim our allegiance, pledging our heart and soul to another shoot of hope, Jesus the Christ, springing from the stump of dead worldly power. While we hope for wise and righteous leaders, we have something beyond political hope. Something amazing has happened since the days of wise King Hezekiah, something even greater than holding off Assyria. Just has Hezekiah was given gifts of the spirit; wisdom, counsel, knowledge, awe and fear of God, righteousness, concern for the meek; in these days Christ gives the same gifts of the Spirit to each of us. The sustaining gifts of life are not just the divine right of kings, but are uncommon gifts for common people. So prepare the way of the Lord, for one has come and is coming and will come again among us, who will baptize with the fire of the Holy Spirit. As John the Baptist said, the fire may burn away what is not essential and prune what is unproductive, but it will not destroy the shoot that grows still today from the stumps of human insanity, ever expanding new branches which sustain and connect us to the Tree of Life.