A stump is a nuisance. It’s what is left after something that was once tall and beautiful is gone. We want to get rid of a stump, but it’s a terribly challenging thing to do. A stump in our front yard does not inspire excitement or joy.
A stump is also exactly where the story of the Savior of the world begins. Sometimes, seemingly by accident or by miracle, new growth appears from a stump, something we presumed dead.
A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots (Is. 11:1)
See Isaiah 11:1-9, this week’s lesson
Isaiah’s listeners, who knew something about Jesse and the kingship of David his son, would have found this prophecy hard to believe. The line of Jesse had been cut to a stump. The kingdoms of David and Solomon failed. Their people, God’s people, had been taken captive or killed. Yet Isaiah proclaims that the Messiah who comes to save the whole world will come from the family of Jesse. A new shoot will come from the dead-looking stump.
All the Messianic prophecies that we hear during this season of Advent are hard to believe. World peace, predators that become friendly, prey that becomes strong, children playing near snakes unharmed, and everyone everywhere having right relationship with the Lord and with each other. The world around us looks like a dead stump from which these visions can never grow.
Still, we believe they will, because of what we have already heard. The Christmas Gospel story that we hear each year describes the sprout from the stump of Jesse’s tree, and the conditions in which Jesus enters the world are as bleak as any stump. A pregnant unwed teen, an arduous trip mandated by law; when her labor begins there is no safe place to give birth. The Savior begins life in a manger: cold, unsanitary, surrounded by animals, no midwife to help, just Mary, Joseph and the infant born from the stump of Jesse.
The infant. Not teacher or healer or any of the things Jesus became known for. It would take time and growth for him to begin the ministries that lead toward Isaiah’s visions.
The world still awaits the fulfillment of much of Isaiah’s dream. As Jesus concluded his ministry on earth he called the Disciples to continue his work, disciples who began the church, Jesus’ new body in the world, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Often we (the church) don’t feel all that great. We protect traditions that probably wouldn’t have mattered to Jesus. We argue. We split. We make new churches that protect new traditions and put new flags in the sand. We become old and stop reaching new people. We shrink. We close churches.
But even out of stumps such as these, God can and does bring new life. Since Jesus’ life began from a stump, we should expect nothing less and nothing more for the church. Our challenge is to trust in the potential for new life, even from the deadest, peskiest stump that simply can’t be removed!
Next time you trip over a stump, look twice to be sure it’s not a manger.