Second Sunday in Advent

TEXTS: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.” ’           (Matthew 3:1-3)

In today’s passage from Isaiah, we find an unexpected image of the coming Messiah: There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”

Now picture what this looks like. I’m sure you’ve seen it before. A tree gets chopped down. For whatever reason—whether because it’s diseased or in danger of falling over on your house, or maybe just because it’s in the way—you remove the tree. All that’s left is a stump—cleanly cut, flat on top, perhaps close to the ground so no one will notice it. But then—weeks or even months later—a tiny shoot emerges from the seemingly dead stump. And that shoot begins to grow.

Most people would see this as an unwanted eyesore. These little shoots that grow out of stumps are actually known by the unflattering name of “suckers”—and there are all kinds of remedies on the Internet for how to seal off a stump so the suckers won’t begin to grow. But I understand none of them work very well. Usually, you just have to keep chopping off each new shoot as it appears.

Israel’s enemies had tried everything they could think of to seal off the stump of Jesse—the stump that was in fact the root of David’s royal lineage. War, slavery, imprisonment, starvation, exile—Jesus’ ancestors suffered all this and more. In fact, when Jesus was about to be born, there had not been a legitimate king on the throne of Israel for generations. Yet, somehow, life still lay dormant within that burnt-out old stump. And now, it was going to send out a shoot—a branch which would bear Messianic fruit.

Now—in the season of Advent—now is the time when the tiny shoot begins to sprout. But it is so fragile! No match for a determined gardener with sharp pruning shears.

What an odd symbol to use for Jesus! He is the new King of Israel, but he is described as a fragile branch growing out of a dried-up old stump. Not a particularly triumphant image. But that’s what Advent is all about. It’s about coming to terms with the incredible truth that God chose to come to us as a defenseless human baby.

You wouldn’t expect either a baby or a fragile branch to survive for long against any kind of enemy. And yet, as the Christmas story is told, the birth of this child is announced by angels whose message is …

  • “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God” (Luke 1:30).
  • “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife” (Matt. 1:20).
  • “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

Fearlessness. That is what lies behind God’s decision to let Jesus be born as a helpless infant—as a little shoot out of the stump, a fragile branch that could be cut down at any moment.

Fearlessness. Not just on the part of God, but on the part of those who get on board with God’s plan.

  • Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
  • Joseph—believing the unbelievable—took Mary as his wife (Matt. 1:24).
  • And the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15).

Fearlessness. Born of the assurance that a new day of peace is about to dawn. God’s Kingdom is almost here. And Isaiah paints for us a vivid picture of what that Kingdom will look like:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6)

Peace and wholeness. It’s called shalom—a secure place for the vulnerable. A safe place to reach out, to stretch out, to grow. The Kingdom of God. We know it’s on its way because we see the first tender shoots emerging from the stump—soon to become branches.

Here’s an interesting fact about branches on a tree: they grow right on the edge. Very little of the growth of a tree happens internally, down in the trunk. New cells are produced right at the very edge and build outward—fragile, but brave.

I wonder: are there edges of your life that need more attention to really start growing? Are there parts of you that feel unfinished and vulnerable? That you’re afraid to let out into the light? I’ve certainly got them, and I’ll wager that you do, also. And you know what I think? I think we must listen to the message of the angels. We need to hear them say, “Fear not!” and then respond in faith. If that new growth within us is to have half a fighting chance, we require some measure of fearlessness. We need to have at least the courage of a sprouting plant.

It feels strange to be talking about this in December, doesn’t it? To be talking about the fragile budding growth of new tree branches now that winter has set in. But I think that is an important sign, as well. The new life and new growth that Jesus brings do not always arrive in the obvious places. In fact, they usually don’t. We need to look for birth and growth within ourselves not only in warm, familiar, and friendly chambers—but in the cold, forgotten, and inhospitable places, as well. We need to spend time facing winter’s icy blast and the fury of the wind. Because the storms that we experience are important to our growth.

Do you recall a project called “Biodome”? Back in the ‘1990s, Biodome was an attempt to create a totally self-contained biological environment—a “mini-Earth” sealed away from the outside world. Parts of the Biodome project were quite successful, but one of the most baffling disappointments was the trees. They had all the sunlight and water and nutrients they needed—but, as they grew, they could not stand up straight. They flopped over on the ground, weak and limp.

The Biodome scientists finally realized that there was one vital ingredient of the outside world that they had forgotten: wind. In nature, the force of the wind causes tiny microcracks in the trunk and branches of trees. As it turns out, trees rely on this minor trauma in order to grow strong. Standing straight to the wind—breaking a little, but then rebuilding at the same time—this is what makes trees resilient.

Just like trees, human beings need to be buffeted by the wind. We need to endure the storm, in order to grow stronger.

Did you ever think that you might need the fierce storms of your own life? Or that they might be as necessary for your growth as warm rays of sunshine?

Today, John the Baptist explodes on the scene like a raging storm. He descends with locusts and vipers and axes and fire!

Now, you may be asking, “How does John’s violent message square with the promised peace? Of the wolf lying down with the lamb?”

Remember the image of the shoot growing up out of the stump? Consider how that environment was created. A tree had to be chopped down to a stump in order for the new shoot to grow up out of it.

John the Baptist says, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees.” And he is the very personification of that message. He has arrived to shock us out of our complacency, to call us to chop down and root out all the old habits of greed and shame and selfishness that have grown up within our souls.

Advent is the beginning of the new church year. It is a time to start over—to begin with a fresh slate. We are told by John the Baptist to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

What does that mean? I think what it means is this: all the old condemnations—of ourselves, and of others—must be chopped down and thrown away. Why? To make room for the new shoot of Jesse to grow up within us. That is how we can prepare the way of the Lord. The Baptist’s message is not one of condemnation, but rather of liberation. It’s as if John wants to hand each one of us a machete, so we can hack our way out of the thick, choking overgrowth that has entangled us—that has trapped us in misery and despair.

But then, for all the ferocious power of his message—which we must take seriously to heart … what action does John take?

He baptizes! Even as he spews forth the brimstone of his fiery language upon the ears of the inquirers and seekers on Jordan’s bank, he also plunges them beneath the cleansing stream that foreshadows living water. He sees the potential of these believers, and so he waters them. He waters them, so that a new shoot of life might yet sprout and grow from them.

Through Advent, we have our own opportunity to test the waters. Through Advent, we are called to gather our courage and ask the Holy Spirit—with fiercest fire and with gentlest water—to cleanse our souls as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child. In this season of anticipation and possibility, the coming Christ is looking for fertile ground in which to grow—in which to send up a new shoot out of the old stump. Isaiah proclaims: In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations enquire, and his resting-place shall be glorious.

Friends, we can make ourselves that resting place—transformed into something glorious and new by the presence of Christ.

Are we up to the challenge? I hope we are. Will we open our hearts to make room for the King who is coming? I hope we will. Because—if we will do that—we can expect to witness miracles. We can expect to find ourselves manifesting grace in ways that we never expected. Tender shoots of life—parts of ourselves we never knew existed … these will grow from us, and bear good fruit.

So, on this second Sunday in Advent, I offer you an updated version of the Baptist’s call:

“Let’s be like Jesus; let’s branch out!


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