There is an old joke that presses on our text today a touch.
A man, in the northwest was walking through the woods, when he came across a 1100 lb. grizzly bear. Having just left church during the Advent season he had just heard our text today. With Isaiah’s vision in mind the man reaches out his arms to embrace his new furry friend – because like Isaiah said things would change, the wolf and the lamb, leopard and goat, cows and bears , children and snakes, if that motley crew could get along, then surely he and momma bear could give peace a chance.
Well, the bear hadn’t been to church that day, nor had she heard that she ought to be eating straw with the cow. So, after standing on two legs to show the poor guy, how tall she was… she ran him down.
He made it close to 20 yards before he realized that the bear had his number and would catch him. As he gasps for breath, he remembers that reading from Isaiah and cries out to God, “heavenly father, please fill this bear with the knowledge of you. Please, give this bear Isaiah’s vision of your kingdom!”
It was just then that the bear caught up to the man, she stood up on her back legs and instead of roaring, calmly says, “The Lord be with you” shuddering and still gasping for air the man replies, “and also with you?” Being a good new Lutheran the bear continues, “Let us pray. Come Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts to us be blessed. Amen.”
Things would have to change quite a bit for this story to end much differently. Nothing less than a ridiculous change in the world would lead to wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, cows and bears, children and snakes all hanging out having grand old time. Not to mention vegetarian lions… Or the good people of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church eating Tofurky and liking it.
Isaiah is crazy, we can’t even get people to get along in this world – families fight, neighbors never return what they borrow, corporations control, and nations wage war.
Perhaps Isaiah is just an idealist, perhaps we should tear his pages out of our bibles. It seems after all a bit over the top.
Or perhaps not, our text is not all warm and fuzzy. Go figure,Isaiah is actually a rather blunt realist. Our text begins with a stark realization, a theme really. From the Stump of Jesse a shoot will grow up. When Isaiah was called to be a prophet, in Chapter 6, our text from last week it was the same story – at the end of chapter 11, more of the same. It is not out of great triumph that the shoot grows up. It is out of a stump. It is out of the ruins of something great that God brings his promise to restore the world, it is from the stump that God brings his peaceable kingdom. This growth that brings the kingdom of God… It is not something that God’s people of the Old Testament could bring about, it is not something that we can bring about – to a certain extent it is the opposite. We, Israel, and our ideas, ambitions and desires may actually need to be brought down.
This is disquieting, even as it brings comfort. We would think that God would work through the great things of the world – that he would have worked through the great kings and military might of his people in the old testament. One would think that he would work through the greatest things that man has accomplished today as well.
But flying in our face, Isaiah, tells us that God will work through what looks only like death, a dead stump. The ruins of a tree that he himself cut down. All of Israel’s hard work, all of their greatest projects, cut down.
You see, God’s people had been called to a different way of life. They were supposed to stick out in the world, they were special. But time and time again, they they fell away from their calling. Time and time again they walked away from their identity. A line of kings emerged that led the people astray and the nation grew into a sick, unhealthy tree. Selfishness had taken the day, Idol worship was the norm. Instead of caring for the widows and orphans, God’s people ignored those in need, at best… more commonly the few built their fortunes on the backs of others – think predatory lending, payday loans, non-living wages, and the like as modern examples.
What had started as a great plan; God had chosen a people and he would work through them…that had fallen to pieces. Their politicians, their royalty, their economy, even their worship had become distorted and sickly.
God really had no choice, the people were growing toward destruction, they had abandoned their identity. He loved them and couldn’t let them continue on such a course. The whole tree had to come down, their kings, their homes, their economy, even their temple had been corrupted… the whole thing had to come down.
After the whole thing had fallen, it was only then that the shoot would spring up, only then that we hear of the promise. It is the people who only have a stump left, who hear the good news.
One will come to make things right. And under his rule – the wolf will live at peace with the lamb. One will come from the stump, to make all things new.
It’s really not all that different than the story that we hear in the New Testament. God brings life through his son, who bore a cross. God brings life to his people through the way of the cross. It looks like a dead stump, but it is how God has made life new.
It doesn’t fit with our conventional wisdom, but it is Isaiah’s vision. When the tree is cut down, then the peaceable kingdom begins to grow.
When there is only a stump remaining, when the proud and mighty tree has come down, then the one whose clothes are tagged righteousness and faithfulness will come. When there is only a stump remaining, then there is nothing left for bears and wolves and lions to fight for. No reason to harass cows and lambs. When the pride of Israel had finally fallen, then God began his work.
It is a sober, yet hopeful reminder for the advent season. As we decorate our trees, as we prepare for the coming King, we recognize that he doesn’t come in the ways that we might expect. He doesn’t work in ways that we might expect either.
With Jesus, our king, reconciliation, peace, and hope come through the cross – yet another tree that had to be cut down, a stump through which God has brought new life. Our call, this advent and always is to follow. To be a people of the stump, so to speak, to live Isaiah’s vision of love and peace in the hopes that God will work among us and bring us new life in the way of Jesus. amen.