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Monday, December 9, 2013

Expect the Unexpected

Isaiah 11:1-10 ~ Advent II ~ December 8, 2013
 “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
The Lord sent to Isaiah a vision. And in this vision, what Isaiah saw was a stump - a dead, decaying stump, or perhaps a hardened, petrified stump, but either way, once a glorious tree, this stump has lain for years, hard, utterly dead, utterly lifeless – for a generation, in fact. Once, this stump formed the trunk and foundation for a huge, beautiful and strong tree. The tree was powerful. It provided shelter and food and pleasures for the people who rested under it, who lived under it, and depended on it. Under kings like David and Solomon this tree had thrived.

Once, the people for whom Isaiah writes, the people of Israel, were a proud, strong, vital people. They were people of promise. They were powerful, confident, and sheltered under the mighty arm of their king. That was a glorious time. But that was before. That was before the mighty tree faltered and was infected by disease that grew from within, disease that corrupted it and weakened it, leaving it vulnerable to assaults from without. And then it had been cut down; and now all that remains is this useless piece of wood – this old stump, and those glorious years and stories of grandeur are but rings upon its surface.

Isaiah writes of the stump, all that is left of Israel, the former envy of the nations, now lifeless. Its temple lies in ruin, the best and the brightest of its people exiled to Babylon where they languish, the rest in slavery from the occupying forces. Her people live in despair and darkness and hopelessness. But this is not the end of Isaiah’s image; Isaiah brings a new word, sent by God, that this is not the end of Israel’s story. Look!

The prophet describes a vision in which the unimaginable happens. Out of that lifeless stump sprouts the unexpected, unmistakable sign of new life - a green shoot appears. Out of the hopelessly bound roots, a branch springs forth and it grows. “How can it be?” we ask.
Can you see it? Can you see the green shoot coming from the stump where nothing could have been expected to come? Where nothing should have grown??

This shoot is small. It is surprising. And with the news of its advent, Isaiah gives us a new image, the image of a kingdom in which death and hopelessness and despair are transformed by hope, through the promise of a messiah who is powerful and steadfast, who will usher in a new reality for God’s creation.

Here is another image, like the first. It is the photo of a hard, impenetrable, cold rock face. From the angle of the picture, it looks like it might be the side of a mountain or cliff, surely an inhospitable place. Surely, this rock, wherever it is, is not a place for life of any kind to take root and grow. And yet look at what has not only sprung forth, but has even thrived, obviously existing and growing for many seasons out of ­­­that rock, because it is more than just a sapling. Surely, the first shoot, then the branch, and now that tree should not have been able to grow there.

I’m sure there are scientific explanations for how it might be that something like a tree can possibly grow in this place where it should not, or a shoot spring forth from a long-dead stump. But it doesn’t matter. It is still a miraculous thing that has happened. What Isaiah saw and the reality he names is that while you would never expect such a thing to happen, it indeed does happen. Isaiah receives this vision from God and he tells those people who have been living and dying and waiting in exile for oh so long, “God has spoken” - expect the unexpected; expect new life to spring up where you never would have thought that could happen.

It seems to me that these are words that mean something to us today as well, we who are still waiting for peace, who are still waiting for relief from sorrow and pain and warfare, we who are still waiting for the glory of the Lord to appear - “expect the unexpected” – for new life will come for you as well. And suddenly, there is reason to hope, because if we take a look around us, we find sign-posts of God doing the unexpected, the surprising, the inexplicable.

We all probably have stories that we could relate here. I wonder where have you seen new life springing from unexpected seemingly impossible places?

I saw it this week in the story of Harrison Odjegba Okene, where new life came at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Okene was a cook on a tugboat serving the Nigerian oil-fields when suddenly, without warning, the tugboat flipped over, trapping Okene in a small air pocket of the submerged vessel in 100 feet of water. The other 11 seamen aboard the boat died, and indeed it was believed that all had perished. So it was that three days later divers were recovering the bodies of the seamen, when suddenly, as one of those divers grabbed the hand of one of the victims, the hand grabbed him back! Okene had been waiting for three long days, hoping and praying for a miracle, expecting and waiting for death. He never really expected to be rescued and the divers certainly never expected to find anyone alive. How could anyone survive in that frigid, unforgiving water, trapped in that watery tomb, 100 feet under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, quickly running out of oxygen? And yet, it happened.
This week the world observed the passing of Nelson Mandela, a man who believed in this vision of a peaceable kingdom, even in his homeland, which bore the inhospitable stump of racism, poverty and inequality under the policies of apartheid. During 27 long, desert years of imprisonment, Mandela clung to the shoot of hope for a better future for his country. And after he was freed he worked tirelessly to bring about positive change in his country, and he taught the world something about giving peace a chance.
It has long been understood that people cannot live without hope. Words and visions of hope held the people of Israel up through the long, long years of captivity and slavery. Today, now, in this season of Advent, these words from Isaiah urge us not only to expect the unexpected, but they serve as an invitation for us to hope, as well.
The seed of hope that sprouted from the stump began as something small. It was hidden within the stump where it germinated and grew until it burst forth out of that dead stump. It was surprising to see it coming forth from a place seemingly devoid of life. It began as something fragile, but it was tenacious and stubborn and it grew and as it grew it got stronger and stronger.
That is how God’s Advent word comes to us in this text today. It reminds us that our God is a hope-inducing God who has promised great things for us, because God delights in taking that which is broken and lifeless and breathing new life into it. This same God delights also in surprising us.
These words reveal the good news of a future where eternal life-giving things, like love, and peace, and justice, and reconciliation, and healing, and joy will be a reality for all of us, breaking through the hardness of our disbelief where faith sits, germinating within our hearts. We need this word of hope, we need to see what Isaiah saw in these seemingly impossible pairings – the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, all at peace with one another and led by a little child.
There are times when an accident or diagnosis turns our world upside down and leaves us gasping for air. When hope seems cut off. Relationships falter and fail. There may be times when work concerns or family concerns overwhelm us. There may be times when we yearn for the age a long time ago when the tree flourished, and we despair of ever realizing the promise of Isaiah for the coming of the peaceable kingdom, where these beautiful words express more than images on a page but instead describe the reality of peace, equity, justice, harmony, and mercy.
Isaiah’s image of the stump and our image of the rock invite us to embrace the hope of Advent. God sent Isaiah a vision, with images that brought hope and comfort to a people in exile. God sent to us a savior, through whose life, death and resurrection God defeated death once and for all and through whom we receive grace upon grace upon grace, ensuring our hope is not in vain. Hope inspired Mary and Joseph to believe that God’s plan included them in a way that was unexpected, unimaginable, and demanded trust and faith that in God what was seemingly impossible would come to pass.
By the power of the spirit, hope grows in the hearts of people who are told that they can never be “good enough”; or that no one could survive three days in a watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean; or that a life sentence in prison is sure to silence one who imagines a better world and speaks out against the powers of oppression and injustice.
Hope grows in every circumstance where faith longs to break through the hardness of our disbelief and makes room for a future where expecting the unexpected is the norm, where God will prevail in all the earth, and where God’s vision of peace and harmony in all creation is a reality.  
Let us pray. God grant us the vision to see your spirit at work all around us, granting us hope, strengthening our faith, and causing new life to spring forth in the most unexpected of places, especially the dead places all around. Open our eyes, soften our hearts, and instill in us the knowledge of the Lord that brings peace, harmony, justice and mercy.

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