A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
“I’m going to keep this short.”
That’s an incredible way to start a speech, or even a sermon.
And 99% of the time, it isn’t true.
To start with such a declaration puts people at ease because they’ve been duped into thinking they only have to pay attention a little. For, brevity leads to clarity, doesn’t it?
“I’m going to keep this short,” is usually the prelude to a lot of pontificating that often leaves us no wiser than when we began.
It’s usually an indication that whatever follows wasn’t thought through, and is usually off the cuff.
Which, in a place like this, is a bad idea. Who knows what kind of random theological riff-raff might come forth from a short stump speech.
And, to be clear, I’m not railing against the strange promise of a short declaration just because Fred Sistler started his sermon that way last week.
I would never do something like that.
I’m a Christian!
Stump speeches. They are a regular occurrence in the political fabric of our reality. They trace back to the 19th century during which politicians would go about from town to town “stumping” – offering brief highlights on what they planned to do in office should they get elected, usually with key words and phrases that they repeated over and over and over again.
A stump speech is like having one sermon and using it week after week.
And, of course, the “stump” part of “stump speech” comes from the practice of standing on a tree stump to get high enough for better visibility and greater oration.
Other stumpy items from the 19th century included tables, chairs, and even whiskey barrels.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, rather famously stood on his father’s gravestone in order to proclaim the gospel since he was no longer welcome to preach in churches.
I, myself, prefer preaching from a ladder.
But even here, right in the middle of the chancel area, slightly elevated, this is somewhat of an ecclesial stump where I, and plenty others, have stumped for Jesus.
We might call it our sanctified stump for salvation.
And stump speeches, though often short and repetitive, really can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes all it takes is one story, one word even, for the skies to open up, and all of God’s grace comes pouring down.
When the Good News actually sounds like good news, it changes everything.
My former professor Stanley Hauerwas is known for his stump speeches. He has these recurring quotes and proclamations that he goes back to over and over again. I remember a classmate asking him why he said the same thing so many times, and he said, “Because they’re true.”
Some years ago, while lecturing in Scotland, using those same stumpy proclamations, Dr. Hauerwas was asked to preach at the cathedral of Edinburgh. Massive building with a huge pulpit, hardly a stump. The pulpit there is so large, in fact, that it has its own staircase that the preacher has to ascend in order to preach. And, when the appointed time arrived, Hauerwas marched up the stairs but right before he made it to the top, he heard a small door close behind him as well as a key turning in the lock.
Hauerwas, bewildered by the turn of events, demanded to know what was happening, when someone on the other side of the pulpit door said, “It’s a tradition in this church, dating back to the days of the Reformation. We lock the preacher in the pulpit, and we keep the preacher there until they give us the Gospel.”
Stumping for Jesus.
And yet, a stump is no glorious thing.
A stump, after all, is only possible if a tree has been chopped down. Stumps are signs of death.
By the time the prophet Isaiah rolls around, the Davidic kingdom is nothing but a stump. All the promise, all the hope, all the dreams had fizzled out. The holy city was sacked again and again, people were sent to live in exile. There was no bright hope for tomorrow.
And Isaiah says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots!”
How strange. It’s as if the prophet has lost his ever-loving mind. He looks out on failed promises, idolatry, ruin, and yet he sees something more.
Feeling stumped is, sadly, all too familiar for God’s people even today, particularly during Advent. We might rejoice in memories from years ago, but we know that things can never really be like they once were. We might sit comfortably in these pews, but there’s a better than good chance that we’re also feeling the anxiety that is all to common during this season. We might sing the songs, and purchase the presents, and drive around looking at lights, but that doesn’t automatically make this the most wonderful time of the year.
We know what it means to be stumped, to feel as if nothing good is left.
And what do we do when we’re stumped? To whom do we turn? What relief can we find?
Netflix with the never ending assortment of holiday movies that follow the exact predictable formula over and over? Discounts at the ABC store? Scrolling through instagram seeing perfect people with their perfect lives?
Kurt Vonnegut once opined that no one should read beauty magazines because they will only make us feel ugly.
The same could be said of Instagram.
And yet, when Isaiah sees the stump, he sees hope! The roots are still pulling nutrients from the soil, a new shoot will sprout forth bringing life and life abundant. The new shoot from Jesse’s stump is the promise that God isn’t done with God’s people.
That’s what happens when you worship the God of impossible possibility, even stumps can bring about something new.
And that something new is a person.
Listen – the Spirit will rest upon him and he will know the fear of the Lord. He will even delight in his fear! He will come with judgment and righteousness and he will make all things right.
Sounds pretty good. This new shoot will be the difference maker, a warrior. But what strange weapons! He shall slay the enemy with the Word, not with swords. He will destroy all opponents with the Spirit, not by slaying. He will wear a belt of righteousness for the battle, not Batman’s belt with gadgets and gizmos aplenty.
And with the victory comes even stranger results! The wolf will live with the lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. The cow and bear shall graze. And a little child shall lead them.
Everything about this proclamation is unexpected. The line of David is nothing but a stump, forsaken and dead. And yet, from it the ruler of the cosmos will come. Animals that have no business being together shall live in peace. And a child shall lead them.
It sounds so good and so perfect. And yet, 700 years after Isaiah’s announcement, John the Baptist arrives on the scene, preparing the way of the Lord, announcing a baptism for the repentance of sins. He calls the religious elite broods of vipers because they have lost sight of Isaiah’s vision.
John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees!”
The stump of Jesse, the ax at the roots. John and Isaiah together see a reality that no one else does. They see the sign of the time. “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”
What is the sign?
Have you ever wondered what became of the tree that was chopped down in order to make the stump? Have you ever seen the connection between Isaiah’s proclamation and John’s declaration?
The stump is only possible because a tree was brought down. And do you know what we did with the tree? We nailed Jesus to it.
The root of Jesse is the cross. It stands on a hill far away, the emblem of suffering and shame. And it is glorious.
Some will say, this time of year, that we need to keep Christ is Christmas. Sure. That’s fine. But if we’re going to keep Christ in Christmas, we should also consider what it might mean to keep the Cross in Christmas.
It’s Advent. This is the time of year when we hear the most difficult, demanding, bad news to ever be called good – The Cross. Every Advent we have our worlds’ rocked, tables turned, foundations shaken, demons put to rot, and dead dreams brought back to life.
All things are possible in Advent because we worship the God of impossible possibly. The God who delights in upending all of our expectations of how the world is supposed to work.
Jesus really is the reason for the season, as is his cross. And lest we domesticate the Lord to mere flannel graphs and perfectly manicured manger scenes, Jesus was and is still so provocative that the powers and principalities are forever trying to shut him up. But nothing can stop Jesus. He’s going to say and do things that change everything.
Not even the cross can stop him.
In fact, the cross is our salvation. It’s a stump that brings forth new life. That’s why we can call it glorious.
Therefore, whenever someone stands in this place and stumps for Jesus, we are called to do exactly that – We point to Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the one who makes a way where there is no way.
The promise of Advent is that no matter what stumps us in this life, God is going to get what God wants. Predator and prey will dwell together. Peace will reign. And a child will lead us.
The promise of Advent is that Jesus is the shoot, the branch that grows into a cruciform tree bearing the fruit that is salvation because Jesus is always stumping on our behalf, even when it costs him his life.
The promise of Advent is that new life always starts in the dark, whether in the womb or the tomb, whether underground or the lost being found; new life starts in the dark.
Therefore, the next time you encounter a stump, take a good look at it, because you may be looking at your salvation. Amen.