With thanks to the Rev. Whitney Rice, from whom I stole the middle portion of this sermon.
With all the attention (well-deserved, btw) on Hurricane Sandy and the devastation she wrought on the coast, I sometimes feel bad for the friends of mine who were equally devastated by Hurricane Irene the year before. Irene was the seventh-costliest hurricane in history; she caused almost 17 billion dollars of damage, and on a more local level, she all but wiped out my friend Fr. Marshall Shelly’s church, St. Peter’s in Spotswood. Irene caused tornadoes locally, and I think we almost had one here, because of the pressure; liquid soap was actually pushed right out of the pumps in our kitchen and bathrooms. Just down the street in front of another friend’s house, a tree was all but uprooted, it was swaying about 30 degrees from side to side. A couple days later that tree was cut down, and we watched as the stump was sealed to prevent it from rotting or having those little shoots grow out of it.
“We encounter a strange image for the coming Messiah in our lesson today from Isaiah 11: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Now picture what this looks like, you’ve seen it before. A tree gets chopped down to a stump, and a little shoot starts growing out of it at some point.
“Most people view 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 and prevent it from giving out new shoots of life. Having these ragged little branches growing out of it makes a tree stump look unkempt and messy and homely.
“Israel’s enemies had tried every way they knew to seal off the stump of Jesse that was the root of the throne of David. War, slavery, imprisonment, starvation – Jesus’ ancestors suffered all this and more. There had not been a viable king on the throne of Israel for generations. And yet, somehow, there is still life stirring in this burnt-out old stump.”1
Advent is all about looking forward to that life, the life God had determined would arise out of that stump. “When you think about it, it is an odd image to use to describe Jesus. He’s the new King of Israel, and he is described as a fragile branch growing out of an unsightly old stump. Not a very triumphant or powerful image. But that’s what Advent is all about. It is about coming to terms with the profound knowledge that God chose to come to Earth in such a vulnerable state: a defenseless human baby.”2
Speaking of babies, my niece Meghan had her first child; little Connor James Corsi was born this past Wednesday, little being a relative term, seeing as Connor was an ounce shy of 10 pounds. He’s got feet like flippers and a head like a pumpkin, but he’s actually a pretty good lookin’ kid, considering the trauma he’s been through. One of the things about having a baby nowadays in America is that maternity wards are, at least around here, on total lockdown. To get into the maternity ward at Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank you have to press a button and look into a wall mounted camera that looks like a retinal scanner in the movies; I felt like Agent Gibbs entering MTAC on NCIS. All the babies are tagged like research animals, but these tags have an RF transmitter that alerts security if the baby leaves his or her safe zone. No one except those with the proper identification can even move the baby from the mother’s room, lest the baby get lost or worse.
Point being, it isn’t easy being a baby in modern America, and I can only guess it wasn’t any easier being a baby 2000 years ago. Life on earth is remarkably resilient for being in a place so ridiculously hazardous, and I think that was part of God’s point when He chose to send His Son to live not above us or even just amongst us, but as one of us, making His earthly start like a sprout shooting out of a stump, in the humblest and most precarious way possible. I think that it’s through that baby, that Child Christ, that we see the clearest picture of our God, a God who never ceases to amaze, who never ceases to come to us, a God who takes absurd risks just to be with us.
The Advent question is, How will we respond to such a God?
1Whitney Rice, Sermons that Work, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/11/21/2-advent-a-2013-2/