“Stumped”; Isaiah 11:1-10 Embodied; December 8, 2019; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Time for Wonder*
A Reading of Isaiah 11:1-10 NRSV Embodied [motions in brackets]

[One arm flat, other arm rising beside it]

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
    a branch will sprout from his roots.

[Hands on shoulders for each line]

The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
    a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    a spirit of planning and strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.

[Cover eyes]

He won’t judge by appearances,

[Cover ears]

nor decide by hearsay.

[Extend hand in offering a hand up]

He will judge the needy with righteousness,
    and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.

[Open mouth]

He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;

[Strong exhale]

    by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.

[Hands on hips]

Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
    and faithfulness the belt around his waist.

[Form claws and release]

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed together,

[Gesture as if introducing young child]

    and a little child will lead them.

[Act as if chewing cud]

The cow and the bear will graze.
    Their young will lie down together,
    and a lion will eat straw like an ox.

[move arm like snake]

A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
    toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.

[Arms form mountain]

They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.

[Arms form valley]

    The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,

[Arms make a wave]

    just as the water covers the sea.
A signal to the peoples

[One arm flat, other arm rising beside it]

On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.

“Stumped”
Isaiah 11:1-10
December 8, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.” These words that we read and acted out today are curious. We’ve all seen stumps, right? Stumps are what’s left when you cut down a tree. Often that tree is cut down because there’s something wrong with it, disease or other forces of nature causing it to no longer be viable.

In the verses just preceding our passage we read that God had been the one to reduce those who have been opposing God’s will to a stump. In Isaiah 10:33-34 we read, “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”

So now we have before us a people who have been cut down completely due to going against God’s will for them. The history of this is a bit complicated, but essentially, the military rulers tried to get around what Isaiah had advised by trying to work with the powers that be against a rebellion, which caused societal collapse and ruin.

Those originally hearing this prophecy are still seeking the redemption promised by the branch growing out of the stump. They remain in exile, utterly stumped by their circumstances. Their lives are devoid of peace, both from within and without. They need this promised resurrection of their people’s viability, but struggle to dare to expect what has been promised. What will become of them?

Hope in the midst of seeming hopelessness is a familiar story both in the Bible and in our media, as that variety of redemption is very compelling. Adam and Eve starting over from exile from the Garden of Eden, Noah’s family rising out of the devastation of the flood, Moses’ redirection from a burning bush in the wilderness, and, of course, Christ’s death and resurrection. We are a resurrection people, after all, and operate from knowing that resurrection is on it’s way, whatever the circumstances may be.

But, that is not where these people find themselves yet. They are yearning mightily for the peace forecasted in Isaiah’s prophecy. And it’s important to name that faithfulness within desperation can still look pretty desperate.

 

Yesterday, Calvin and I went to see Frozen 2 in theaters. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but there’s a scene, as there is in so many heroes’ journeys when it seems like all hope is lost. The song that the main character sings in that time was especially gripping to me because it worked from despair to hope. Anna sings:

“I’ve seen dark before
But not like this
This is cold
This is empty
This is numb
The life I knew is over
The lights are out
Hello, darkness
I’m ready to succumb

…Can there be a day beyond this night?
I don’t know anymore what is true
I can’t find my direction, I’m all alone
The only star that guided me was you
How to rise from the floor
When it’s not you I’m rising for?
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing”

When your context is despair, choosing to do the next right thing can be a revolutionary act.

The next right thing. For the despairing Judeans in the face of ruin, it looked like placing hope in the leadership of a new king, a young Hezekiah, who just might have it within himself to turn things around. He is the shoot beside the stump. Isaiah’s hope in what seems hopeless.

A stump is most often the end of the tree. But in our text we hear of a tenacious branch coming up alongside, it’s unexpected, and reflects hope in the midst of hopelessness.

Something else that seems impossible In these verses is the account of animals who are naturally enemies laying down beside one another. Working Preacher, a lectionary website and podcast from Luther seminary, points to how these passages don’t say that the wolf is no longer around the lamb or that the snake is no longer going to be terrifying to the worried parent, but that this peaceable Kingdom, as it is often called, removes the wolves desire to hurt to hurt the lamb and leave the snake to no longer strike in the hands of a child playing near. I can imagine a child being naive to the risk of being around a serpent, but struggle to imagine a lamb choosing to lie down beside a wolf. Achieving the peaceable kingdom causes not only peace, but also  the internal reformation of impulse to see the enemy as an enemy. It is not instinctual.

And so that brings me to us. We live in a world that is not always, or some may say often, peaceable. There are wolves in this world that are far more than mere metaphors. But the hope of peace is that God can transform the motivations and desires of those who seek to harm us as well and at the very same time liberate us from our fear. This does not mean we are to be doormats to those who want to harm us, but that only when we are willing to see the image of God at work in our enemy are we able to begin to work towards true restorative peace.

Peace, our Advent Wreath word of the day, is so much more than a graduation speech platitude or a hand sign thrown out by a surfer. It is borne through the active work of seeking justice. It is seeking the next right thing when at the impasse of misunderstanding and pain.

In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. responded to an accusation that he was “disturbing the peace” by his activism during the Montgomery Bus Boycott by saying, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”

Where in our world are we witnessing injustice? How can we do the next right thing, seeking peace right where we are? What is the new life that God is springing up alongside our desperation? May we be agents of God’s peace. Amen.

 

*Time for Wonder is what we do at Boeuff Presbyterian as a time for people of all ages to engage with the scripture/sermon in a more interactive way. In other contexts it is often called “Time with Children” or “Children’s Sermon.”

“As God Sees,” 1 Samuel 16:6-13, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17; June 17, 2012; First Congregational Church of Williamstown, MA

“As God Sees”
1 Samuel 16:6-13, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17
June 17, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

by Salvador Dali

Time for Children

Who can tell me what you see in this picture? [Old couple, vase, people playing instruments] What else? Did you see the picture differently when other kids suggested something different? How about in your life…are there people that seem different after you know what someone else thinks about them? In our scripture today we were told that God looks to the heart of a person rather than to their appearance. This week as you talk to your family and friends I’d like you to think about how you can look to someone’s heart, the way that they show love and care for other people and think about people differently because of it.

“As God Sees”

Who should lead? This is the question of our passage in Samuel and quite frequently the question in our day-to-day lives. Millions of dollars are spent on ad campaigns telling us who would be the right candidate for any given office: mayor, senate, congress, president. We are told why they would be the right person for the position and why their opponent would be the wrong person. Anyone who has turned on a television in the past year has undoubtedly seen many of these ads, particularly for the presidential race. Though there are discussions based on experience, and platforms, there is also inevitably discussion of who “looks more presidential.”

Some argue that John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was due in part to his ability to look better than Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential election debates. In fact many who had listened to the debates on radio said that Nixon was the better debater, but those who watched on television thought Kennedy was more successful in the debate. As Kennedy was the one elected, it’s hard not to think that his presidential appearance was a factor.

As in Samuel’s day, we have expectations of who will lead us. We feel like we know what they should look like, what sort of background and qualifications they should have. In our Old Testament passage today we read that Samuel initially goes along with these expectations, looking to Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab and thinking, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But God requires greater discernment, saying to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Samuel then passes over the seven older sons of Jesse and asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse tells him that the youngest one is keeping the sheep. Samuel says, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

The anticipation built in this passage likely carries a different meaning for a reader of Paul’s time, because they know two things:

First, someone out keeping the sheep could be quite far off, taking perhaps a few hours to be reached and brought to the place where Samuel and the rest of Jesse’s sons were gathered for a sacrifice. I can also imagine the frustration of the other brothers in first being passed over and then being made to wait for their youngest brother, who was not important enough to even be present at the sacrifice. Though the text says nothing of the brother’s objections, I can’t help but compare this image to that of Cinderella’s step sisters trying to dissuade the prince from searching for their step sister turned maid when he came searching with that glass slipper.

Secondly, in Jewish tradition seven is a number of wholeness. Jesse had seven sons that Samuel had examined. Surely the one God had chosen would be among the seven, and if not, does that mean that who ever is to come is more than whole?

When the youngest son, David arrives, the Lord speaks to Samuel saying, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

This is the one. I don’t know about you, but I envy the clarity of this declaration that the Lord gives to Samuel.

Though I do defer to God’s will in prayer, God’s desires for my life are rarely as clear as a direct “choose this, not that.” Still, this passage contains an important message that is applicable in our lives: we are told that the Lord focuses on the heart, rather than the outward appearance.

In the Hebrew, this word leevahv that is translated most often in English as “heart,” means something different from how we know it today. Leevahv can also be translated as, “the mind,” “inner soul,” or “determinations of will.” To look to one’s heart is to truly examine a person’s being, intentions, and desires. So what was it about David’s leevahv that made him so desirable as a leader?

Tony Cartledge, an Old Testament commentary author tries to answer this question. He wrote:

“Consider the significance of David’s openness—his spirit of adventure, his delight in trying new things, his willingness to let God work through him. David’s heart was not closed because his mind was not made up and he made no claim to having everything figured out. The impression we get is that David’s heart was open to the future, open to new possibilities, open to mystery, and therefore open to the spirit of God. As David remained opened to the spirit’s presence and leadership in his life, God’s spirit remained with him from that day forward. As a result, God accomplished great things through David.”[1]

Notice that David did not suddenly become older, or more scholarly, or wealthy; he was still a young, naïve shepherd boy. But God saw through the unassuming exterior and sociological context into the midst of who David was, and deemed his will enough to serve God as the anointed leader to supersede the now disgraced Saul. If we read ahead in scripture we know that David indeed has his own failings, but he was still called and anointed for God’s service. And though he was human and therefore fallible, he was still used for God’s purposes. God’s will was still enacted through David.

My sister, Amy, teaches fifth grade language arts. In order to help her students get in the right mindset for revising their papers, she has students put on “Re-vision” glasses. These are made from 3D movie glasses with the lenses popped out. She teaches that when you revise something you have written you are supposed to look at the paper with new eyes, as “revise” means literally to look at again. This is what God asks us to do, to look again, to “revise” our perceptions of one another, looking not at the external markers of how someone has been cast in this world, but rather to their heart, to their intentions, into the midst of the will of that person.

Our New Testament passage today offers us a new lens through which we may see to the heart of one another, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us listen to God’s Word together as we are reminded of our New Testament passage today from 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verses 11 through 17:

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

This passage invites us, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, to look not to what we profess about ourselves, but to what God professes about us as a part of a larger new creation. Through the example of Christ’s life, we are shown what it means to love, what it means to show care for our neighbor, and we are given a glimpse of the limitless grace of God. This call to regard one another through looking to the heart is a call for us to glimpse Christ’s transformative powers at work in one another.

I heard this story once; perhaps you may have heard it too, about a monastery. As the monks were getting older and passing away, no new monks were coming into the community and eventually there were only five monks left in their order. A few miles from the monastery lived a hermit who many thought was a prophet. As the men of the monastery discussed the bleak state of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he would have some advice. The five monks went to the hermit and explained their situation and he said that he didn’t know how the monastery could be saved. He said the only thing he could tell them is that one of them was an apostle of God. They were confused by this and wondered what it could mean. They were doubtful that one of them could be an apostle, and each wondered if it were true, who could it be? As they thought about this things began to change in their community. Because they weren’t sure who was apostle among them, they began to treat one another with a new kind of grace and respect, on the off chance that one of them might actually be an apostle of God. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect. As others from the outside visited the community, they noticed the care that the monks showed one another and some decided that they too wanted to be a part of that community. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order of respect and grace.

What would your life look like if you regarded the people you faced day to day in light of God’s grace? How would that change the person in front of you in line at the post office or grocery store? How would that change your family? How would that change this congregation?

This phenomenon of seeking God’s divinity revealed through the other is what Barbara Brown Taylor would call reverence. In her book, An Altar in the World, she writes,

“reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self–something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding…reverence stands in awe of something–something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits–so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”

This sort of reverence is what God desires when we look at one another, to look not at outside indicators of affiliation, class, or profitability, but to look to the heart. My seminary’s beloved Hebrew professor, Carson Brisson was known for a blessing that he pronounced at the end of class. It goes something like this:

We should offer each other all that we have to offer, but if we base our care on what we have to offer there is no future. We should strive not to fail each other, but we do fail each other, so if we base what we call love on the fact that we haven’t failed each other yet, we don’t have a future. There are communities that present compelling intellectual and heartbreaking emotional evidence that the claims we find ourselves belonging to are falsehood. Those communities must be heard. Love must first listen, it doesn’t have to agree, but it has to listen. However, nevertheless having listened, we do find ourselves included in, drawn to, lifted by the claim that there is a love in God’s own heart that has been given to us and that even in the failures and confusions of our own lives corporate and person, this love never fails and this love never waits for a cause. Therefore, beloved, may joy and nothing less find you on the way. May you be blessed, oh may you be a blessing and may light guide you and countless others, whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent, all the way home.[2]

This blessing speaks of a depth and breadth of love that God calls us to grant to one another. A love based not on a person’s worldly worth or perfect record, but on the beauty of lives and hearts transformed by God’s redemptive power. It is my prayer today that we all may seek to re-vision this world and each other in light of God’s great grace. Amen.

[1] p 204 Smith Hewly’s Bible Commentary

[2] Blessing by Professor Carson Brisson.