I remember that when I was little I would start to get excited this time of year. A Christmas tree would get set up in our living room and we would gather as a family to decorate it. Soon, presents would start appearing beneath the tree and me and my siblings would start inspecting the various specially wrapped packages to see if there were any with our names on them. When no one was looking we would inspect those packages much closer, holding them up to see how much they weighed, shaking them to see what kind of noise they made, all in an effort to try and figure out what gift we were going to receive.
As the days went by, my Mom would begin baking delectable treats like butter tarts to store in our freezer for the special days ahead. On the morning of Christmas Eve, a turkey would be stuffed, potatoes would be peeled, and a feast would be prepared for the celebration to come. That evening, our family would gather to celebrate and, after a wonderful meal, we children would finally get to open those presents we longed for.
Because of Covid-19, this is going to be a very different kind of a Christmas. I don’t know what the future will hold, but it is possible that we might not be able to gather with our families this Christmas. Some families have had their income stream negatively impacted by Covid and they are not going to be able to celebrate Christmas like they have in the past because one parent lost their job and the other one lost their business. And for some families, there is going to be an empty place around the table at Christmas this year. At the time I wrote this message, not only have we lost 290 people due to Covid-19 in our province, far greater numbers of people continue to die from causes such as drug overdose, cancer and heart disease, and Covid is preventing us from caring for the dying and grieving their loss in ways like we used to.
If you are one of the people who are grieving or suffering this Christmas, I want to extend my deepest sympathies to you. I am sorry that this has happened to you and I hope that you will be able to draw some hope from what I am going to say today.
But there also may be some of you for whom Covid is merely a major inconvenience and you cannot wait until an effective vaccine becomes widely available and you can get back to the way things were before. If that’s you, I want to invite you to pause, take a deep breath and consider looking at the situation we find ourselves in from another perspective. While I do not, in any way, want to minimize the very real pain and loss that people are experiencing because of Covid, there is a way for us to take a step back and look at this pandemic as a positive thing because it is forcing us to think about what is really important and what is not. And that re-evaluation can lead us to live our lives in a different way, even after this pandemic is over. And should that happen, that new way of living can be a gift that this pandemic has given to us.
So I invite you to join with me in entering into a season of reflection that the Christian Church down through the centuries has called Advent. Advent is a season of waiting. We wait for Christmas, and we also wait for that future day when God will make all things right. As part of our journey of reflection over the next several weeks, we will be hearing and thinking about the words of the prophet Isaiah and considering what Jesus coming into this world to be with us means for us in a new series called Jesus Moved into the Neighborhood.
How Can the Weak Have Hope?
We live in a world that values power. “Speak softly, and carry a big stick, you will go far,” US President Teddy Roosevelt was fond of saying more than 100 years ago. And as a much smaller country living next door to the world’s most powerful nation, we have an idea what it was like for the tiny kingdom of Judah to live next door to the world super power of Assyria about 2700 years ago, with one major difference. The United States is our ally, while Assyria was an ally who became an enemy. Living in a power-driven world is not very much fun when you are weak, like Judah was, and like we, as individuals, inevitably are.
So how can there be any hope for the weak, the sorrowful and the grieving? There are really only two answers to that question. We either hope to get our power back. Which isn’t really hope at all because the trajectory of life in this world is that we will eventually lose all our power and then we die. Or we adopt and learn to live by the message of hope that the Bible proclaims to us, which is: Hope comes from knowing God who is beyond this world but has stepped into this world to begin the process of making all things right.
And here is the reason we can hope from God when we are in the midst of a pandemic, when we lose our livelihood, or when we lose a loved one: God works through weakness. God preserved the weak nation of Judah from the threats of the Assyrians. God kept those people, which were His people, safe when they were later carried off into exile by the Babylonians. He later brought them back into the land He had previously given to them. And most significantly of all, God chose this little, bedraggled people group to be the one through whom He would come into this world and become one of us in order to save us and gather us into life with Him now that leads to a forever life with Him in the new heaven and earth to come.
The Shoot from the Stump of Jesse
Let’s now turn to our passage for today, Isaiah 11:1-12. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now. What we see right away is that there is a stump. What does a stump imply? That large, mature, living tree has been cut down and carried away. This is what happened to the people of Judah when the Babylonians, another enemy superpower who came after the Assyrians, conquered Judah in 586 BC and carried most of the people off into exile in Babylon. In one fell swoop, the Jews lost their homes, their kingdom and their temple. Also, the line of kings going back to David, who was Jesse’s son, came to an end. This is significant because, as we read in 2 Samuel 7:16, God had promised David, “YYour house and your kingdom will continue before me for all time, and your throne will be secure forever.’” Not only had they lost everything and were now in the grip of an enemy power, but it looked like God was no longer keeping His promises. For the people of Judah, it must have truly felt like they were the large tree that had been chopped down and carried away leaving them with no hope in any aspect of life.
That’s what happens to us in life sometimes. Things roll merrily along and then something happens–we get a phone call saying that someone we love has died, or the boss calls us into her office to give us some bad news, or the bank phones and they have declined our loan application, or our report card indicates that we are doing poorly in one of our classes–and there is nothing that we can do about it. We are powerless. And with all of our power taken away, we have no hope, because our hope is based on having power.
But God makes a promise to the people of Judah, and by extension to us: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Isa. 11:1) And what God is saying to us is that, even when things look absolutely hopeless, even when it looks like we have lost absolutely everything, with God, there is always hope. And the reason that there is always hope with God is because, out of the lifeless stump of the exiled and powerless people of Judah, God brought forth a shoot who became a branch that bore much fruit. The reference here is to Jesus, who was born as a helpless baby in a manger and grew up to be an impoverished carpenter in the region of Galilee.
At around the age of 30, Jesus became a traveling teacher who was dependent on the support of others and had no bed of His own on which He could lay His head. Over the course of three years, Jesus gathered a group of followers and taught, healed and led with great authority. It looked like Jesus was the Great One sent from God to restore and renew His people. But then Jesus was arrested and nailed to a cross to suffer and die. As His cold, dead body was laid in a tomb, it must have looked to His followers that all was lost and, once again, God was not keeping His promises.
But the thing is, God is busily at work accomplishing His purposes in the world, even when we cannot see Him at work, and even when, by every measure we can use, it looks like God is not keeping His promises. We know that because of the days leading up to the first Easter. Prior to Covid hitting our world, we were living in Thursday. It looked like everything was going to be okay. In fact, we could even celebrate from time to time. But then Covid fell upon us and we were in Friday. The first wave hit in the spring, we have a bit of a reprieve during the summer, and now we are in our second wave and, at the time I am writing this, it looks really bad. The number of cases, deaths and hospitalizations are climbing at a record rate in our province, across Canada and around the world.
The irony of this disease is that power and wealth will not protect you. On many continents it is the most powerful nation that is suffering the greatest impact from Covid-19. But God never promised to protect the wealthy and the powerful. We see that in verse 4 of Isaiah 11: He will give justice to the poor and make fair decisions for the exploited. The earth will shake at the force of his word, and one breath from his mouth will destroy the wicked.
This is a Kairos Moment
This is a Kairos Moment for us and for the world, a time when we can pause to reflect with God on the things which we have believed in the past and now realize are no longer true. A time for us to adopt the new beliefs God gives us to go and live life in a new direction. And here is what I think God is trying to teach us in this Kairos Moment. Power is not necessarily a bad thing. God has given each of us the power to make decisions. He wants us to use our power and use it well. What God is asking us to do is to lay down our ego, place our power in His hands and then let Him direct how our power is to be used. I believe that God is asking us to deliberately choose to be powerless before Him as a way of life.
Now you might be thinking to yourself: “That is just crazy talk, Pastor James! What you are saying is not even possible or reasonable.” If that is what you are thinking, I understand and I have thought the same thing myself at times. But let’s consider this concept for a bit.
Choosing to be powerless before God is the way of hope. Whenever life throws at you a curveball from hell, with a posture of powerless before God, you can say, “I can’t do anything about things that are beyond my control. But I can chose to live as a Sunday person in a Friday world, I can choose to trust in a God who did not leave His people in the barrenness of captivity in a far off land, Who did not leave Jesus in the hopelessness of a cold, dark grave, but raised Him from the dead to declare victory over death for me and all people. That same God can raise up a shoot from the cut off stump of my life and use that new shoot, that new belief, that new life to bring forth fruit that will last forever.
Choosing to be powerless before God is the way of love. We cannot really love others if the fuel for our love is the good things that we know they do for us. True love needs a deeper foundation than that. When we are powerless before God, we stop loving manipulatively to try to get our ego fed and we can start loving wisely and selflessly as God guides us.
Choosing to be powerless before God is the way of faith. It is acknowledging that we are not the smartest person in our heart and letting the King of all Creation, who has made our heart His home, rule over all that is within our domain. It is transferring our trust, or our faith, from ourselves to God. It is a conscious decision we make every day to let God decide for us what is good, right and true, and then we follow what God tells us.
And finally, choosing to be powerless before God is the way of Jesus. Jesus is God the Son who chose to agree with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, that the only way to restore God’s broken and lost creation was for the Son to leave behind all the glory and riches of heaven and come to earth to become one of us. Throughout His life, Jesus chose to be powerless before His heavenly Father. As we read in Philippians 2: Though he was God, He did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; He took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, He humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8)
By choosing to be powerless before His heavenly Father, Jesus received what He longed for the most. You see, that shoot became a branch, which became a banner, a flag flying for all to see that says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Jesus set aside the riches of heaven and moved into our neighborhood to gather people into life with God now and lead us into life with Him forever in the new heaven and earth to come. We cannot see the impact of Jesus’ gathering now, but we will at the end of time. And as we read in Isaiah 11:10, In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. Jesus Moved into the Neighborhood to gather people into life with Him and He invites us to be part of His gathering work. Amen.