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Stump and Shoot, Ax and Root

December 5, 2016

“Stump and Shoot, Ax and Root” Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 10:33-11:10 © 12.4.16 Advent 2A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I read an article last week complaining how today’s young people (20-somethings) don’t know how to make change in their heads, relying instead on technology like a digital register or a phone to do it for them. And I can understand that, math-challenged that I am. I would rather let a machine do calculations for me, too.

But there’s another sort of change that’s even harder to make. We might want desperately to do it or we may resist it. But sometimes, there’s no option. I mean changing our lives. It could be kicking some habit that’s destructive or maybe altering our diet or our daily routine to become healthier, like getting more sleep or putting down our phones once in a while.

The Bible calls change “repentance.” In its original languages, that’s shuv in Hebrew and metanoia in Greek. The former means “turn” or “return,” while the latter is a bit harder to pin down. It can be translated to refer to giving up sins, but it can also simply be a change of mind, like putting something in your cart on Amazon, then deleting it after a little reflection. It’s a bit spurious, but the first part of the word has also come to mean “beyond,” “above,” so I like to think of metanoia as the expansion of our minds, the opening of our hearts to new possibilities.

When we sin, we ought to repent, and being the people we are, we do so. But it’s not just when we’ve done something bad that we have our metanoia moment. It’s when we long for something fresh, something that will bring hope when hope is all but gone, when we don’t know what to do with some problem that just won’t go away. In other words, when we’re stumped.

The crowds who came to John at the Jordan kept growing larger and larger because they, like we, longed for change, for new possibility, for the chance to start over, to put the broken pieces of their lives back together. The current religious system could not give them what they wanted and needed, no matter what it promised. But John’s preaching was different. He tapped into deep-seated longings and understood the spiritual climate in ways nobody else did. I think people flocked to John because they wanted to hear some truth; they wanted to be assured that new life was possible. He convinced them that in the waters of the holy river they could be washed clean of the mistakes of yesterday and granted a fresh start.

Even as John promised newness to the repentant and hopeful, he preached destruction against the Sadducees, with their aristocratic aloofness, and even against the working class Pharisees, since their focus was on what ought to be instead of what people were truly needing. He criticized them as people resting on the laurels of the past, claiming that ancestry would save them. But their fate was to flee before the flames of God’s wrath like snakes slithering away at top speed from a brushfire. They were fruitless trees about to be felled by the ax of the Almighty. If I’m reading the text correctly, he refused to baptize them, given that in his view they were coming for the ritual only for show.

Perhaps the most important thing we can say about this very odd and angry man is that he had faith in a powerful God. He who with a word could fell a forest of trees could make a life new. The one who comes in burning judgment against the self-satisfied and holier-than-thou promises mercy to the repentant. So depending on who you were, John’s message was one of horror or of hope. As the old saying has it, he meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Suppose John’s message strikes a chord in us, whether we consider ourselves afflicted or comfortable, and we want to give up some self-destructive or relationship-deforming behavior. Or maybe we long simply to experience some way of living that lifts us out of the humdrum rut of routine and boredom into which we’ve fallen. Perhaps we want courage and boldness finally to raise our voices for the left-out or take a step to make a difference in the community. Wanting to is the first step, but how does change happen?

For clues, we need to turn mostly to the prophecy of Isaiah. “A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse,” he said. “And the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him….”

The key to change is that Spirit of the Lord. There are a couple of ways we hear the Spirit can act, depending on when we date the passage from Isaiah. One is in the normal course of things, through experiences and learning and failure and success, relationships and growth. God is at work, but not in a spectacular, divine-intervention-when-all-is-lost, all-we-can-do-is-pray sort of way. John also said as much. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he insisted. Could it be that it is in the very doing of something good, something different, that we become good or different, that we claim our potential for change?

Back to the Old Testament. If this text is from the 700s BC, when Isaiah son of Amoz lived, then he’s talking about the ascension of King Hezekiah to the throne of Judah at age 25 in 716 BC. High hopes for peace and tranquility, even throughout all creation, attended such a change in the monarchy. The prophet expected that by the Spirit of God, the new king would possess practical wisdom, military and legal prowess, and a deep spirituality full of the joy that comes from reverence for God. His judgments would not be based on the usual external factors. His bias would not be toward those with power and wealth, so often corrupted. Instead, he would favor the poor and meek, and make sure they were treated fairly. The other side of his mercy would be sanctions against evil, to get rid of it forever. And when the prophet says the king will wear belts of righteousness and faithfulness, he means the man doesn’t just sit around. In the ancient world, to run and work you had to cinch your long robes with a belt. This one takes action, right and true and quick.

Hezekiah would be a stark contrast to his father Ahaz, who was alternately arrogant and fearful, and thus not a worthy monarch. It turns out he was a man of action, as Isaiah envisioned, but his rebellion against the Assyrian overlords that his father sought to pacify meant war and the destruction of many Judean towns. Jerusalem, however, was ultimately spared during the Assyrian invasion when a plague wiped out the enemy army.

Not a reign of peace, then. But for our purposes today, the point is that Hezekiah made a concerted effort at change, to throw off his oppressors. And Isaiah trusted such human action, with rulers coming in succession in a dynastic line, even countries in conflict, to bring in a new day. The Spirit worked in, with, by, and behind the decisions and decrees, compromises and consensus building, will and emotions of the monarch and his court, as well as the daily lives and work of the average person.

So change can come for us, we can turn things around and grow and experience peace and hope by hard work and the help of others, through the wise use of resources available to us, and by taking advantage of opportunities that come our way. The creative wind of God blows over the stump, nourishing the root and the branch, enlivening dreams and imagination and giving courage to fearful hearts. God is at work and will keep working through real people where and when they live. His Spirit occupies and transforms human efforts and brings new possibilities (cf. Walter Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching Year A: 11, 12).

But sometimes even all our efforts aren’t enough or else the things that happen to us drive us to despair, and we see no way out. We spiral down into some black hole of hopelessness or to change the metaphor, we’re cut down, the ax having struck at the very root of our existence. That’s where the other approach to the Isaiah text proves helpful. Some scholars place it in the sixth century BC, the 500s. By then, the southern kingdom of Judah was overrun and Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians, the current regional superpower. The leadership, artists, and business people were carried off into exile, beginning in 597, with another deportation in 587. The David line was indeed a stump, apparently never to grow a branch again.

But in fact, Jewish spirituality flourished. It was during the exile that the great prophet we know as Second Isaiah preached. The synagogue came into being. The priestly writers wrote their history of Israel from the very beginnings when everything was formless and void, and edited the scriptures. Fifty years after being carried off, in 539, those who wanted to do so returned to Jerusalem and the land to rebuild. Most of the time from then on, they had no independent king and the land passed from the hands of one great power to another, sometimes causing great distress for the people. But somehow the spiritual life of the Jews developed, the writing of history and wisdom continued over the centuries, and the four distinct parties of New Testament era came into being. One of those groups preserved texts that we know today as the Dead Sea Scrolls. And, of course, it was during the sometimes brutal Roman occupation of Judea that our Lord was born.

So suffering can do two things to us. We can become bitter and resentful and mean. We can strike out like an animal in pain, so that even those close to us want to turn away. I’ve seen people behave that way, as have you. And I’ve acted like that myself many times.

The other possibility, as the exiles discovered, is to let suffering transform us and to teach us the lessons we so need to learn, that we can pass on. We can become humble and more compassionate. We can put ourselves more easily in the place of others, especially those who are despised and left out. We can become the instruments of God for healing and peace, because we have been broken open by our suffering, which is sometimes the only way that the Spirit can get inside of us and change us into the agents of the Holy One. Out of ruin comes transformation; out of hatred, love; out of the darkness, light.

Many years ago, a young couple, some friends of mine, redid a historic farm house outside of Montevallo, AL. While the place was being worked on, Gary, the husband, comically referred to it as “under destruction.” Sometimes grace is like that. It threatens to destroy us in order to build something new. It comes through an experience that makes us feel like we have been chopped down, as if the ax had severed our root. How unfortunate it is that sometimes it is only when we are cut down and nearly destroyed that we are shaken from complacency or ask the hard questions about our lives. Does God send such difficulties to make us change? Some may think so, as if God were micromanaging our lives. But I don’t believe in such a sadistic, cruel God; that’s not who we know revealed in Jesus. But even if God does not wield the ax, in hindsight we can see how the times we felt like a felled oak were used by his Spirit to turn us around and grant us wisdom.

The failure of the Davidic dynasty spurred reflection on what an ideal king would be like. In his thinking, the prophet was driven back to the root principles, the things that mattered most about kings. So it can be for us when we face difficulty in life, when we hate our jobs or our grades aren’t what we want or we don’t meet a goal we set. When the kids aren’t what we hope or our parents are not exactly what we would have chosen. When sickness debilitates us. When we have lost and lost again, until we feel battered and beaten. That’s when we may be sent back to the root of our existence and ask again what it means to be faithful, to be human, to be alive.

But let’s not wait till the ax falls and we are no more than a stump before the reflection on values and commitments begins. Why not periodically go back to the beginning, where we are bare and vulnerable before God, and where we ask for his help? As someone once said: “Repentance is a story that unblocks one’s own story, or a song that melts the frozen self, or a glimpse of a new king whose coming near makes everything seem different” (Tom Ehrich, “Repentance,” On a Journey, November 30, 2007).

We in fact go back to our roots, get unblocked, are melted, every Lord’s Day, as we confess our sin. That is, if we take the prayer to heart and seriously and not just as a rote exercise. And in our personal times with God or through some unexpected turn of events today or tomorrow or the next day, we can be converted, turned around, made new. A change of mind and heart keeps happening; it’s a process of growth and renewal and reformation. And it’s as basic to our spiritual lives as breathing is to our physical bodies.

Like its sister season Lent, Advent is the time of year to sort out what really matters, if for a while we can quiet the din of the TV ads and the Christmas music blaring from store speakers. Internal redirection, though, is only the beginning of repentance. The Gospel call is to demonstrate the change with acts of reconciliation, justice, and peace; to shun self-centeredness and greed in favor of sharing; to do what we can to prepare the way for the Lord. Steps like these make the difference between mere religion and real response to God, between being a church member and being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

True, deep, and abiding repentance is God’s gift to us this season, whether by that word we mean forsaking sin or finding new hope. He wants to give it. He can give it. He will give it. Will we open our hearts to accept it or in smug self-assurance refuse new life? There’s good news here for those who have ears to listen: “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.”

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