If there is one thing that my work as a priest has taught me, it is that life is full of uncertainty. And, perhaps because of that reality, many of us spend a great deal of time searching for things that we believe we can count on. A fisherman will go back to that special spot that always produces fish.
A gardener will find it difficult to switch from tried and true varieties of vegetables. People look for sure things in everything from hand tools to diapers.
And yet, we all know that those sure things don’t always turn out the way we’d hoped. Think back on your life. Think back on the decisions you made that you thought were good, informed decisions, and then, poof, up went your dream. You discovered that just because you make an informed decision doesn’t mean you can count on the outcome being what you expect.
Well, it’s no different with religion. Our search for a sure thing in religion has been going on for a long time. About 13 centuries before Jesus’ time, the people of Israel were rescued by God through Moses from their forced slavery in Egypt. After 40 years in the wilderness and after receiving the ten commandments, the people of Israel finally found themselves in the Promised Land. But before they went over into the land they were warned by God of what would happen if, once they were comfortable again, they forgot who had provided them with their blessings.
And over and over again we read that Israel did forget. They forgot who it was they were to serve and who it was that gave them life. And over the centuries, they wavered back and forth in their covenant with God—looking for certainty when life seemed unsure, but then forgetting about their need for those certainties when times seemed fine.
Around 750 years before Jesus’s time, King Uzziah initially “did what was right in the eyes of God.” But then, Uzziah became powerful. And when he was powerful, he grew proud. Powerful, proud Uzziah then contracted leprosy, and lived out his life separated from his people, while Jotham, his son, did the governing. Jotham, who sought to be faithful to God, was followed by his anxious son Ahaz who did not. Ahaz tried to buy the favor of Assyria and frantically made altars to every god he knew of, in the hope that one of them might save him and his country. Ahaz was followed by Hezekiah, who sought to break his people’s servant relationship with Assyria and clean out the altars to foreign gods. And back and forth the kings went, straying from the ways God had laid out for them and returning to God again and again when times were rough—like the fisherman to the fishing hole—laying their hope in that which they felt was certain. But through all this, the people lost more and more of their memory of what it meant to be in covenant with God.
And in the midst of this, in the seventh and eighth centuries before Christ, Isaiah the prophet appeared.
Now you may not be familiar with the names of those four kings I just mentioned, and you may not even be that familiar with Isaiah’s writings, but I doubt very much you are not familiar with the image Isaiah used to solidify hope among his people when he said, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” We all know that line. And while it’s true Isaiah was speaking about an actual king in his own day, he was also speaking of a future hope for all people.
It’s quite natural, then, that seven centuries later, followers of Jesus would see Jesus in Isaiah’s words. And so it is that this passage has become one of the key passages we read as we await the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
But, you say, who is Jesse? Well, Jesse was the son of Obed and the grandson of Boaz, who was the husband of Ruth. Going the other way, Jesse was the father of eight sons and two daughters. And most importantly, one of those sons (Obed’s brother) was David, who became King David. In other words, what Isaiah was saying was that from the heritage of King David, from David’s line, from this heritage that went back to those who made a great covenant with God, would come a leader.
And out of this leadership would come forth a peace in all the earth, even including the natural world, which would be as never before.
So, you see, staying with Isaiah’s tree imagery, the roots of our faith go deep into the history of the Hebrew people as well as our nearer roots in Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate. And so, we should ask ourselves as we move deeper into Advent: Do we trust these roots? Do we trust the roots from which we draw our spiritual life?
Well, whenever I ask myself this question about 21st century Christians I find that I wonder if there isn’t a sense that while we should hold on to these roots and connections, we are, just the same, somewhat reluctant to draw primarily from them. I wonder whether in fact we find it hard to allow our hearts to trust that the roots of the stump of Jesse’s tree will in time produce the Kingdom of God, to give us, in time, the security and meaning and hope of which the scriptures and Jesus talk about. I wonder if we don’t instead really keep some other roots side-by-side in another part of our spiritual garden, roots that are planted in things like extreme self-reliance, or in watching out for ourselves first.
Isaiah said you can trust God; in God’s timing, the Kingdom will come. The question is, do we trust that?
Imagine being able to really trust God. Imagine for a moment being able to speak about God’s promises with certainty. Imagine being able to say gently but firmly that out of the stump of your faith, out of the roots of a Church sometimes gone wrong you firmly still believe that the Kingdom of God will come. Imagine being able to say gently but firmly that the life of joy and forgiveness we know in our church family truly is a foretaste of things to come. Imagine us no longer anxiously and frantically trying to drag in the Kingdom of God. Imagine us, instead, choosing to witness to the work of God in our world today. Pointing not to the places where things have gone wrong, but to the places where things are going right and to say that the covenantal promises that God made with us in the person of Jesus are the source of those things going right.
Quite honestly, it is the promises of Gods fulfilled that I see lived out in the lives of people like Congressman Elijah Cummings, who died just 2 months ago. I feel truly blessed in my short lifetime to have seen the kind of change in our culture that people like Elijah Cummings helped make a reality. I know our society today is far from perfect, but to witness the change from the world that my parents grew up in to the world that my son has grown up in is truly a testament to the power God has given us to stand up for the respect and dignity of every human being. The lives of people like Elijah Cummings renew my hope and my faith in the promises God made to us. The promises that tell us that God’s Kingdom already exists if only we will choose to see it and live into it. That is what Elijah Cummings did during his lifetime.
Isaiah called the people of Israel to not wait for evidence of hope in order to have hope. Isaiah’s hope came from a deep and abiding trust in God, and so did Congressman Cummings’. It’s the same promise that I hear each time we get to this place in the church year and we hear John proclaiming “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'” It is not just the anticipation but the fervent expectation that God’s promises will be fulfilled. That is how I as a Christian strive to live my life. And it is how I believe we as a community of faith should live our life together.
Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” This Advent season, let us learn again to trust our roots that go deep in the heart of God – roots to which Isaiah pointed, roots which came to full flower in the face and life of Jesus of Nazareth. Roots to which we can say, thanks be to God! Amen.