Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13
Good morning. Don’t you love that last verse of our reading from Romans: “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.” I heard a seminary professor refer to this as Advent in a single verse: hope, joy, and peace, sent by the God of love, through the power of the Holy Spirit. I hope you feel good and peaceful when you hear that verse. Peace can be hard to find.
A few weeks ago, we held a retreat for the members of the Worship and Christian Ed Commissions. The purpose was to plan worship for Advent. We looked at all the different texts in the Lectionary—that is, all the different passages that we might hear in worship over the four Sundays of Advent.
Most of the gospel readings for this year in the Lectionary come from the Gospel of Matthew, and nobody wanted to hear the Advent readings from Matthew, particularly the reading for today. In that reading, we hear John the Baptist call the people a brood of vipers. Then he goes on to say to the people—and I’m paraphrasing here—sure, you might be God’s chosen people, but if you don’t repent, God will cut you down and raise up a new set of chosen people.
That’s a scary message. And my usual approach to any challenging text is to lean into it, to break it down so that we can break through the fear and anxiety, so that we can follow Jesus into the difficult spaces. But I heard something different from the other folks on the retreat: they reminded me that we’re all living with too much fear and anxiety in our lives. They reminded me that peace is hard to find—even when God tells us to be at peace, we have trouble feeling it.
Both of our scriptures this morning speak to our need for hope and peace. The Apostle Paul reminds the congregation at Rome to remember that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” That is, he’s reminding the people to take comfort in all of God’s promises—promises that have been revealed in the scriptures. Then Paul quotes a bunch of passages from the prophet Isaiah. It’s almost like he’s telling us to take a closer look at Isaiah. So, let’s do that!
In this passage, God is speaking to the people called Israel, through the prophet Isaiah. Let me pause here and define my terms, because the name Israel can mean three different things in the Hebrew scriptures. First, there was Jacob, the Patriarch of the Israelites. Jacob struggles with God, and after he survives the struggle, God renames him Israel—which literally means one who has struggled with God and survived.
Israel also means all of the people who descended from Jacob—God’s chosen people. That’s why they’re called Israelites. Jacob’s twelve sons each become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Finally, long after the Israelites cross over into the Promised Land; long after King David unites the people called Israel; and after King Solomon builds the temple at Jerusalem; that monarchy crumbled. The people called Israel split into two kingdoms: in the north is the Kingdom of Israel and in the south is the Kingdom of Judah.
Here’s why all of this is relevant: Isaiah is offering this word of hope at a time of great anxiety. To the north of the Kingdom of Israel was the Assyrian Empire; they posed a mortal threat to Israel. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, in the Kingdom of Judah. He began his ministry of prophecy shortly before the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel.
The message we heard today comes either slightly before or slightly after the fall of the northern kingdom. No doubt, the people of Judah were concerned that they were next. Yet God is telling them to have hope! God is telling them that what has been lost will be restored!
He says: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was King David’s father. Jesse wasn’t from a royal family. David was a shepherd and God raised him up to watch over the entire flock of Israel. Isaiah is telling the people of Judah that God can and will do this again.
In other chapters of this book, Isaiah prophesies the destruction of the kingdoms, as well as the restoration of the monarchy. Isaiah presents this destruction as divine punishment for the sins of the people: failing to love God and love neighbor. The way to avoid this punishment is for the people to return to faithfulness. And even if God punishes the people of Israel and Judah, Isaiah is telling them that God will restore them, in time.
Isaiah says all this through metaphors, and not just the metaphors of roots and stumps and shoots and branches. Leading members of society, rich and powerful men, were often referred to as lions. Then as now, people who were rich and powerful often maintained their power and position at the expense of others.
Many of the prophets, including Isaiah, implore the people to uphold the widow and the orphan, and to deal fairly with people. The prophets are speaking directly to the lions and the wolves; they are telling the rich and the powerful not to devour the poor and the weak, the calves and the sheep. And here, Isaiah is saying that a new shepherd will be raised for the entire flock of Israel. Here, Isaiah is preaching hope to a people in despair.
I wonder how many of the people of Judah heard Isaiah’s message and felt that hope. I wonder if we have trouble hearing this message of hope, too.
I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again: Fear interrupts faith. Our fears and our anxieties get in the way of a faithful response to God’s love for all of humanity. When we have too much fear and anxiety, we can’t see or feel the hope, peace, joy, or love of the Advent season.
Let’s face it, this congregation has taken its share of hard knocks. There was turmoil and anxiety. This congregation doesn’t look like it used to, but we’re still dealing with old burdens. Yet in the midst of that, we have new growth. And today I need to remind you to look for the shoots and the branches that are springing forth from the root that has been here for over 180 years! They’re not hard to find!
There are plenty of new faces here at First Presbyterian Church. We’ve added nine new members this year. And we’ve baptized eight children this year. But sometimes we’re so used to the fear and the anxiety that we don’t trust the good things that we see before our own eyes.
At every church I’ve served, people have said to me, “Pastor, I don’t know what we’ll do if we don’t get more young families in here.” That’s every single congregation. Every. Blessed. One.
Some have said to me, “all the baptisms are great, but how many of those kids are going to be active in this congregation?” If you’ve asked that question, I urge you to let go of your cynicism.
My first answer, my first response is to say, “some of them are very much a part of this congregation—their parents just joined the church!” And I would add that the others represent an opportunity for us as a congregation, an opportunity to engage with them and begin a conversation, begin a relationship.
I don’t think God cares about our numbers. God simply calls us to be faithful, to love God and love neighbor. And Jesus offers us some clear directions:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:18-19)
Baptize and teach; make disciples. And, thanks be to God, that’s what we’re doing!
The prophet Isaiah offered a vision of what God’s kingdom might look like if the people returned to faithfulness and lived into God’s promises and blessings. What Isaiah didn’t offer was a timetable. He didn’t tell the people of Judah when that vision would be realized or how long it would take to get to that place.
That’s the same hope that’s offered to us, that we may live in that place without fear and anxiety. That applies to our congregation and it applies to the world outside our walls. Mind you, this is not a reward for good behavior. It’s not a quid pro quo. As we return to faithfulness and live into God’s call to love God and neighbor, we get out of our own way.
We live into the blessings of being a faithful community of believers. And that begins here, as we baptize people into God’s covenants and welcome new people into membership.
We don’t know how long it’ll take to build this congregation back up, but if we keep responding in faith, and if we continue to focus on the new shoots and branches, we will see new development and new growth.
And as you’re watching and waiting for all of these wonderful signs of new life, please embrace the new people you see in our midst! I mean, you don’t have to literally embrace all of them. Some people are huggers and some aren’t. But you can ask them which they are, and then you can respond appropriately. From there, you can build a relationship.
Let me offer one last thought. When we had that retreat for the Worship and Christian Ed Commissions, we had it at the home of one of our members. Though everyone at that meeting knew one another, some had never shared a meal together outside of this church and its grounds.
We build bonds with one another when we break bread together. And church meals are truly great and wonderful. But when we invite people into our homes, and when we share meals at places other than 118 West Main Street, we build deeper relations ships and we bring that love back into this place. As new people visit this church, they will feel that love and be drawn in. May we all grow in hope and in love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, Beloved, remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “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.” Remember those words as you leave this place. Carry that hope, peace, and joy with you and share it with the world. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. This is the truth and the love in which we were created. Go forth and live fully and abundantly into that love. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!