Lectionary Texts: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Matthew 3: 1-12
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, December 4, 2016
- Planting Lessons
You know, throughout the Scriptures, the writers have over and over again used plants, vegetation and farming to get across the lessons that we need. Why is that? I think the reason is that plants essentially do what they were created to do. Plants do not just exist. They are always continually growing, continually becoming something new. If they get what they need, if they are cared for and watered and receive the sustenance they need, they will bud and produce new shoots, new growth. They don’t stay wrapped up in their fears and their insecurities. They will become larger and wider and stronger as they reach beyond themselves.
Do you know people who seem to have a green thumb, those who appear to be able to take any kind of plant and make it flourish? My grandmother Reue was one of those people. Her house was always filled with plants and children of those plants and grandchildren of those plants as she took the buds, the new shoots, and planted them so that they would learn to stand on their own. Her backyard was full countless ferns and vines that seemed to grow unhindered and without reserve.
My mom may not be so impressed that I’m telling this story, but I remember one time when I was little and my mother was trying to get ready for a party of some sort at our house. I remember helping her load up all of our plants, many of which were brown and shriveled from neglect, and taking them over to Grandmother’s. We then left our plants at her house and loaded some of her beautiful and healthy plants into the car to put around our house. Three weeks later, I remember going back to Grandmother’s and finding our tired old plants healthy and flourishing in their new home. It was not that my mom was incapable of growing plants. I actually think we all have that capability. But growing things takes time. It requires that we pay attention. It requires that we stay engaged.
So, then, why would our own spiritual lives or the spiritual lives of those around us be any different? Why are we content to just allow ourselves to exist like we are? Why do we think it’s OK to just keep doing the same things over and over, never allowing new shoots to grow? Why have we quit paying attention? How many of our spiritual lives resemble one of those Charlie Brown Christmas trees rather than a healthy and flourishing vine?
- A Shoot Shall Come Out From the Stump of Jesse
So, once again we read yet another passage about that future vision that God holds for us—you know, the one that we’re walking toward, the one that we are supposed to be a part of bringing to be, the one that God promised us. We are given a vision of a shoot, a new shoot that will come out of the dead and decaying stump of the past, a branch that will come out of the original roots of our faith and our lives. It doesn’t replace the old; it just continues growing.
I have a picture of an olive tree that I took in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Olive trees will actually live for centuries, sprouting new life over and over again. If you look at this picture, the thing on the left side that looks like a dead and decaying stump is what is left of a tree that was probably in that place 2,000 years ago. That is what is left of a tree that might have been there that night before the Crucifixion as Jesus prayed and submitted his own life to God. And from that stump came another shoot, that grew into a tree that is probably about 1,000 years old. And to the right of it is yet another stump that may be 200 years old or so. And from that is a newer shoot, a tree that is just a few years old. It is a picture of new shoots, new creations that God is always creating and always nurturing into being. But they exist together, sprouting from each other’s strengths into new life.
So, why don’t we see it? This passage gives us the vision rather plainly. And yet, I think we are often tempted to over-romanticize it a bit, imagining instead a utopian sort of world. Because, really, wolves cavorting with lambs and calves and lions sharing a place together and all this being led by a child may be just a little too much to fathom. In the words of Mary at that fateful encounter with the angel, “How can this be?”
Maybe that’s our whole problem. Maybe we have not allowed ourselves or risked ourselves or trained ourselves or nurtured ourselves enough to grasp or become something new. After all, that vision has been out there a while and yet the world still struggles with its own needs and wants and fears. Wars still rage and poverty still overtakes. Why is the earth not yet filled with the knowledge of the Lord? What do we need to do to nurture that vision as well as nurture our very part in growing into it?
III. Bearing Fruit Worthy of Repentance
The vision is always there. I think in some ways, it’s always begging for someone to pay attention to it. So along came John the Baptist. Somehow during Advent, John always finds his way into the story. You remember him—the wild wilderness man who wore animal skins and made his meals off locusts and honey, the one who never quite conformed to the ways of this world but instead chose to focus solely on what God was calling him to do. And his mission came from that focus. His mission was to point to the one that was coming, the One that would BE God in our midst, the One that would baptize us with water and the very Spirit of God. And to do that, our passage says that John proclaimed repentance. His preaching was fiery and zealous, probably a little off-putting for those who were used to a more comfortable and proper message.
John was probably not known for his pastoral sermons. In today’s passage, when he saw the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming for baptism, he greeted them with “You brood of vipers.” I will tell you, I do not think that is the most effective Call to Worship. I’m not sure many visitors would have stayed around that day. The problem, see, was that they had assumed that they somehow had an “in” to this vision of God just because of who they were. They had good upbringing. Their ancestors had always been a part of the church. They were the church leaders. They taught Sunday School. They mowed the church lawn and got their pledge cards in on time. They were the big givers. Wasn’t that what it was all about?
The problem was that they were relying on the old stump. In fact, they carried the dying and decaying stump around like a medal, as if it were proof of who they were. But John the Baptist was now telling them to bear fruit, to do something different, to become a new creation. He told of this metaphorical axe that is laying at the foot of the tree that is part of the past and refused to burst forth with new growth. His message was that what God really wants from is to live lives that bear fruit in this world and for the vision to come. John message was that we are all called to be new shoots.
And for John, being new shoots is about repentance. We good Methodists squirm at the mention of that word. It often sounds a little too “hellfire and brimstone” for us. But repentance means turning around, changing direction, being a new shoot. It’s more than just being sorry for what you’ve done; it’s being open to becoming something new. It means throwing off those things that bind us to the life we know so that we can see the life that God is calling us to have.
John probably would not have done well in today’s church. He was just too offputting, too loud, too erratic. In Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon wrote (without identifying which one of them thought it) that “indeed, one of us is tempted to think there is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry.” That sort of describes John. And sometimes John’s words were not very popular. He went around like some wild man in the wilderness preaching repentance, preaching that we needed to change, preaching about the one who was coming after him, preaching about the light that was just around the bend, a light such that we had not seen. “John,” we want to say, “Shhhh!…you’ll wake the baby.”
See, the point is that we are really called to be something new. God expects something from us. This season of Advent tells us that over and over again. The church is not the Gospel nor are we. But we are the ones that are called to be new shoots, to point others to the coming of God into this world.
- So, How Do We Live As New Shoots?
So, how do we live as new shoots? How do we embrace that vision we’ve been given and make it part of us? The message that Advent brings is that God loves us enough to keep showing up—in a vision laid out for us to embrace, in Emmanuel, God-With-Us, and over and over again as God walks with us through our own becoming a new creation. So, what if we were to encounter John the Baptist? What would be his message to us? Are we holding on to what we know or are we new shoots, giving the old new life? This is not just a rehash of the same old thing. William Sloane Coffin once said that “believers know that while our values are embodied in tradition, our hopes are always located in change.” But change is often uncomfortable. Change is unpredictable. Change is hard. Maybe we can just get through this busy season and then change. How’s that?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that “we have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. (From “The Coming of Jesus in our Midst”, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, December 21)
Lays claim to us…What do we do when God lays claim to us? John was the forerunner of Jesus Christ. John preached repentance and change and pointed toward the One who would come into the world to usher God’s vision into the world. The coming of God means that the world is changing and we are called to be the new shoots of growth in the world. That’s what is expected when God lays claim to us.
A couple of years ago, the Today Show had a feature story about some young Panda bears who had been brought up in captivity. But the plan was to eventually return them to their natural habitat. So, in order to prepare them for what was to come, their caretakers thought that it would be better if they had no human contact. So to care for them, the people dressed up like panda bears. In order to show them how to be pandas, they became them.
I think that’s been done before! In its simplest form, the Incarnation is God’s mingling of God with humanity. It is God becoming human and giving humanity a part of the Divine. It is the mystery of life that always was coming into all life yet to be. God became human and lived here. God became us that we might change the world. God became like us to show us what it meant for us to be like God in the world. The miracle of the birth of the Christ child is that God now comes through us. We ARE the new shoots of transformation.
- Finding Advent Peace
Today we lit the candle of peace. It is a reminder that the vision that God holds for us, the very inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into the world is not something in the future, but is truly at hand. And we are called to be the ones who imagine it into being. Everything is about to change. The old is passing away; the new presses in. The long, long night of hopelessness is coming o an end. The sleeping world needs to begin to awake. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
We are not called to simply dream of a time in the future when God’s vision will come to be; we are the ones that are called to water it and nurture it and make it grow. We are the ones that are called to BE God’s Kingdom here on earth. We’ve been shown how to do that.
Perhaps the reason that the earth is not yet filled with the knowledge of the Lord, that the Reign of God has not come into its fullness, that poverty and homelessness and injustice and war still exists is because we do not dare to imagine it. This is not some vision of an inaccessible utopian paradise; this is the vision of God. It is worth waiting with hopeful expectation. The passage says that a shoot shall come out the stump and a branch shall grow out of the roots. In other words, life shall spring from that which is dead and discarded. Because in God’s eyes, even death has the foundation, the roots of life. We just have to imagine it into being. So, imagine beyond all your imaginings; envision a world beyond all you dare to see; and hope for a life greater than anything that is possible. Imagine what it means to become a new shoot.