Seeing Stumps and Snakes with Advent Eyes – 12/09/07 – Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah 11:3 says, “The One to come shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” 

Advent is a season when we expect that our eyes will see familiar sites.  Maybe too familiar are the holiday decorations in the stores that seem to creep in a little earlier each year.  By now we expect to see full parking lots and long lines at stores.  On Tuesday I also witnessed longer than usual lines at the Oakley food pantry.  This past week Abbie and I had the chance to make our home look its part for the season.  We have a couple different nativity sets that are up in the living room.  One carries special meaning because we got it three summers ago while we were in Bethlehem.  Seeing it makes me feel a little more connected to that part of the world past and present.

On Thursday we took another step toward becoming cultured Cincinnatians by going to see the Festival of Lights at the Zoo.  Lily slept all the way through her first trip to the zoo, but Eve enjoyed the lights and the animals that were out.                  

There are familiar traditions that each of us have for this season, many having to do with what we see.

But the spiritual journey through Advent has just as much to do with what we don’t see as what we do see.  The One to come that Isaiah speaks of does not judge by what his eyes see.  The One to come, the One who is at the center of our Advent longings, whom Isaiah says has the spirit of wisdom and understanding, whose delight is in the Lord – this One comes into the troubled scenery of our lives and helps us see things we didn’t know were even there.  Not only do we see things differently, but the scenery itself is changed by this Presence.  

The troubled scenery, as Isaiah describes it, looks to us like stumps and snakes, neither of which sound like they have much potential for anything having to do with good news.   

Isaiah 11:1  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

On the surface a stump is not all that hopeful of an image.  It is, rather the opposite.  If we were to judge a stump by what we see we would consider it on its way to decay, or removal.  A stump calls to mind something that used to be living and thriving and is now all but gone.  When I think of stumps I think of the yard around the farm house where my Grandpa and Grandma Lehman lived while I was growing up.  For most of those years the house and yard and big garden were shaded by a number of trees.  These trees served as places for climbing and the lower branches and trunk area were hiding places for the annual Easter egg hunt.  But several of the trees were diseased and needed to be removed.  Losing the trees felt like the personality of the yard had been completely altered, almost like losing a member of the family.  It’s amazing how much space a single tree can fill and how much activity can be influenced by its presence.  The stumps were sad reminders of what used to be there.  I also think of the pear tree that used to grow right behind our Bellefontaine house.  It was a similar situation with disease and had to be cut down.  The stump was a pretty pathetic replacement for the spring blossoms and the pears that we could pick and eat every year.  You might have your own stump stories and I would imagine there is a sense of loss that goes along with them.  Stumps are almost an ominous symbol now given the rate of deforestation going on around the world and its impact on ecology.  One more stump is one less tree to help cool the air, provide a habitat for birds and other animals, and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Isaiah speaks about a stump not because the people of Israel were chopping down trees in their yards and countryside, but because the people of Israel were themselves the stump.  This thriving nation had been clear cut by a conquering Assyrian empire which had no interest in sustainable logging practices.  Many of the people were lopped off from their home land and transplanted to other regions of the empire, including near the capital city of Nineveh.  This was a time of national crisis.  And what was left of the former nation of Israel looked pretty much like a stump.

One of the most difficult experiences we can go through is the feeling of being cut off.  Cut off from a past life of good health, cut off emotionally from others; in the case of the poor, cut off from access to much needed resources.  Paradoxically, in this season of ‘joy to the world,’ this is also a time when people can feel most cut off from the flow of life.  Or, put in Isaiah’s terms, we come to realize that we are the stump.      

But look again, Isaiah says, there is life beneath the surface of things.  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The Spirit of the Lord, will rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.  He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

From this almost-dead hunk of wood comes a shoot of life.  What we see is loss and devastation, but what we don’t see might be the very roots that are keeping us alive.  The early church saw this lively shoot best illustrated through the life of Jesus.  Jesus emerged from a barely alive population under foreign occupation and decided with equity for the meek of the earth.  Jesus did not judge by what his eyes saw but used righteousness and justice as a standard for relating with the poor.  Jesus embodied the spirit of wisdom and understanding.  Jesus is a sign to us that the Spirit of God is about the work of causing life to shoot up from things we consider as good as dead. 

If we have difficulty seeing good news in a stump, it is all the harder to see it in a snake.    

Isa. 11:8 “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.”

As someone with a nursing child and a weaned child, my first reaction to this statement is a definite — Not In My Backyard.  I read this verse to Abbie this week and she agreed.  Parenting is not an exact science and there are a lot of ambiguities about the kinds of boundaries to set for children.  But here is something we can be sure about.  There will be no playing near, with, or over the hole of poisonous snakes. 

The verses around this verse show that this is only the most extreme case of a bizarre, seemingly unnatural order of things.  “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  Cows and bears and their young hang out together, lions eat straw with the ox instead of straw and the ox.”  If Isaiah were to open up a zoo, his Festival of Lights would have potential to take a serious turn for the worse and be not so family friendly an event.          

But just as the stump served as a metaphor for the Israelite family, these animals who are usually at each others’ throats serve as a metaphor for the human family.  It is a picture of enemies living side by side in cooperation.  And all this because of the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord has come to rest.  This scene flows out of his being and is a result of his Presence. 

If this includes poisonous snakes and children sharing a common playground, then maybe we can think of the work of the Spirit of God as that of detoxifying creation, so that the most vulnerable are able to play.  That’s the picture being painted here.  It’s a reversal of the direction we may feel things are moving with there being fewer and fewer safe places where we would like our children to play.  Not that school, not in that neighborhood, don’t eat that, don’t watch that.  For now, safety exists within a small well supervised circle.  The Vision we are looking at is an expanding of that circle, an opening up of creation so there can be lots of space for everyone’s playtime.           

The path toward stumps sending up fresh shoots and creation being detoxified goes through the baptismal waters of John.  The Vision that Isaiah spoke of is not one that gets imposed from above, but one that starts from the inside and works its way out.  John’s baptism was one of repentence, forgiveness, and a change of life.  It’s hard to tell how much he has Isaiah 11 in mind when he says his words, but he does use some similar imagery.  He refers to the religious leaders coming out to see him as vipers.  His offering of baptism is like a voluntary defanging of these snakes.  He also uses the tree imagery as he speaks of the need to bare fruit.  The options were to live like a stump that the ax had just chopped into, or to shoot up like a fruit tree and be full of life.  John taught that heaven is too good to wait until you die.  The kingdom of heaven is coming near.  He said.  Baptism was his way, and it became the Christian way, of choosing to live now within the kind of vision that Isaiah was speaking of.     

  The act of baptism is a key identity marker in our Anabaptist heritage.  Our baptisms are a public witness that we have joined the movement of the Spirit in the detoxification of creation.  We confess the poison that we carry around with us, we receive forgiveness, and we go under the water and come back up again as one who is now a part of this expanding circle of creation being remade. 

At our Spiritual Leadership Team meeting on Wednesday we opened by reflecting on the readings for this week.  The comment was made that we often go through our days with our focus just on the things at hand, trying to keep up with the day’s work.  And that Advent is a time when we step back and allow ourselves to see this bigger picture of what God wants to do with us.  This resonated with me as an important part of what we’re doing together during these days.  And one of the messages of these Scriptures is that, when we do step back and look around, there is more going on than what we can judge with our eyes.  As our baptisms symbolize for us, God takes stumps and causes shoots to grow up.  God takes poisonous snakes and teaches them to learn how to play safely with children.

Hear again these words from Isaiah: “The One to come shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear…they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”