Advent 2: Matthew 3:1-12 and Isaiah 11:1-10
I hope you are enjoying your locally sourced Advent Devotional booklet. Last week the reflection was written by Dolores Ngatchou with a focus on where she found light in the darkness. This week you will enjoy an interview of Vivian Smith with a focus on growing in multiple ways. Our overall theme is “Where Hope Grows”. The truth is that hope grows in surprising places, in amazing conditions. You have watched it, I know. Sometimes it grows in places that seem inhospitable and difficult, but hope can be stubborn and strong. Hope for a change in a health condition for you or for a loved one. Hope for a child to turn around and walk a healthier path in life. Hope for a life that is filled with peace instead of discomfort and pain and fear. Hope in the face of difficult odds. Hope to make it to the United States through jungle and mountains and river and potential human danger. (point to the first Advent window). Hope is light piercing the dark days of our lives through the steady presence of a family member or a church family. (point to the second Advent window) Hope is a branch growing out of a stump, new life showing up to surprise you in a place you thought was dried up and dead.
Last year we had to move our rose bush because the large tree out in front of our house was taken down, and the rose bush was too close to the tree to stay in its spot. It was moved to the garden area closer to the house and, despite all of my hopes for beautiful flowers this spring, the rose bush shriveled up and died. This summer when I finally took time to pull it out and throw away the dead branches full of thorns, I was surprised to see some new branches growing, new life bursting forth where the bush appeared to be dead. A shoot growing out of a stump! Hope bursting forth!
This week my cousin Tricia died in Ohio. She was close to my age, and had had a difficult life, having lived many years in a group home for disabled adults. Her 4 siblings and her 2 children made a decision to donate her organs and shared with me their amazing experience on the day the ventilator was removed from Tricia’s body. At the hospital where Tricia died, they have a practice of creating a “wall of honor” to show gratitude to a family for the gift of life. Doctors and nurses, patients and visitors lined the hallway cheering on the family as they accompanied Tricia’s body to the operating room so that her kidneys and liver could be removed and given to several individuals whose life would now be renewed with a healthy organ. Her heart will be used for research enabling more people to benefit from her gift. Tricia’s family was overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and appreciation for the gift of life. New life bursting forth from a body that had stopped breathing. Hope bursting forth!
Isaiah’s image of the shoot bursting forth from the stump of Jesse is hope bursting forth for the people of Israel. It might help us to do a little remembering so we can set his words in context. The Jesse Isaiah is referring to was Jesse the father of King David, who was the ancestor of Jesus through Joseph’s family tree. The words from the prophet Isaiah recall days past when the people of Israel clamored for a new king. God worked through Samuel to identify the one who would be the next king. Samuel was told it would be one of Jesse’s sons. So he invited Jesse to come and present his sons before him. One by one, each of Jesse’s seven older boys were introduced to Samuel, and each time, Samuel could see this was not the one. Finally, he said to Jesse: “Are all your sons here?” It turns out that the youngest, by the name of David, was out in the fields caring for the sheep. No one thought God would select the youngest one for a king, so he had not been called in at first. Samuel insisted that he be sent for, and he would not sit down until David arrived. Indeed it turned out that he was the one God intended to serve as the king for the Israel. People were surprised that the Lord did not select one of Jesse’s older sons to be king. It would have made sense. But the word from God to Samuel was this: “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God knew the heart of David, and knew that this was the right king for the people.
The selection of David was a surprise. Now Isaiah makes it clear that a future shoot out of Jesse’s stump will bring hope for the people of Israel. This Branch will bear fruit, as one who is filled by the Spirit with wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and the fear (or awe and respect) of the Lord. He will judge with righteousness, looking deeply at the situations before him, not just judging by how things appear at the outset. Under his rule will be a place of peace and community never before experienced. The peaceful mountain description is out of this world, with animals who normally eat one another living side by side. It will be a peaceful mountain where even a little child will put his hand in a snake’s nest and not be hurt. No one will harm nor destroy on the holy mountain of God. This is the vision Isaiah leaves with the people of God , creating hope for the future despite the menacing threat of enemies surrounding them during Isaiah’s time.
We hold this peaceful vision of Isaiah in tension with the sharp words of John, the wild looking prophet who brings a message to the people in the wilderness, speaking to a people who are looking for hope, looking for a change, looking for God at work. His message is that it is time to repent, to make an about face and follow God. He is identified later in Isaiah as the one who was to prepare the way of the coming Lord. He baptized them in the river and paved the way for the coming of Jesus. The crowds came out from the cities to the wilderness area, the land of the Jordan River. Are they curious? Are they empty? Are they filled with hope that maybe it will be this guy, this guy dressed in camel hair and calling them to repent, to live lives that bear fruit that befits repentance. But it is not this guy. He simply points to Jesus, the one who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. He calls them to be sure that their actions, their decisions, their way of operating bears fruit that shows they have changed their ways, that they have turned to follow God.
This week I completed an application to Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC for us to potentially receive a seminary intern to work at Hunting Ridge during the 2020-2021 academic year. We don’t know for sure if there will be someone who wants to learn from us, but we hope so! I believe that we have lots to teach a seminary student. We can show him or her what it is like to be on the front lines in a city in need of hope, in need of love, in need of compassion. We can show him or her how we work and serve together from so many different cultural backgrounds, all with the same goal of serving Jesus Christ from this corner of west Baltimore. I was intrigued by one set of questions on the application form, where I had to declare whether our congregation was stable or not, growing or not, in transition or not, in decline or not. As financially tenuous as we may feel at times, we currently are growing, as is evidenced by the three new members we will welcome in our midst this morning. With Retrina and Emmanuel come three other family members who have already begun to be active in our community of faith—all of them were here yesterday at the Parents Morning Out event, either as participants or helpers. These three join seven others who joined previously in 2019, making our new members up to 10 for this year. Kudos to you, Hunting Ridge! When you look at our pews on a regular Sunday, ten new folks make a big difference! But I answered that question about growing on another level as well– it is more than simply growing by numbers. I believe we are growing in our experience as followers of Christ, gaining wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and awe of the Lord. We grow as individuals and as a community when we experience new things or build new relationships, when we travel new roads, when we make a commitment to a church family or to being a leader in a congregation, and when we support one another through the trials and tribulations of life. I have been watching you grow, and I am grateful to God.
Hope grows in amazing places. Even when things appear dead or useless, a new shoot comes out, bringing hope for something new and different. Let us keep our eyes open!