Dead Stumps and New Shoots
I've been too busy writing sermons lately (3 in 8 days...wheh!) to blog, so I thought I post one of them instead.
Dead Stumps and New Shoots
During my first summer in California, I took a trip up the coast to Oregon with some friends and we stopped along the way at a Redwood grove in southern Oregon. The naturalist who was working in the grove during our visit told us that the bark of Redwoods is fire-proof. So if a wild-fire should rip through the grove, the trees would be severely damaged, but deep inside the trunk and roots there would still be a living core that could send out new branches, allowing the tree to continue to live. It’s hard to imagine anything in the path of such fierce heat surviving. Yet deep inside the trunk of a Redwood, a bit of life survives through the fire to send up new shoots.
The passage we read a few minutes ago from Isaiah makes promises that just such a shoot will spring up among God’s people, Israel. It will spring up where it’s least expected, in a place that looks like all life and hope have been destroyed. This new shoot of salvation will bring the hope of a new and different future for God’s people. It will come in a spiritual and political landscape that looks completely inhospitable to the flourishing of God’s salvation. And its growth will be a sign of God’s continued faithfulness to his promises even in the face of the faithlessness of his people.
The picture of life in Judah which Isaiah paints is a bleak one. For much of the ten chapters leading up to this passage, Isaiah thunders prophetic pronouncements of God’s coming judgment against his people. The sacrifices and worship of Judah are repugnant to God, says Isaiah, because their lives and communities are full of injustice. In their political and economic life they have scorned God, neglecting his commands to “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.” The rich and powerful have filled their houses with wealth that rightfully belongs to the poor. God, through Isaiah, calls Jerusalem a whore, calls her princes rebels and thieves. Hide in caves and the crags of rocks, warns Isaiah, because when the fierce anger of God comes sweeping through, nothing will be left standing.
Why is God so harsh with Israel? It’s because God’s people have failed utterly to keep their covenant relationship with him, to live out their calling to be a witness to God’s character to the surrounding nations. The powerful have exploited the labor of the powerless. The tiny nation Judah, instead of trusting in God’s provision, has aligned itself politically with its more powerful neighbors, accepting their military aid and with it, allegiance to their gods. The descendants of king David have used their position and power to their own advantage, rather than to create a nation which reflects God’s care for the poor, God’s provision for all, God’s peace. The ancient royal tree has become a lifeless stump.
Throughout these passages of thundering warnings of God’s judgment against injustice and economic inequality and failure to truly worship him, come glimpses of God’s vision for his people—of what they should be, of what he longs for them to be, of what he has promised to make them. God’s judgment, says Isaiah, is part of his plan for salvation for our world. It is a sign of God’s determination to redeem his people in spite of themselves, to reclaim them from their scorn of God, which is reflected in their political and economic life. God’s judgment reveals his fierce love for his people, for all the people of the world, and his unwavering determination that those whom he has chosen will yet make visible to the watching nations his salvation.
These passages that show us a vision of salvation are like eyes in the storm of God’s anger, like sheltered crags from which we can see past the fire-storm of judgment to the greater purpose, God’s ultimate plan for his people. Walter Brueggemann calls this passage a “dream of God’s lips” and compares it to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. The vision of this passage, Bruegemann says, is “an act of imagination from the throne of heaven in which we are invited to participate.” It gives us an image of what God dreams for his people, a dream that imagines a new political and social reality vastly different from our current reality, a dream which we are invited to join God in dreaming.
This dream of God’s lips tells us that God’s vision for our world is one in which new life grows from dead stumps, in which new life and new hope sprout up in burned over, lifeless landscapes. Our eyes may see a hopeless family situation, a dead church, a community in which violence and injustice are triumphing, a church still divided down lines of rich and poor, privileged and powerless. But God speaks a word of hope, a word of vision of what yet could be. Our eyes may see a dead stump, but God calls us to see with him the possibility of an enormous shelter-giving fruitful tree, of a re-created world in which the goodness of the original creation is once again visible.
This vision of salvation, of new life in the midst of death, is a remarkably holistic one. Just as God’s judgment against Israel is sparked by their neglect of their corporate economic and political life, so the promise of salvation comes in the form of a ruler who will restore justice and equity. This isn’t the equity of equal-opportunity, but God’s equity, an equity that provides special protection and provision for those who lack the means to secure it for themselves. Isaiah calls them “the weak” and “the afflicted of the earth” – they are not only those who are destitute, but everyone who lacks the power to secure their own rights - the poor, immigrants, widows and children. In God’s equity, those with power, and especially those who make and enforce the laws, have a responsibility to speak and act on their behalf. Isaiah says that God has a dream of equity and justice, that God intends his salvation to touch not just our hearts, but also our political policies and courtrooms, our banks and corporate boardrooms, our laws and lawmakers.
The vision Isaiah paints is of a salvation brought by a new king, a new shoot from the ancient royal root. This king not only is God’s chosen, but Isaiah tells us that the powerful creative moving spirit of God rests upon him, giving him eyes to discern reality from appearances and truth from rumors. This king is clothed in righteousness and faithfulness, in contrast the current corrupt and faithless leaders. It’s important to notice that it’s God who brings this about – it’s God who calls forth new life from an old dead stump, who calls this recreated world into being. It’s God who appoints this new ruler, who gives him his spirit, who gives him the power to govern justly. When the tree has died, the promises of God remain full of life.
The second half of this dream tells us in vivid images what God’s dream of a world of justice and equity will look like. It’s a vision of world restored to the goodness of Eden. It’s a world in which natural enemies live in peace and harmony with each other. Those who have been preyed upon extend shelter and refuge to their predators—they dwell together in safety. Their children lie down together in peace. Even a baby is safe playing on top of a snake’s den. The most defenseless among us will be safe in the presence of the most powerful. Palestinian settler and Israeli soldier, Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant, American politician and Iraqi insurgent, undocumented immigrant and border patrol agent—they will all live together, their children will lie down together in peace. Can you imagine a world like that?
Isaiah says that when this vision becomes reality, it will overflow into the rest of the world. Knowledge of God, intimate relational knowledge, will saturate the earth like a flood. And all the nations of the earth will come streaming toward God’s holy city, towards God’s chosen one, to receive justice and guidance from him as well. It is good news not just for tiny Judah, but for all the nations of the world.
Historically, the church has read this passage as a messianic prophecy, looking ahead to the reign of justice of God’s kingdom through Christ. And I think we can claim that promise while also claiming something from this vision for our particular situation today, just as Isaiah’s original hearers were meant to do. We too, as the church, are part of this tree, grafted into the ancient root of God’s promises. We too, as God’s chosen people, are called by God to make his salvation visible in our life together. And we too are at risk for invoking God’s judgment.
In a church history class I took before I came to Fuller, I met a woman who was on the verge of losing her faith because of the class—the accumulated weight of the centuries of misuse of power by the church, of fighting between factions that led to the slaughter of Christians by Christians, of the oppression of other people groups in the name of Christ’s kingdom—all this was a weight too much for her to bear. Over lunch after class one day she sobbed out that if this is what the church is like, she wanted no part in it. I wonder that more of us don’t have that reaction. I think if we listen to the voice of God through Isaiah, we have to wonder if that isn’t part of what God feels as he views the ways his church has been complicit in violence, exploitation, and injustice over the centuries, as we are even now. Does he see us and weep that we are a church still divided by race, a church in which some of us still have much more than we need while others have far too little, a church which still reflects the divisions and injustices of our society more than it does God’s new creation? Does he see us and thunder out a warning that our worship is worthless because our lives do not reflect his care for the poor and oppressed, the new immigrants who make our city their home, the homeless men and women who stand with their cardboard signs day after day on the street corners of Pasadena? Does he see us as a dead stump?
If our hope is only in our ability as the church to make God’s salvation visible, then my classmate may well have been right to despair. But our hope is in the deeper, sturdier, more steadfast roots of God’s promises. And if the judgment of Isaiah has a word for us, then the promise of Isaiah does too. The “dream of God’s lips” is also a dream for us. It’s a dream that God continues to call into being new life from unexpectedly, seemingly dead places. It’s a dream that calls us to participate in what God is doing—to keep watch for and nurture the young shoots of God’s new creation, to look for signs of green poking through old dead wood. Isaiah tells us that the undercurrent of injustice is strong, but the tide of God’s justice is stronger. Isaiah calls us to remember that under the dead stumps of our lives, of our world, there is the possibility of new life growing out of God’s promises.
I heard this story recently from a friend. It’s about a couple of teachers who live and work in one of the poorest and most polluted neighborhoods in Camden, New Jersey. Among other industries, their neighborhood is home to a cement factory, a trash-to-steam incinerator, steel processing plants, and a natural gas power plant. The children they teach play on a playground next to a sewage processing plant and the smell of human waste is always in the air—they cancel recess when too many children begin to vomit. One third of their city is zoned for industry and one square mile out of nine has been designated an environmental Superfund site. In spite of all the industry, unemployment is at 36%. The residents have sought redress for the pollution in the courts, but have yet to receive any justice. 
In the midst of this bleak landscape, these two teachers decided to plant a neighborhood garden. They planted over 1,000 flower bulbs, along with flats of broccoli, kale, collards and tomatoes, and they used SuperSoakers to spray the neighborhood with white clover seeds. They invited the kids they teach to help them plan and plant the garden, and they named it Eve’s Garden after a prostitute named Eve who helped them tend it. They call their gardening “practicing resurrection” because they see it as a way to call out new life from a barren place.  What these two young teachers are doing won’t change their neighborhood or their city overnight. It won’t right years of injustice. But perhaps it is a new shoot God is sending up, a whisper of the wind of God’s spirit, breathing his dream for Camden. Perhaps it will grow into a mighty tree that will bear fruit in justice and peace. Perhaps it will give witness in the haze of dirty air and injustice to the memory of God’s good creation of our world and to the promise of God’s restoration of all he has made.
We, too, can watch and tend the new shoots of resurrection life in our families, in our churches in our neighborhoods. We, too, can practice the radical hope that God’s faithful promises are ever living, ever sprouting out of barren landscapes. And as the engrafted people of God, we can rest in the knowledge that this “dream of God’s lips” is rooted in God’s undying promises. We can join God in dreaming this dream of a world in which injustice is no more, in which enemies lie down together in peace, in which our world will be saturated with the knowledge of God’s fierce and unwavering love, in which all nations will stream to the holy city of Christ the King.
 Walter Brueggemann, “Peacemaking: An Evangelical Possibility,” Church & Society, (Sept/Oct 1990), 9.
 Andrea Ferich, “Eve’s Garden,” http://camdenhouse.org/, accessed on 04/27/06.
 Kim Mulford, “Women sow seeds of hope in Camden neighborhood,” CourierPost Online (March 12, 2005), available at http://www.courierpostonline.com/columnists/cxmu031205a.htm, accessed on 04/27/06.