Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Stump of Jesse

Isaiah, Advent 2 A, December 8, 2013

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

In our first lesson this morning, we heard about the stump of Jesse. Jesse’s lineage created the Davidic monarchy, but it was put to an end after only a few short generations. The bloodline of Jesse had stopped ruling over Israel with no hope of a return, just like a tree that had been cut down. The tree was gone, but the stump remained.

That tree that was cut down must have been burned. Burning leaves and wood is a fairly regular thing here in our somewhat rural part of Iowa. Each burn pile leaves a patch of ashes in the street or a dead circle in the grass. In the easement behind my backyard, there is a small black mound of dead soil where the previous owners had a burn pile. During the year that I have lived there, nothing has grown on that spot.

Physically burning dead foliage is an obvious image for a tree cut down, yet there are other metaphorical stumps in our lives. In her blog Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh describes her depression. She writes, “[As a child,] I remember being endlessly entertained by the adventures of my toys

… But as I grew older, it became harder and harder to access that expansive imaginary space that made my toys fun. I remember looking at them and feeling sort of frustrated and confused that things weren't the same. 
“I played out all the same story lines that had been fun before, but the meaning had disappeared. Horse's Big Space Adventure transformed into holding a plastic horse in the air, hoping it would somehow be enjoyable for me. Prehistoric Crazy-Bus Death Ride was just smashing a toy bus full of dinosaurs into the wall while feeling sort of bored and unfulfilled.  I could no longer connect to my toys in a way that allowed me to participate in the experience.
“Depression feels almost exactly like that, except about everything.”

Depression is everywhere and among us. For some, depression is a surge of emotions, of sadness or anger. For others, depression is like what Allie Brosh feels, an emptiness that can never be filled. She can’t feel emotions, and because of it she can’t connect with anyone around her.

When the pain of depression impacts not just individuals but a culture, the playgrounds at school get dangerous. What may be the most powerful image of a stump in our society is the painful bullying that happens to children of all ages. With texting and social media, children have so many more opportunities to say hurtful things. These words of hate become burned into the eyes of the most innocent of children. From grade school to high school, children are suffering. No place is safe for youth these days.

In the time when Isaiah wrote of the stump of Jesse, the people of Israel were in a bit of their own depression. They had been bullied by generations of foreigners. They had been exiled from their own land, sent to Babylon while their Temple was being destroyed. Even when the Persians finally allowed them to go back to their own land, they never again had a king from the line of David. They were at a point of total despair, and they were desperate for someone to come from the genetic line of David to save them.

So, Isaiah wrote this prophecy that a shoot would grow from the stump of Jesse. New life will come out of this old piece of wood. And this bit of new life, this shoot, will have the spirit of the Lord with him. This one will be fair, honest, and peaceful. All of the people who fight as individuals, groups, and nations will one day find common ground. Isaiah gives the people hope that someday, God will do this. When God does, it will be glorious.

Even in our own lives, we can find a bit of hope sprouting out of what was thought dead. In time, a burn pile can start to grow grass again. Even the burn pile on my land is starting to show signs of life. It may never be the beautiful patch of grass that it was, yet it can become something new.

Even a depressed person can find a way out – or at least a way better. Allie Brosh writes, “I was crying on the kitchen floor for no reason. As was common practice during bouts of floor-crying, I was staring straight ahead at nothing in particular and feeling sort of weird about myself. Then, through the film of tears and nothingness, I spotted a tiny, shriveled piece of corn under the refrigerator. 
“I don't claim to know why this happened, but when I saw the piece of corn, something snapped. And then that thing twisted through a few permutations of logic that I don't understand, and produced the most confusing bout of uncontrollable, debilitating laughter that I have ever experienced. 
“My brain had apparently been storing every unfelt scrap of happiness from the last nineteen months, and it had impulsively decided to unleash all of it at once in what would appear to be an act of vengeance. 
“That piece of corn is the funniest thing I have ever seen, and I cannot explain to anyone why it's funny. I don't even know why…The way the corn was sitting on the floor... it was so alone... and it was just sitting there!”

Allie isn’t fully out of her depression. As she explains it, she is working at 60%, and that is enough for her, for now. Allie’s medication helps her to function in society.

And out of the terrors of children bullying each other comes the Buddy Bench. Christian Bucks, a second grader from York, Pennsylvania, came up with the idea for this bench for the recess playground. During an all-school assembly, Christian presented his idea to his classmates. He said, “If you are feeling lonely and don’t have anything to do, you go to the Buddy Bench. The idea is that someone will come and ask if you want to play or talk.”
By sitting on this bench, children are bravely publicly admitting that they are lonely. Then other children can take that opportunity to welcome them into their circle of friends. This Buddy Bench is a way to facilitate what should already be happening on the playground. By providing children the opportunity to invite others to play, they can rise above bullying to share their beautiful innocent souls with each other.
When Isaiah talked about the stump of Jesse, he didn’t say that a full tree would sprout. He said that a shoot would come out, a small bit of green growing out of the long-dead stump. Jesus was this sprout. He was a small bit of hope wrapped in a little baby. He didn’t look like a king, yet he was one. He is one.

A bit of grass growing out of a burn pile, or a piece of corn under the fridge, or a bench near a playground can all be these little sprouts of hope for people. God works through these ordinary events to give us hope. Whether the future looks bleak or fantastic, God is there, shining light on what we might not have seen. During this season of Advent, we await Jesus’ coming when all hope is fulfilled. Amen.

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