Year A, Advent 2
I only have a vague recollection of the day Nelson Mandella was freed after 27 years in prison. I was still in elementary school, but even then I recognized it for the historic day it was. I remember the day he was elected president of South Africa much more clearly. It was 1994 and it felt like the world was shifting somehow, that it would never be the same. For my whole adult life, Nelson Mandella has been a president and a major political leader. I knew he was sick for some time, but I was still struck with an unexpected grief when he died this Thursday. It felt like the end of an era and in many ways it is.
After his death, the African National Congress (which was the party that he dedicated most of his life to) issued a statement that said, “The large African Baobab who loved Africa as much as he loved South Africa, has fallen. Its trunk and seeds will nourish the earth for decades to come.” The Baobab tree is native to Africa. These trees are magnificent; having extremely wide trunks, a diameter ranging from 23 to 36 feet. It is also known as the “tree of life” because of the shelter it provides, the fruit that drops from its branches and the amount of water that can be found in its trunk. It is no surprise that Mandella has become associated with this amazing life giving tree.
For the next 2 months, our Old Testament reading will come from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Bible, but it still seems like a lot of Isaiah for one year. Have you all ever noticed that while most of our readings move on a three year cycle, we get the same readings every year for the major holidays? Every year for Christmas, we hear the same Gospel text from Luke that tells the classic nativity story. There are shepherds, angels, a trip to the City of David. There would probably be a small riot if we did not use that Gospel text.
However, how many of you know what the reading from the Old Testament is on Christmas Eve? It’s from the Book of Isaiah and we get it every year. We hear it every year because it seems to go along with the Gospel reading. For centuries, Biblical scholars and preachers have used Isaiah to illuminate the Gospel….to point to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the prophesy. There are good reasons for that and if you want to know them, you will have to come back on Dec. 24th. But what about the rest of Isaiah? Does it have a purpose outside of Christmas Eve?
Isaiah is an amazingly rich text with very profound imagery. Last week we heard about beating swords into plowshares. This week, we hear about a stump, which does not sound very exciting. In fact, it sounds so dull that I have ignored it for years. It was only this year when I realized how powerful this image really is. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.” Most of us probably know very little (if anything) about Jesse although his name occurs 45 times in the Bible. Usually when his name is mentioned, it is in this way, “David, the Son of Jesse.” David being King David…the greatest King of Israel, the one who would one day be connected to Jesus who would be called the Son of David, born in the City of David. (It’s all coming together now!)
So this Jesse guy is like a modern day Kennedy. This was the family to be in. Yet call me crazy, but a stump isn’t exactly something you want to be connected with. A great tree-absolutely, but a stump? Isaiah was writing about the stump of Jesse at least 200 years after the reign of David. A lot happened in those 200 years and most of it was not very good. The Kingdom was divided. The line of kings had deteriorated. When Isaiah was first writing, King Ahaz was in power. He followed pagan idols and revived the practice of human sacrifice. Needless to say, he was not a bright spot on the family tree.
Yet there were signs of new life on this stump. When Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah came to power, he removed the idols from the temples. The 2nd Book of Kings tells us that he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. During Ahaz’s rule, the Davidic branch was on the verge of decay, but with Hezekiah, hope was still present. A shoot was rising up from that withered stump. That shoot carried a promise of new life, perhaps even a messiah in the future.
For so long, the people of Israel had put most of their hope in kings. This is one of the reasons God did not even want to give them a king initially. He knew what would happen. He knew they would try to make the kings into gods and people, even the best people, never make good gods. I believe that this shoot wasn’t just the sign of a new and better king, it was a symbol of resurrection. A stump makes us think of death and endings. Yet even out of something that seems to have died, new things can come; better things can come.
I am sure that when Nelson Mandella was given a sentence for a lifetime in prison, people thought his crusade to end apartheid was over. But really, it was just beginning. The Baobab tree is called the tree of life, but it often looks like it is dead because for most of the year it is leafless. People say that it looks like it is upside down, as if the roots are up in the air. Yet appearances can be deceiving. Stumps that look as though their life is over can be fertile ground for new life. Leafless trees can provide water, food, shelter, and inspiration. A man who spends 27 years in prison comes out ready to forgive, ready to start over and change the world.
We have all seen the headlines: The Church is dead. Christianity is dead. For the sake of argument, let’s say that is true. As Christians who believe that death is not the end, we should take this as an opportunity. If we are dead, then we must have a stump somewhere that is ready for new growth. And if we have fertile ground, then all we need is some seeds. We have seeds all over the place. These seeds come in the form of prayers, acts of service, music, community outreach, friendship, stewardship, hospitality, evangelism, and yes, worship. They just need to be planted. So find a nice old stump, or maybe an empty pot, or perhaps a huge plot of earth. Plant the seeds wherever you can. They might not all grow, but some will. Even if they do not, the act of planting is growth in and of itself because it is a sign of hope. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that Nelson Mandela was exceptional, but not unique. He said, “The spirit of greatness that he personified resides in all of us.” All we need to do it let it grow.