Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10
There are so many things to see in this text that we hardly know where to begin.
A shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, the gifts of the spirit, the peaceable kingdom where predators and their prey live side by side, and babies play unharmed near poisonous snakes. Woody Allen once gave his own interpretation of this vision: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep!”
What could an IMAGE SERMON look like if we focused on just the first verse?
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. . .” The stump is dead. God had said it would be so. Just before this chapter, God declares punishment on the people: “the tallest trees will be cut down and the lofty will be brought low.” The trees, the people — both will be clean cut off.
And yet, another word comes from the very same prophet: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse . . .” How can we help the congregation see this word of promise?
Move One: Equivalent Nature Image
Brainstorm for images of something growing where nothing should. I chose something people in our neighborhood had seen as construction began on a new police station. Manhattan is a mighty rock. Such rock does not give in easily. I watched as huge jackhammers crashed down on the rock making barely a dent, until cracks finally appeared on the surface.
This same rock runs through the park near our church — rocks that make a mockery of jackhammers. Yet, I have seen something else along the path: a tiny seedling pushing out into the sunlight. A tender shoot no bigger than my finger had broken through the rock without a jackhammer. There are, I know, scientific explanations why such a thing is possible, yet each time I saw it, that stubborn shoot appeared to me a miracle.
Move Two: Human Image
This move is set up by a story but seeing is crucial. There is a man on my street I’ve known for years. We often met in the morning at the newsstand. Then, his wife died — forty-two years together changed to loneliness. I watched him walking, his head bowed, his shoulders drooping lower each day. His whole body seemed in mourning, cut off from everyone.
I grew accustomed to saying, “Good morning” without any response. Until a week ago. I saw him coming and before I could get any words out, he tipped his hat, “Good morning, Reverend. Going for your paper?” He walked beside me, eager to talk. I could not know what brought the change that seemed so sudden. Perhaps, for him, it wasn’t sudden at all, but painfully slow. Like a seedling pushing through rock toward the sunlight. There must have been an explanation, yet he appeared to me, a miracle.
Move Three: Communal Image
Another story sets up the third move to a communal image. We often decide too soon where things can’t grow. “Surely not there!” we say. The rock is too hard, the stump too dead. There are times when we assume whole groups of people cannot grow or thrive. Across from Manhattan, Jersey City clings to the river’s edge. My friend Ruth grew up there in the thirties. She said it wasn’t so bad being a black person in those years. If you were light enough and straightened your hair, you could get a good job with the telephone company.
That’s exactly what her mother did. Every Saturday afternoon as soon as the weather was warm, Ruth and her mother Mabel got all dressed up, fit for the finest party in town. But they didn’t even go out the door. They put two chairs out on the fire escape and left the window open wide with the radio tuned to “Saturday Afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera.” They sat for the rest of the afternoon, listening to the opera not from the first balcony but from the fire escape. Mabel knew most of the arias by heart and sang along with her favorites.
One day she overheard some white folks at the phone company say that black people just couldn’t understand opera. She would tell that story and laugh until the tears rolled down her cheeks. And she surely was pleased when Marian Anderson was invited to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. People didn’t expect much to grow in that part of Jersey City. But hope can be stubborn. You can try to keep people down, you can put all kinds of obstacles in their way, and yet, they push through the sidewalk. They break through the rock where jackhammers failed and sing in the sunlight for all in the streets below to hear.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…” Who could imagine anything growing as they sat on the stump of utter despair? I’ve sat there myself, perhaps you have, too. You may be there now — at that place where hope is cut off, where loss and despair have deadened your heart.
God’s Advent word comes to sit with us. This word will not ask us to get up and dance. The prophet’s vision is surprising, but small. The nation would never rise again. The shoot would not become a mighty cedar. The shoot that was growing would be different from what the people expected:
For he grew up before them like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53: 2)
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse… fragile yet tenacious and stubborn. It would grow like a plant out of dry ground. It would push back the stone from the rock-hard tomb.
It will grow in the heart of a man cut off by sorrow until one morning he can look up again. It will grow in the hearts of people told over and over that they are nothing. The plant will grow. It will break through the places where jackhammers failed. It will sing on the fire escape and soar from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. [Remind people of the images they’ve seen as you move toward the end]
What if we believe this fragile sign is God’s beginning? Perhaps then we will tend the seedling in our hearts, the place where faith longs to break through the hardness of our disbelief. Do not wait for the tree to be full grown. God comes to us in this Advent time and invites us to move beyond counting the rings of the past. We may still want to sit on the stump for a while, and God will sit with us. But God will also keep nudging us: “Look! Look — there on the stump. Do you see that green shoot growing?”
O come, green shoot of Jesse, free
Your people from despair and apathy;
Forge justice for the poor and the meek,
Grant safety for the young ones and the weak.
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.