A few miles from where I lived in Western New York is Lily Dale, a historic gathering place for practitioners of the religion of Spiritualism. Spiritualists believe that it is possible to communicate with the dead, and many mediums set up shop in Lily Dale each summer. It is also billed as a center for free-thinkers, and in the adjacent forest is a little grove surrounding a wooden oddity called “Inspiration Stump.” For over a hundred years, speakers have climbed up on that old stump to hold forth on any number of fascinating and often controversial topics.
The word “stump” is a noun, of course, and that is how it was used in Isaiah when the prophet stood up on his own soapbox of sorts and proclaimed, “A shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse.” In our world and in our time we have turned the word into a verb. Stumping is something that politicians do, and we saw plenty of that in the months preceding the recent presidential election. Many politicians went on the road to stump for one candidate or another and to advance a party’s platform or their own political careers by doing so. Of course that’s not the kind of stump that Isaiah was talking about.
Some of the largest trees in the world are found in central California. The redwoods and sequoias are mind-boggling in their height and in the circumference of their trunks. Just the bark on a sequoia tree can be up to three feet thick. No one knows how old some of the largest trees are in the old growth forests, but there is one stump with over three thousand, two hundred rings. It’s known as the “Chicago Stump,” and it is from a tree that was cut down prematurely to prove to Midwesterners at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that such massive trees existed in the west. The stump was returned to the Sequoia National Forest where it can be seen today.
What is a stump, really, but a sad, lifeless protrusion of wood from the ground? It’s a good surface for balancing a picnic in a forest or for resting during a hike. But if the former tree stood in your yard, the stump can be difficult and expensive to remove. Most of all, a stump is a rather poignant reminder of what once was: a living, towering tree that once grew tall but is no more.
The “stump of Jesse” is a symbol of the people of Israel in exile. They were defeated and disheartened as they waited in Babylon for God’s intervention or for more years of misery. As a result of their unfaithfulness, their acts of injustice, and the fascination with other gods, the Israelites were carried off to a distant land by their enemies. Just prior to what we heard from Isaiah 11, Israel is described as a proud forest of majestic trees that fell as an ax was taken to the roots. Just before, Chapter 10 ends with the crashing of trees to the ground. If Isaiah 10 was set to music, there would be the mighty sound of bass violins and timpanis, moving to a loud, crashing climax. Then silence. Chapter eleven opens with a lone piccolo playing a very sweet, gentle tune as we read the words “A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse.” Destruction and death give way to tender but sturdy shoots of new life. God is promising the distraught and devastated that things are going to get better if they will hold on and keep trusting.
Jesse was the father of David, the king of Israel and ancestor of Jesus. This is one of those great Hebrew prophetic passages that is often seen as pointing toward the birth of Jesus. The prophet says that the Spirit of the Lord will be on this One – the one understood to be Jesus. He will have a spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might. And the impact of his presence on earth will be profound. Isaiah is speaking about a coming reign of justice and peace. God’s righteousness is so great and so demanding that justice will finally reign and peace will be the result.
Isaiah presents a vision that is truly mind-bending. A wolf lies down with a lamb. A calf with a lion. A cow and a bear share a meal together. A lion and an ox do the same, and meanwhile a child is happily playing nearby in a den of snakes. What we would expect to happen is not happening. Known enemies are not ripping one another apart. The prophet goes on to say that a little child will lead all of them and that the meek and disadvantaged on earth will finally receive justice.
We tend to think of power in terms of aggression and the ability to destroy or at least overcome others. If an enemy has a bomb, we want to be sure that ours is bigger. We know where that can lead. The politics of peace and justice are complex and cause us to pray for wisdom beyond our own to guide us. The little child in Isaiah 11 who will lead us is often seen as a reference to the infant Jesus at Christmas, but more likely is a reminder that true power is not found in flexing our nuclear arms or even using the force of personality and persuasion to get our own way. The Prince of Peace honors those who choose meekness over pride and actions of peace over aggression.
About seven hundred years after Isaiah preached the promise of new life breaking forth from a dry stump, a man named John the Baptist urged people to be dunked in a river. To the thousands who crowed beside the Jordan River and submitted to John’s baptism, he declared, “Prepare the way for the Lord – make straight paths in the desert.” In other words, do not let anything hinder God’s great plan from moving forward. Get in the water and get going! One of my favorite bumper stickers says “Jesus is coming – look busy!” Busying ourselves in the work of peace and justice isn’t just busy work to try to impress God. It is being co-workers with God in bringing the vision described by Isaiah to life.
John the Baptist was stumping for Jesus. John was moments away from introducing Jesus to the world, right there at the river. He said that the one people needed to pay attention to wasn’t John, but it was the one they were about to meet. Jesus’ life and message were primarily directed toward those whose lives were difficult; those who were chosen last; the despised minorities in a society with very rigid ideas about who was in and who was out. John proclaimed at the river that a new era was dawning and that Jesus would lead the way toward a better future where all were valued.
Today, instead of gathering by the Jordan, large crowds are shivering by the Cannonball River, a small tributary in North Dakota that leads into the might Missouri. They are there to protect water from contamination and they are there to remind law enforcement and all of us that the shameful treatment of Native Americans and the disregard for sacred land that is part of our nation’s history cannot continue. They are prophets like John the Baptist, with words and hand-lettered signs that say “Repent!” Repentance means to turn around. Change your mind. Amend your ways. Some say it’s too late to do that with the Dakota Access Pipeline. But if we don’t start changing our ways now, despite the cost, when will reckless patterns of abuse be ended?
Are you stumping for Jesus? Are you letting the world know that God cares about the cold and homeless in Boulder County and about those who live across any border or are refugees within our own, those whose freedoms are denied by any oppressive government, those who live daily with the terror and violence of war? To these, God’s vision of peace and justice is meant to be a haven from the harsh realities of living. For their sake, that vision propels us to keep working for the better life God desires for all.
May we keep stumping and shouting and writing and praying until God’s agenda for this world is realized and the shoot from Jesse’s stump becomes a mighty tree that shelters all.