A stump is not long dead in the providence of a living forest. Is anything really dead under this canopy of leaves? Fallen tree trunks become nurse-trees giving life to the next generation of growth; saplings press roots through rotting wood and grow in time to the astounding shape of a stilt-tree, standing on its roots several feet above the ground. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isa. 11:1). An anthem appointed for the burial office begins, “In the midst of life we are in death” (BCP, p. 484). We may, with theological attunement, transpose the sequence: In the midst of death we are in life.
God will give life from a dead stump by bringing forth one whose “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:3). “With righteousness he shall judge the poor” (Isa. 11:4). “He will awake a sleeping earth with the rod of his mouth and with the wind of his breath he will kill the wicked.” Kill the wicked? This is hard, to be sure, and such words must be weighed carefully in the present environment. The language is, of course, dramatic, startling. We might say less; we might say that God loves us and accepts us in our wickedness. God understands, we tell ourselves. So permissible an understanding would leave us languishing. Such a God cannot save.
The truth is this: in Jesus Christ “wickedness is put to flight, sin is washed away” (Exultet, Easter Vigil). The death of our wickedness in the burial of baptism is the beginning of a completely new life — not a life improved, not a life enhanced, not a life extended, but rather a new creation. The death of wickedness means the emerging possibility that we may live as the sons and daughters of God, forgiven, freed, made new. We do not, of course, hunt for the wicked. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We ourselves die in union with Christ. Our sins are sown to the cross. Our nature is raised with him, and he, by the Spirit, gives new life to bodies and souls. Finally, we may tell a truth without caution: “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9). Another truth: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). Jesus is the branch growing from the stump of Jesse. He is life itself emerging from apparent death.
How do we get this life, this love, this hope? We start by looking with a new awareness and listening with a new keenness. It is not a question of personal effort, but of God’s own action in sending a man from the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. The man takes locusts, dips them in honey, dining in strange simplicity. He has our attention. We may laugh or mock, but for one arresting fact. When he speaks, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” we know that he is telling the truth. He tells us that the ax is lying at the root of the trees, and we know he is telling us to bear fruit or bear death. We know. We hear the call and feel our own inner panic. But how? How shall we change?
Finally, the mystery unveiled: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire!”
Look It Up
Read Ps. 72:19. Do you see it?
Think About It
God will bring forth.