The prophet Jeremiah offers one of my favorite Advent images this morning: A branch springing up from a place that was thought to be lifeless. Isaiah probably stated it best, calling it a shoot coming out from the stump of Jesse. [Is 11:1-6, 4:2] Daniel plays with this imagery as well. [Dan 11:7]
A new branch springing from what was thought to be dead is an image of surprise, delight, and, ultimately, hope. The hope it expresses is a hope for justice; a hope that things which feel out of kilter will come into balance; a hope that the wrongs which have been committed will be made right; a hope that, someday, the good guys and gals will eventually triumph.
This is the kind of hope the shoot growing from the stump of Jesse expresses. This is a theme that is central to Advent. It comes to life with power and clarity in most people’s favorite Advent Hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel:
O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear
O come, O branches of Jesse, free your own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of hell your people save and give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.
As we begin Advent 2019, I’d like you to hold this image in your heart and see how it speaks to you. What kind of justice do you long for in your life? In our world? In what ways do you feel like a lifeless stump who has given up hope that new life can appear These are deep thoughts to think. They are the polar opposite of what we’re told to we’re supposed to feel during the holiday season. If there is a war on Christmas, this is it!
The Church is stuck in this peculiar place where secular society is telling us It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, but our readings during Advent proclaim that not all is glitter and joy. Sometimes, like John the Baptist, we feel like we’re surrounded by a “brood of vipers” during this holy season. Sometimes we feel like the stump of Jesse who awaits expectantly for a sign of new life to appear. Sometimes the present we want most is not a new TV or an Amazon gift card, it’s to see with our own eyes that justice is rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. [Amos 5:24]
If you’re feeling this way, I want you to know it’s perfectly normal. In fact, its more than normal. It means your feet are planted solidly in Advent, and the hope it brings for those who wait for Emmanuel to appear. So, don’t worry if you’re feeling like the stump of Jesse. You’re in good company! You’re not the only one!
But this doesn’t mean we should wallow in despair about the state of affairs in our lives and in our world. Advent calls us to put on a new set of glasses which allows us to have hope as we await for those new shoots of justice to appear.
This new set of glasses is spoken of by Jesus in our gospel lesson: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” In other places in the gospels, Jesus tells us to “beware, keep alert,” and “keep awake.” [Mk 13:33,37, Mt 24:42, 25:13]
What I understand this to mean, is that we’re supposed to live like those shoots are already appearing in our lives and in our world. The problem is our focus is in the wrong place. We’re too busy “mourning in lowly exile here” instead of searching for the places where Emmanuel is making an appearance this very moment.
You see, Advent is about more than preparing for the celebration of the birth of Christ. It also calls us to focus on the ways Christ is appearing now and will appear in the future. This new way of looking at our lives and our world is where our true power lies as followers of Jesus.
So, let’s all pledge to put on a new set of glasses this Advent season. Let us stop looking at what is wrong in our lives and in our world, and focus on what’s going right. Let us become those living shoots of Emmanuel that grow from the stumps of Jesse.
We accomplish this in ways both big and small. Let’s start with the small ones. We become living shoots of Emmanuel, when we buy supplies for Beloved House’s Street Medics; when we take a plate of homemade Christmas cookies to an elderly neighbor’s house; when we volunteer our time with any agencies that help the poor and disadvantaged.
We become living shoots of Emmanuel, when we anonymously mail a grocery store gift card to someone we know could really use it; when we tip those in the service industry very generously during the holiday season; when we resist the temptation to yell at the checkout clerk because we’ve been waiting in line so long. These are small acts of justice that not too many people may notice at first, but their impact cannot be underestimated.
Now let’s talk about the big ones. We become living shoots of Emmanuel when we grab a protest sign and fight for equality and justice; when we try to reconcile a relationship we believed was beyond repair; when we refuse to give up hope even though everyone around us believes we should.
We become living shoots of Emmanuel, when we overcome a great loss; when we act to protect the vulnerable and abused; when we see everyone as a beloved child of God that is worthy of love and a chance for redemption.
This is what it looks like to become living shoots of Emmanuel. The good news is that sometimes it really does make a difference. We get the privilege of seeing a tiny shoot of justice grow into a magnificent tree. The bad news is that sometimes our efforts go unappreciated at best or are a complete and total disaster at worst.
But this doesn’t mean we give up and become despondent and defeated. Instead, with the spirit of Advent in our hearts, we continue to look at those stumps of Jesse, which are all around us, and trust that Emmanuel will help us to grow justice in the places where it is needed the most. Amen.
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck