“The Giving Tree”
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
March 22, 2020
Just reading this text out loud makes me feel like we should be putting the Christmas trees up here at church, that we should be decking the halls. Which, of course, even if it were Christmas we would not be doing that today or in the days to come. We think of Christmas when we hear these words because we read this passage every December. The two have become linked in our hearts—the shoot from the stump of Jesse and Christmas garland, the wolf lying down with the lamb and the choir singing carols. But this passage doesn’t come out of Christmas. It was not written for those getting ready to celebrate. These words were written out of hard times.
For Israel, the world as they knew it had fallen. It began with the fall of the Assyrians—they were completely cut down. In fact, the language is of an entire forest being decimated. But it was not just Assyria who was affected. The fallenness has hit Israel as well. Their whole world has now joined the turmoil. Again, the metaphor of the forest is used to describe their terrible situation. The way Isaiah puts it one chapter earlier is that “the remnant of the trees of the forest will be so few that even a child can write them down.” It is out of pain and confusion and grief and fear that the words I read to you today were written.
And out of this terrible place, the words offered are not instruction on how to get out of this. The words are not admonition for how you had it coming. The words are not even a call to action for the faithful. No. These words are simply and unabashedly good news of hope. Imagine the fallen forests, the destruction of even briars and weeds all around and hear these words again:
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out from his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
“A shoot shall come out from the stump, a branch shall grow out from its roots.” This is who we are. This is what we believe—at Christmas and every day. We believe that God makes new life out of dead things. We trust that the Spirit of the Lord is at work in this world. And out of this belief and this trust, we are a people of hope.
Do you remember the children’s book The Giving Tree? Written by Shel Silverstein this beloved book talks about all the ways an apple tree gives of itself for a little boy it loves. But as the boy takes more and more, as the boy uses the trees gifts, both out of need and out of foolishness, the tree runs out of gifts to give. The story ends with the boy, an old man now, sitting on the dead stump of the once great tree. That is all the tree has to give now—a place to sit. But we are a people who know that this is not the last page. We know there is another page to the story. The stump is not dead. The stump grows new life even now!
So we are people of hope, even now—especially now—we are people of hope. And what is our hope? Our hope is what has come to be known as The Peaceable Kingdom. It is what Isaiah describes here; that from this shoot “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” So says the Lord. So-says-the-Lord.
This is our hope, that a time comes when the vulnerable are safe; that a time comes when those who are enemies can live together; that a time comes when God’s creation finds peace so that none are any longer hurt or destroyed. This is our great hope. And our hope has one more part to it. Our hope is that this Peaceable Kingdom does not rely on us. This coming promise is not dependent on whether or not we can get it together, or be faithful enough or be wise enough. This peace is promised because the Spirit of the Lord will do it. God’s Spirit will grow the new life. God’s Spirit will bring about the peace. God’s Spirit will renew this world. This is what your faith teaches! This is who you are: when the Christmas trees are being put up and when all the trees around you have been cut down, in every season this is who you are. You are the one who trusts the Lord and, in him, is your hope.
Before I conclude the sermon for today, I want to leave you with an image to hold onto this week. For there is no point in downplaying what each of us is going through right now. There is no sugar coating what is happening—many of you face lost income, many of you cannot visit your vulnerable loved ones, many of you are filled with anxiety and fear. And our governor just yesterday announced we will not hit the peak of this for another 6 to 8 weeks. And in all of this we cannot physically be together which makes our pain that much worse. The bad is very, very bad. We know this is true. Our faith does not make us fools.
Our friend Edward Hicks knew this too. You may not think you know who this is but you have probably seen his most famous painting. Hicks was a Quaker pastor and artist and he painted the most famous rendition of God’s Peaceable Kingdom we have. You can see it on your screen. Recognize it? I thought you might. But Hicks did not paint this famous rendition of the Peaceable Kingdom once. He painted it over 62 times. And what changed in his paintings of it over time was that the beasts got scarier. As he painted, he became more and more discouraged and so the predators grew larger claws and sharper fangs. The bad got very, very bad.
But, even with that, he kept painting the Peaceable Kingdom. Even when fear and despair was creeping in, Hicks kept painting the promises of God. Our entire world is in a terrible place and the fangs and claws are growing sharper each day. But we keep our eyes on the promise of God.
We do not renew this world. We are not the ones who make life out of death. But we trust the God who does. This week, your faith asks one thing of you. It asks you to keep painting the promises of God. Share them over and over with others, with yourself! Be a signal, be a sign, that points to what God does. Our passage ends saying that the stump stands as a signal to the people. You need not work a miracle this week but you can surely stand as a signal to the people of the miracle God works. You can stand as a signal to the hope you have in God, who brings life where it seems there is only death; who promises a Peaceable Kingdom.
This is not the last page my friends. God’s story with us does not end with a stump that has given until there is nothing left. There is at least one more page to come. That is the promise we have been given from one who has given everything for us. Amen..