A few months after my mother died, I drove down to South Carolina to tie up some loose ends with her estate. My brother was staying in her house, and on a bright Carolina morning we went outside so he could show me some of the things he’d done with the yard. He pointed over to the neighbor’s house and said something had changed about Tommy, the man who lives there. Tommy, his wife and two kids had lived in the house since before Mom and Dad moved into the neighborhood 25 years earlier. He was always a friendly neighbor, with a warm greeting and an offer of a helping hand as my parents aged. But according to my brother he had turned sour and sometimes downright hostile. “I can’t figure out what I’ve done to make him so unfriendly,” David said.
Later that morning we went out to run an errand. As we drove in front of Tommy’s house, I noticed a handicap ramp leading up to the front door. I asked my brother about it, and he said that in recent years Tommy’s wife had developed a severe disability that limited her mobility. I began to wonder. I remembered how my parents had told me that Tommy had been bouncing around jobs ever since he retired from a career as a state trooper. A light went off in my head. I said to my brother, “Maybe you haven’t done anything to make him unfriendly. Maybe that’s how he deals with the losses in his life – the loss of his career to retirement, his wife’s health to disability, the kids moving away, and who knows what else.” I couldn’t know for sure, because I didn’t know Tommy that well. But you’ve seen it before: Sometimes stuff happens to a person and they turn inward. Everything seems hopeless, and it’s hard to see the point of engaging with the neighbors or anybody else.
Later that afternoon David and I went to visit our Aunt Mattie Lee. Mattie Lee was 97 years old. She never married, and she had lived alone in the same house since our grandmother died in 1976. She was totally blind, and her mobility was limited. She relied on Meals on Wheels five days a week for food. The county’s department of senior services sent someone around every other week to help with cleaning and chores. You might think Mattie Lee had a grim life – but no. She was one of those people you visit thinking you’re doing them a favor and when you leave you realize that you’re the one who is better off. She radiated a deep joy that let you know she was genuinely glad to be with you. She kept up with the news. The deacons from her church kept her informed about what was going on in her congregation. She listened to audio books that came in the mail from the state library system. While we were there my cousin Edwin stopped by to give her two estimates he had gotten from a contractor to repair some damage caused by a tree that fell on the house. Who knew how long Mattie Lee was going to be living in that house, but she questioned Edwin thoroughly to make sure that he chose the estimate that would be the best value. Then she started asking him about their mutual acquaintances and sharing small town gossip. Mattie Lee may have been blind and housebound, but she was fully engaged in life.
The prophet Isaiah writes about a stump. In the way that prophets do, he uses the stump as a metaphor for something else. The stump is the nation of Judah, God’s chosen people. It has been cut down and left to rot, the way Judah had been destroyed by Babylon and left empty and ravaged. You look at the stump, and you think that’s the end of the mighty tree that once towered over that spot. But the prophet said, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out his roots.” God wasn’t through with that tree yet. Even though it looked dead and barren, new life would spring from it. Even though it looked as though God’s people had been wiped off the face of the earth, God would be true to the promise God made to David. A new people would rise up, led by one who fulfills God’s promise of a new creation where the poor are treated fairly and the wicked do not hold the upper hand and even the forces of nature are no longer a threat.
Some people, maybe people like Tommy, see the stump of what remains of their life, of the hope and promise they once had, and give up. They close in on themselves and shut out others. Others, like Mattie Lee, see that stump and see the new branch sprouting out of it. They know that their lives belong to God, the God of life and hope and promise. They reach out and embrace the world. They welcome each day, each person as a gift from God, a glimpse of God’s new creation.
Today’s New Testament lesson says, “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.” (v.13) It’s hope that lets us reach out and embrace the world around us. It’s not a way of thinking or a mental discipline. It’s not a denial of the cold hard facts. Hope is a gift from God, something we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul is not touting the power of positive thinking or preaching the gospel of prosperity. He is proclaiming God’s new creation where no one will be in need, where all will be healthy and whole. But something happens before the meek and the poor are given justice. Isaiah says that the entrenched powers have to be displaced. “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Before the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the kid, before the calf and the lion and the fatling come together, those carnivores will have to make some pretty big sacrifices and changes in their lifestyle. For the little child to lead them, the grownups will have to relinquish their power. Just thinking positively, just laying claim to riches or health or happiness that are supposedly yours doesn’t make that peaceable kingdom come. The powers that oppress the poor, those illnesses that ravage our bodies, even those forces of nature that harm us, the floods and fires and storms, all those things are still with us and bring us all kinds of grief and suffering, but rather than resign ourselves to those things, God gives us hope.
Jesus is our model for how to deal with the upheavals in our lives. He shows us how that new creation comes. He lived simply, cared for the poor, welcomed the outcast, proclaimed God’s new creation in what he said and did and how he related to other people. That perfect life was broken. He suffered pain, death and desertion. Then God raised him from that tomb, the righteous branch out of the dead stump, and gave him new life. The one who was raised is the same one who died, but through his suffering and death he proclaims the power of God for life.
Each of our lives is a continual process of incorporating our losses into the new reality of who God is shaping us to be. Jesus gives us hope and courage so we can leave behind those parts of our lives that are over and receive what God is giving us that is new. Adolescence is such a tumultuous time because we are giving up our identity as children. But we don’t abandon who we were as children. We incorporate who we have been into the new person we are becoming as an adult. Scripture says that when we marry, we leave our father and mother and cleave unto our spouse, but it doesn’t take any longer than the first Christmas to discover that your spouse’s family, with their assumptions and traditions, is still very much part of your beloved. One of the beauties of a strong marriage is the way it takes people from two different families and blends them to become a new family. One of the challenges of retirement is figuring out who you are once you’re no longer working. Your years of work shaped you, so who are you once you’re not going to work? A successful retiree is someone who doesn’t necessarily abandon the person she or he was at work, but discovers who they are now at a new stage of life, how God is bringing forth the new from what has gone before.
It happens in all of life’s transitions, whether it’s becoming a parent or an empty-nester, putting life together after the death of someone we love, living with an illness or a disability that turns life upside down. A life lived in Christ is the life that can welcome all changes and transitions, even our losses and our griefs, because we are sure that in Christ all things do work together for good.
That’s one of the most important things a congregation does during the time of transition between pastors. You embody the hope of Advent, the expectation that God is going to continue being faithful to God’s promises.
Now, Eastminster Presbyterian Church is by no means a barren stump. The vital signs that measure a congregation’s health are strong. Worship attendance is stable, giving is up, you have a mission outreach locally and globally. You’re a caring congregation that is at peace with itself. Over 100 people enjoyed the Thanksgiving feast two weeks ago.
But there is some anxiety about the future. You look out across the congregation and see lots of gray hair. The ministry to children and youth took a big hit a few years ago, and you lost a critical mass of young families. We want more children and youth but don’t know what to do.
That’s where Isaiah’s image of the stump of Jesse is helpful for Eastminster. This Advent season is a time to learn how to wait. The promise is that for those who wait in hope, God brings forth new things out of the old.
We all get anxious about what the future will bring, whether it’s the college we’ll attend or the job we’ll have, our family or our finances – or the future of the church. But whenever I get anxious about the future, I always remind myself that the same God who has brought me to where I am today is the God who holds my future. I have no reason to think that God, who has been so good and faithful in the past, is going to be any different in the future. So we commend our lives, our loved ones, and our church, to God who brings forth new things. We don’t know what they will be, but Advent reminds us that sometimes the right thing to is to wait in prayerful expectation so we’ll be ready to receive God’s gift, when God is ready to give it.