A Shoot from the Stump
Sunday, November 17, 2019
Pastor Megan Torgerson

Isaiah 11:1-5 

Trees in a forest seem to crowd each other for light exposure above and root space below and only the strong and hardy survive.  The tallest trees block the sun from the smallest trees and the oldest trees grow rootless and shallow when newer trees muscle them out.  But recent research into the lives of trees reveals that deep in the soil, the tiniest lengths of roots join together, connected by thin fibers of fungus, forming a shared vascular and nervous system.  Through these pathways, trees can share resources like the sugars they need to grow and possibly even cues to release toxins to ward off hungry animals.

In this network you find mother trees.  These large, old mother trees have maximum exposure to light from above and water and nutrients from below.  They pass these resources on to the smaller trees in their system that would otherwise never be able to grow past a tiny seedling.  When these mother trees fall or are destroyed, leaving just a dead stump behind, you can sometimes cut into the stump and find fresh, green wood inside.  The unseen root system continues to use this stump to provide life for an entire network of trees.

I remember being a kid and looking at the paraments in the front of our church.  Paraments are the liturgical decorations of a church, the banners that hang from pulpit and altar, changing colors and images with the church seasons.  I remember that the paraments in my church were covered with mystical symbols – interlocking triangles and circles to symbolize the Triune God, Greek letters to remind us of Jesus who is alpha and omega, outlines of doves and flames like the Spirit who comes like tongues of fire.

But one of our paraments just had this outline of a tree stump.  Just a dead stump of a tree with this tiny little branch trying to pop out the side.  I didn’t get it.  In the mix of all these powerful and evocative symbols, how does a dead tree stump reveal God to me?

As it turns out, the prophet Isaiah knew what he was doing in today’s reading when he used a stump to remind us of God’s mysterious work in our lives.  It points us to the mystery of God’s providential renewal.  Out of sight, beyond our imagination, underneath our very feet, tree roots bear all that is needed for life and renewal to trees as they do the slow, inevitable work of growth.  Even when a tree is cut down, its roots can provide life, even giving life to a new thing, innumerable tiny trees that reveal a renewing system of life.  Where it seems like there is only death and destruction, there is still life.  The life that can come from a tree stump is a powerful and beautiful image of God’s renewing work.

The stump that Isaiah names in today’s reading is the stump of Jesse.  Jesse was the father of David, the great king of the nation of Israel.  When Jesus comes, he is hailed as the Son of David, the anointed leader who will bring greatness back to God’s people.

But when Isaiah wrote these words, it wasn’t the coming of Jesus that was on peoples’ minds.  It was hundreds of years before Jesus.  In the time of this reading, half of King David’s kingdom had already fallen to foreign enemies, and now new rivals were bearing down on the remaining people.  In the chapters previous to this passage, God through Isaiah has promised that God’s people will be ultimately demolished as a result of their faithlessness and injustice.  The people have heard God say that they will be wiped out, cut down, a stump where there was once majestic growth and power.

But God’s own beloved people will not suffer forever.  Renewal will still come from this line of David that was cut off.  Someone new will rise, someone with wisdom and understanding, someone who doesn’t judge with what he sees or decide by what he hears, but who instead looks at those who are poor and meek with righteousness and equity.  At the time, the people almost certainly thought it would be a new and mighty leader who would quickly restore their political fortunes.

But that’s not what God does.  Instead, hundreds of years later, God’s Son comes into the world.  This is the shoot from the stump of Jesse – a baby, born into a poor family, a refugee fleeing a murderous government, raised by a father who was not his own.  In this one unlikely person, God fulfills the promises of Isaiah.

God doesn’t deliver a political victory in the short term – instead, God gives the Son, God’s own self, so that we would have what we need to endure in faith.  For we who still struggle to survive, fighting for what we need like a tiny seedling on the shaded forest floor, the roots of God’s work reach out to us and nourish us, sustain us, grant us life and renewal in ways and places that we cannot even see. God sees us, truly sees us, even when we feel hurt and broken and lost and forgotten.

Jesus, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the one who brings life where there was once only death, the one who fulfills God’s promises for renewal even after the inevitability of destruction and suffering, the one who truly sees the poor and the meek and the hurt and the lost regardless of what anyone else says or thinks, Jesus reaches for us in small, slow, life-sustaining ways, like a system of tiny roots spreading through the rich soil.  We may think we can’t see it, that it’s not there, that there is no hope for renewal and life, until suddenly we look and realize that we have been stretching towards the sun all along, fed by God who, like a mother tree, gives herself that we could live.

To you who feel lost and broken, to you who feel unseen and uncared for, to you who feel as if you are living in the shadow of imminent destruction by powers much larger than you, to you who swear God is out to get you, to who wonder if this new normal can even be survived: to you, God promises that there will be healing, new life, regrowth, like a shoot from a dead stump sustained by forces that cannot be seen. This shoot from a stump is a holy image, a mystical reminder, that God is at work, and you, beloved of God, will be renewed.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Past Sermons