Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Life-Cycle of a Tree Stump

Seeds are really good at waiting. The seeds of trees have to have amazing perseverance. From the time they are dropped in the ground (by human hand, animal droppings, or “buried treasure”) until the tiniest sprout becomes a towering tree, most trees in the forest span years longer than a human life.

There are many images of trees and seeds in the Bible. The tree of life, the faith of a mustard seed, the cedars of Lebanon, the fig tree. But what about the tree when all that’s left is a stump? How many more years before a mighty cedar (or maybe it was a cypress, sycamore, acacia, balsam, or juniper) falls from storm or carpenter’s hand. And all that’s left is a stump.

Isaiah writes in chapter 11 (v.1-10):
"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
    and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
    and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
    as the waters cover the sea.
In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”
It sounds like something, or Someone, magnificent is going to come from a withered tree stump. What does that mean? There is historical and theological significance to this motif, as we’ll see in a moment. But agriculturally, this is not necessarily an anomaly. New branches shoot up from tree stumps all the time. What’s amazing is the time it takes. Time that cannot be rushed because the Creator created the life-cycle of seeds and plants just the way he did.

On R.C. Sproul’s ministry website, Ligonier, there is a devotional based on this passage of scripture. The author writes,
“Let us not miss the significance of all the prophet is saying. First, Isaiah speaks of ‘the stump of Jesse’ (v. 1). The image here is of a tree that has been so devastated that only a stump remains. Jesse, of course, was the father of King David (1 Sam. 16:1–13), so Isaiah is speaking of the Davidic line of kings. . . [But] David's line would decline to such a degree that it would be essentially left for dead. History tells us this is exactly what happened, with David's royal dynasty all but dying out as a result of God's judgment of His people through Assyria and Babylon. Nevertheless, Isaiah also saw that while the Davidic line would seem to be dead, life would remain within the stump. A shoot—life barely detectable at first—would emerge. But once this shoot went forth, it would become a mighty tree. A king of humble origins would be a signal for the nations after the exile (Isa. 11:2–10).”
The author goes on to reference John Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah. He emphasizes that the shoot from the stump will come “from Jesse”, not “from David.” Calvin believes this speaks to how low the family line had sunk. It no longer appeared to be a royal family (emphasis on David the king), but a lowly peasant family (which they were, emphasis on Jesse the patriarch).

Sound familiar? A peasant family from the line of Jesse? When David was first anointed king he was truly the least obvious choice. As Jesus grew in his ministry, he was certainly not the leader-type or messiah people expected.

Humble beginnings. Small seeds. Miraculous outcomes.

One of the things that fascinates me the most is when I see my smallness against God's bigness. The movement of time and space and history up against God's eternal plan. Scripture is full of these images we can see woven through the Old and New Testaments, all adding up to the story we are retelling this season. The story of Jesus’ arrival.

When sin first entered the Garden of Eden (another tree!), God could have enacted his plan of salvation right then and there. But instead, He demonstrated great patience in order to unfold a plan that would teach us important lessons about faith and hope and love. For those who celebrate Advent with a Jesse Tree, the ornaments do just that: recount the rich story of God’s faithful and often astounding redemption design.

God is in the business of making all things new. And while supernatural shortcuts (miracles) are known to occur, in His providence, the normal, garden-variety life is lived according to the Creator’s intended rhythm. Things take time. The cycle of living things takes time.

I don’t think a tree knows what it means to be impatient, but the waiting still takes perseverance and care from outside of itself. Human waiting is hard. But just as a gardener watches over the things in his garden, we can rest assured that God is with us as we wait. He is holding this promise in His open hands: because of the Shoot that sprung from Jesse’ stump, we too have the hope of new life. And the resting place will be glorious.


Monday, November 28, 2022

"A Thrill of Hope the Weary World Rejoices"

Many of the songs we sing during Advent and Christmas carry deep theology, but we often miss it for the comforting and catchy tunes, as well as the nostalgia and tradition.

Have you ever stopped to read the lyrics to “O Holy Night?” Originally written as a French poem in 1843, the text was soon put to music, and then in 1855 it was translated into English by John Dwight, who was a minister, abolitionist, and music critic. His translation is a song of juxtapositions, showcasing the light of Jesus’ birth against the world’s darkness. It reminds us that Jesus’ coming changes everything.

And then, in the fifth line of verse one: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.”

There is no punctuation to help us determine the causality of this simple, yet impactful, phrase. Does a thrill of hope cause the weary world to rejoice? Is the weary world proclaiming, “a thrill of hope!”? Should we just enjoy the poetic rhythm and not try to analyze the meaning?

I did a quick Google search for this fifth line. I shouldn’t have been surprised. In the last few years, a lot of people have been writing about our weary world, and wondering when we will be able to rejoice again, and what we will have to rejoice about. These have been hard years. Hope has not felt like a thrill, sudden and exciting. Often, hope has been hesitant and held tightly with uncertainty. That has been our reality as humans prone to disease, disaster, and disorder on this planet Earth.

But if we were to take our view beyond ourselves, to the far reaches of heaven, from whence Jesus came, wouldn’t we see hope differently? Jesus did not come for a world full of hope and promise. He came for a world full of weariness and worry.

Author, Shannan Martin writes, “Without the weariness there is no thrill of hope.”
This doesn’t mean we seek out or celebrate weariness. But it does mean there is no shame in our need for a Savior. We can honestly say, “for when I am weak, He is strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10b).

Weary and waiting, let us be a people who expect the thrill of hope that only Jesus can bring.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Awaiting, We Wait on the Lord

Today we lit the first candle of Advent: Wait.

In the following weeks we’ll see Anticipate, and Prepare, and Celebrate.

Looking back, there are many seasons in life that closely mirror these four themes. They are seasons that hold hesitancy, with maybe a splash of pessimism and a heavy dose of realism. We all wait for something. Often not letting hope get the better of us. We don’t want to be disappointed, after all. But then we are given a glimpse of what’s ahead, and our hearts shift towards anticipation. There is something worth hoping for. And yet, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, so our expectation remains passive and hesitant. Then, all at once, things begin to move. The patterns shift and things start falling into place. It’s time to prepare. To ready the stage for what is coming next. We are still waiting, but now it is active, and full of palatable hope. There is an assurance that all this waiting has been worthwhile and valuable. Then one day, we realize we have cause to celebrate. The thing we have been waiting for has arrived!

As humans, we are prone to such fickle emotions. If only we could sustain this joy infinitely. Instead, our celebrations often peter out and we find ourselves back at square one much sooner than we’d wish.

Were it not for divine intervention, we would get nowhere with this model of expectation.

And so, God placed eternity in our hearts. A seed of longing that pulls (and sometimes drags) us on this life journey from Waiting to Celebration. During Advent we are invited to literally “act” out our hope, recalling time and again the seasons of lack against the Lord’s abundant faithfulness.

Last year, Tish Harrison Warren wrote, “Advent is a season of hope, and part of practicing hope is noticing where we need it.”

Where do we need hope? What lament are we trying to name?

Those are personal questions. And yet, at Advent they are universal and timeless questions. In Advent, we feel the yearnings of the ancient Israelites alongside our own.

The Advent narrative has its origins way back in the Garden of Eden, however within the geographical timeline of the Biblical history, what springs to mind is the gap between Malachi and Matthew (and Luke, our main Nativity narrator). A single, thin piece of paper separates these two books in most of our Bibles, and yet the calendars tell us about 400 years passed between Malachi’s final prophecy and Zechariah’s priestly obligations recorded in Luke.

In her book, The First Advent in Palestine, Kelley Nikondeha offers a unique, trauma-informed perspective on these so called “silent years.” Drawing from the Apocrypha (books outside of the accepted canon of Scripture), Nikondeha recalls the story of the Maccabees she read about in her mother’s Catholic Bible. If you are familiar with the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, then you’ve probably heard of the Maccabees (“Hammers”) —the guerilla-style fighters who claimed back the temple from the Seleucid Empire.

Even as a student of history, I had forgotten when these events took place along the Biblical timeline. They land smack dab in the middle of the 400 “years of silence.” Only, Israel wasn’t just sitting around peacefully. These were centuries wrought by captivity and pain. Long before the Roman problem we meet in the Gospels, the people of Israel suffered under a long line of empires. So, it seems only natural that “messiah” types would arise to help save the day. The Maccabees definitely fit the bill. They had a miraculous victory and an even more miraculous re-lighting of the temple’s eternal flame (modern day menorah). And yet, their liberation was short lived. Their triumph had come through violence and despite their success in re-kindling the temple light, the Maccabees did not choose to inaugurate God’s peace. Before long, Israel was under the thump of another empire yet again.

Many faith traditions do not have the story of the Maccabees in their canon of Scripture. We may never know this side of heaven why God allowed some stories to be removed and others retained. But the story of the Maccabees shows us that waiting on God should not be passive. We are not called to take up weapons and “hammer” upon our earthly enemies, but there is a much better set of spiritual armor (Ephesians 6:10-18) available to us. Because while we wait, and watch, and work, we do indeed battle darkness.

Nikondeha says,
“The stories told around and about the birth of Jesus set our sights on a deep theology for troubled times, then and now. Advent pays attention to the people, places and politics of generations awaiting God’s arrival. To approach Advent in its fullness, we approach it from an uncommon entry point: the darkness of suffering, the struggle of a long waiting.

Confronting the hard landscapes of the past allows us to understand the terrain God entered one starry night. The first Advent began in darkness and danger. . .  Advent came to a traumatized landscape and people.”
(p. 6)
While God did not send another prophet after Malachi for 400 years, and the Maccabees personally felt that God had no guiding words for them, He was by no means silent. He was upholding His people as they suffered long, with hope and small flickerings of light.

“What does it mean to say, ‘God is with us?’” Nikondeha asks. “It's harder—and more hopeful—than strands of twinkling lights. When we engage the darkness before God's arrival, we come closer not only to the first Advent but also to each one since. In Advent, we learn that God is always coming to our troubled times” (p.23).

So, we end with a different look of the word, Wait. This Advent, as we await whatever we are waiting for, let us remember to wait on the Lord. For, if He is with us, then He surely knows the landscape of our troubles, and holds it all in His hands.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Welcome to Advent

Dear friends (and those who may have stumbled upon this blog),

If you've joined me for any of the past twelve years, then you are probably familiar with Advent. If you are a new reader, this will serve as an introduction:

In latin the word "adventus" means "coming." Within the context of western Christianity, Advent is the season of four weeks leading up to Christmas—the celebration of Christ's birth. It is a time of joyful expectation and preparation. The four weeks are marked by the four Sundays, on which the candles of the Advent wreath are lit.

The first candle is traditionally the candle of Hope, followed by Peace, Love, and Joy. However, with so many church traditions comes a variety of names for each candle. Usually, they are organized around characters or themes as a way to unfold the story and direct attention to the celebrations and worship in the season. So, the sequence might be Prophets, Bethlehem, Shepherds, Angels; Expectation, Annunciation, Proclamation, Fulfillment; or Prophets, John the Baptist, Mary, the Magi.

Last year I did something unique and focused on one all-encompassing word: Immanuel. I explored the theme of “God with us” as it was perceived by the prophets and those who lived during the Old Testament, announced to the key players of the Nativity story, demonstrated by the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and remains a firm truth for us today. This year I want to return to the more traditionally themed weeks, but again, with a twist. Recently, as I was beginning to gather materials to inspire this year’s writings, I came across Jessica Herberger’s interpretation of the four candles: Wait, Anticipate, Prepare, and Celebrate. So, this year they will be our guides.

For four short weeks every year, we stop and see—with amazing clarity—God’s miraculous hand shaping the trajectory of human history. I have a hard time seeing this kind of perspective in daily life. Even with God’s sustaining grace, I am so often numb to the repercussions of Christ’s advent in my own life. This blog is an attempt to peel back the layers of those truths and meditate on the everlasting love God showed when he sent us His son. And as we do that together, may our hearts be directed towards the greater Advent still to come.

Let us enter this season with expectation, ever blessed by those who have paved the way. I’m glad you have chosen to join me on the journey!