A sermon for 2 Advent and the baptism of Paige Carrie Neils. These are the readings appointed for the day:
This is the story of a stump. Before we get to the story, we should clarify that stumps are not just tiny trees. Stumps are dead trees. That is, stumps are trees that have no hope of standing tall or branching out or becoming homes for birds. This is not to disparage stumps, which are fine for other things, like sitting on and fishing from. Stumps are lovely things for high school sweethearts to engrave with their initials, cupid’s arrow sketched between them. (Awwww.) Beyond this, though, stumps don’t hope for more. What can be is only what already is. Stumps are the ultimate realists.
And there might be a kind of admirable, zen-like contentment in the practical resignation of stumps, except that most stumps didn’t get there by themselves. Stumps don’t stump themselves. Most stumps are made into stumps by outside forces, like lightening, forest fires, and lumberjacks. To be a stump is to have had your dreams to stand tall and branch out and become homes for birds cut short from the outside. There is grief to being a stump. And probably other emotions, too. Self-pity, maybe, if you let it. Resentment, possibly, also, along the way. Justified anger. To be a stump is to be at the end of reasonable hope not because you are jaded or cynical, but because even good stumps don’t grow tall. Don’t branch out. Don’t become homes for birds. Stumps grieve not because they don’t have faith but because what they had faith in appears to have failed them.
But sometimes even hopeless stumps are unexpectedly found by hope. A stump with a shoot and a green leaf on top. A branch coming out of the root, a sharer of the same life as the once proud tree. This is the story of one such stump.
The stump’s name was Israel. And the shoot’s name was Emmanuel, “God with us.”
The stump was a kingdom of people whose identity had been forged through God’s deliverance of the people, out of slavery in Egypt. It was in that escape that Israel first discovered the new possibilities of God. As Egypt’s armies closed in from the one side and the waters of the sea blocked the people from the other side, Moses raised his staff, God parted the waters, and the people walked across on dry land. Where there had been no way, God made a way. The people walked across on dry land.
That young sapling, safely delivered from Egypt, wandered through the wilderness and eventually entered the land of promise. It took some time to get there and, by the time it did, Israel was a strong, mature tree. Strong and mature enough to want some independence, as both parent and child can appreciate. (My seven year old daughter is already practicing her eye rolls, but she tells us it’s just practice.) So God granted Israel’s request for a monarch, and the kingdom was official. But only a few generations later one kingdom had become two kingdoms and some generations after that, one of the kingdoms was conquered by outside armies, erased from the unforgiving map of history. Some generations after that, the Babylonians sent Israel into exile, took Israel’s promised land, and desecrated the holy places that had served to reconnect the people of Israel to the story of their deliverance and the God of new possibilities. After the exile, the new possibility - the promised land - to which Israel had once thought God was delivering them was no more. Israel was undone, cut down, overrun with grief. Israel was a stump of a once proud tree. And you’ll remember that stumps grieve not because they don’t have faith but because what they had faith in appears to have let them down. Most all of us have been there, I think. It is an agonizing place to be.
In the midst of this grief, this exile, Isaiah prophesies the twig and green leaf. I bet people laughed, if they weren’t too insulted, if they weren't just to angry. But Isaiah was insistent: where there was no way, God was making a way, the branch from the root, a new thing, a sharer in the same life of once proud tree. “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.”
And so in Matthew’s gospel we find John the Baptist today, standing all scraggly and very John-like on the muddy banks of the same river Israel had crossed all those years before to enter the land of promise, announcing the nearness of God and the reign of the One who will baptize the people again with the Spirit of the surprising shoot that came from the left-for-dead stump.
And the first thing I want you to see is that it’s the twig from the stump that sings the glory of God. Not the rose from the rose bush in the yard of the obnoxious neighborhood master gardner - big deal! - but God’s glory is in new life no one saw coming. The encouragement here is that God will find God’s people no matter the depth or the distance God has to go to find them. You don’t have to masquerade in a fake respectability, say you’re doing fine, to be found by this God. You don’t have to have it mostly together and just need a little extra God-boost. Painting things rosier than they really are actually does a disservice to the One whose glory is made known in the redemption of the left-for-dead places. Let there be no sugar-coating of pain. But let the psalmists’ honest prayers be your own, when you need them. And at other times, hear them from the lips of others. Our God is the God of the God-forsaken. This God calls us to risk foolishly vulnerable, fall on your face, trust in the One who comes like new life at the death of a dream.
That’s the witness of that first Easter morning. Jesus, pierced. Dead on the cross. Descended to the depths. The deepest depths. Beyond all hope. Now, even before the sunrise names the new day, he’s alive. Risen from the tomb. Mary, at the tomb, beside herself in grief, stumbling among rocks, watering the garden with tears, because his death was almost like dying herself. It was the death of her love and her hope. Until he stands before her, that beautiful, bright green leaf. Until she mistakes him for the gardener and he is, in a way, and also the blossom that gives life to all the rest. Until he speaks her name. And now the shoot from the stump is healing the wounds of the first tree in that first garden, Eden. The hopeless have been found by hope, and the very hopelessness of the hopeless now names the breadth and depth, the wideness, of the ocean deep love of God.
From now on and forever, naming the honest hardness of life and spotting God at work in the world are not mutually exclusive activities for the people of God. From now on and forever, proclaiming God’s forgiveness and justice can be coexisting priorities. From now on and forever, we can stand with the ones on the margins, the ones fearful that the promise can’t reach them, won’t reach them, and wait with them, work with them, for the God who died as one of them. From now on and forever you can point to the stump and still proclaim the triumph of the tree. Standing tall, branching out, becoming homes for birds.
It’s into all of this that we are about to baptize Paige Carrie Neils. The depths of the water and the surprising new life. The wandering and the promise. Paige will be baptized, like all of us are baptized, into the death and resurrection of Jesus. And just like stumps with unexpected branches, no less than Martin Luther wrote that infant baptisms are the best kind of baptisms because they make the most room for God to make God’s glory known. For surely when we are weakest, we can make no boasts of ourselves, but it is clearer to us for our weakness that the faithfulness belongs to God. So in strength and in weakness we keep our eyes open for the stirring of God, and we speak what we see when we see it. We testify to the goodness of God. This is not an elective course for people of the living God. We speak what we see, we give thanks. We name and we celebrate the way God has made, even when it seemed there was no way.
So, like dear Paige, with dear Paige, we will follow the Way. We will make our home near this table, as holy friends. In rhythms of faith, Word and Sacrament, we will grow in God, in God’s time, standing tall. Branching out. Opening ourselves, to God, friends, and strangers, for whom we pray this community might also be home, just as we have found and made our homes in Christ together. We will, with God’s help. And we thank God he does.