Advent 2: Waiting for Signs of New Life

Isaiah 11:1-10

a sermon preached at Montecito Covenant Church

December 5, 2010 by

Diana R.G. Trautwein

Today – December 5th – marks the 14th anniversary of my arrival at Montecito Covenant Church. December 5th was a Thursday in 1996, and on that date, I drove up here from our home in Altadena to begin my first-ever paid pastoral job in the newly created position of Associate Pastor. I find that fact a lovely bit of what our literary friends might call inclusio – a sweet bookend, drawing together the beginning and the end.

Because today does mark an ending of sorts. This will be the last sermon that I preach in this pulpit as Associate Pastor. That’s an ending. December 31 will officially mark the final day of my employment as a member of the pastoral staff. That, too, is an ending.

But…here’s the lovely thing about endings in this life we live together: the ending of one thing always brings the beginning of something new. That’s how the God of new life operates in this world of ours. Because the work of the kingdom is ongoing, there is always something being re-created out of the old stuff that keeps the gospel new and vibrant and relevant. There are pieces of the old always – woven in and amongst the shining threads of the new. And that is true of my relationship with this community as well.

I am blessed to be ordained in a denomination that does not require retiring pastors to permanently leave the congregations they have served. That is a blessing for us, that is for sure. You all have become family to Dick and to me and we value your friendship and encouragement so much. So – after a good long break from January through the end of April (just to make sure that both you and I fully understand that I am no longer working here) – we will be back worshiping with you once again. This time we’ll be sitting in the back of the sanctuary, however, and we’ll be figuring out how it might be that God will continue to use us as lay members at MCC. Now it is true, that I am a pastor for the rest of my life – my ordination holds until death! I will just not be one of your pastors any longer. Instead, I will be a retired pastor.

I already know that God is calling me to continue to develop my skills in Spiritual Direction, that ancient practice of the church that requires paying attention very intentionally to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of another. I will continue my training and I will continue seeing individuals as God leads them to me. I will likely preach here from time to time, but as an invited guest preacher in future. My husband will, after our break, continue to serve on both the Finance and Whole Life Ministry Teams. Time will tell how else we might work together, and we both remain open (within limits!) to whatever opportunities present themselves.

But there is an exciting opportunity waiting for you in this ending-that-leads-to-a-new-beginning. During those early months of 2011, Pastor Jon Lemmond will also be gone, teaching in Europe with his wife and family – but he is coming back to work in May!

So between January and May (and really beyond that as well), we are going to need a fairly long list of folks to step up and help. Don and the remaining staff cannot possibly pick up all those pieces.

And so, we have been busy this fall gathering together a small team of people who are willing to provide some leadership in a variety of important areas. They’re all here this morning, clipboards in hand, to gather around themselves a few more willing helpers so that the work of the kingdom can continue without interruption in this place. I’m going to invite them to stand so you can see what they look like. And then find them on the patio and pick a place to offer your services. If everyone in this room said ‘yes’ to just one thing – we’d have all the bases covered pretty quickly. So, I am excited about this new thing that God will do in our midst as we transition to a different staff configuration. Count on it – God is not done with us yet!

And here’s a not terribly subtle little segue for you – just as God is not done with us, here in Montecito CA in the year 2010, so God was not done with his salvation plan in the time of the prophet Isaiah, which is where our primary text of the morning is found.

During our Advent series this year, we’re looking at some of the gorgeous words found in this major book of the Old Testament, the book that many believe was the foundational one for Jesus, as he lived out his life and ministry, as he suffered and died and rose again. So let’s listen to the words for this week, found in chapter 11, the first 10 verses. And I want you to especially listen for the inclusio found in this short selection, a sweet bookend which underscores the message of hope and promise that Isaiah has written. Hear the word of the Lord for us today:

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. 
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 
5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, 
the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 
7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 
8 Infants will play near the hole of the cobra; young children will put their hands into the viper’s nest. 
9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, 
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.

Amen and Amen

Advent is a captivating season of the year. It comes when the world, at least our world in the northern hemisphere, is at its darkest point. The days are short, the nights and the shadows are long. The season lends itself to mystery, to contemplation, to cocooning, to waiting. Waiting for the light, waiting for the sun to shine a little higher in the sky, waiting for signs of new life.

I am learning more and more about waiting as I age. And I’m learning to appreciate it far more than I once did. I’ve been a somewhat impatient person for most of my life. Some folks might even use the word driven to describe me, although one can hope that when they do, they do so with affection! I haven’t liked waiting much, choosing too often to push for things to happen, to tap my feet and wring my hands and question why they aren’t happening faster! Too often, I’ve leapt into things without pausing long enough to reflectively and intentionally think through what the possible ramifications of my words/ actions/noise might have on a particular situation or the people involved in that situation.

But…I am learning. I am learning that regular times of quiet, and solitude; of hiddenness and watchfulness and careful listening and very deliberate pulling-out of the hubbub can bring incredibly rich rewards. Which is one of the reasons I have learned to love Advent.

I am also learning, through many tough, even terrible life circumstances, that there is gift to be found even there, in the middle of the toughness and the terror. Sometimes life forces us to slow down, and when it does, we need to search for the gift, to look for hope and promise and peace.

The prophet Isaiah, in the chapter just preceding the one before us today, has delivered a hard and a harsh word about a desolate future for the people of Israel – and for the people of Assyria, the nation that has swept aside that southern kingdom of Israel, demolishing and scattering the people as an instrument of God’s justice at work. And the image Isaiah uses for both nations is that of a forest being completely destroyed – listen!

1 Woe to those who make unjust laws… to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? 
… 33 See, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will lop off the boughs with great power. 
The lofty trees will be felled, the tall ones will be brought low. He will cut down the forest thickets with an ax; Lebanon will fall before the Mighty One.

A devastating life experience if ever there was one! Every tree severed, the ground barren, hopeless, devoid of life.

And then our chapter for today opens with that glorious picture of new life!

Look for it, search for it, see it??

A green shoot coming up from what appears to be a dead stump; life in the midst of death and destruction; hope in the midst of defeat and dismay. A promise of peace; a picture of justice for the oppressed and needy; all of it because of this small, determined, burgeoning new spot of green in a devastated, defeated land.

Both Jewish and Christian interpreters view this passage as one of several messianic prophecies sprinkled through the words of Isaiah – for the figure that grows from that tiny shoot and is described in such glowing terms here – this One surpasses even the greatest of Israel’s kings.

This One is figuratively and literally wrapped up in righteousness and faithfulness – two of the key attributes of Israel’s God.

This One is indwelt by the Spirit of the LORD and blessed with the divine gifts of that Spirit. This One will judge or discern with superhuman powers that look below the surface to the very heart of life.

This One will usher in a new era – a time when previously natural enemies will dwell together in harmony, when children will not only be safe and secure from danger and harm – but will actually lead the way to this peaceable kingdom.

This One will stand as an ensign – a banner – a sign for all the world’s people to see and to rally behind and to rest in.

This One, this green shoot, this root of Jesse, this Messiah, whom we know to be Jesus – this Messiah will bring in the kingdom of our God in its fullest glory, its deepest fulfillment, its truest reality.

One of the writers I read in preparation for this week is a retired woman Episcopal priest named Fleming Rutledge, and her blogpost reminded me that:

“It is typical of Advent liturgies to weave together biblical and liturgical references to the first and second comings of Christ so that it is almost impossible and—more important—unnecessary to tell where one begins and the other ends….Advent is only secondarily about the baby Jesus. It is primarily about the rending of the heavens and the coming of the Lord in power and glory to take the creation back for himself. Until he comes, then, we are the people who put on the armor of light “now in this present time” and by our works point to the One who is to come.”

I really like that idea – that it is sometimes ‘impossible and – more important – unnecessary to tell where one begins and the other ends,” the first and the second coming of our Lord. In Advent, we remember that we wait for both the baby and the king of the universe, that we wait for things small, hidden and vulnerable and we wait for things explosive and dramatic and life-changing, that we wait for small moments of joy and larger-than-life moments of rapture, that we wait for a baby’s laughter and a king’s trumpet, that we wait for the God who created us to claim us, and the entire creation, as God’s and no one else’s. We wait for glory.

And in the meantime…in the meantime…we look for signs of new life, we look for signs of glory.

Where in your life today are you looking at devastation?

Where do you face fear or destruction or even death?

Where have the trees been clear-cut, demolished, cut off from the land of the living?

What kind of denuded land are you looking over this morning?

A relationship that’s teetering on the brink?

A diagnosis that is scary?

An overwhelming depression?

A season of crippling anxiety?

A child who is broken?

An unending stack of papers to write….or to grade?

An overbooked calendar and an under-ready spirit?

And if not in your own life right now, where is there devastation around you, in this community or the broader world?

Where is justice being short-circuited?

Where are the poor being oppressed?

Where are the widows and orphans being exploited?

We all look over landscapes, either personal or communal, that are pictures of disaster and disarray.

But wait a minute. Wait just a minute. What’s that over there?

Do you see it? LOOK FOR IT.

It’s small, it’s even struggling a little, but there it is.

A tiny green shoot – coming up right in the middle of all that ugliness. A sign of new life, a promise of hope, a reminder of peace, a picture of the kingdom that will be – and that already is.

We worship a God of new beginnings, dear friends. We worship a God who brings life right out of death. We worship a God who girds himself with human flesh and hurtles himself right down into the mess and says,

“Be of good cheer. I have come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Oh, glory be.


As we go to the table of the Lord this morning, I want to share with you one of the signs of new life I found this week – on Facebook, of all places.

Jim and Judy Halvorsen posted a beautiful 4-minute video of shots of Yosemite with a musical accompaniment that I found just lovely – and very much in keeping with the sound and spirit of Advent. So I did a little research on the song, which I had never heard before. It was written in 1972, with the title, “God and Man at Table Are Sat Down,” by then-chaplain at Oral Roberts University, Robert J. Stamps. It’s a song that seems to blend together perfectly the threads of the Isaiah passage and the gift of the table – let me share just a few of these small verses with you, and as you listen to these words – and as Bob and the worship team play the lovely melody – I invite you to prepare your hearts for communion, which we will share together today by coming forward down the center aisle to tear off a piece of bread and dip it into the cup and then return to our seats up the side aisles. If you find it difficult to walk to the front, the elements will be brought to you.

This song is now entitled: “In Christ There Is a Table Set for All” (verses 1 4,5,6,7)

copyright 1972 by Dawn Treader Music

Welcome, all you noble saints of old, as now before our very eyes unfold,

the wonders all so long ago foretold: In Christ there is a table set for all.

Who is this who spreads the vict’ry feast? Who is this who makes our warring cease?

Jesus, risen Savior, Prince of Peace. In Christ there is a table set for all.

Here he gives himself to us as bread; here, as wine, we drink the blood he shed.

Born to die, we eat and live instead! In Christ there is a table set for all.

Worship in the presence of the Lord. With joyful songs and hearts in one accord.

And let our host at table be adored. In Christ there is a table set for all.

When at last this earth shall pass away, when Jesus and his bride are one to stay.

The feast of love is just begun that day. In Christ there is a table set for all.

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