L. British Hyrams
(Isaiah 11: 1-10)

Hope is defined by dictionary.com as the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best. Hope is a feeling? Hmmm, yes and no? If you don’t like that definition then there is another one.  Hope is also defined by dictionary.com as a person or thing in which expectations are centered. Hope is tangible, can be touched or measured, it physically exists? Yes and no? Hope is a funny thing. Our definition of hope and the basis on which it exists spans a wide continuum.  Depending on where you generally fall on the continuum, the hopefulness of others can seem ludicrous or mysterious.

Some people live by chance.  Who knows why, but every day there are folks shelling out money that could be better spent on things like rent, groceries, and tranportation.  Or if you are of more means, saving or donating.  This money is spent instead on lottery tickets, at the casino, with bookies, or any of the other “upscale” ways you can gamble; whether the “g” word (gambling) is actually used or not. From the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich people settle for hope based on chance.

Then, there are those who go through life depending on, hoping in their instincts.  They believe their “gut” will lead them in the right direction.  Some might call this flying by the seat of your pants.  And for many who live like this, it works.  They don’t waste a lot of mental energy on planning, because it all works itself out or at least they are willing to make due with the results. Some in society are forced to live this way due to causes like mental illness or systems of oppression that are based on power and money.

If neither of those resonated with you, these next two might hit a little closer to home.  My prediction is that the vast majority of folks in the United States who fall into the “middle and upper class”, even Christians, hope in self and stuff.

Hoping in self might mean relying on your education, work experience, your looks and charm, or your “connections”.  Knowing that you have a degree from XYZ prestigious school, or the fact that your degree is in the ABC impressive area of study, or because you have years of experience at LMNOP fortune 500 company; because of these facts about yourself, you figure that your future is secure. Self.

Hoping in stuff is, of course, being comforted by the money you have in the bank, investments accounts and retirement accounts.  Hoping in stuff means that the house you live in, the car you drive, the jewelry in the safe, or maybe the boat docked waiting and ready for your use, these material things somehow represent security. I mean nowadays, you can buy almost anything, right? Stuff.

Then there are those who seem not to have any hope at all, nothing in their world points to the fact that health, finances, educational opportunities, employment prospects or basic freedoms will work out, improve, or come together for their good. But, just because they can’t see hope, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

When I get ready for work in the morning I usually watch one of the morning shows on tv.  There was a feature story that I thought about as I prepared for this sermon.  I could not track it down online so please don’t quote me. An African American man had adopted several African American male teenagers over the years. The current 3 or 4 young men who lived with him testified to the impact being adopted by him had on their life. It was heartwarming

They also told of stories of being in foster homes where they did not have adequate basic supplies, the refridgerator was locked, they were abused mentally and physically.  They had no hope it seemed, because they aren’t babies, because they aren’t caucasian and because they aren’t girls. One young man told poignantly about how he knew when he was truly embraced and trusted, when he knew he really had a home and a family – when he was given a key to the house. Beloved, this father, represented unseen hope for these young men who seemed to have no hope at all of being adopted and having a family.

In the midst of today’s struggles, we understandably can be driven to despair, hope can be elusive.  A long time presbyterian, active elder, and denominationally plugged in colleague of mine said to me just the other day, I know it’s advent and all, but I just don’t have hope this year.  I am struggling to find it.  When I probed a little further he said, it’s because I’ve never seen discord so pervasive.  Not only is it here in our country but everywhere you look all around the world, there is nothing but discord!

We can look back and see God’s faithfulness despite the atrocities of the past that linger into the present, despite the hard times that seemed unbearable but yet we are still here. We can remember the pain, injustice, and evil AND be confident in our hope for the future.  If we look carefully, we can glean hints of hope, real hope in the still unfolding story of God’s redemption of all creation.

In biblical terms, both Old Testament and New Testament definitions of hope are based on expectation, trust and confidence, not in chance, self, or stuf, but in God.  The Old Testament words used for hope are particularly focused on patience, waiting, and tarrying. Tarrying is an old school term! In this day and time, these words (patience, waiting, tarrying) probably give many of us hives!  Not only is instant gratification expected it is the norm in more ways and in more areas of life than we would probably care to admit. It doesn’t matter how old you are! Thank you to services and goods like Amazon Prime and Instant Pot for reinforcing that expectation!

As much as prophets were known for declaring God’s displeasure, judgment and wrath against wickedness; they also proclaimed words of hope for a future that the listeners could scarcely imagine.  Before we talk about Isaiah’s message of hope, let’s examine the context in which he proclaimed it.

There are many important things happening at this point in time but I am going to highlight three.  The desigated leader was wicked.  There were complicated relationshps with foreign countries that had been (sort of) friendly toward Judah.  The wicked leader acquiesed to a foreign enemy.[1]  The chaos, the discord in Judah is politial, military, religious, and personal.

King Ahaz was wicked. He departed radically from the righteous ways of his father King Jotham and grandfather King Uzziah. He revived  the cultic practices of child sacrifices (including his own children), pagan idolatry, and witchcraft.  King Ahaz declined to join an alliance with Syria and Israel against Assyria.  This invited their wrath against Judah. And then, things go from bad to worse, Ahaz turned to the enemy, Assyria, for protection.  Ahaz relinquished his nation to the armies of foreigners. Ahaz surrenders his political autonomy.

In this very midst of a wicked leader, evil practices revived and righteous practices abandoned, foreign pressure and influence, this is Judah just in case you forgot what country I was talking about, Isaiah speaks words of hope that begin with the words  “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse”.

For any of you who garden or agriculture is your thing, the meaning may be immediately apparent to you; but for the rest of us a little more information might help. The shoot is the production center for a plant. It is the organ system that gives rise to stems, leaves, and flowers. The shoot system enables a plant to grow taller to gain access to energy-giving light.[2] Because of the shoot, the plant now has access to what it needs to grow stronger and to feed the other parts of the plant!  A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse. From that which seems unproductive shall come fruitfulness, from that which seems weak shall come strength for growth, from that which seems dead shall come life!

This shoot, this hope is tangible. This hope is a leader, a ruler, a king, a messiah. Who will be permeated by the spirit of God.  Who will possess wisdom and understanding.  Who will be endowed with counsel and might. And last but certainly not least, this ruler will have the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. The characteristics of an ideal leader.[3]

In the realm of the socio-political order, especially of that day and time, a logical thought is that this prophecy refers to Hezekiah. He was a righteous king a couple decades after the approximate time this message was proclaimed. He was the son of Ahaz. But when looking back at this prophecy through the lens that is the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; this hope is Jesus, THE messiah, not just another king.

That revelation accounts for the pervasiveness and totality of Isaiah’s prophetic words: judgement not with the senses but with righteousness, triumph over evil, peace between enemies, safety for the vulnerable, and full knowledge of the Lord on the earth.  Reconciliation. Restoration. Redemption.

Maybe hope is hard to come by for you today. Maybe you have realized that chance, self and stuff aren’t enough.  Maybe you are like my colleague, a committed Christian, but your well of hope has run dry and you are listening while in need of a source of hope. Hope for any host of situations. The doctors can’t do anymore and the medicine and treatments are no longer effective. The voices of doubt and fear won’t be silenced in your head. The journey for you or a loved one has taken an unexpected turn. The relationship you cherished is damaged beyond repair. Your parents, teachers, coach, don’t understand you and you don’t understand why they don’t understand!  The time outs aren’t working for the toddler and taking away privileges isn’t working for the teen. Will power and treatment for the addiction has failed again. The wheels of justice turn too slowly, too unjustly. The unethical system is too powerful, too complicated to bring down or repair. You are conservative or liberal or moderate and worried about our government and our country. You fill in the blank, it doesn’t matter what sphere of life has gone haywire.

Hope in these situations does not come naturally to human beings.  Based on our senses, despair is perfectly rational.  But it is also true that most of us cannot live in this state, our faith won’t let us, our God wont let us. There is hope that is the very reason that we gather as a community of faith.  Here we come to praise and pray, worship and wonder, to express gratitude and seek grace and mercy – for ourselves and our world. Because in Jesus Christ we have a hope beyond humanity in the majesty and mystery of THE Messiah, the shoot from the stump of Jesse.

The hope that Isaiah proclaims is both timely and timeless.  Beloved, for Judah, for Israel, for Gentiles, for us, God’s love never fails. Thanks be to God!

 

[1] Who’s Who in the Bible: and Illustrated Bible Dictionary , p.21
[2] www.dummies.com/education/science/plant-biology-roots-shoots-stems-and-leaves/
[3] New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Volume IV, p 256