Our faith is filled with symbols. More symbols than we probably realize. Did you know that the Phoenix, as in Fawkes the Phoenix from Harry Potter, was a symbol embraced by many early Christians? While it predates Christianity, its symbolism of the resurrection seemed appropriate for that group of people following a Lord who had been killed and raised from the dead.
The pelican, oddly enough, was another symbol of the faith dating back to the middle ages. Pelicans, it was believed, were so caring and nurturing to their young that they would pierce their own skin to feed their children from their own blood. The symbolism is probably obvious, it points to Jesus shedding his blood and to the Lord’s Supper.
One last bird worthy of mention is the peacock. Prior to Christianity, there was a belief that the body of a peafowl would not decay after death. This led some of our earliest forebears to associate the peacock with the Tree of Life. It is not uncommon for these images to be found together in ancient catacomb paintings.
Let’s consider some non-avian symbols. The ichthus is a symbol that brings to mind Jesus’ call to be “fishers of men”. The letters are an anagram that spells “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. If you can’t remember the Greek word for fish just follow Seinfeld’s lead and call it the “Jesus fish.”
The anchor is referred to in Hebrews 6:19. Our hope in Christ, it says, is “an anchor of the soul”. I understand that it makes a great tattoo.
There are a variety of cross types, that primary symbol of Christianity that is always in danger of overuse. There is the T cross, probably the actual shape of the cross on which Jesus Christ was executed. But there is also the cross in the shape of an ‘X’, which just so happens to be another form used for crucifixion by the Romans. It is also the first letter in the word Christ.
There are papal crosses with two and three cross bars, there is the Russian Orthodox cross with two crossbars at the top and one crooked one at the bottom, there are the various equilateral crosses such as St. Andrew’s cross and the Jerusalem cross, and there is the ankh, an ancient Egyptian symbol which was taken over by the Coptic Christians of Egypt with a slight modification. There are budded crosses, there are crosses made of lilies, and there is St. Brigid’s cross which is woven out of reeds. There are as many cross designs as there are people to design them.
Of course, we know that the symbol of the cross is powerful, because it repels vampires. (Cue the groans.)
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the varied symbols used by Christians throughout the ages. We left out the rainbow, the shamrock, the triangle, the dolphin, the lamp, bread, milk, Moses, the lamb, the crown, ships and boats; not to mention, the letter symbols such as the Chi Rho, the IH, INS, and many others.
I would like to add an important Christian symbol to the mix. As far as I know it has not gained wide acceptance as a symbol of the faith, though it has a great Scriptural pedigree. It is also especially meaningful during the season of Advent.
Now it may not look that good hanging from a necklace, it may not work as a church logo, it may also seem awfully mundane, but, its mundaneness is part of the point.
To explore the image of the stump we need to go to Isaiah, the great Advent preacher, readings from Isaiah 6 and 11.
Isaiah 6 is called the Great Throne Room Vision. The first eight verses are often the text at ordination ceremonies. For reasons that will become obvious the rest of the chapter, integral to the first 8 verses, is not always included in these ordinations.
6:1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots[a] on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
No wonder these words are read when someone is ordained into the ministry. Even one who didn’t believe in God would find this description is compelling. No matter what it looks like, these are words of commissioning. They are awesome.
But these words don’t stand alone. The chapter continues with God’s response to Isaiah’s “Here I am; send me!”
9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.
God’s response is not what we would have written. He says, go proclaim the message, and the people won’t hear it; keep proclaiming that message until there is nothing left but a field of burning stumps, a dead and lifeless waste. Take all that passion from God’s commissioning, from your unbelievable experience of the Holy, proclaim God’s word, and be ignored. Be ignored until the land is laid waste and the only sound is you, preaching the word to a field of lifeless stumps.
And, oh, by the way… that one lifeless, burned out, old stump, in a see of smoking burned out stumps, is going to be the source of life for all people, for all time. From that burned out stump comes the Messiah.
Isaiah: Advent Preacher
Let’s remind ourselves of who Isaiah was and what he was doing. For most of us, Isaiah is the name of a giant book in the Old Testament that we mine for nuggets of hope. We know there is something in the book about a virgin conceiving and bearing a child whose name will be called “Immanuel.”
We also know verses about “the lion laying down with the lamb” and “by his stripes we are healed” and “we all like sheep have gone astray.” Isaiah is popular in ways that we don’t even know. Handel’s Messiah has long passages from Isaiah at its heart and some of these verses that I’ve already mentioned, including this week’s reading, are famous, in part, because they are beautiful.
Isaiah was a prophet who lived to see extraordinary times. He had access to four different kings of Israel, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. He prophesied for decades and he warned Israel of the coming doom from the Assyrians and later from the Babylonians. He also prophesied against these enemies coming against Israel. His career was during dark but hopeful days.
From the coal cleansed mouth of Isaiah comes some of the bluntest, awful depictions of God’s wrath. At the same time, from Isaiah we hear some of the most beautiful, hope-filled words in all human language.
Stump, Pt. 1: God’s Glory and God’s Presence
Isaiah 6 describes God present to Isaiah in the Temple and a vision of what Jerusalem, the heart of Israel, will be like in days to come. How the great nation of promise will be wiped from the map. As devastating as that sounds, it will not be the end of Israel even though all of Israel will think that so.
We recognize God’s presence in the Temple. But a question for us is:
Israel asks, is God present in the burned out city? Is he less available in the field of stumps?
A second question for Israel, and indirectly for us, is: How is he present? How is God present in our field of stumps?
Stump, Pt. 2: God’s Deliverance
Here is this week’s reading:
11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 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.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips, he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Isaiah grounds us in history. He first does this by mentioning Uzziah. The year the king died was the time that Isaiah experienced his vision. A vision more about stumps than six-winged angels, by the way.
He grounds his story in history a second time by talking about the stump of Jesse. Jesse is King David’s father and the family from which Jesus will be born. It is the royal lineage of the Kings of Israel and Judah, the lineage which culminates in the Messiah, the perfect Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth.
When all is lost. When the city is destroyed. When the people are displaced. When there is nothing but a barren, burning waste. God leaves hints of his presence: the holy seed is its stump.
For Israel, there is no return from exile without the stump. For the Christian, there is no resurrection without a tomb.
My hope is that you won’t look at a stump the same way again. I hope that every stump you see will jar your memory in order that you may see God’s subtle, sometimes hidden activity, in whatever circumstance you find yourself in. May a stump remind you that God is as present in the catastrophes of our lives and the disasters of our times as much as he was in the Temple with Isaiah.
Eugene Peterson notices the stump imagery too:
We know how that eventually turned out: in a word, Jesus. And so we joyfully and gratefully sing the praises of our holy Lord. We can never sing those praises loudly or joyfully enough, but while doing it we must not lose touch with that stump. For very often that stump and nothing but that stump will characterize and dominate our lives. Not for all of us, to be sure, but for many. Never, never forget that holy stump.
Right there, Peterson reminds us, that for many people, life is lived among the stumps instead of in the heart of the Temple. The rest of us may need to go into the field of stumps and do some heart work:
The world, the flesh, and the devil are all working full-time to fill our minds and emotions with pictures and longings for a so-called “more” life that is ignorant of the Holy, for abundant life that has nothing to do with God. This godless vision not only controls the public media and mass advertising as it propagates and glamorizes its lies; it has also infiltrated large parts of the church, interpreting the Christian life for us in ways that we are trained to avoid or be contemptuous of anything that doesn’t promise us gratification.
I want to counter these glamorous lies with Isaiah and his holy stump. Does it sound like an oxymoron? Holy … stump? But everything in Scripture and the gospel tells us that this is the truth, the reality of Jesus and our lives with and in Jesus. Holy. Life that issues out of death. Beauty that begins in ugliness. The same Holy, Holy, Holy that filled the temple is a holy seed in a field of stumps.
It is good for us to hear the Apostle Paul’s take on the stump too.
I Corinthians 1:18-31
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:[g]not many of you were wise by human standards,[h]not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one[i] might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in[j] the Lord.”
A stump, even a field of them, stand as symbols of the way God works. He’s not busting in the front door, demanding our respect, but instead coming to us from the roots of our lives, deep down in the dirt of our lives, making himself known.
This is Advent Talk. Finding our life growing out of a burned out stump. Finding life given back to us in the small, delicate, often fragile, Kingdom of God. Losing our lives only to find them in the small life of Jesus of Nazareth, a slender green shoot rising from a burned out stump.
– preached at the Wheatland Mission, December 2, 2016