What a lovely idyllic picture we have in our reading from Isaiah today. Woody Allen once said of this vision: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep!”… There’s a lot that we could have looked at in this passage, which is often one of the 9 lessons read during a Carol service. But of all the verses with all the wonderful imagery, I’m going to focus on the first verse. It may seem quite mundane in comparison with the rest but as any gardeners out there will know, sometimes you just have to give small signs of growth some light and some space, some water and a little tender loving care.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to look at the verses in chapter 10 which come before this:
Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fallIsaiah 10:33-34
God had been doing some heavy pruning, cutting right back. He was getting rid of forces in the Assyrian Empire that did not make for justice and righteousness. He was making space for what was to come next. But what was to come next was delicate and fragile and in need of some light:
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a branch will bear fruit”.
Jesse was the father of King David, grandson of Ruth and Boaz. At the time of Isaiah, quite a few generations had come and gone. Israel had experienced mixed fortunes in the time in-between. Members of that royal line had been killed. The family tree had effectively been chopped down.
All seemed lost. Everything seemed dead. And remember this is the lineage of Jesus as described in the 1st chapter of Matthew. There were consequences to what happened here. So, it’s important.
A small shoot
But against all odds, contrary to all expectations, there was a sign of growth – a small shoot appearing from that stump. For Isaiah, that shoot was probably a man called Josiah. The Bible describes Josiah as a very righteous king, a king who “walked in all the ways of David his father and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2 and 2 Chronicles 34:2).
The Hebrew word for “shoot” (11:1) can also mean “rod” or “sceptre.” So, there’s some wordplay here linking the promise of new growth and new life with that royal line.
But before we consign this away as a mildly interesting piece of Hebrew history, we know that we Christians tend to think of this as a prophecy about Jesus too. That’s why it appears in our Carol services and in our hymns. But I think it applies to you and me as well because Isaiah likes to make good use of his material and upcycles it whenever possible. He imagines God’s words being used and reused.
Isaiah 55 says: As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
And in Isaiah 43: See I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
So, how are these verses relevant to us? Let’s hear again, verse 1: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a branch will bear fruit”.
We see real-life illustrations of improbable signs of growth in nature, don’t we? We’ve all seen seedlings incredibly growing from out of a rock or a wall where there was seemingly very little chance of soil or roots to sustain them. Delicate but tenacious.
And some of you have heard before about my wife’s tree-felling exploits… She might very well have been the forestry sub-contractor used by God to do the damage that we heard of in chapter 10 – lopping the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees cut down, and the lofty brought low. The thickets of the forest hacked down with an axe.
Because going back a bit there were 2 trees in our garden which were mysteriously cut-down to stumps when I was out at work one day. They subsequently sprouted again. One got some more drastic attention from you know who and it’s no longer with us – but the eucalyptus is not just hanging-on in there but is as tall as it was before. I’m sure, like the lamb, that it sleeps at night with one eye open, waiting for Mrs Banks to approach again, axe in hand!
Plants, which I’ll euphemistically say have had a heavy pruning, can grow again.
Scripture at work
And I see signs of growth here at Christ Church and at St John’s. At our Sunday@Seven service a few years ago one of our number shared how remote and cut-off he felt from God. It was moving and it was uncomfortable – but we committed to pray for him. The bravery shown and the vulnerability in opening-up gave permission to others to take part and to share, often in an impromptu way. It brought a different dimension to that service which would be hard to imagine in any of our other services.
Whilst numbers may have dropped from where they were a few years ago on a Sunday, we do still have new people coming along to our services at both churches. And one of our congregation members has started the discernment process towards ordination. Sometimes it may be hard work making sure that all our services happen each week, particularly now that we’re in interregnum. Our two churches may be delicate, but they are tenacious too.
Don’t decide too soon
So, my take from this verse is: don’t decide too soon that things can’t grow. You may personally be in a place which seems dead and in despair, where things seem hopeless. But things can grow again. It may only be a shoot. It might still be fragile, but it’s stubborn. Give it some light and some space.
It can be a seedling growing from a wall, or a vulnerable man who feels able to share, or a worshipping community that at times wonders about the future.
But don’t expect tall cedar trees every time. Sometimes what we get can be small, surprising, unusual. At first glance we might even miss what’s happening or we might not even like the look of what we’re seeing.
Remember Isaiah 53:2 – “For he grew up before them like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”.
God comes to us in Advent encouraging us not to count the rings of the dead wood of the past – but to look at the green seedlings of the future. However small, however fragile, however seemingly unattractive. Let each and every one of us commit to do our best to nurture and encourage that growth wherever we see it. To be bringers of light and space and tender loving care whenever we see tiny green shoots popping up around us.
And if we each did that, if we each gave someone else a chance, then perhaps the vision described by Isaiah of a new future might just become that little bit closer. We might be that little bit nearer to the earth being full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. Amen
‘Small signs of growth’ was delivered by Ian Banks at Christ Church Walmersley on 4th December 2022. It was based on Isaiah 11:1-10.
- ‘Small signs of growth’ is an update of this one from earlier: ‘Delicate but tenacious’