2nd Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10;
A NEW SHOOT HAS BEGUN TO SPROUT
[Note: on the chancel in front of the altar is an actual tree stump with a green shoot coming out of the top.]
Paula D’Arcy, one of the top spiritual teachers of our time, presented Friday at a Caregiver’s Conference at Transformations Center. Paula’s ministry grew from personal tragedy. In 1975, at age 27, she survived a head-on accident caused by a drunk driver swerving across the median. It took the lives of her husband, Roy, and twenty-one-month-old daughter, Sarah. Pregnant at the time, Paula survived the accident to give birth to a second daughter, Beth.
About a year-and-a-half later, a friend arranged a meeting with well-known preacher Norman Vincent Peale. He quietly spent a half hour listening to her story, after which he said quietly, “Young woman, you’ve got a huge challenge ahead of you.”
“Wow!” she thought. “No kidding. I came to hear you tell me that I have a huge task facing me? I think I know that.” But she simply asked, “What’s that?”
“Discovering the purpose of your life.”
Again, Paula felt the anger rise in her, her mind flooding with thoughts. But she simply said, “I lost the purpose of my life when my husband and daughter were killed.”
He brought his face closer to hers, with great love clearly filling his eyes, and said, “You lost the purpose you wanted. But there is another purpose in life for you. Life has a larger purpose.”
With those words, her life began to open up to new possibilities. Within several years, it was actually Norman Vincent Peele himself who asked her to speak with him to grieving people in need of healing. That’s how her life as a speaker and spiritual teacher began. Her life which had been like a stump cut-off by that drunk driver, now had a shoot of new life.
It’s been wonderful to live with this image all week. As a pastor, it is my privilege to come along-side people whose lives have seemingly become cut-off from terrible loss, only to witness, slowly and gradually, the sprouting of a new shoot of life. And most often it involves finding one’s purpose once again, in the face of loss of purpose. It’s rarely in the more public ways of someone like Paula D’Arcy, a person who suffered unimaginable loss only to turn around and share her way of healing with thousands of others as a speaker and teacher. More often, I experience the new shoot growing out from the stump in quiet ways. Like a widow who after sufficient healing begins to befriend and accompany other widows. Like an addict laid low by addiction who slowly regains his life with the Twelve Step spirituality of A.A. or N.A., who becomes a sponsor for another addict. Like a soldier who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who experiences healing and begins volunteering with other veterans. Like a survivor of incest or abuse who goes on to help others survive. It is a privilege to journey with individuals going through healing, to experience the new shoot of life growing from a stump.
Brothers and sisters, as disciples of Jesus this is our calling for all of us. We experience healing together through the revival of purpose in our lives. But there is also the wider purpose that we are called to together, as a new people in God. We are called to live as a new human community that brings peace to a hurting destructive world. We are called to live by that vision of the peaceable kingdom, of God’s whole creation living in harmony, a wolf with a lamb, and a child with a snake. We are called to cast people’s gazes to God’s holy mountain where there is absolutely no hurt and no destruction of any kind. We are called, in short, to be a shoot of peace growing from the many times when war and destruction cut God’s children off to a stump.
This image, after all, is offered to the people of Israel as a whole. They, like us, continually failed at this calling and found themselves without leaders who led them into God’s way of peace. Their kings had failed them. Their cities were laid waste; they were cut-low like a stump. And so Isaiah promises them a new king, from the stump of King David’s line, a Messiah who would finally lead them as a people into God’s way of peace. They would become a community of peace in a hurting world so that one day all would live on God’s holy mountain without fear of hurt and destruction.
Brothers and sisters, you and I are among those who believe that that Messiah did come into the world, Jesus of Nazareth. And he finally gave us what we need to see and hear in order to be God’s chosen community to lead the world into peace. He showed us once and for all, without any doubt, that the violence which cuts us down and lays us low is always ours and never God’s. God is the one whose power of love and life provides the shoot. Never the axe which lays low.
This is very important for us to see! We desperately need to see this word again today. Because even Isaiah himself didn’t see it completely and clearly. He still saw God’s breath slaying the wicked. And John the Baptist as the last prophet didn’t see it quite completely and clearly. He still implies that maybe it’s God’s axe who will cut down the wicked. It is finally only in Jesus the Messiah who gives us God’s word completely and clearly. He is the one who teaches us to never strike back in vengeance and to love even our enemies. Most importantly, he is the one who stood in the breach of the evil of his day and became the tree cut-off on the cross. He let himself become the stump, so that on Easter morning a new shoot of life and peace could begin to grow. And on Easter evening he passed on that peace to you and I. “Even as the Father has sent me,” he says, “so I send you.” He sends us out with the power of forgiveness and healing and new life.
Brothers and sisters, I also believe that we live at a special time in history when a new shoot has begun to sprout. Humankind was laid-low in the aftermath of two world wars again last century. There is the newer threats of terrorism. For the first time in history we possess weapons by which we can utterly destroy ourselves. But there is also the new shoot of peace growing. There is the church being slowly revived to see completely and clearly its message once again that the wrath and violence are ours, never God’s. God in the cross of Jesus absorbed our hurt and destruction and is turning it into new life. And this church isn’t always within the walls of those calling themselves church. Last week, we named Gandhi and his nonviolent revolution against empire. We named Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he led against racism. We could add so many more examples of this new shoot of life growing out of the stump of our violence. A favorite in our house is the peace won by thousands of ordinary women in Liberia, Africa, Terry and Hilton’s homeland.
But this morning we end with remembrance and thanks for the life of Nelson Mandela, who with nonviolence, love, and the power of reconciliation helped lead the peace in Apartheid-torn South Africa. I’d like to end simply with a time of prayer. Let us prayer together in thanks for Nelson Mandela, and for our own calling to be a branch of peace, a community of peace, in this broken world that needs us.
We thank you, God of Love and Justice, that you are forever working within us and among us, in our hearts and in our world, to create wholeness and freedom, compassion and connection, equity and reconciliation; And so we pray for your love and justice to fill our world, as the waters cover the sea.
We pray for bold prophets to speak your truth wherever our fears and certainties drown out your wisdom;
We pray for courageous leaders to show the way whenever the complexities and confrontations of our world leave us confused and overwhelmed;
We pray for wise teachers to open our eyes, minds and hearts whenever new challenges and opportunities require us to find new solutions and resources;
We pray for humble servants to demonstrate grace and self-sacrifice wherever self-interest and expediency bring destruction and suffering on our world.
And we pray that the legacy of the Nelson Mandelas of our world will inspire, challenge, guide and equip us, to participate in the work of justice and peacemaking, of reconciliation and healing, of inclusion and sharing, that our world so desperately needs. Help us to make a difference. This is our prayer, In Jesus’ name, Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, December 8, 2013