Hospitality from a dead stump

Isaiah 11:1-10

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 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand 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.

Romans 15:4-13

4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, 6 so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed 9 and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.”

10 Again, it says, “Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”

11 And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.”

12 And again, Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.”

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In my back yard there is a stump. It is a pretty large stump; wide, heavy, and deeply rooted. That stump was once a tree, which stood tall and strong. It swayed in the wind, but never broke, never toppled. That pine tree gave us shade in the summer, it broke up the cold winter wind, and it provided a home for numerous squirrels, birds, and countless bugs.

Then something infected that great pine. Soon the needles turned brown and they began to fall off. Branches cracked in the wind and fell to the ground below. It was clear that the tree was dying. And if we did not do something about it, that tree would die and fall into my yard or the neighbor’s yard, taking out other vegetation, buildings, and damaging the soil below.

So one day my neighbor and I got together and we began to dismantle that tree. We cut off the branches and hauled them away to the dump. We sliced up the trunk and took it to be turned into mulch. At the end of the day, all that was left was the stump that we see today.

That stump is good for nothing. Being a pine tree stump it doesn’t even offer the gift of “The Giving Tree” as sitting on it will result in a sappy bottom.

It. Is. Dead.

Death and dying are all around us. We cannot escape our own death, all we can do is put it off for a few years. But what are we to do when the things that we cherish the most in this world are taken from us? It is my belief that in these times of need we can either give in to the sorrow, or we can hold on to hope.

Our first passage of scripture for today is found in the first part of the book of Isaiah, which Bible scholars often call “First Isaiah.” In the chapters leading up to our text for this morning we find that Isaiah’s city, Jerusalem, is under attack. The enemy has surrounded them and they are controlling the food supply. Nothing goes in and nothing comes out.

If you know your history, you may know that Israel is not able to wait it out too long. Eventually they fall to the enemy and they are taken off and into exile.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of the Israelites. They have been given all of these promises through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses led them out of captivity and right up to the Promised Land. Years later, David established Jerusalem as the headquarters of all things Israelite. He set aside a place for a temple to be built and he gathered all of the materials that would be needed. In spite of some moral failures along the way, David was seen as a great leader and God even told David that his family would reign on the throne for all of eternity.

But here they are, surrounded by the enemy. They are running out of food; they are running out of time.

Jerusalem and the Israelites look to be a dead stump. What once was tall and strong, a real force to be reckoned with, had no life in it at all.

No, we 21st century Christians have no idea what it must feel like to have our homes surrounded by enemies and our food supply cut off. But I am sure that many of us understand disappointment. We experience disappointment when things don’t go as we expect. We experience disappointment when we think that God has provided something for us only to have that something taken away.

Marriages fail, even for Christians. Jobs are lost. Children and pregnancies are lost. Even our identities can be lost. We get to the point where we identify ourselves by these things: I am Sonya’s husband. I work at Staunton Mennonite Church. I have a son and a daughter. If you take away the things that are most important to me, the things that surround me and take up most of my life, you have taken away the very things that make me who I am. You have taken away my identity. My new identity is a lot less appealing. I am a dead stump, the remnants of a once-powerful tree.

But this is Advent, people. We don’t stop with the depressing stuff. We are moving from darkness to light. In our text from Isaiah 11, in the midst of the darkest hour for the Israelites, a vision of hope breaks forth. Verse one says, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Out of this dead, useless stump pops a new shoot. There is new life in this seemingly dead piece of lumber. And this life where there had once been death is obviously the work of God because I don’t bring life out of death.

Now look at verse two, “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.” There is a masculine pronoun there, “him.” This new growth out of the stump of Jesse isn’t just an “it,” it is a person. And the Spirit of the lord will be with him. And this person will not judge people based on what he sees or based on what he hears (v. 3). This person will even have a special interest in helping the poor (v. 4).

As Christians, we believe this shoot from the stump of Jesse to be none other than Jesus of Nazareth. Look with me at Luke 2:1-4: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”

By the way, does anyone know who Jesse was? He was the father of King David, the guy who God promised would have an heir on the throne for all eternity. Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, was a descendant of Jesse and David.

So I guess that I feel pretty confident that Isaiah was talking about Jesus. And I’m not alone. If we look at our New Testament passage, we will find that Paul is pretty convinced that Isaiah is talking about Jesus as well. In verse 12 of Romans 15, Paul paraphrases Isaiah chapter 11, verse 1. The root of Jesse is Jesus. But the real question for us today is why does Paul feel that it is important to note this in his letter to the church in Rome?

It would seem, based on this passage, that in the church in Rome there are two different kinds of Christians: the Jews and the Gentiles. There is division within the church. And this isn’t division over doctrinal issues. It isn’t division over what color of carpet to put in the church. This is division right down the ethnic divide.

Based on what we find in these verses, it would appear that the Jewish Christians saw themselves as superior. They were really the “in” ones and the Gentile Christians were to remain on the periphery. We can see what Paul is up to when we look at verse 7, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Paul encourages the church to “accept one another,” or as the NRSV says, “welcome on another.”

As I looked through the commentaries and online resources for this passage, the word that kept coming up was “hospitality.” Hospitality is, “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.”

Sonya and I opened our home to her parents, sister, aunt, uncle, and two cousins last week for Thanksgiving. After the final piece of apple pie had been devoured and the last hole on my belt had been utilized, Sonya’s aunt said, “This was fun. Do you guys host very often?” We had to admit that we do not.

There had been a time when our table was filled with friends and family on a regular basis, but with the coming of the children, we have found it much more difficult to have people over for a meal. But there are other ways of being hospitable than having people over for meals.

Furthermore, I’m not sure that when Paul tells the Christians in Rome to welcome one another that he is talking about inviting your friends over for a meal. Sure, that is hospitality, but let us remember the context here. And let’s remember the vision that Isaiah had that Paul is drawing from.

The shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse, this new life coming out of what appears to be dead, brings about some major changes. Notice the strange pairings we find in Isaiah’s vision: a wolf lives with the lamb; a leopard lies down with a goat; the cow and the bear graze together; a lion becomes a vegan; children play around poisonous snakes. As we read this, we have to wonder, where are their parents? No, we wonder, what has changed? These sworn enemies are now best of friends. Verse 9 tell us that “They will neither harm nor destroy.”

I don’t know if this passage is intended to actually be about animals or if they are meant to be metaphorical. But Paul’s linking of this instruction to welcome the Gentiles into the church group with Isaiah makes me wonder if the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the goat, if these animals aren’t supposed to represent the new relationship between the Jew and the Gentile in the messianic kingdom.

I read an article this week on hospitality in the church where the author argues that Christian practices are intended to offset the power of sin in our lives. For instance, the practice of giving alms offsets our tendency toward greed. She claims that hospitality is a Christian practice intended to offset hostility.

This author suggests that we need to be intentional in offering hospitality to those who are different from us, even towards those with whom we disagree. Christian hospitality isn’t just throwing a party and inviting your friends to come. Christian hospitality is about spending time with, and offering of yourself to, those you wouldn’t normally associate with. In doing this, Christians enter into a “hospitality as intentional vulnerability.”

Let’s face it, one of the reasons why we don’t engage with people who are different from us is because we are afraid to let someone else into our lives, so see how we live, to hear our struggles, and to experience how we interact with one another. We are afraid because we don’t want others to know that we don’t have it all together. Hospitality as intentional vulnerability is scary. But look at Jesus. Did he not sit down with people different from him and open up to them?

As followers of a peasant Jew who we believe to be the King of kings, we must follow in Jesus’ footsteps, spending time with people that are different than we are. If Jesus can dine with the tax collectors and the sinners, perhaps we can break bread with Baptists, Pentecostals, and atheists. Yes, Paul’s instructions here are meant specifically to instruct the church to practice hospitality to others within the church who are different from them. But especially during the Christmas season, I think that we have the opportunity to share the love of Christ with all we come in contact with, showing hospitality to all.

There is a saying among the Balti people of the Himalayan Mountains: “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family…”

This Advent, as we anticipate the coming of the Christ child, I want to encourage you to practice a hospitality of vulnerability. Sit down with someone for a cup of tea. Invite them out for lunch, or over for dinner. It is through these new friendships that we can grow in our likeness of Christ and find hope for these old dead stumps.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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