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"A Shoot from the Stump"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 25, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Isaiah 11:1

"A shoot will go forth from the stump." It's a phrase that comes from the Bible, from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah has us imagine a stump of a tree that's been chopped down, and then he has us picture a tiny green twig growing up from it. For Isaiah it's a picture of hope when everything seems lost, but the image of a sprouting tree stump could have another meaning. If you typed in "sprouting tree stump" in an internet search, you'd find articles and videos under titles such as "Four Effective Ways to Stop a Tree Stump From Sprouting," or "How to Kill Stubborn Tree Stumps Permanently."

A sprouting tree stump may not be a picture of hope. It could be an annoyance that won't go away. Which it is, of course, depends on your perspective. If your favorite tree got knocked down during a storm, then, sure, a shoot from that stump does look like hope. But if you cut down that tree because it was in your way, because its roots were breaking up your sidewalks and encroaching on your foundation, a shoot from that stump looks like a threat. Which it is depends on your perspective. From one perspective, it looks like hope when everything seems lost. From another perspective, it looks like an annoyance that keeps coming back.

"A shoot will go forth from the stump," Isaiah says in chapter 11 of his book, and not just any stump, but the stump of Jesse. It's not a literal tree stump we're talking about. It's a figurative one. It's a family tree Isaiah is talking about: the family tree of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David, the great king of ancient Israel. Now at one point in history that dynasty growing from Jesse was thought to be dead. But God promised through the prophet Isaiah that a new king would come from this family tree, a king anointed with God's Spirit, a messiah king.

Messiah means "anointed" in the Hebrew language, and the word for the anointed king in the Greek language is "Christ." So "Christ-Mass" is the "feast of the anointed king." And this Christ was supposed to be a special kind of king, not like every other human king, but a king who would bring justice and peace, fellowship and friendship with God for the entire earth. "Let earth receive her King" Isaac Watts once wrote in his famous Christmas carol, "Joy to The World." For Christians, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy when He was born among the animals in a stable in Bethlehem. The prophecy was about Him, that a shoot would go forth from the stump of Jesse.

A sprout growing out of an all-but-dead tree stump could be a picture of hope when all seems lost. But it depends on your perspective. It could also be a nuisance and annoyance or even a threat because not everybody wants to receive Jesus as King. For example, the former Soviet Union, the first officially atheist nation in history, was committed to uprooting all traces of Jesse's stump from its territories. Matthew Heise, in his new book titled, The Gates of Hell, tells the story of one group of Christian churches under the Soviet Union, the Lutheran Church, and how they were cut down, along with every other Christian church there.

Heise tells how in 1921 the newly formed Soviet government began taking control of Christian schools in its territories. School principals were fired and replaced by administrators loyal to the Soviet cause. Just before Christmas in 1921, the newly appointed Soviet principal at a former Lutheran school called students together in an assembly. He stands up on the school stage and addresses the children: "Kneel down and pray to your God for Christmas gifts." When no presents appeared after the children prayed, he said, "Now ask this Soviet government for Christmas gifts." And when the children did as they were told, praying to their government, the principal gave the signal, the curtains of the stage were drawn back to reveal a beautiful tree and Christmas presents for everyone. In the decades to come, the Soviet government would continue to use such tactics, every means at their disposal, to chop down any remnant of the Christian faith in their territory.

Not everyone wants to receive Jesus as King. The leaders of the former Soviet Union, for all their short-sightedness and willful blindness, at least they saw Jesus as a proper threat. In some ways, they understood the meaning of the Christ-Mass better than many people today. They understood that this Messiah King, this Christ born of Mary, named Jesus, claims total loyalty, total obedience, total trust, and nothing less. The Soviets knew that anything growing out of these roots of Jesse were a threat to any man-made foundation. They didn't pretend, like many people do today, that they could patronize Jesus with some small supportive role in achieving their personal goals.

Jesus as King reserves the right to break up any and all plans. The work of His kingdom will get in the way of your desires and my desires for comfort or status or security. You don't have to be an aspiring global superpower to be threatened by King Jesus. God's work can be disruptive of any plan or program. The new growth He's giving may not be what we were hoping for. When Jesus was born, a shoot from the stump in fulfillment of that prophecy from Isaiah chapter 11, He wasn't what the powerful people in Israel were hoping for.

After Israel returned from exile in Babylon, this prophecy of Isaiah was ready for fulfillment. For 400 years, they waited for the shoot to come forth from Jesse's stump. They waited for a new king like David to arise from a once dead dynasty. Isaiah said that this new king for the Jewish people would be led by God's Spirit, anointed by God's Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowing and fearing the Lord, and His delight will be in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what His eyes see. But with righteousness He will do justice for the poor of the land. With equity, He will decide for the afflicted of the earth, and He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.

So many in Israel were hoping for a military Messiah with measures to reestablish and protect their borders. Many in Israel were hoping for a tribal Messiah who would slay the wicked out there. Many in Israel were hoping for an invincible Messiah, marching undefeated from victory to victory. They were not expecting the Son of a peasant woman born in a stable with some animals. They were not expecting Him to slay the wickedness in their hearts. They were not expecting Him to willingly suffer at the hands of their enemies, to lay down His life for them, to save them, to save all of us.

What are you expecting from Jesus this Christmas? If you celebrate or acknowledge or are even aware of Christmas in the slightest way, we all do well to remember what this holiday means, Christ-Mass, the feast of the Messiah, Jesus, the long-awaited Leader of Israel, the King of the Jews, chosen by God to be the hope of all the nations.

But maybe that's not what you were expecting. Some people will receive Jesus as a source of wisdom, among many channels to choose from. Some will receive Jesus as a gift, among others, many of which they find more interesting than Jesus. Some will receive Him as a tradition, among many others, that compete for attention on a holiday weekend. But Jesus was born to be the Messiah, nothing less. The King of kings, the eternal Son of God, the Source of all good things, the Giver of every good gift, the Judge of all our plans.

For all their tragic blindness, the former Soviet Union could see that Jesus was dead serious about His totalizing, all-encompassing messianic claim. The influential people in ancient Israel saw it, too. That's why Jesus' path led from a lowly manger in Bethlehem to a brutal death on a cross outside of Jerusalem. This was no accident for Jesus. See, no one gets canceled for spreading holiday cheer. No one gets cut down for helping people achieve their New Year's resolutions. No one gets crucified for writing a self-help book. They dealt with Jesus as a threat because He was a threat to their man-made foundations, and let's not imagine that they were all that different than us for doing so. On some level, they were doing what you and I do—trying to control our territory, trying to protect our self-made foundations. They saw Jesus for what He was claiming to be, so they cut Him down and crucified Him.

But for them and for us, Jesus proved to be a gracious nuisance who keeps coming back, sort of like Irina. Irina and her family lived in one of the southern states of the Soviet Union. They had been Orthodox Christians for generations. But now in 1950, Irina was the only follower of Jesus left in her family. After almost 30 years of anti-Christian propaganda, the church in the Soviet states was mostly a dead stump. Irina's adult children had been converted to faith in human achievement.

When her first grandson was born, she told her son, "My grandson will be baptized." He dismissed her request, but Irina, rooted deep in the faith, was a gracious nuisance who will not go away. When her grandson was two years old, she kidnapped him. She took him to the church and had him baptized. She returned him to his parents and told them, "He is Christian now." With this tiny seed of a promise implanted in him, Irina prayed for her grandson for the rest of her earthly life. His parents didn't think much of it. They raised their son in the soil of scientific atheism. He grew up, went to school, eventually earned a doctorate in biochemistry. But the more he studied the natural world, the more a nagging sense of incompleteness began to grow in him. The more he heard the atheistic account of faith and human progress, the more he saw holes in it.

And then he met some Christians, some Christ followers, and they told him about God, the wise Creator, and Jesus the Messiah, the Savior, and they showed him the joy and hope of living under Him in His kingdom. And with that seed of God's promise planted in him in his Baptism, the Holy Spirit brought forth the fruit of faith in him. And in his forties, Irina's grandson became a believing Christian, a follower of Jesus.

Today, he's in his seventies. Today, roughly 100 years after the Soviet Union came to power and thirty years after its fall, today, Irina's grandson is still rooted in the faith. He works in Russia for a Christian outreach organization. It's called Lutheran Hour Ministries. For over a decade, Irina's grandson has been leading efforts to reach out to the people of Russia with the Good News of Jesus the Messiah through broadcast radio and internet and print and in-person social ministries.

This summer over a Zoom call, I had the honor of visiting with Irina's grandson in Russia. Among other things, he told me the story of his kidnapping, in tribute to his tenacious grandmother. Working with Lutheran Hour Ministries these last four years, I have been blessed to speak with devoted followers of Jesus Christ, the Messiah King, from all around the globe, from Africa to the Middle East, South and Central America, Europe, and Asia and Russia. I wish I could tell you all the stories I've heard because the roots and branches of Jesus' kingdom are everywhere. There is no stopping Him. You can't stop Him. I can't stop Him. No trouble, no hardship, no persecution, no danger, no famine, no sword, not even sin and death could stop Him. Even if you've tried, like me, to uproot Him from your life, He's still here for you, crucified and risen for you, ruling and returning for you, not just to tear you down, but to give you roots, to give you life, to give you real hope.

Jesus is that gracious nuisance who will not go away. As Isaiah said, "He grew up before the Lord like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him. There was nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He wasn't what we were hoping for at first. By oppression and judgment, He was taken away. He was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of My people. Yet it was the Lord's will to crush Him, to bring Him to grief. When He makes His life a guilt offering, He will see His offspring. He will prolong His days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in His hand. In that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples, and all the nations will rally to Him. In that day, the branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the glory of His people. In those days, He will take root, and His people will send forth shoots and fill the world with His fruit."

Would you pray with me? Oh God, let earth receive her King. Let us, this Christmas day, celebrate Him whom the prophets longed to see, Jesus Christ the Messiah, Your Son, our Lord. Graft us into Him. Give us roots. Produce in us the fruit of Your Spirit, love and joy and peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, so that all the earth would be filled with Your fellowship and friendship through Him who lives and reigns with You and the same Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.

No Reflections for December 25, 2022

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Now Sing We, Now Rejoice" setting by Kevin Hildebrand. From Hymns for All Saints: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (© 2005 Concordia Publishing House)

"Lo, How a Rose Is Growing" setting by Jerry Gunderson. From Hymns for All Saints: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (© 2005 Concordia Publishing House)

"Joy to the World" setting by S. Drummond Wolff. From Hymns for All Saints: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (© 2005 Concordia Publishing House)

"We Praise You, Jesus, at Your Birth" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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