Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Text: Isaiah 11:1-4
The royal line of David is like a tree that has been cut down; but just as new branches sprout from a stump, so a new king will arise from among David's descendants.  The spirit of the Lord will give him wisdom and the knowledge and skill to rule his people. He will know the Lord's will and honour him, and find pleasure in obeying him. He will not judge by appearance or hearsay; he will judge the poor fairly and defend the rights of the helpless.

A new shoot on an old stump

In the days leading up to Christmas a lot of thought and preparation go into making Christmas Day the best day of the year. Christmas trees are decorated, Christmas cards are received and displayed, guest rooms are prepared and most importantly food is prepared. If the cook in your house is anything like Miriam, who follows in the tradition of her mother and her grandmother, there will be leftovers. At the end of Christmas Day, when everyone has eaten and been truly satisfied the big question arises, "What shall we do with the leftovers?" I donít know how people coped before the days of refrigeration. Left over food could not be kept too long before it spoilt. Today "leftovers" can be enjoyed for quite some time after Christmas Day, often to the annoyance of youngsters in the family.

What do you do with the bits of material left over when dressmaking, or the pieces of timber from a carpentry job, or the extra vegetables that you planted that would go bad if you didnít do something with them? I think that most of us become quite clever when it comes to making use of something that is leftover. It might look useless and worthless to someone else, but to you itís a treasure. My dad made a whole bike from leftover bits and pieces that other people had discarded. I know a number of people who have sheds packed with leftover items from another time and place. "Who knows when it might come in handy," hoarders say in defence of their sheds stacked full of remnants.

Look at the number of people who have come to the garage sales we have held here at the church. The remnants, the items no longer wanted, become someone elseís treasure. Sometimes fabric shops have "Remnant Sales". These leftover bits of material are snatched up by people who donít see them as someone elseís leftovers but as a patchwork quilt or a stuffed toy.

The Old Testament often talks about God's remnant. They are the people that are leftover after everyone else has deserted God. Others have turned away from worshipping God and given up following his way of living. God's remnant are the ones who have remained faithful to God, even though everyone else has abandoned God and ignored his calls to be his children and his offers to love them unconditionally. This Old Testament thinking about a remnant starts way back in Genesis, when Noah is the only person found faithful to God out of all the people of the earth. Noah was regarded as the odd one out in his society. Noah and his family were remnants, leftovers, you might say, and they were rescued from the judgement that the Flood brought.

At the time of the prophets, only a remnant of the people was faithful to God. The story of Elijah reveals that in the whole land a mere 7,000 people were still faithful to God. Elsewhere in the Old Testament we hear how enemies swept into Israel, destroying cities and killing many people, but a remnant who had been faithful to God were left in Israel. Another remnant was taken to Babylon where some prospered and became integrated into the pagan culture to the point that when it came to returning to their own land, only a remnant of the remnant made the journey back to the land given to them by God.

In our text today the idea of a remnant is applied to the coming of the Messiah. The Saviour would come from the family of Jesse, the father of King David. There had been many kings since the time of David, but unfortunately many of them didnít care for worshipping God and turned to pagan influences. The Romans took control of the country and placed on the throne kings who would do the bidding of the Romans.

Isaiah describes a stump of a tree from which grows the smallest and most fragile shoot. From this shoot, the tree will regrow into something new and strong. From the remnant of God's people will come a new king and a new kingdom. This new king is a descendant of King David, and will bring in God's new rule in the hearts and lives of people. In contrast to the kings of the day, this new king will not be one who is high and mighty, but will rule with fairness and wisdom; he will have a special heart for the poor and helpless.

From this insignificant, rotting old stump, comes new life, a new king who was born at the first Christmas in Davidís town, Bethlehem.

A wood turner was showing me what looked like just a lump of wood. He saw in that piece of wood what I couldnít see. In his hands that ordinary somewhat grubby piece of wood became the top of beautiful coffee table. Or the woman who was always on the look out for inexpensive knitting wool. To me the balls of wool were nothing spectacular, but in the womanís hands they were made into fantastic cot covers and crocheted blankets.

What looked like just another Jewish baby boy, born to very poor parents in Davidís town, turned out to be God's own Son. This is the shoot that Isaiah is speaking of. Like a shoot, this child is weak, tender, vulnerable, dependent, at risk, and helpless. Just as the shoot grows in strength, this child became a man and revealed to us the love and compassion of God.

This child is Immanuel Ė God is with us. God has come down to be among ordinary people, to be among people involved in all kinds of ungodly things, ruled by sinful desires, and trapped in sin to such a degree that it is impossible to escape. As we look into the manger and see the babe wrapped in strips of cloth, we are gazing upon God himself. God has come down to earth amongst us to intervene on our behalf, and to free us from sin, and the judgement that should be ours. He has come to be with us in the mess that we have created in our lives and the mess we have made of the world. God came down at Christmas.
to rescue us,
to give us hope and
to give us the chance of a refreshed life and a renewed relationship with God.

The Christmas story is a simple one. We like it because it is uncomplicated but on this side of eternity we will never fully grasp what it meant for God to become human and get mixed up in all the muck and mire of this world. There is only thing that we can grasp and we even have difficulty with that. He did it because he loves us.

Because Christmas is about God's love, the Old Testament idea of "The Remnant" is also an important concept for us today. A remnant is often considered as something that no one else wants. A leftover is what remains after everyone has had their fill and it doesnít matter in the end if a leftover is thrown away. Thatís not how God views the remnant who are faithful to him. At various times and in various places around the world Christians have been those people whom no one else wants. When various governments have suppressed the church, the remnant, the faithful few have continued to read God's Word and worship in secret. They may be unwanted by their government. Opponents will point out that God has forsaken them. But they are a remnant in the Old Testament sense of the word Ė God's dearly loved remnant.

Christians are feeling this more and more in our own society. Once Christianity was practised openly and the Christian influence in our community was strong and well accepted. More and more the faithful are the remnant Ė
the odd ones out,
the ones out of step with the rest of the world,
the old-fashioned people who still need a Saviour,
the weird crowd who claim that God is the creator and giver of all things,
the strange bunch who head off to church on Sunday mornings instead of going to the beach,
the out-of-date people who still believe that sex should be reserved for marriage,
the small number faithful to God.

The picture of an old stump giving rise to a brand new shoot is a symbol of hope. Just as God was faithful to the old stump, Israel, and caused a new shoot of hope, life and peace to come into this world, likewise God is always faithful to his people today. Through his Son, he has declared just how valuable we are to him. You might say, he loves leftovers. He loves us and will never give up reaching out to us with his forgiveness and promise of life forever.

The new shoot on an old stump is God's way of telling us that new life is always possible. Our lives may be a mess, sin may have taken control, poor health may be dragging our spirits down, grief may turn our lives upside down, but there is always the possibility of new life growing out of the old. Just as God raised up a Saviour from the old stump of Jesse, he also raises up new life in us through his Son who died for us and gave us the hope of new beginnings.

May the truth, that Jesus was born into this messy world to give us freedom and new life, grab each of us as we celebrate this Christmas.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
22nd December, 2002

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Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from Good News Bible: Today's English Version (TEV), revised edition, © American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976, 1992, 1994, inclusive language with Australian usage text, 1994 
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