“Stumped” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden

Good morning!  It is the second Sunday of Advent, and here we are, still waiting, still preparing, still hoping.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could skip right to Christmas, sing all of our favorite carols and go home to open presents and have a big meal?  Of course, if you’re the one wrapping the presents and fixing the food, you might welcome a little bit more time.  Meanwhile, back in worship, we haven’t even managed to make it into the New Testament yet.  We are back again in the book of Isaiah, and this relatively long passage has some wonderful, familiar, and hopeful images.  I am mostly going to focus this sermon on the first part of that reading, Isaiah 11, verses 1-3.

My Sunday School class, New Life Class, began meeting in person again in October after being exclusively on Zoom since spring of 2020.  We are still gathering on Zoom, thanks to Lisa Vardaman, because we enjoying staying connected with folks from out of the area, but it’s good to be doing a book study again.  The book we’re reading is Jesus Called, He Wants His Church Back by Ray Johnston.  The book is a critique of Christians and American Christianity, and frankly, the news isn’t great.  Americans, particularly those between 20 and 30 are leaving the church or never started attending.  More Americans of all ages report being unaffiliated with a church even if they identify as Christian, and more and more identify as “nones,” that is, no religion at all.  I hear from members who attended Elkhart City or other churches in the 1960s and 70s remember other realities — booming Christian Ed programs, youth groups with scores of high school students, packed sanctuaries.  As you can imagine, and have probably experienced yourself, this changing demographic has led to some conversations about who is not at Creekside.  Although these concerns have not been characterized as being all my fault — at least not to my face — these are difficult conversations to be a part of.  I love this congregation, I love the Church of the Brethren and I love the Church.  I want to do everything I can to be a follower of Jesus Christ in all of those settings — in all of my life.  I just wish it would translate into a different outcome.  Plenty of people have ideas and suggestions, but sometimes I’m stumped.

A shot of prophecy and a little church history is helpful.  I almost always agree with the Bible, and when I don’t, I usually get back in line eventually.  Last week’s text from Isaiah chapter two had the introductory phrase, “In days to come . . . such and such will be established.”  Isaiah chapter 11 doesn’t contain that specific phrase, but it is clearly a description of an idealized future: wolves and lambs and leopards and goats lying down together — and all of them getting up in one piece in the morning.  That may be a true statement about the character of the kingdom of God, but it’s also something which hasn’t happened yet.  Fact is, when this passage of Isaiah was written, Israel and its Jewish neighbor Judah were not in great shape.  They had been one kingdom under David, and David’s son Solomon had built the great temple in Jerusalem.  It took a lot of labor and crippling taxation, but my, it was beautiful.  Some of the older folks could still remember how it dominated the center of Jerusalem, and the Temple would be filled with the people who flocked to offer sacrifices there.  It put a burden on the poor who often couldn’t afford the animals for sacrifice, but what a tribute to our priests and people.  Those were the days.

Of course, it’s gone now.  Just a pile of rubble, looted and destroyed by the Babylonians.  First the kingdom of Israel — which is closer to Babylon — and then the southern kingdom of Judah fell and the valuable hand-crafted vessels of the Temple were taken, and hostages were taken, and fields were destroyed and the farmers starved.  This noble kingdom of David, the son of Jesse, seems to have come to a hopeless place.  An entire family tree cut off at the trunk: stumped.  That’s where this vision of Isaiah begins — the stump of Jesse.  That is where Jesus Christ comes from.

Jesus is not only the family of Jesse — descended from David through his earthly father Joseph, Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy from Isaiah.  Jesus is the righteous branch which came out of that stump, the righteous ruler with a spirit of wisdom and understanding, and knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  If we are some of that dwindling number of Americans who claim the identity of Christians, we have staked our ground: our hope is in Jesus Christ.  We may be trying to figure out the way to do church and the way to be church, and how to save the church, but the reason for the church should never be in question.  The reason for the church is Jesus Christ: the branch from the stump of Jesse which Isaiah foretold; the baby born in Bethlehem, the City of David; Emmanuel, God with Us in human flesh.  If we lose our passion for Jesus Christ, all the contemporary music, trendy programming, and savvy social media campaigns in the world will not save us.  If we lose track of Jesus, we have missed the gift and are just fussing with the packaging.

Johnston, the author of the book which New Life is studying, is the pastor of Bayside Church, a congregation of 12,000 in CA.  There are still plenty of unchurched folks in the area.  At a Halloween community event at a local mall, church members set up a table and asked folks if they’d be willing to answer three questions.  Question 1: Are you an active member of a local church?  If the answer was Yes, the interview was over.  If they were not active in a local church, the next questions was, Why not? What about the church is unappealing (this had some tough answers) And the final questions was, What would it take for a church to attract someone like you?  Johnston said the answers to that question boiled down to this: “If you could help my kids and help my family, I might show up.”[1]

The church has been trying to find its way in the world for nearly two thousand years.  Sometimes it has done it well, like the church in Acts chapter 2 which cared for widows and orphans, and attracted new converts daily.  Sometimes the church has lost its way and become an institution of corruption and abuse.  More often, I suspect, the church has gotten so wrapped up in the boxes and bows that we have failed to share the gift. As I said earlier, I love the Church — maybe not everything about it — but church communities have nurtured me and raised me and called me and challenged me.  They have even paid me. Generously. But my hope is not in the church.  My hope is in Jesus Christ, and in people who trust that Jesus Christ can make a difference.  Not even make a difference — Jesus Christ is the difference between a life with hope and purpose and a life where we’re just trying to get by and not doing it very well.  But the church cannot make a difference in people’s lives if the lives of the people in the church are not different because of Jesus Christ. (Let me say that again)

I hope you have had an opportunity to read the “Simple Gifts” Advent devotional — there are still a few copies in the Gathering Area if you haven’t picked one up yet. Perhaps because I was already mulling over the text and message for this sermon, I was caught by Kathy Fuller Guisewite’s reflection for last Monday, November 28.  She talked about people who put candles in their windows during the winter.  She writes, “Perhaps candles in the windows are more than just pretty decorations.  They may be symbols of hope held out to all who wander in the night.”[2] 

We may feel stumped sometimes: disoriented, disheartened, disappointed.  Maybe we aren’t sure what to do next, or even how we got here.  Being stumped can be a fertile place; it is where new life — not just the Sunday School Class, but renewed life — can spring forth.  Stumped is the place which acknowledges that our hope is in Christ and Christ alone.  If we can be candles in the darkness, it will only because we are shining the light of Christ.  Christ is the difference between light and darkness.  He rules the world with truth and grace; Let heaven and nature sing!

[1] Ray Johnston, Jesus Called, He Wants His Church Back. W Publishing Group: Nashville 2015, p 50.

[2] Kathy Fuller Guisewite,  Simple Gifts: Devotions for Advent through Epiphany.  Brethren Press: Elgin IL, 2021.