Often, these fences are made of so-called junk wood. Small tree trunks of box elm and locust and cedar, cut to the appropriate length and stuck into the ground. You run a line of barbed wire along the top. After that, you take this twelve or fourteen gauge steel wire fencing that comes in big rolls at the tractor supply store, and you unroll it and nail it to the sides of the fence posts.
Then you leave it for five, ten, maybe twenty years. The fence posts lose their bark, weather down to gray in the sun and ice, so that you can see the swirl of the wood grain; the ridges and valleys of its knobs and curves. They are beautiful.
You drive by, fencepost, fencepost, fencepost, fencepost. But sometimes you come on one that has not weathered, that has instead sprouted roots and is shooting out tiny branches in all directions like a very bad haircut. The leaves shine like polished leather in the spring sunlight. They hang, delicate as feathers in the breeze.
This is who we are. In our Old Testament lesson for today, Isaiah says “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” Jesse was the father of King David. David was not a perfect person. But he exemplified the identity of ancient Isreal, what they stood for. He was like King Arthur is to Great Britain, or George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. is to the United States. None of these people were perfect, but they exemplified the identity of a nation. David represented what the ancient Hebrew people stood for.
David stood for a civilization that based itself on the worship of God. God had called this people out of slavery and into freedom. This was not just the freedom of doing whatever you wanted. This was the deeper freedom of love, of living in respect and peace, based on the Ten Commandments, which were themselves based on the basic principal that we should love our neighbor.
But just like the rest of us, Hebrew civilization had turned away from the worship of God. They had run after money instead. They had looked to money to give them value and meaning in life. If you had more money, you were more important. They had looked to money to keep them safe. They had run after coercive power and the ability to intimidate. They had looked to intimidation to show how important they were. They looked to coercive power to keep themselves safe. They had run after appearances, how pretty you looked under the lights.
Now, money is not bad in and of itself. It is a tool. Coercive power is not bad. It has its place. For example, if a three year old is running toward a busy street, you pick the three year old up, whether the three year old likes it nor not. It has its place. Good appearances have their place. These things all have their place. It’s just that don’t make you a valuable person and they by themselves don’t keep you safe. They are not God.
The ancient Hebrews had taken things that were not God and depended upon them as if they were God. That remind you of anybody? When we take things that are not God and worship them as gods, bad things happen. We get cut off at the base, nothing but a stump left.
There is judgement in this passage. In the Gospel lesson for today, John the Baptist cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He speaks of Jesus, saying “His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor.”
So, when you harvested grain, the kernels of grain would be surrounded by these little husks of chaff, like a corn husk only much smaller. You would lay the wheat out on the threshing floor and hit it with a stick, called a thresher. This would loosen the chaff from the kernel. Then you would take a winnowing fork, a kind of pitchfork, and throw the grain into the air. The kernel, which was heavier, would fall back down to the threshing floor. But the chaff would float off in the air and settle somewhere to the side.
John the Baptist says “he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn. . .”
Judgment. What goes around comes around. Brutality breeds brutality. Derision breeds derision. Laziness breeds laziness. Greed breeds greed. We reap what we sow. “Repent.”
Now, Isaiah says, “You know how sometimes a branch comes out of a tree stump, down towards its base, and how it grows into a new tree? Well, that’s what is happening with Israel.” Isaiah says this branch coming out of the stump is the Messiah, whom we know as Jesus, that he will have “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
Those words sound familiar to you? When we baptize people, we put our hands on their heads and we pray that for the Holy Spirit to come upon them, “The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
At Baptism, we claim for you the same Spirit that filled Jesus. So that while we may not be perfect like Jesus, we can use the gifts we have to manifest God’s power and love in the world. We may not be able to walk on water, but we can fly through the air. We may not be able to heal with a touch, but we can heal with a regularly changed bandage and with properly taken medication. We can be a part of that shoot springing out.
Isaiah presents a preposterous image. “The leopard shall lie down with the baby goat.” “An infant shall play at the hole of a poisonous snake.” “A little child shall lead them.” Imagine this three or four year old leading the bear and the lion and the ox and the wolf and the leopard. Saying “Come on, everyone, this way,” And off they troop together.
Preposterous dream? Certainly if we are relying on money or coercive power or good looks or any of those sorts of things to bring it about. But God?
What are God’s dreams for you? That anxiety which ramps up in the back of your mind, speeding up your heartbeat and tightening your muscles, does God dream that it might ease? Does God dream peace for your mind?
How about that addiction that yammers and hammers on the back of your spine day and night. Gotta have it, Gotta have it. Does God dream that it will quiet, that you might be free?
Does God dream that people will be able to be themselves in your family, and laugh?
Does God dream of a world where everybody has enough to eat? Where species have a ghost of a chance of not going extinct?
There is judgment in repentance, but there is far more than judgement. The word “repent, in Greek, is Metanoia. It means Change of mind. Change of thought-pattern. Change the way you look at the world.
Because God dreams. Repent, change you way of looking at the world, because God has dreams, God is going to make those dreams into reality, and God is going to make you a part of that. Yes, I said you, who have the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
We may not be Jesus. We may not be able to walk on water. But because of Jesus, we can manifest God’s power and love in the world. We may not be able to bring God’s dreams about today, but we can take the next step towards those dreams. We may not be perfect, but we can be an example of what God stands for: Forgiveness and hope and justice and life. That’s the way of thinking God calls us to, the way of seeing life. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.