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For personal regrowth, take better aim

Back in July, there was a bad storm, and two trees were blown over in our yard. One of them is an invasive species called Tree of Heaven. It originally comes from China, and takes over an area quite quickly. If you cut one down, new trees will sprout up from the roots, kind of like a mulberry.

In Isaiah 11:1, we are told that a shoot will sprout up from the stump of Jesse. Jesse was the father of King David. When the prophet wrote this passage, Israel was soon to be conquered by the Empire of Assyria, and the Israelites knew it. They were wondering what had happened to their being God’s chosen people. When something big and bad happens, we often wonder why. We often wonder what the future will bring.

In this prophecy, Isaiah talks about Jesse just being a stump: The royal line descended from David had been reduced to just a stump. The monarchy had been cut down. Usually when a tree is cut down, it dies. There are some ways to avoid this, and, like I said above, with some trees, this may not be the case, but usually the tree dies. The Israelites knew this, and they saw the end of their nation in the near future. The Israelites had not trusted God; instead they put their trust in themselves, and tried to make their nation great. Instead of putting their faith in God, they put it in their nation. This has been a constant refrain through history: Worshipping one’s nation, or its symbols instead of worshipping God.

God looks at our efforts to displace him, to replace him with a modern idol, and laughs at our efforts. Then to try to teach us, God sends troubles or even invaders to teach us that all of our efforts to replace God will fail. God tries, over and over to show us that only God is eternal. Some things may last for a very long time. For instance, Iceland has been a democracy for more than a thousand years, but like all nations, some day it will disappear.

As I said above, Isaiah said that a new shoot would come from the stump of Jesse. This new shoot is Jesus. Jesus is the promise of new life, in spite of the approaching demise that the Israelites saw. Jesus is the new life, in the face of all the aspects of death that are present. Jesus is the yes, when all of the no’s are thrown at us from the world.

When the church says that Jesus is Lord, it makes a primary political claim: It means that we give our highest loyalty to God, not to any earthly entity. It means that all of our choices in this life become subject to, and subordinate to the values that God has attempted to teach us. This does not mean that these choices are always easy, but it does mean that we have a standard by which to measure our choices.

In this season of Advent, as we approach the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we are given a chance to re-evaluate our choices based on Jesus as Lord of our lives. Our choices will never be perfect: We do not reach perfection in this life; that is why we have forgiveness. But just because we can never make a bullseye in this life does not give us an excuse to not aim at the target. That is what this season is for: Taking a better aim at the target.

(Van Dam is the pastor of St. Thomas Episcopal Church.)

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