Dr. Steve Lennox, Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Religion at Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion IN
A key Scriptural text for church renewal is Isaiah 11:1-9. It reads:
1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD – 3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. 6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isa 11:1-9 NIV)
When the prophet Isaiah spoke these words, the nation of Judah was experiencing serious challenges with worse problems just around the corner. Although meant to be a light to the nations, disobedience had all but extinguished Israel’s lamp. As one commentator put it, instead of a verdant oasis, they had become a field of stumps.
What good is a stump? Stumps are useless, unsightly, and unwelcome, a nuisance to anyone mowing a lawn. Even worse, stumps represent the absence of what had once brought shade and shelter and blessing. A stump is a painful reminder of what had once been and will likely never be again except for a miracle.
Isaiah’s reference to the stump of Jesse was a painful reminder to Judah of the crumbling house of King David. Only eight of his descendents had even approximated David’s loyalty to Yahweh; the rest had “done evil in the eyes of the Lord” with disastrous consequences for the nation. Yet Isaiah’s words also brought hope: there was still life in the stump. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” With this hopeful imagery, Isaiah was predicting Judah’s restoration to its role as God’s light to the nations, a restoration that took place in 538 BC. Isaiah was also anticipating the coming of the Messiah. As Christians, we confess that the Messiah has come in the person of Jesus, Son of David. The stump has sprouted and in the centuries that followed the sprout has become a flourishing tree.
At times the church can seem like a dead stump, embarrassingly impotent, a sad shell of what had once been vibrant and nurturing. Ours is a God who makes dead stumps sprout. God can bring life where God chooses. Judah was brought back from the death of exile. The Messiah was brought back from physical death. God can bring life to God’s church through the Spirit of Christ.
This passage even describes what the renewed church will be like. The renewed church will embody Christ’s character, including a concern for justice, righteousness, and the weak. The church renewed by the Spirit of Christ will be a community of peace and safety where sin’s alienating power decreases as God’s grace abounds. As God accomplishes this miracle of renewal, more and more will come to know of God’s life-giving power, “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9). God has made dead stumps sprout in the past; God can do so again.
This site is a resource for church renewal offered by United Theological Seminary.