Scripture reading for today:
And a Branch Shall Grow Out of its Roots
I grew up in a congregation with a deep love of choral music. For many years, I joined the men’s choir to sing at the Christmas Eve Candlelight service because I always looked forward to singing Es ist ein Ros’ entsprugen (Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming) in four-part male harmony. This beautiful text, wrapped in rich harmonies, in the darkness of a candlelit service, always sent shivers down my spine. Capturing the image of Isaiah 11, this hymn points to the hope of new growth out of what appears to be a dead stump: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.”
The hope expressed here springs forth out of the darkness of an unknown future. Israel appears to be no more. Whether trampled on by outside forces or faded away by the lures of flashy idols, the memory of God’s presence (or just the good ole days) is gone. Like a forest that has either been clear-cut or blown over by a plow wind, all that remain are stumps. Yet, it is from these dead stumps that a new king will arise. Born out of deep roots, a saviour will come forth, and life will once again flourish, where “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
This is our Advent hope. And as much as we focus on this image of a shoot coming from the stump of Jesse, we tend to forget or ignore, how that stump got there in the first place.
If we back up just a few verses into Isaiah 10, we discover that Yahweh is dressed in plaid, wielding a large axe, and clear-cutting the forest while singing “I’m a lumberjack, and I’m okay” (okay, I added the plaid and the song…this is being written for Canadian audience, right?). But the uncomfortable fact of the matter is that God is just as involved with the clear-cutting as God is involved in bringing about the new shoot from a dead stump. That God is involved with both the decline and new shoot from the stump of Jesse can be rather disturbing.
As we know, the Christian church in Canada is in decline, and it has been for quite some time. Earlier this year, Bonnie Allen of the CBC wrote an article called From Sacred to Secular, highlighting the fact that Canada could lose up to 9,000 congregations in the coming decade; there are currently 27,000 churches. This decline of Christianity in Canada, along with a growing secular culture, often leads to concern and anxiety over the future of the church. And it’s in these anxious moments that we are tempted to go back and reclaim Canada’s Christendom roots. However, Dr. Elaine Heath, in her book, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach, suggests that the decline of the church in North America, and the movement out of Christendom, is nothing short of God’s own doing. She says the church is entering into a collective “dark night of the soul.” The North American church is entering a season of purgation – a letting-go of unhealthy attachments – so that the church can once again refocus on its call to “love mercy, do kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”
To be clear, experiencing the dark night of the church’s soul is not easy work. As denominational leaders, pastors and church planters in Canada, it is difficult to let go of what has been. Added to that, there is vital pastoral care that needs tending to, particularly with those congregations who are deciding whether to close or not. But by putting this whole season of change back into the hands of God, by considering just for a moment that this decline of the church in Canada is, in fact, God’s work, then maybe we can begin to hold the work we have been called to lightly.
For in this season of Advent, we are reminded that this is ultimately God’s work and not ours. And from this stance of openness, even in the darkness, who knows, God just might cause “a shoot to come out from the stump of the Canadian church, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.”
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