Year A, Advent 2, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD…
…(W)ith righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth… (Isaiah 11:1-2, 4a, 5-6)
…Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall lie down 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.
The beautiful words of Isaiah are haunting and mysterious and thrilling. They are the words of one who looks toward a consummation which has yet to be accomplished, but which is most certainly to come.
When Isaiah says â€œA shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,â€ he is pointing back at the line of the ancient kings of Israel, and to a very troubling truth. For Jesse was the father of King David. And over and over, David was promised by the prophet Nathan that if he and his sons were faithful to God, and were righteous and true in all their dealings, the line of David would never end–that there would always be a descendant of David on the throne of Israel.Â
And yet, even by the time Isaiah wrote–perhaps three hundred years after King David–the royal line that descended from Jesseâ€™s son David had ended. No descendent of David ever again ruled as King in Israel. The dynasty had ended–cut down like a great oak.
Last spring, a family on my block began to do a massive extension of their row house. When they are done, the house will be more than twice as large as it was. But since this is on a city block, and all they had to work with to make the addition was a car port and a little apron of land, they had to use every square inch of the sidewalks so the workers would have room to move in. So they had to cut down the locust tree that had stood on the sidewalk out front for almost 30 years. They cut it down to a stump about three feet high. We were all heartsick, because when you live in the city, you value every tree. Where once there had been a flourishing, beautiful tree, which had arched to touch the tree across the street from it, and help make of that block a lovely little arcade, there was simply a sad looking stump in the midst of a tangle of construction equipment.
Time went by. And then a very surprising thing happened. After all, that dead-looking stump still had its roots. And those roots lived, deep under the sidewalk, invisible to all who went by, still mourning the lost tree.
In fact, I had almost stopped thinking about the tree, since what with the fencing and scaffolding and the porta-potty and the piles of bricks and blocks you could hardly see anything on that corner anyway. And then one day I happened to look over and realized that those deep-running roots had drawn new life out of the earth and revived the stump. It was absolutely crowned with green shoots. Dozens of them. And that there was a great cloud of green leaves gracing the top of that poor desolate stub of a tree.
It was beautiful, and all summer, as the workmen worked, it hung on, a living fountain of green shoots and leaves.
It is an image such as this that inspired the prophet Isaiah–the miracle of a dead-seeming stump sending forth green shoots. In the time and place into which Jesus was born, Isaiah had been dead for almost 700 years, and one conqueror after another had taken and ruled the Holy Land–Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans. The ideal king prophesied by Isaiah was longed for, looked for–but had not yet come. And that is what â€œAdventâ€ means– â€œcoming.â€ Coming, expected, awaited–but not yet here. The stump looks dead–but the roots are alive, and the green shoots WILL come. That is the promise, and the expectation.
In the New Testament both Matthew and Luke offer a genealogy of Jesus. In Chapter 3 of his Gospel Luke describes the “generations of Christ”, beginning with Jesus and tracing backwards from his “earthly father” Joseph all the way to Adam. En route, two named ancestors are King David and Jesse. In chapter one, verse one, Matthew’s Gospel begins: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Matthew makes it clear from the start: this Jesus is one of God’s chosen people, the Jews, by his descent from Abraham, and he is the “shoot of Jesse” by his descent from Jesse’s son David. This is also why the birth of Jesus takes place in Bethlehem, for Jesse, David father, was known as Jesse the Bethlehemite.
Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise God made to David.Â The line of earthly Davidic kings may have died out, but Jesus was never going to be that kind of king anyway. But he reigns in the kingdom of God. A descendant of the House of David sits on an eternal throne, never to be overthrown or deposed.
All over Europe, many medieval churches and cathedrals have paintings and stained glass windows of Jesse Trees. It was clearly of powerful importance to them.
The typical window shows Jesse, lying down or sleeping. From his belly there springs the trunk of a tree which ascends, branching to either side. On each branch are figures representing Christâ€™s ancestors with Christ at the top. The number of figuresÂ may vary. But Â if the Luke’s whole genealogyÂ is used, there will be 43 figures from Jesse to Jesus.
This prophecy of Isaiah was the only one in the Old Testament to be so universally illustrated. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps it is in part because in the Middle Ages the church was making great efforts to control the vicious and brutal warlords who served as kings and nobles, to make them something more than nominal Christians. This effort led to the institution of chivalry. And in this effort, which lasted some two centuries, and transformed the ruling classes, at least to some degree, the vision of Isaiah of the just and righteous ruler could not help but be inspirational.
For the kingdom of Jesus is to be a kingdom of justice and peace, where there are no more enemies, no more hatred or bloodshed or vengeance.
This is the expectation.
And so it is still. For the promise of Isaiah has been fulfilled in part, but not yet in full. Just as the weary world waited for a deliverer in Jesus’s day, we still wait–we still look forward with longing and hope to a renewed heaven and earth, where:
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of theÂ LORD
as the waters shall cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)
Isaiah sums up this expectation with another reference to Jesse when he states:Â
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.Â Â (Isaiah 11:10)
Advent bids us to look back to the coming of the Messiah–and forward to the day when Christ will come again in glory to bring a final fulfillment of all the prophecies and all the promises throughout all the ages.