Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
One of the great symbols of Christmas is the tree. The beauty of the evergreen needles, the smell. It’s lovely, particularly when it is decorated, sparkling with lights, covered in ornaments; and about those ornaments on your tree. Isn’t it true that many of them tell a story of some significance to your family: “First Christmas Together”; “A New House”; a Baby or a cherished pet.
If we listen to the prophet Isaiah, speaking to us in the Old Testament lesson for today we encounter another symbol. Not a Christmas tree—but a stump. In particular, the stump of Jesse.
So---who was Jesse? And why should we care about his less-than spectacular tree? Listen again to what the prophet Isaiah says: “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. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…”
The precise date when this portion of Isaiah was written isn’t certain. It could date from the time of the Assyrian threat (in the 8th century BCE); or from the Babylonians (the 6th century BCE). In any case, the political situation facing the people of Israel is prophesied to be dire. Consider that one of the military tactics of the Assyrians was to mow down the trees in a country they were invading, leaving only stumps in their wake; a tactic which left no place for opposing forces to hide.
What Isaiah is saying in this passage is that Israel, God’s people, will suffer judgement and war. And what will be left in the wake of this war will be destruction and chaos; a desolate landscape filled with the stumps of once living trees. Yet, Isaiah’s prophecy isn’t finished. Though there is judgement and war, there is also hope. It is into this setting, when things appear most bleak that the prophet utters this astounding promise. God will send a king from the line of Jesse; a king who will rule with wisdom, justice and mercy.
However, before we get to this wondrous promise; we have to consider how the people of Israel found themselves in this unhappy predicament. In truth, it’s their own fault. They have not been true to the Word of God. They have strayed from the ways of the Lord, and disaster has ensued.
All which brings us to the question. Who is Jesse? And, why should we care? In truth, there is only one Jesse mentioned in the Bible, and he is the father of King David. It’s from the stump of Jesse—a small, insignificant name in the Bible, from whom comes one of Israel’s greatest Kings, David. But look closer—several books later in the Bible, what we discover is this. There are other people whom we can trace back to that delicate shoot of life springing forth from a dead stump.
The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew gives us a hint as to why that shoot of Jesse is so important to us Christians. Verse one of Chapter one of the Gospel of Matthew begins: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the son of Abraham.” Here we are confronted with a veritable stew of names—some of them familiar to us, others less so—For example, Abijah, the father of Asaph. There are great and wise people, such as Solomon; and others of questionable repute such as Rahab, the harlot. There is also Ruth, a woman of a Gentile line, who is remarkable for her loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi-she makes it in there as well. Finally, Matthew tells us, there is Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Just think of it—Ruth, a gentile and immigrant from a foreign land, is one of the great, great, great grandmother’s of Jesus; and Jesse, he is a many times over great grandfather of our Lord. All of them are part of the royal line of King David.
So, picture again that stump that held just a twig of life in it. From it came forth the smallest of shoots, yet that shoot would bring forth a righteous rule in Israel and for ourselves; and hold within itself the salvation of the world. That stump of Jesse, by the way, is the image from which comes our popular term “family tree”
Now, I know that for some of you all this talk about genealogies and family trees is about as interesting as viewing someone else’s vacation photos—you may be thinking, “All well and good, but what has this to do with me?” But consider this. That shoot from the stump of Jesse is, from the perspective of Christians, all about Jesus. And who else are members of the family of God? That’s right—all baptized Christians. In other words, the Jesse tree—well, it’s your family tree as well. Somewhere, if someone is keeping a detailed account of the tree of Jesse, there’s a twig or bud that has your name on it.
In other words, when St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, quotes Isaiah saying “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”, he’s speaking to all of us here. He’s reminding us that our hope is in that redeemer that comes from the royal line of David. He’s reminding us that there is a place for each one of us on that tree.
There is an ancient tradition of the Jesse Tree that dates from the Middle Ages. The first Jesse trees were large carvings, tapestries or even stained glass windows placed in churches that assisted people who couldn’t read or write. These trees enabled them to learn about the Bible from creation to the Christmas Story. Today Jesse Trees are used in many churches and homes as a kind of Advent Calendar, each day of Advent a special decoration or ornament would be hung on the tree reminding us of the stories of the Bible.
Perhaps you, like myself, don’t have a Jesse Tree. However, if you have a Christmas Tree, and participate in the tradition of hanging ornaments that hold memories of many years past, you can consider, as you decorate, that you—are part of an ancient line—a family which traces its roots back to Abraham, our father of faith. I close today with words from St. Paul in his letter to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” In the promised hope of the Messiah who comes to reign over all. Amen.