As you can see, this is a tree stump with a little green plant
growing up from it. This is basically what is described in verse
1 of Isaiah 11: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of
Jesse.” Anybody that knows anything about Jewish genealogy
-- and this would be any Jew who is hearing or reading the prophet
Isaiah, because history and family are vital to Jewish identity
-- any of these folks would know that the stump of Jesse is not
a species of tree, it’s a metaphor for a family tree. This
is the tree of the family of Jesse. Jesse, as you may remember or
can read about in 1 Samuel chapter 16 was a faithful Jew who lived
in Bethlehem, and was blessed with 8 strapping, handsome sons. The
prophet Samuel met Eliab, Abinadab, Shammah and four other before
they finally sent for the youngest: a shepherd boy with beautiful
eyes and a name which I can actually pronounce: David. David was
the second and most famous king of Israel. If you are someone, or
you know someone named David, your name almost certainly goes back
to this proud and historic family tree of Jesse of Bethlehem. Same
goes for anyone you know named Abinadab and Shammah.
David’s reign began 1000 years before the birth of Christ.
Isaiah is writing about three hundred years later: well after David
and his son, Solomon ruled a united Israel, and then the country
divided into the north and south kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and
was ruled by a series of kings -- mostly bad ones. The countries
which David united and ruled are, by the time of Isaiah, separate
and in shambles, economically and spiritually. They are on the verge
of destruction by their more powerful political neighbors. What
was once a robust and flourishing tree has been reduced to a stump.
We had a tree cut in our yard cut down last month. This was a big,
healthy hickory tree, probably 50 or 60 feet tall. I don’t
know how old this tree was, but it was mature when we moved to our
house more than 20 years ago. I’d guess that it was at least
50 years old. We hired a tree guy to take it down. How long do you
think it took one man with a chain saw to cut it down? An hour?
Two hours? Less than 10 minutes. In about the time it takes me to
say “Rrrrrr Rrrrr” that big tree was on the ground.
It was impressive and a bit sad that it went so quickly. Any fool
with a chainsaw can cut down a tree. If they’re really foolish
they might hurt or kill themselves in the process, but the tree
will still be dead. What takes years and decades and generations
to grow can be destroyed pretty quickly. And once a tree is cut
off from its roots, you can’t re-plant it: all you can do
is use it for lumber, or burn it for firewood.
We know that Isaiah was working this tree theme and comparing it
to nations and governments because of what comes immediately before
our text today. Listen to Isaiah 10:53 and 54: “Look, the
Sovereign, the Lord of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying
power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be
brought low, he will hack down the thickets of the forest with an
ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.” And then
we get this verse about a shoot coming out from the stump of Jesse,
and we know Isiah is still using a metaphor, because the next verse
says ,”the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.”
Wait, the shoot coming out of the stump is he? Yes, actually it
is a person. This passage from Isaiah isn’t about trees --
or even about lions or lambs or leopards -- this passage is about
government and power. It’s about knowledge and righteousness.
We might like to pretend that there is no overlap between politics
and religion: in the United States our founding fathers went to
some trouble to try to keep these separated, but this is not the
case in many nations in the world, and it was certainly not the
case for the Jews of the Old Testament. The Bible is a record of
kings and nations, of human power and corruption, and divine power
and perfection. The Messiah that the Jews were longing and praying
for is literally “The Anointed One,” the king anointed
by God who would come to bring new life and hope to their stump
of a nation: severed from its root and bound for the fire.
In chapter 11 beginning in verse 2, Isaiah is describing what this
king and his kingdom will be like. I won’t read it all again
since Jean did it so well, but it’s a beautiful word picture:
a ruler on whom rests the spirit of the Lord, who is righteous and
just, who carries faithfulness around his body the way you’d
wrap up in a coat. And his kingdom -- o my! Artists have had a field
day portraying this kingdom where animals who usually hunt and kill
each other eat grass and hay together and snuggle up afterward to
sleep. They do not hurt or destroy and the whole earth is full of
the knowledge of the Lord. Such a beautiful image.
It’s probably worth noting here that no kingdom like this
has ever existed. Animals don’t behave like that -- lions
eating straw, the leopard lying down with the goat and both of them
still being there in the morning -- not gonna happen. Human don’t
generally behave like this, either. Power corrupts; politicians
are all a bunch of crooks. Who is the ruler of this menagerie, anyway?
It’s either the perfect king or a little child -- Isaiah uses
both. Someone who is knowledgeable, righteous, and completely innocent.
There has never been an earthly ruler like this. Not King David,
not Fidel Castro, and not anyone named Clinton, Bush, Obama, or
Trump. So why is Isaiah messing with us by talking about something
that will never happen?
Call it the Prophet’s Prerogative, or you can borrow a phrase
from biblical commentators and call it The Prophetic Imagination.
Either way, it reminds us that the role of prophecy is not merely
to tell people off and make them repent; one of the roles of a prophet
is to hold a vision for the people. That vision includes what the
future could look like. Sometimes it is a vision of punishment and
destruction; sometimes it is a future full of knowledge and righteousness;
and often, how the people choose to act determines what future they’re
going to get.
As we think about faithfulness this morning, I want to focus on
a particular group of people. Although people of any age can be
faithful, faithfulness implies a certain longevity and maturity;
faithfulness means a commitment to behavior that is repeated again
and again over time. If I want to lose weight and I have stuck to
my diet for the past three hours, that’s not a bad thing,
but it doesn’t qualify as a faithful life choice, either.
Faithfulness can take many forms: relationships, learning, vocation,
stewardship. Faithfulness is fifty years of marriage; faithfulness
is students who have committed to be apart from their home and families
in order to learn more about Christian ministry; faithfulness is
a widow who puts something in the offering plate every week -- no
matter how much or how little it is -- because that was always part
of what her family has done; faithfulness is following a 12-step
program and mentoring others in addiction recovery. I could give
many more examples: I’m sure you can think of your own. If
you do, you will probably think of people who are or have been members
of this family of faith. Their actions are not always front and
center -- faithfulness isn’t usually flashy -- but they are
people we count on for their judgement and leadership and commitment.
People whom we trust with our finances, people who get up early
on Sunday mornings to make food or start coffee, or rehearse music
or teach Sunday School. These are people I hope you remember and
thank as we consider faithfulness. None of these people are perfect:
human faithfulness never is. What we remember and celebrate is the
way that faithful people remind us of God, who is always faithful.
The only way which humans can remain faithful to the commitments
that we have as employees, volunteers, students, parents, children
and disciplesis through the faithfulness of God, who will never
leave us, and who always works for our good. Our faithfulness should
always point beyond ourselves to the grace and goodness of God,
because God is the source of all faithfulness.
I’d like to close by going back to Isaiah 11, and those wonderful
characteristics of the ideal king: blessed with God’s spirit,
knowledge, truth and righteousness. I said earlier that there has
never been an earthly ruler like this; but in Advent, along with
the prophet Isaiah, we wait for and long for Christ, the Messiah,
the Anointed One; the king of kings and lord of lords. If we want
to live in a kingdom like that, we need to do more than simply wait.
God knows that the earth is not yet full of the knowledge of the
Lord. We as leaders and followers of Christ the King need to live
our lives as a reflection of God’s faithfulness: we are called
to grow from the roots of Jesse and the branches of Jesus Christ.
We are called to let the spirit of the Lord rest upon us, so that
we can bear the fruit of justice and peace. We won’t always
get it right. But if we truly long for Christ’s kingdom to
come, we need to live in the hope that imagining the world which
God wants is the first step in making our longing a reality. We
can’t be faithful to this vision with just our own strength,
but we can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us.
May the knowledge and righteousness of God be with us as we live
as faithful followers of Christ Jesus. O come, Faithful Sovereign.