Reflections on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
As I read these scriptures for Advent week 2, I was captivated by the tree imagery. Isaiah has Jesse’s tree trunk with new growth coming out of it, and the gospel reading has John the Baptist warning the Pharisees and Sadducees about trees and fruit, with God wielding an axe! I thought about the story of Jesse’s tree that we read about in Isaiah, and about what this tree has to do with Christmas, Jesus and all kinds of stuff ‘nativity’. To help me understand how Jesse’s tree stands in the background of the nativity story, I thought about a tree that used to be in my own front yard growing up.
The Tree in the Background
When I was growing up we had a tree and this tree featured in just about every family photo. It was a fir tree of some kind. An evergreen. And whenever there was a holiday – thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter – my brother and I had to stand in front of this tree and have our picture taken. And when relatives came to visit, we all went outside to ‘stand in front of the tree’. When one of us won an award at school or in sport, we would take our award outside and stand in front of this tree. This tree was always in the background of our lives – a part of the family almost.
Then the tree got some kind of tree disease and started to die. We had to choose – keep it up another year and risk having the tree fall on the house in the next storm OR chop the tree down. We cut the tree down, leaving a stump about three foot high. And for awhile, even after the tree stump was removed, we still had our picture taken in that spot, as if the tree was still there. Whether seen or not, the tree was a part of our lives. The story of Jesse’s tree is in the back ground of the Nativity stories, just as much as our family tree was.
Over this advent, I am sharing stories of our faith, and we are exploring what these stories say about God and about us as followers of Jesus. Isaiah likes his trees, and first Isaiah uses trees to represent nations. With that in mind, I want to tell you the story of Jesse’s tree trunk.
Jesse’s Tree Trunk
The story of Jesse’s tree trunk doesn’t start with Jesse. It starts with Samuel and God. God wanted another king anointing, so he asks Samuel to do it (1 Samuel 16).
God – “Get your anointing oil. Then go to Bethlehem and speak to Jesse. One of his sons will be the next king.”
So Samuel goes to Bethlehem and finds Jesse.
Samuel meets Jesse’s sons. First Eliab – and with one look at him, Samuel thought, “Yes this must be the future king. He looks the part.”
But God said “No. Don’t just look at his appearance and judge him on his looks. Looks can be deceiving. I judge by looking at a person’s heart, and Eliab’s heart isn’t right.”
“Jesse’s son, Abinadab?”
“Not him either.”
After God rejecting seven sons, Samuel asks Jesse if he has any more sons.
Jesse – “Well, there is one more, my youngest, but he’s out watching the sheep.”
Samuel – “Could you go get him please?”
Jesse sends for his youngest son. Now he was handsome, but young and small.
God – “This lad’s the one, the next king. His heart is right. Although he might make mistakes, he will try and try again, because he loves me and will love the people.”
Jesse’s youngest son was named David.
The King in the Background
It’s difficult to tell the story of Jesse’s tree trunk without telling you a little about King David’s story, because David’s story is a story that the people retold and found encouragement and hope in it. Although life wasn’t always easy for David, God helped him overcome the corrupt monarch Saul, by persevering and David choosing to do things God’s way and not to kill Saul when he had chances to do so. Eventually David becomes king, and people say he united the tribes of Israel and Judah. The people tell of the huge celebrations as David moved the capital to Jerusalem and took God’s ark of the covenant into Jerusalem. They say there was dancing in the streets!
King David wasn’t a perfect King; he made mistakes. However, he acknowledged these mistakes before God – sometimes after a little prophetic encouragement. But the people say David listened to God, and he loved God enough to care if he offended God or not. He tried to love God and love God’s people.
King David’s reign was looked upon as the golden age of Israel. Whether real or not, stories were told of these days – these better days, these ‘good ole days’- when the king was mostly good, when the king had a good heart that tried to follow God.
But King David did not live forever. His son Solomon became king, and although wise, he sometimes was foolish. Although he loved God, Solomon’s heart also loved other things – even things that God did not love.
When trees get diseases…
And after Solomon, there were many kings. Some who loved God, and some who did not. The united kingdom became divided. Then the kingdom was cut down, like a diseased tree is cut down by an axe.
Kingdoms rose up against the kingdom of Jesse’s son. People were hurt. People had to flee like refugees. People were hiding in cities like people have been hiding in Aleppo. People were taken like the trafficked are taken today. The future of the kingdom of Jesse’s son looked bleak, like a tree stump. No life.
But when a prophet named Isaiah looked back at the story of God and His people, Isaiah didn’t see death. He saw the opportunity for new life, a new vision, a fresh start. He saw God dealing with the ‘other trees’, the nations that hurt the kingdom of Jesse (Isaiah 10). He saw a new leader coming – like a new green shoot – a leader whose heart would be for God. And God would be with Him. Just as God hovered over the chaos in the beginning, God would hover over the chaos now, over the mess, and over this new leader. God would give this new leader understanding and wisdom, direction and strength, knowledge and proper reverence of God. Yes, this leader would want God to be God.
“He won’t judge by appearances, won’t decide on the basis of hearsay. He’ll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth’s poor with justice. His words will bring everyone to awed attention. A mere breath from his lips will topple the wicked. Each morning he’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” Message Bible, Isaiah 11:b1-5
How will you recognise this leader, you ask?
When the impossible starts happening (Isaiah 11:6).
When so-called enemies, start living peacefully together.
When they share their food and share their meals together (Isaiah 11:7).
When we all focus more on joy than on war (Isaiah 11:8).
Then you will see the earth remember its true calling, remember why it was created and who created it. “The earth will be full of the knowledge of God” (Isaiah 11:9)
Then, God will gather all the outcasts – the trafficked, the refugees, the desperate – those whom He loves (Isaiah 11:10-12). Then a people with a heart for God will grow again from Jesse’s tree trunk.
We don’t know for certain if John the Baptist or even Jesus were thinking about Jesse’s tee trunk when they spoke of trees. But like Isaiah, Jesus and John used trees in their teaching. They spoke of trees producing good fruit, and if the tree became diseased, then it needed cutting down before it fell and hurt somebody.
The story of Jesse’s tree trunk – of the rise and fall and rebirth of God’s people – would have been in the background, serving as a reminder of what God intended all along – a people who loved Him and had a heart for Him, to follow Him. A people who needed that kind of leader – one who would be righteous and faithful to God’s vision.
John looks at the Pharisees and Sadducees that met him at the river bank that day and finds them lacking the heart qualifications. He warns his fellow Jews that relying on birth right or a status isn’t enough. He tells them that the systems that stop new growth have to go.
So what does this story tell us about God? What does it say about us?
Well, God’s a long-term visionary. God can create possibilities even when all seems hopeless. Even if he has to come down here himself – ‘Immanuel’ – and sort us out, God will find a way to achieve his vision of a people whose hearts are right – who love God and love people.
Although Isaiah, probably didn’t have Jesus in mind, this story tells us a lot about the kind of king Jesus is. The whole king thing didn’t really work for Israel and Judah. This new king (Jesus?) would be different.
And since we in the church are the body of Christ, we have to be different too. As we discovered last week, sometimes we put our faith and our trust into the systems. But as the church, we are a part of the new shoot Isaiah speaks of. We read this scripture at Christmas time, because we believe that Isaiah is talking about our leader Jesus. Part of our calling as Church is to be that prophetic voice crying out– to see what trees/systems have become diseased and are no longer any use, to see what new growth needs help and encouragement to grow.
Give us discernment. Help us to see the trees. To see the things we take for granted as so-called normal. Help us to question their normalcy. Help us to judge the fruit.
This week especially we ask you to point out one thing in particular to us. Fill us with your wisdom and your love for renewal and rebirth. ‘Break our hearts for what breaks yours.’
In Jesus’ name we pray