It is about 700 BC. The magnificent tree called Israel that had sprung from the root of Jesse, father of King David is dying. Civil war has split the tree like a bolt of lightning and the Assyrian invaders have hacked down the larger half, cut it into a thousand pieces and scattered it to the wind like fallen leaves in winter. The remaining piece, called Judah is clinging to a fragile existence around Jerusalem. The once magnificent city is now only a shadow of itself ruled by a wicked king who forsook his kinsmen in Israel and allied himself with Egypt, their former oppressor. In the midst of this time of chaos and despair the voice of the prophet Isaiah is heard. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. “(Isaiah 11:1)
It is a voice of hope in the midst of despair. It is a promise of spring during the freezing snows of winter. God had promised King David that if his heirs would walk before God “in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul” there would always be one of David’s heirs on the throne of Israel.” (I Kings 2:19) But too soon David’s descendants had forgotten the way and as the people suffered they prayed that once again a righteous king would sit on the throne of David. They prayed for peace and justice in the midst of war, injustice, and uncertainty.
It was a long winter. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the people were removed from their home. Some went back to Egypt, where they had been slaves before Moses came to lead them to the Promised Land. Others were carried into Babylon, not far from where a man named Abram heard the voice of God call him to leave his home and seek a new land and a new home. The throne of David was nothing more than a pile of rubble. The magnificent tree called Israel was nothing more than a stump in a barren field.
But the voice of Isaiah has not been forgotten. One of his students picks up the scroll of his master and writes these words of comfort: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid… A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”(Isaiah 40: 1-3a).
But it seems that only silence comes from the wilderness. For a brief moment, there was hope. A remnant had returned to Jerusalem and began to reconstruct the life they once knew, but then came the Greeks, followed by the Romans. A king sat on the throne, but he was no David. He was a puppet of the Roman emperor. Then suddenly, in the wilderness a voice was heard from one who appeared like the prophet Elijah. “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Matt 3:3). People from far and near came to see John the Baptist. Some took to heart his call to repent and be baptized, to be washed clean and begin a new life walking on the path of righteousness. Others, ones who believed themselves to already be righteous, stood by and scoffed at this madman dressed in camel hair and feeding off locust and wild honey. To them, John declared that every tree that did not bear fruit would be cut down and thrown on the fire like so much rubbish. They may have Abraham as their ancestor, but the tree that was once Israel is now nothing more than a stump. But spring is on its way. Already the green stem of a shoot from that very stump has sprung forth, and his name is Jesus.
Many tried to cut down this green shoot, but it refused to die. Instead it grew stronger and its branches reached out further than the first tree that had grown from that root.
Several years have passed. The tree has grown, but there are many that still try to destroy it. A man named Paul sits in a Roman prison because of his belief that this Jesus, this green stem, this shoot from the stump of Jesse, is the promised Messiah. He believes that Jesus is God incarnate, who personally came to restore hope to all people, not just Israel, but also to the Gentiles. Paul is writing to young leaves that have sprung forth on this tree. He reminds them that the stories, songs, and prophesies that have been handed down are not just history, but they were written to give them hope and encouragement and to show them the way. John the Baptist had said that Jesus would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. That fire, that power, that Spirit is now available to all who desire to be filled.
Two thousand years have now past. Isaiah had said that in that day, “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.” It sometimes feels like the wolf is devouring the lamb, leopards and lions stalk our streets and our children stay behind closed doors for fear of the wild animals.
The kingdom of God broke into this world at the time of the birth of Jesus. Death was defeated by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but the kingdom is not complete. This Advent we wait, both for the birth of the Christ child in the manger, and for his reappearance in glory at the end of this age, when the entire world will finally recognize him has king and lord.
The words of John the Baptist still apply to us today. “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.” We hold the keys to the kingdom in our hands. Jesus left them in the hands of the apostles and they have been passed down from generation to generation. The key is forgiveness. It is what the Pharisees lacked. They said their prayers, and performed their rituals. They came from the right family and knew the laws handed down by Moses, but their hearts were as dead branches that bore no fruit. They lacked love and compassion.
It may be cold outside, but spring is coming. It is time to prune the dead branches from our souls, to fertilize and nurture the roots of our faith. There is a green shoot in your hearts. Will you allow Christ to blossom and bear fruit for the kingdom this coming year?