Sermon for December 8th, 2019
The prophet Isaiah declared that “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Paul also quotes Isaiah when he says “the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the gentiles; in him the gentiles shall hope.”
Well you will be forgiven if you are sitting here listening to the readings and wondering: who was Jesse and what does he have to do with a tree stump?
Jesse isn’t necessarily a biblical character that I would expect you to know much about. There isn’t a lot written about him.
You know it must say something about the power of association, but when I hear the name Jesse, I think of Uncle Jesse from the Dukes of Hazzard. I grew up watching that show, and in that show the old, wise and loveable patriarch of the family is named uncle Jesse. So when I hear Jesse, my mind thinks old, wise patriarch, Uncle Jesse. Well, you know that isn’t too far off from what people in biblical times would have thought of when they heard the name Jesse. He was a sort of patriarchal figure.
Jesse was the father of King David. He is the grandson of Ruth, from the Book of Ruth and he is the father of David. His role in scripture is extremely minor. His grandmother gets a whole book, Jesse gets just a few lines. But because Jesse’s son would go on to become Israel’s greatest king, his name would be forever associated with the monarchy. Just like Abraham would be the father of the Hebrews, Jesse would be the father of the monarchy. So when people in biblical times heard the name Jesse they would have thought old, wise patriarch. They would have thought founder of our monarchy. They would have thought of King David. He was the one that the Kings all traced their lineage to.
So the name Jesse meant something to the people in Jerusalem that Isaiah was addressing. And Isaiah had just got done telling the people that there are bad times just around the corner. Isaiah said to his people: look, you have fallen so far away from the ways of God, that there is a reckoning coming. Isaiah said to Ahaz, the then king of Judah, he said you, who think you are high and mighty, you are going to be cut down. The Assyrians and going to invade your kingdom, just like they invaded the northern kingdom and they are going to burn it all down to the ground. And then the Babylonians are going to attach the Assyrians and there will be war and destruction and exile. This is what happens when we put our trust in faithless rulers. This is what happens when we let corruption go unchecked. This is what happens when we turn away from God and pay no attention to his commandments. We have not put our faith and our hope in God, Isaiah says, and the result of that is the painful times that are ahead. Our glorious kingdom will be brought low and our mighty king, the descendant of the great king David, he will be brought low with it. He will be cut down. Felled like a mighty tree.
But, Isaiah says, that is not the end of the story. Because God, well God is going to bring new life out of that tree stump. The mighty tree may be cut down, but there is a new shoot that is going to come out of that root. That root of Jesse, the monarchy that has been cut down, well Isaiah says that there is a new king coming, and this new king is going to lead us back to God.
Our kings have led us astray. Our kings have divided us. After David’s son Solomon died, the kingdom split in two. Corruption and division and division and corruption. Our kings have not united us; have not protected us, and have not led us to righteousness. Our kings have led us away from God. Even mighty and glorious king David, was a sinful man. Our kings have led us astray, but Isaiah says, there is a new king coming.
This King will be like new life coming out of that dead stump. He will be a descendant of Jesse, from the line of King David, but this King won’t look like the kings we have had recently, Isaiah says. No, this king will have a spirit of wisdom and understanding. This king will delight in being obedient to God. This king will not judge by appearances or what is on the surface. This king will judge with righteousness. This king will be faithful and righteous.
And this king will bring enemies together. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, a nursing child and a poisonous snake. In this king’s kingdom, enemies will come together. This king will be a symbol that will bring people together.
Isaiah says that there are hard times coming, because we have faithless leaders, and we have turned away from God, but he says, we have hope because there is also a new king coming. There is a king coming that will unite us, that will judge us righteously, and that will lead us back to God. There is a new shoot that is going to grow out of that dead stump of Jesse.
There is a new king coming. There is a new anointed one (one of the symbols of kingship is being anointed. King David was anointed by the prophet Samuel). There is a new anointed one coming. In Hebrew anointed one is translated as meshiach, messiah. In Greek that word is Christos, Christ.
In the days of John the Baptist, people were still looking for that coming King, the messiah that would unite them and lead them back to faithfully following God. As he stood in the Jordan river, telling people to repent and return to following God, John noticed both Pharisees and Sadducees coming out together to be baptized. Well Pharisees and Sadducees might both be groups of Jews they might have common ancestry, but they don’t get along. They don’t like each other. And yet, something is drawing them together. It isn’t their past that is drawing them together. It is their future. It is the coming king. It is the approaching messiah that is bringing them together despite their differences.
Like Isaiah, John is preaching and warning of a coming judgement, but he is also offering the hope of a coming king that will judge with righteousness. That isn’t condemnation, that is hope. This new king will do what other kings couldn’t. He will unite people and bring enemies together. The new king will bring together people that have no other reason to get along, that otherwise would never like each other or associate with each other. And here in the middle of the Jordan river John is watching enemies come together to prepare for their new king. Maybe they don’t agree on much, but they do agree that they want to be a part of his kingdom. That’s something. And that desire to be a part of his kingdom is more powerful than you might imagine.
I want you to take a minute and look around this church. Look at the people that are gathered here. Think about all the members of this church. Some of these people are your friends. But some of them are not. Admit it, there are people in this church that you don’t like. There are people in this church that if we didn’t come together once a week for worship, you probably would never cross paths with. There’s no shame in admitting that, because some of us have nothing in common. We don’t all share a common ancestry or history. We don’t all share the same likes and dislikes. Think about the makeup of this church for a minute. There are some people that were raised Episcopalian, but even more that were raised something else. There are people here whose ancestors were slaves; there are people here whose ancestors were slave owners. There are people here that were born in the Unites States; there are people here that were born in other countries. There are married people. There are single people. There are straight people. There are gay people. There are people with children. There are people without children. White, black, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, there are people that I know live very comfortably and there are people that I know are really struggling to make ends meet. Now if this church didn’t exist, there are some of us that might still be friends and hang out on the weekends, but there are some of us that would never cross paths with each other. And yet, each and every week here we are, gathered together, because there is one thing we do agree upon. There is one thing we have in common.
We want to be a part of his kingdom. We want this new branch from the root of Jesse to be our king, our leader. If we are going to be judged, we want to be judged by him. If we are going to be led, we want to be led by him. We may not agree on anything else, but we agree that Jesus is the way. We agree that he is the future. And that means more than anything else that may divide us.
You know, people like to make a big deal about the divisions that exist within the church. People like to point out all the splits and schisms in the church in history and they like to point out that even within our own denominations, sometimes within our own parishes it doesn’t seem like people like each other that much. If you read the scriptures you will see that there has been division among Jesus’s followers from the very beginning. But if you are focusing on the squabbles and divisions among Jesus’s followers then you might be missing the miracle that is right in front of your face. These fractious, squabbling, disagreeable people are all following the same man. That is the power of Jesus, is that he is bringing together people that otherwise would have nothing to do with each other.
The church didn’t invent disagreement and division. That is a part of humanity. That is the world. The miracle of the church is that all these people that never had any reason to agree, to like each other, or to even inhabit the same space, now have something vital in common: Jesus. They may not share a common ancestry, but they have a common future. That is a miracle and it is a miracle that happens here every single week and we may never notice it. There are people here that you would have never met or encountered were it not for one thing. Him. Jesus. He draws together this rag-tag group of followers, people that outside those doors would be natural enemies, would have nothing to do with one another, and yet in here we are side by side, under the same roof, learning to get alone, and I dare say along the way, learning to actually love each other. The fact that Jesus’s followers are disagreeable and don’t always get along, well that is a testimony to his power.
When you look at all of the different people that look to Jesus as their messiah; that see him as the way to God; all the divided people that are somehow united by the water of baptism; all those people that seek to follow him side by side with people they have nothing in common with, no matter how imperfectly they do it, then you realize that maybe John was right. Maybe God could even turn stones into children of Abraham.