The Jesse Tree

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Isaiah 11:1-9

We begin with a passage from the eleventh chapter of the book of Isaiah, where the prophet foretells of the return to power of the royal house of David, at a time and in a way that no one expected. Today’s program: “The Jesse Tree.”

Where in the Bible would you go to look for the Christmas story? To the Gospels, of course, specifically, to the first two chapters of Luke and Matthew. There we find the familiar stories: the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, the wisemen journeying from the east, led by a shining star.

But these chapters in the Gospels are not the only places in the Bible that talk about the birth of Jesus, about the coming of the Messiah into the world. In fact, the Old Testament is full of predictions about the Promised One, prophecies that conform in the most striking way with the events of Jesus’ life. These prophecies are the focus of this series of programs I’m calling “Christmas in the Old Testament.”

The Promise of a King

Of all the promises God made to the people of Israel, none was more important to them than the promise of a coming king, born of David’s line, who would rule with justice and in peace. This promise was first hinted at way back in the book of Genesis, in a prophecy uttered by the patriarch Jacob shortly before he died:

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.

Genesis 49:10, NIV

The promise was later confirmed by a strange character who appears in the book of Numbers, a man called Balaam, who was hired to pronounce a curse upon Israel. Instead, God’s Spirit inspired Balaam to bless the people of Israel, and to offer this hauntingly beautiful prophecy:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near –
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel . . .

Numbers 24:17, NRSV

Finally, God made those prophecies specific by relating them to one particular descendant of Jacob, from the tribe of Judah, namely, David. And to David God promised a never-failing line and perpetual rule.

The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you . . . Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.

2 Samuel 7:11,16, NIV

But the zenith of Israel’s glory under David and his son Solomon faded quickly. Within a generation their kingdom was split in two, with David’s descendants inheriting Judah, the smaller, weaker part. One by one the vassal states among Israel’s neighbors broke free, and the mighty empire that David had conquered and Solomon had ruled dwindled away. Bit by bit the Temple store houses that Solomon’s treasure fleet had filled with gold were emptied, as one foreign power after another had to be bought off. By the time of the prophet Isaiah, the northern kingdom of Israel had disappeared, swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire. All that was left of Judah was the city of Jerusalem and a few bits of surrounding territory. Gone were the armies – it was at this time that an invading enemy general taunted King Hezekiah of Judah by offering him 2,000 horses if he could find the men to put on them – gone was the wealth, gone was the glory. And what of the promises of God? Were they gone too?

The Shoot from Jesse’s Stump

No, they were not. Just then at that moment God spoke again through his prophet Isaiah, and this is what he promised.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. . . .
with righteousness he shall judge the poor. . . .

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11:1-9

A shoot would come forth again from the stump of Jesse. That’s the promise. It’s a promise that when things looked their bleakest, the house of David (the son of Jesse), would once again revive. God’s guarantee was that a new ruler would rise who would succeed David.

This would be no ordinary king. For the Spirit of the Lord would rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might. Unlike the world’s powerful – a class of individuals not particularly distinguished for either godliness or virtue – this King, this shoot from Jesse’s stump – would delight to fear the Lord, and righteousness and faithfulness would be his garments. Unlike ordinary politicians, who talk about helping the poor while leading millionaire lifestyles, the shoot of Jesse would bless the poor with justice. And the result would be unimaginable: enemies reconciled, injuries healed, dangers removed, and the earth as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

The wonderful Hebrew word that most fully describes this blessed promised state is shalom, “peace.” But where is this promised shalom? Where is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of God’s promise? In case you haven’t noticed, wolves do not yet dwell with lambs in our world; they eat them. So does that mean God’s promise has failed? That his king isn’t coming? No, it means we look for him all the more.

The truth is, despite all the political promises, despite all the government programs, despite all the sincere efforts of all decent, well-intentioned people everywhere, the human race is never going to achieve peace by itself, through its own unaided efforts. It is beyond the capacity of human nature to make the world a place of universal blessing. Only the rightful King can establish righteousness and justice in the earth, and then only when he personally returns.

But the good news is this: He will return. We do not know when, but we do know who. His name is Jesus Christ. He came once to atone for sin and to reconcile people to God and to each other. He will come again to complete the salvation of the whole world. Christ’s glorious reign in the new creation will usher in the kingdom of God in all its fullness, and then shalom will come and it will fill the universe.

This past year I visited Chartres Cathedral in France, one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. It is justly celebrated for its magnificent medieval stained glass windows. One of the most striking is a window called “The Jesse Tree.” This window is set in the cathedral’s western wall, and when the afternoon sun shines through it the ethereal blue of its glass dazzles the eye. But even more arresting is the story the window tells in picture form. “The Jesse Tree” is a rectangle that rises vertically. At the bottom, old Jesse lies asleep, but from his side a tree springs up, its branches seeming to push upward through each succeeding generation. The lower limbs boast of kings and conquerors, but at the top of the tree, ruling in glory, seated upon his throne, is the Lord Jesus. The Jesse Tree window tells in pictures the promises that Isaiah 11 gives us in words, all of which will grow to fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, we watch, and wait, and prepare for his coming, by witnessing to him, and by working towards the shalom he will bring.