Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word of God that engages us tonight comes from the prophet Isaiah: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa. 11:1, ESV). Amen.
When I was a child, one of my favorite children’s books was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Do you know the story? It’s about the relationship between an apple tree and a boy who keeps using the tree for different purposes over the years. When he’s a boy, he climbs the tree, swings from her branches, and eats her apples. When he’s a teenager short on cash, he sells the apples to earn some bucks. When he gets married and wants to build a house, he trims her branches to fashion into planks. And so on and so forth…
The tree keeps getting used and used and used until finally, she’s entirely used up. All that remains is a stump. The tree wallows in her loneliness until one day the boy returns as an old man. At first the tree is sad that she has nothing left to give, but then rejoices when she discovers that what the old man needs more than anything is “a quiet place to sit and rest.” And the tree stump is perfect for that! The story ends with the words, “And the tree was happy.”
But the stump of Jesse in Isaiah 11 was not a happy, little tree. The stump of Jesse was used up and spent, and the Lord was fed up with the unfaithfulness, idolatry, injustice, and wickedness of the house of David. For all of his personal faults, King David was still a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). But with nearly all of the kings after him, including King Solomon, the apple fell very fall from the tree!
The kings of Israel and Judah failed in their calling to lead God’s people. They worshiped idols and committed adultery. Their hands were stained with blood and their pockets lined with bribes. They did little or nothing to help the plight of the poor, widows, and orphans. Only two shiny apples stand out: Hezekiah and Josiah. The rest of the royal family tree was rotten to the core, and so it had to be trimmed down to size by Assyria and chopped down by Babylon.
The stump of Jesse was most certainly not a giving tree! It was more like a tree that David Peter writes about:
On the grounds of a Midwestern church stood a huge linden tree. It appeared so stately and strong and tall. But one summer a ferocious windstorm hit. The tree came crashing down, revealing that it had become rotten and decayed on the inside. Then a couple of trustees from the church took a chainsaw to it, so that all that remained was a two-inch-high stump.
In our Old Testament lesson, David’s royal family is described as a stump. No fruit, no leaves, no branches, no life. The royal family—indeed, the entire nation—was rotten and as good as dead, spiritually and politically. And so it had to be cut down.
Do you ever feel like a tree stump? At times I do. Our faith does not always produce the fruit of good works that God is looking for. Sometimes our hope is blighted. Our strength withers and dries up from sickness and disease. And our hearts are full of the rot and ruin of sin. So there is nothing better for us than to be cut down and cast into the fire, as John the Baptist so eloquently put it in his preaching: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:10).
But the stump of Jesse is not the end of the story. It’s not the end of our story either. Remember that linden tree that the church trustees had to cut down? Dr. Peter tells us more:
[T]he next spring there appeared evidence that the tree had not completely died. A small shoot had sprung up from the stump. That shoot represented new life, new hope, a new start, and a new opportunity for the fallen tree.
From the death and decay of the old, rotten stump comes forth new life! A little sapling grows right in the middle of it all. There’s new life and new hope!
That’s Isaiah’s message tonight: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa. 11:1). Just like that little sapling, so also new life would grow from the stump of Jesse—King David’s family tree. That new shoot was a prophecy of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Child of Promise. He would bring new life—eternal life—back to God’s people and restore the throne of David. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the King of kings, and Lord of lords. He is both David’s son and David’s Lord.
The wise men sought this newborn “king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). And wise men seek him still because Jesus is the Righteous Branch (Jer. 23:5; 33:15), the “root” and “shoot” of Jesse (Isa. 11:1, 10). He is the sign of new life for David’s family, and he is the very source of life to begin with. (That’s what is meant by “shoot” and “root”, the beginning and the end).
And Jesus is your life too. In John 15, Jesus declares, “I AM the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Apart from Jesus, you will wither, dry up, and die. “For the wages of sin is death…” (Rom. 6:23a). Apart from Christ, we’re good for nothing except to be cut down and thrown into the fire!
But in Christ, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In Christ, we have the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation! When we are in Christ, connected to the vine, rooted in the Word of God, and drawing our sap from the Righteous Branch of David, we “can do all things through him who strengthens [us]” (Phil. 4:13). By the power of his Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacraments, Jesus offers new life and new hope. That’s what the Branch of Jesse is all about!
Okay, I’m almost done with my “stump” speech—but not before singing a hymn verse! [Pause for laughter.] I close with these words. Sing along if you know them:
O, come, Thou Branch of Jesse’s tree
Free them from Satan’s tyranny
That trust Thy mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in vict’ry o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.