Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa. 11:1, ESV). 15 miles west of Woodland Park, Colorado, on US Highway 24 is a fascinating and underrated gem of the National Park Service: Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. The Park Service describes the Florissant Fossil Beds as “one of the richest and most diverse fossil deposits in the world.” In addition to the fossilized remains of various insects and smaller plants are the “petrified redwood stumps up to 14 feet wide.” A giant stump of petrified wood 14 feet across? You have to see that! Having been there a couple times, I can tell you that it is a sight to behold. Plus, it’s only an hour-and-a-half away from Castle Rock. (Aside: What a great way to get another stamp in your National Park passport!)
Yet as awesome as these petrified stumps are, they are still dead trees. Thousands of years ago a tree died, and all that remains is a stump turned to stone. That’s about as dead as dead can be. The tree never grew again. It never sprang back to life. The organic fibers have been replaced by minerals. All that remains of a once mighty redwood tree is that depressing stump.
(Photo courtesy of the National Park Service website)
Yet in our Old Testament reading today, the prophet Isaiah shows us an even more depressing sight than the petrified tree stumps in Florissant. He focuses our eyes upon the so-called “stump of Jesse” (Isa. 11:1). Who or what is Jesse? And why does Isaiah call it a stump?
Jesse was the father of King David, as we will learn today in our study of 1 Samuel for adult Bible class. Through David, the son of Jesse, God established a royal dynasty that would rule over a united Israel for 80 years and over the southern kingdom of Judah for several centuries. For hundreds of years, the throne passed down one from one descendant of David to the next. And what was the name of this royal family? The house of Jesse.
But by the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, the family tree of Jesse and David was in ruin. While some of the Davidic kings trusted God and worshiped him (e.g., Hezekiah and Josiah) many others led the Jewish people astray as they chased after idols and other gods, even at times resorting to child sacrifice. They oppressed the poor and took bribes instead of ruling justly. Bad kings like Ahaz and Manasseh were proof that the apples had fallen very far from the tree. Isaiah saw the day when Babylon would conquer Judah, destroying the temple in Jerusalem and putting an end to the Jewish monarchy forever. Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, would be forced to witness his own sons being slaughtered before Nebuchadnezzar gouged out his eyes so that the last thing he would see in his lifetime would be the end of the line of kings. All that would remain of the house of Jesse was a stump.
And of what use is a stump? None whatsoever. Maybe they’re good for sitting on, especially if you’re a fan of Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree. And I suppose that stumps are useful for ruining lawn mower blades when you run over them. But otherwise, they’re pretty worthless.
The stump of Jesse was a terrible end for a once-mighty family tree cut down to size because of its spiritual poverty. But a dead tree stump is also a fitting picture for our spiritual condition before Christ came to dwell in our hearts. Our fallen human nature is rotten to the core. From birth we rebel against God and his commands. We hurt and harm our neighbors. And we do not love as God loved us. Ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, our hearts have been full of evil thoughts and desires. And nothing has improved with each successive generation. You might say that the apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree.
And yet Isaiah does not leave us with only a dismal view of the future. The focus of Isaiah 11 is not on the stump, but on the shoot that grows out of it. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa. 11:1). While David’s family tree seemed to be at end, God can bring new life out of death and hope out of the deepest darkness.
The shoot or branch—the little sapling—growing out of Jesse’s stump was another descendant of David: Jesus Christ, the son of God and son of Mary, born in Bethlehem nearly 700 years after Isaiah’s prophecy. When Christ was born, he was the rightful heir to the throne of his forefather, King David. That is why, in Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew calls him “the son of David” (Matt. 1:1). Through the incarnation, God entered into human flesh, and David’s family tree began to blossom and grow once again.
Unlike his forebears, the faithless kings of Judah, Jesus was not born in sin. “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him…” (Isa. 11:2). Christ does not oppress the poor or take bribes. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor…” (vv. 3-4). Jesus came to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18), especially to those who dwell in the darkness and squalor of sin. Unlike the lies and empty promises we speak, Jesus speaks only the Word of truth “with the rod of his mouth” and “the breath of his lips” (Isa. 11:4). Christ is clothed with righteousness and faithfulness as his belt (v. 5). And he bequeaths this righteousness to all who trust and believe in his grace.
But the world hated Jesus—hates him still—and could not abide a king like Christ. So they tried one last time to cut down the family tree of Jesse. In mockery, they put a reed in his hand and a purple cape over his shoulders. They adorned his brow with a crown of thorns. And then they nailed Jesus to a cross and killed him with a placard above his head: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The Romans killed Jesus, and our sin laid him low.
But death could not defeat Jesus, and the grave could not contain him. Because three days later, Jesus sprang back to life, shooting out of the tomb and beaming with the light of love and new life. Christ died for our forgiveness and rose to give us new life. And so the tree of the cross, a means of torture and death no better than a stump, became a tree of life for all who believe and receive Jesus as King.
Jesus Christ came to give you the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. The root and shoot of Jesse wants to be planted within the stump of your heart (and mine). God wants to graft you into his family tree through the Righteous Branch of Jesus Christ, both David’s son and David’s Lord. And so we sing the ancient pray of Advent:
O come, Thou branch of Jesse’s tree,
Free them from Satan’s tyranny
That trust Thy mighty pow’r to save,
And give them vict’ry o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
 All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
 LSB 357:4.