Sermon #161: Judah's Stump & John the Baptist
Sermon #161 St. James the Less #68 12/8/19
"A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
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.
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 asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious." Isaiah 11:1-10
The Family Stump
My dad planted a lot of trees in our front and backyard when he moved to what would become our family home back in the late 80s. Many of those trees have grown into gargantuan sizes all around our yard. Dispersed throughout the yard are even some Christmas trees we planted after they had served their purpose in the middle of the living room. Of all the trees in the front yard only one has died over the years.
It wasn’t too long ago that we cut that dying tree down to the base, leaving a stump only six inches high. But much to our surprise when the next spring rolled around, fresh green shoots started popping up from the stump. Soon they were a few feet high, and there were so many that it looked like a bush. We’d cut them down to the base only to have them grow back in just a few weeks.
The Prophetic Stump
A stump…that is the image the prophet Isaiah gives us at the beginning of our Old Testament reading this morning. There is nothing grand about a stump, it is simply the memory of what once was a great tree.
And the prophet is relating the image of the stump to the nation of Judah. The wonderful days of King David’s dynasty are dwindling, and there will be a day coming soon when it will be cut down completely, with only a stump left; a mere memory of what once was.
But the vision doesn’t end there, the prophet also foretells of the day when a shoot will come out from the stump of that once-great-nation. Unlike my family who thought life was dead and gone from the stump in our yard, Isaiah is making the point that, in fact, new life shall come up from the old for the people of Judah.
So Isaiah is painting a pretty stark picture with the image of the stump, because what it means is that the nation must first be cut down, by being exiled to a foreign land, before any promise can happen.
But, he tells of a promised shoot, a branch that shall grow out of the roots of the old kingdom. He’s talking about the One Who is to Come. You will know it is he, the prophet says, for “righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.”
This righteous branch shall usher in a kingdom of worldwide peace where the wolf and the lamb shall live together, and “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.”
And the prophesy ends with the all-important phrase, “On that day.” Because “On that day the root of Jesse [Jesse who is King David’s father] shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”
Through Judah’s long history of exile to Babylon then only to return to their homeland under the rule of empire after empire, year after year, the phrase “On that day” must have been etched into their minds.
The people of Judah were desperately waiting for that day; for when everything would be set right; for when the One Who is to Come would appear from out of their midst, to spring forth from their stump that had time and again been cut down by the other empires.
John the Baptist
And so Matthew, our gospel writer, is tapping into the collective memory of this people when he starts out our lesson “In those days.” He says, “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3:1-12).
Here we have John doing some radical stuff, calling people out into the wilderness to repent and be baptized. He’s not wearing a belt of righteousness around his waist, but a leather belt to keep in all the camel’s hair.
John is radically new because he is the bridge between two ages. He is the closing anthem, the final chapter to the Old Testament prophets. He is the last voice of the great prophets of old like Elijah and Isaiah. While he has one foot in the old, he is also stepping into the new age, the age the prophets had foretold.
“Get ready,” he says, “the kingdom of heaven has come near, the One Who is to Come is finally approaching. Our nation, which has been considered by the Romans as a mere stump, has finally sprouted the shoot Isaiah told us about!” This stump-who all thought was dead-is in fact alive.
No wonder people went down to hear his message and to be baptized by him. Generation after generation told their children of the day when things would begin to change, when God would send His Anointed One to make the world right. And the exciting part was that they were not only witnesses to the change, but also active participants.
And so, young and old, rich and poor, and whole families made their way out of the hill country, and hiked down the steep, rugged, and dry terrain of the wilderness towards the green valley of the Jordan River. And the whole hike down, the story of God’s redemption and his coming Anointed One was told and retold to the littlest ones in the group by their elders.
“This is why we are going down to the river, my darling,” a mother would tell her child, “a prophet has finally come, and is saying God’s kingdom is near. It is time we prepare ourselves for his appearing.”
Comparing John Then & Now
And so people didn’t flinch when John told them to repent. He was saying, “The all-important phrase ‘On that day’ was finally being fulfilled. This is the day!” Logically, when God’s kingdom was finally upon the people who had waited so long, they wanted to repent of their sins, and be baptized as a sign that they were prepared for the coming kingdom.
They were ready for “the whole earth to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.” They were ready to see the calf and the lion sitting together, the cow and the bear grazing together… They were being washed in baptism in preparation for meeting the Righteous Branch that was to come from the stump of Jesse, the Anointed One himself.
For those who were convinced of John’s message I doubt they even batted an eye when he told them to repent. They saw themselves as witnesses that God was doing something totally new, something that had to do with them. Something that would in fact change history; that whatever God was doing in this moment, life would never be the same…
But now a days when we hear the words of John, we twitch more than bat an eye. “Repent? John, who do you think you are?” His words make us uncomfortable; they may even conjure up bad memories of TV preachers, or preachers we had to listen to as a kid who told us how bad we were.
But I believe there is something deeper to repentance. Repentance is in fact a call to turn, or return to God…and that’s exactly what John the Baptist was doing. He was inviting the people to return to their Creator, to go towards God instead of away. He was calling the people to physically turn their lives towards the direction of God; in the direction of the coming kingdom of God, and the One who was to bring it about.
What John’s message was doing was reframing repentance as a call (an invitation) into the life God wants us to live. Yes, repentance is about repenting of our sins, but we must understand that if we are going to truly repent then we must physically point ourselves back to God.
Even with all that said, the season of Advent is a joyful season, why do we have to sit here and listen to John’s harsh words? Wouldn’t this whole repentance thing fit better in Lent anyways?
Maybe, in fact, we need to re-evaluate our understanding of Advent. As tempting as it is by the holiday commercials on TV, the frenzy we feel by the multiple Christmas parties we must attend, and all the presents we have to buy…maybe, just maybe, we have Advent all wrong.
As much as this is a season of great joy and celebration, it is in fact a time of spiritual preparation. It is a time to hearken back to the memories of our Jewish forbearers-in-faith who desperately waited for the day when the world would be set right, when this all-but-dead-stump would spring new life.
The people who prepared for the Anointed One did so through a season of repentance to make sure they were being aligned with God’s will as this new age began to dawn.
And so that is our Advent challenge in the midst of a culture that desperately wants Christmas without the preparation. A culture who wants the gifts and presents without doing the hard work of repenting…and that has seeped into our Christian culture as well.
But you and I have some things in common with those families who made the steep hike through the wilderness and to the Jordan River to hear John. They prepared for the One Who is to Come, and he did appear. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus instituted his kingdom, but not in its fullness.
We, like those families, wait for the day the world will be set right, when the leopard and the kid lie down together, the wolf and the lamb live together, and we dream of the child who will lead them. We dream in our deepest imagination what “the earth full of the knowledge of the Lord” would look like. Can we even fathom it?
So we, like those who went to be baptized by John, have something to prepare for. We have a need for repentance as we await Jesus’ second coming, when he will bring his kingdom in its fullness.
What is it that you and I need to repent of? What in our lives do we need to physically turn away from, so that we can fully go in God’s direction? Jealousy? Anger? Pride? Lust? Greed? That’s just the start of my list, what about y’all? What is it for you?
Now I don’t presume to be John the Baptist or anything, but when we confess our sins today, and for the rest of Advent, may we do it with a renewed spirit and a humble heart, as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ first coming and patiently wait for his second.
Advent II, Year A, Isaiah 11:1-10, Mt 3:1-12. Photo here.