Brief synopsis of the readings: We will spend most of Advent in Isaiah. Here he describes how a shoot will spring from the stump of Jesse. On this shoot will be someone on whom the spirit of the Lord rests. “The wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion cub feed together with a little boy to lead them.” Matthew’s Gospel describes John the Baptist with his call to repent and he quotes Isaiah: “A voice cries out in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.” John then turned on the Pharisees and the Sadducees and called them a brood of vipers. Finally he foreshadowed Jesus: “I baptize you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
As we journey through Advent we’re going to read a great deal from Old Testament Isaiah and it’s not much a surprise. The Book of Isaiah comprises 66 chapters and had at least two, and perhaps three, authors. As Christians we believe that much of the imagery in Isaiah foretold the life of Jesus. And while there is a great deal of truth in this, we shouldn’t look at Isaiah (and indeed the entire Old Testament) as simply a prologue to the New Testament. There’s much more to that.
As I’ve spoken about before the idea of having a human king sounds good to many, but it nearly never goes well. Two weeks ago I talked about how many look at King David as the apex of Jewish history and many look to his restoration.
But today our first reading speaks of a shoot that springs “from the stump of Jesse.” It’s easy to overlook this verse but I think we can find great truth here. David succeeded Saul as king, but he wasn’t Saul’s son. Instead David was the son of Jesse. In the 16th Chapter of the First Book of Samuel, Samuel is commanded to go to the house of Jesse to find Saul’s successor. Jesse had several sons and he presented most of them to Samuel, but none of them were God’s choice. Instead Samuel found David, the youngest, who was busy tending the sheep. This was God’s choice.
So if David was the apex of Jewish history, why wasn’t the shoot from the stump of David? Why Jesse? Perhaps Jesse comes to us just before our foolish desire for a human king. Let us go before our poor decision to ask God to give us an earthly king. Let us go not to David, but before him to find our way forward.
I’m not a woodcutter or a carpenter, but I’m puzzled by the idea that a shoot can spring from a stump, let alone the stump of Jesse. In my limited experience we get a stump when we cut down a tree, and once a tree is cut down, the stump dies. Trees depend on leaves (and roots) for life and a stump should die and rot. But from the death of a tree, a shoot springs up. The tree gains new life miraculously: from death comes new life.
The heart of Jesus in our lives comes not from his birth at Christmas but his resurrection at Easter. Advent makes no sense outside of Lent and Christmas makes no sense outside of Easter.
Jesus doesn’t come from the stump of David because he’s not the “new and improved David.” We go before David to Jesse because Jesus is a game changer. He’s better than David but he’s so much more. He’s not what anyone expected.
And in the Gospel, John the Baptist wasn’t what anyone expected either. He claims a unique place in our history: many religions revere a messiah or savior, but only Christianity recognizes one who calls us to “prepare the way of the Lord.” He is also a game changer.
We don’t know much about John the Baptist but we can imagine that the establishment saw him as a kook. It’s one thing to call people to repent but it’s another to point to the religious leaders as a brood of vipers.
And truthfully, life doesn’t go well for John the Baptist: he is eventually executed on orders from Herod.
But he was the first to recognize that his cousin Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Years ago I was on retreat on the East Coast and got to see a sunrise from when the sky was black to seeing the sun pop up. There was a point before sunrise where the small clouds just over the horizon changed from white to fiery orange. I recognized that while I couldn’t yet the the sun, I could see the clouds and the clouds could see the sun. I immediately thought of the clouds as John the Baptist.
I’ve said this many times before, but God often chooses people we would never have chosen. Count John as one of these people. He antagonized the powerful and told everyone they needed to change their lives. And at the height of his influence he stepped aside and told everyone to listen to someone else.
If he were around today he would probably be called a “loser” by many people. But he was anything but a loser, he is a saint revered by all. And we can learn a great deal from him. Many times in our lives we are called to listen to the person everyone thinks is a kook. The message matters more than the messenger.
I suspect we can all look back on our lives and see a John the Baptist. Maybe it was the coworker who had a good suggestion who was ignored because that person was a woman, or gay, or unpopular. Maybe it was the political candidate who dared to speak an uncomfortable truth. Maybe it was a rival in our social circle whose ascent means our descent.
They are the stumps in our life. We think we can write them off, but from these stumps come the shoot of life’s game changers and we do well to pay attention to them.