A sermon for Advent 2 on Isaiah 11:1-10
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” So begins one of the great Advent texts, from the prophet Isaiah.
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Jesse; that’s the father of King David, the crowning figure of hope for ancient Israel. David was not an uncomplicated figure, mind you, but still the one who represented possibility to the nation. They remembered his reign, and at the same time anticipated the rising of an heir—a “son of David”—who could rule over a renewed and transformed Israel. So important to live with that kind of hope in times of crisis, whether in exile in Babylon or under the iron rule of the Roman Empire. The great tree that had been Israel had been felled, leaving nothing but a stump… but out from that stump of Jesse, out of the roots still buried in the ground, a new branch shall spring up. The tree will grow again.
I think it is interesting to remember the family story that comes before David, before Jesse; the story told in the brief little book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite, married to a Jewish man whose family had migrated from Bethlehem in Judah to Moab to escape a drought. As the story goes, Ruth’s father-in-law had already died before she married, and in time her own husband died as well. At that point Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi decided she would return to her home in Judah, and Ruth chose to go with her, saying
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
In time Ruth would meet and marry Boaz—and there is little bit steam in that story—and together they had a son Obed, who would become the father of Jesse, who in turn would become the father of David. Now think about that for just a minute. David—the iconic king of Israel—is the great-grandson of a Moabite woman; an outsider. The writers of these texts have no need to edit this out for the sake of presenting their greatest king as being racially or ethnically “pure,” but in fact rather celebrate this unique turn in the story. The story celebrates Ruth’s fidelity to her Jewish mother-in-law; it celebrates how a new beginning is brought forth from the tragedy of death, and how the seeds of the House of David are actually sown in Moab.
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” When Isaiah first uttered those words Israel had been reduced to just a stump, the royal household ruined. No reason to have hope in a future as a people, as a nation. All that was behind them. “And now,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “And now, in the face of that spent hope, the poet asserts a new generativity with a sprout, unnamed and unidentified, but a faint sign of life, growth, and possibility.” Not that there was an instantaneous turn-about; no. Isaiah can see just the beginning of a sprout coming out of that broken tree stump, and he knows that it may take a long time to grow. But still Isaiah sings, and he sings of extraordinary and unexpected things. Yes, the royal household had failed, yes the land lay in ruins, yes the people are in chains… but…
A shoot shall come out from the stock 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.
Wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, and fear of the Lord; all qualities that most of the kings of Israel had been remarkably short on, with some of them even rather disdainful of such things. Isaiah knows this, and he also knows that many who sat on the throne had not with righteousness judged the poor, nor decided with equity for the meek of the earth; qualities he does envision being true of a coming king. And he’s able to press on and offer up some extremely poignant imagery:
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.
In his commentary on this passage Michael Chan notes how this imagery takes on additional significance when read within their ancient Near Eastern context. “In the royal propaganda of the ancient near East,” Chan writes, “royal figures frequently encounter predatory animals, and especially lions. And so it is no surprise to find the royal child depicted as a shepherd among lions. What is surprising, however, is the way in which the young shepherd interacts with them. In general, kings would be depicted fighting and killing lions, not leading them or living among them. Unlike his ancient Near Eastern contemporaries, however, the Davidic ruler of Isaiah 11 does not hunt lions. Rather, he mysteriously remakes them.”
In short, Isaiah is imagining here something entirely unprecedented. He envisions the cow and the bear grazing together, the lion eating straw like the ox, children safe as they play close to the dens of poisonous snakes… quite a picture. But it is not just about animals and children; in fact it is meant to be about us. Here Walter Brueggemann comments, “The poem is about deep, radical, limitless transformation in which we—like lion, wolf, and leopard—will have no hunger for injury, no need to devour, no yearning for brutal control, no passion for domination.” This is the promise of a peaceable kingdom utterly new and ever renewing.
This is what Isaiah sees when he begins to sing of how that dead stump was not so dead as everyone had feared; of the sprout he sees beginning to emerge.
As Christians we read Isaiah in light of Jesus—in the light of his first Advent, his birth in Bethlehem. But we also recognize that the story is anything but finished, that the world does not know anything close to that peaceableness. This an Advent text precisely because we have yet to fully know such a kingdom; because we still wait and watch and long for its arrival. Sometimes we do that with rather thin and spent hope, much like the people of Isaiah’s own day. Sometimes we wonder if it is folly to hope at all because it seems just too much to believe that in Christ all of creation will be restored, healed, and made new. It does seem a rather audacious thing to believe, doesn’t it?
That’s the thing about Advent, and about Christmastide. These are season filled with audacious stories told in a posture of both wonder and of stubborn hope. It is, after all, the very posture Isaiah took when he first uttered these words.