“A Shoot Shall Sprout from the Stump of Jesse”
Redwood trees in California grow to tremendous heights and can live for thousands of years. Their bark is highly fire resistant. Even when fires come, the trees historically have lived on, scorched, but still standing. They have very tiny cones for such large trees. Folks who visit redwood forests sometimes assume that these giant trees must have very deep roots in order to continue to stand tall through the centuries, sometimes supporting other trees and plants that grow high in their crowns. They wonder how such small cones can lead to the sprouting of such massive trees.
In actual fact, redwood trees have shallow roots. Their roots intertwine with those of the surrounding trees and together, they hold each other up. Their cones and tiny seeds are not essential to the continuation of the forest either. Though some trees can grow from seed, most do not. More commonly, new shoots sprout up from trees that have reached the end of their days and fallen to the ground. These new baby trees grow to new heights of their own. The fallen trees are sometimes called nurse trees.
Redwoods came to mind when I read the words of Isaiah (11:1-10) about the coming of the one who will restore peace among all creatures and with the Lord who made them. “On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.”
Jesse was the father of David, the shepherd who was secretly anointed to become the second King of Israel. Many years had passed and the kings of Israel were not always faithful to the Lord in their role as leaders of the nation. It was as if the tree of Jesse had been cut down or had fallen and died. Nothing remained but the stump – descendants of Jesse and the promise that the messiah would come from his line.
Isaiah reminded the people that the promise still remains. A new leader will arise from Jesse’s line. This new person will not be a corrupt king. No, the spirit of the Lord will rest on this one, bringing gifts that will set him apart from others. Wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, awe in the face of the wonder of the Lord. This person will judge justly, care for the poor, strike down the ruthless, do away with the wicked, and bring peace to the world. Even the world of the animals will become a place of peace in this vision. When this time comes, the Gentiles will see the signal set up from the root of Jesse and seek out the dwelling of the Lord.
It’s a wonderful picture, one which is still in the process of development. Like the growth of a redwood tree sprouting from the root of a fallen mother tree, it takes time and patience. Fortunately for us, the Lord has all the time in the world!
St. Matthew describes the mission of Jesus’ cousin John. (Mt 3:1-12) John was born about six months before Jesus. As an adult, he spent time in the desert. When he emerged from that sojourn, he began to call the people to repent and turn back to God. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He spoke of himself as a voice “crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord.” People came from far and wide to the Jordan River to hear his message. He baptized people there, symbolically washing away their sins by plunging them into the water of the river.
Religious leaders came out from Jerusalem to see what he was doing, and probably to tell him to stop. But he spoke out against their assumption that because Abraham was the father of the nation, God would not hold them to account for the wrongs they had done. “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” What was really needed was repentance for wrong-doing and a choice to live justly.
John spoke of the coming of his cousin, the one who actually was the promised messiah. “The one who is coming after me is mightier than I … He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” A new day is coming. A new presence of the divine is coming into the world. Be ready. The shoot has sprouted and the Spirit of the Lord is upon him.
Many years later, St. Paul encouraged the Romans to endure in hope and in harmony as they live as a community of faith. There is to be no distinction between those who are Jewish and those who are Gentiles. Christ welcomes all. He came first to the Jews, in fulfillment of the prophecies and promises made over two thousand years of their history. But that doesn’t make the descendants of the first Israelites better than those who were not the children of Abraham, Isaac and his line. It simply means that the ultimate goal has now been reached. Gentiles are drawn to “glorify God for his mercy.” God’s actions among the Jewish people have borne the long-promised fruit. Humans are unified as one people again and all sing praise to God.
We are in the second week of Advent now. The coming of the Lord among us is both a remembered historical event that we will celebrate at Christmas and a daily event in our lives, as we meet him in the people with whom we interact each day. One day, we will also meet him when the angels lead us into the eternal kingdom.
How are we preparing? Are we taking time to notice the Lord’s presence? Are we rejoicing in the little things? Can we trust that everything that truly needs to be done in the next days and weeks will get done and what doesn’t get done is maybe not all that important?
Let’s promise each other that we will try to stop for a few minutes each day to reflect on the ways in which goodness sprouts from roots hidden deep in the ground, high in the trees, or within each person. May we be blessed with a recognition of the presence of the Lord in each day of our lives.
Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent – Cycle A