The Sign of the Righteous Branch
The Second Sunday in Advent
December 4, 2022
“The Sign of the Righteous Branch”
When my wife and I take our dog on walks through the neighborhood where we live, we frequently pass by what has become my favorite tree. It is a massive willow oak tree that sits in someone’s front yard, and most certainly predates our neighborhood by at least a century. I just enjoy looking at it and giving thanks that this beautiful specimen tree was not cut down when our neighborhood was built in the late 1960s. The developers chose to preserve it and build around it, and it continues to be a strong and healthy tree. It is interesting to note that trees appear in all three Scripture lessons for today. We hear about stumps, branches, and roots, all parts of trees. In the Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 11:1-10), this passage begins and ends with the same imagery: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit… In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:1, 10). In the Epistle lesson (Romans 15:4-13), Paul takes up this same imagery, quoting Isaiah: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Romans 15:12; Isaiah 11:10). And in the Gospel lesson (Matthew 3:1-12) we encounter that fiery prophet, John the Baptist, whose preaching called the people to true repentance and so prepare for the coming of the Lord: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). Our Advent series continues today as we focus on “The Sign of the Righteous Branch.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Once again, the prophet Isaiah is before us today. Chapter 11 of Isaiah’s book, from which a portion of today’s Old Testament lesson is taken, is often called “The Righteous Branch.” This is where the title for today’s sermon comes from. Jesse was the father of King David (1 Samuel 16:1ff.), and it was David’s descendants who reigned as kings of Judah for hundreds of years until the country was overtaken by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Jehoiakim was king when the first deportation took place, and he himself, along with many others, was taken captive to Babylon. His son, Jehoiachin, was then installed as a puppet king, but he also was later taken captive to Babylon. He was followed by another son, Zedekiah, who led a rebellion against Babylon, which was savagely crushed and he, too, was exiled to Babylon (2 Kings 24; 2 Chronicles 36). Scripture does not record that any of these kings ever lived to return to Jerusalem, which means that the flourishing tree of Jesse was cut down. The line of David was snuffed out. And so we can only imagine what people must have thought who first heard Isaiah’s words about a shoot coming forth from the dead stump of Jesse’s line. But anyone who has ever had to take a tree down knows that shoots from that stump can and do spring up. Life emerges from what looks to be a dry and lifeless block of wood. If that is true in the natural world, it is also true in the spiritual world. Nothing is too hard for the Lord (Genesis 18:14; Jeremiah 32:17; Luke 1:37). The sign of the Righteous Branch comes forth, endowed with wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2). Righteousness and faithfulness are belted around this One who is both Jesse’s Root and Jesse’s Branch. In him there is a restoration of God’s original design for creation – a peaceable kingdom. That Righteous Branch, who is the root of Jesse, comes to us in that “little child [who] shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). All of this points us ahead to the coming of Jesus, born of Mary in Bethlehem’s manger, who lived that life of perfect obedience to the Father’s will that we could never do, and who died the death we rightly deserved because of our sin. Jesus who is that Righteous Branch is himself the very sign of our salvation, sealed with his own precious blood. By faith in all that he has done for us, we become branches who are grafted into him who is the true Vine (John 15:1ff.). Without him, we wither and die.
The staggering reality of what God in Christ has done for us should move us to tears of repentance; it should shatter our hearts of stone. The repentance which John the Baptist preached to the people of his day speaks to us across the centuries. John’s ministry was one of preparation for the coming of that Righteous Branch, the promised Messiah, and we live this side of his coming. However, the call to repentance – to abandon the idols of our own making, whatever they may be – is just as real and just as relevant for us today as when John’s words were first spoken. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). This season of Advent is clarion call to this very thing, that amidst all of the beautiful decorations, holiday gatherings, sending and receiving cards and gifts, our hearts may be a quiet chamber swept clean and made ready for the coming of Christ.
Many years ago, a friend gave me the book, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein (New York, Evanston, London: Harper & Row; 1964). It’s a children’s book about a relationship between a boy and a tree. As a child, the boy is happy and content to climb the tree, swing from her branches, and eat her apples, but as he grows up, he becomes restless, unhappy, and discontent. He wants more, and so the tree invites him to sell her apples and make money; and then cut off her branches for lumber; and finally, cut down her trunk to make a boat and sail away. After a very long time, the boy – now an old man – returns to his beloved tree, now just a stump. The book concludes like this:
And after a long time the boy came back again. “I am sorry, Boy,” said the tree, “but I have nothing left to give you – My apples are gone” “My teeth are too weak for apples,” said the boy. “My branches are gone,” said the tree. “You cannot swing on them—” “I am too old to swing on branches,” said the boy. “My trunk is gone,” said the tree. “You cannot climb—” “I am too tired to climb,” said the boy. “I am sorry,” sighed the tree. “I wish that I could give you something… but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry…” “I don’t need very much now, said the boy, “just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.” “Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, “well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting.” Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.” And the boy did. And the tree was happy.
Jesus, our Righteous Branch, has done this for us, giving us everything, even his very life on the tree of the cross. In what is often a busy and frenzied season, in the midst of our restlessness, unhappiness, and discontentment, Jesus invites us to come to him; to sit and rest and be with him. That will bring joy and peace to our hearts and minds, not only in Advent, but at all times. Amen.
other sermons in this series