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Isaiah 11:1-10,  Matthew 3:1-12

(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg


As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

Isaiah 11:1-10

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him-- the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD-- and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.

Matthew 3:1-12

1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."
3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"
4 John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.
People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them:
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

My mother in law had a beautiful triangular shaped city lot in Edmonton where she lives. This lot, being lined by trees on all sides is blessed in the spring with the perfume of Lilac bushes all around.  They grow wild  on all side.  They have not been tended for years.   Since I was in Edmonton for the summer, my mother in law saw an opportunity to make some improvements in her yard.  
"Bill, can you clean up the Lilacs and get rid of that one on the west side, its doesn't look very good any more?"
"No problem mom..."

So I happily went to work.  The trees had wild shoots growing up through the grass everywhere.  These trees could hardly be called bushes any more!  So I attacked the easiest one first, the one where I could just take a saw and hack the whole thing down - kill it by amputation. Two hours later, when that first tree was down, I felt a sense of victory!  That part of the job done, finished!  No hope of that bush ever hiding the sun again.  I felt that way until about two weeks later.  I discovered the principle of "horticultural sucker power." In horticulture, shoots that spring from roots just beneath the surface of the soil or from stems are called suckers and this lilac had incredible sucker power. Where there once was grass, now there was a nice new green covering, 3 inches tall, hundreds and hundreds of suckers springing up from the stumps and roots with a vitality the tree never had before.  I was sure this thing was dead!  The life it sprang to was revenge multiplied by the hundreds.

The passages that we read this morning have to do with trees, trees that have the destiny of experiencing death by amputation, being cut down .  Whereas one of them would be cut off at the roots, terminated completely, the other demonstrated a persistence that surprises us again this advent season.

Let me talk about the tree destined for destruction first. John the Baptist, in a passage rich with tree imagery says "The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." John the Baptist was not addressing those who in sincerity were coming to confess their sins and be baptized, rather he aimed this furyied horticultural criticism at the Pharisees and Sadducees who had come to add to their religious accomplishments a pseudo respect for a man that the general public regarded as a prophet. They were lining their religious cap with another feather. For them, religion was a means of personal gain, they were in the habit of using God, using others, using theology, using their power - all using, abusing!  God does not take kindly to those who think they can use him. And so the prophet of God, John the Baptist, called them a brood of vipers, decedents of the snake.  The viper he was referring to was a small brown snake, common to the deserts in which John lived. These snakes had an uncanny ability to disguise themselves as twigs.  Children on occasion would pick up what looked to them like a twig to play with, and it would turn around and bite them with a venom, that if the strike was true would kill. The same thing happened to the apostle Paul on the Island of Malta. There, after experiencing a brutal storm at sea, Paul on the shores of Malta gathered twigs and made a fire. When the heat of the burning twigs arose, a viper came and affixed itself to Paul's hand, those who saw it all expected him to die. So to, in the time of John the Baptist, often the only safe way to clean up an area with a lot of twigs was by fire, to destroy twigs along with the vipers. The picture that John the Baptist refers to here is one of those fires that burns and gets rid of the poisonous vipers that unlike the branches around them had no capacity to bring forth good fruit. John pictures their destruction, along with their whole system of self serving religion as the tree that was about to be cut at the root, destroyed burned because it was useless and offensive to God.

But the other passage which we read, from Isaiah 11, pictures for us a different tree. This tree, like other family trees was the tree of Jesse, the descendants of the Father of David. The scripture promises to this family, covenant promises that the house of David would sit on the throne of God's kingdom for ever and ever. This tree contained the persistence of God's promises...'You shall never fail to have a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel,"

In history, that tree was cut off. Solomon's sons divided the kingdom by their own corruption and for years to come, Israel suffered under kings who did what was right in their own eyes, whose corruption was but a continuous expression of bad fruit. As a result, the nation weakened, the power of God, as represented by the Ark of the Covenant taken, the nation was over run, defeated, cut down to next to nothing by the Assyrians, all that was left was the stump, as if dead, not a leaf on it. Isaiah, as he wrote these words was right in the middle of one of the most despairing times of the nation of Israel. The north had been taken, the area of Judah would be just a matter of time.  Jerusalem was besieged. And sure enough, by about 600 BC, even Judah was taken captive, taken from the land of promise, hopes were dashed, it seemed the life of God's promises to David and his decedents were snuffed out, death by amputation.

Isaiah saw accurately. The nation was no more than a stump. Nothing was left. Hope was gone. Except for one truth, the promises of God. Throughout the scriptures, there is one theme that is repeatedly assumed, one question for which the answer is always known.  God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? Not one of all the Lord's good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled. The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made.

"How can God speak and it not come to be?" This stump of Jesse contained the power of the promises of God, power that does not disappear when the tree is cut down. And so Isaiah saw in his vision that from this Stump of Jesse, a shoot sprang forth, and so the first words of the gospel of Matthew make it very clear that Jesus born in Bethlehem was of the stump of Jesse, a descendent of David and Abraham, the fruit of the promises of God. The Spirit of the Lord would be on this new shoot, this King of God's kingdom, his power would be almighty, and the extent of his government and peace would know no end. "Can God speak and it not come to be? Can God give a promise, and it will not come true?"

Advent is the time when we see again that God's promises infalibly come true. A sight that we need in life, when all around us, the world is filled with promises that are not kept, toys that break down, bodies that fail.   In this life though, we have hope.  We may see just a stump, but even as we by faith look at what seems hopeless, we see the persistent power of the promises of God.  That was the heart of John's message.  Listen once again to Isaiah as he describes the ministry of John the baptist

A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever."

The wonderful truth here is that we can hope.  We see our lives, we see the hopelessness of the human condition, yet behind even our condition is the word of the Lord that tells us that though we return to dust, though our bodies are planted as a seed, that is not the end for what is planted as a seed, like as stump, as good as dead, will return to new life, the life of the ages to come, where sorrow and anxiety and pain will be wiped away and we will be with the Lord and with our loved ones in the Lord, and the joy that we experience will know no end.

Parting Blessing

ROMANS 15:12 And again, Isaiah says, "The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in him." May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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