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O Christmas Tree
a sermon based on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
by Rev. Richard Gehring

There is something about a well-decorated tree that captures the spirit of the Christmas season for many of us at this time of year. But what is it about the tree that does this? Why do we go out and cut down perfectly good trees, bring them into warm buildings during the coldest season of the year, and cover them with tinsel and flashing lights? I understand that the practice has roots in pagan worship of the spirits which were thought to dwell in trees, but it seems to me that the image of the tree has plenty of biblical foundations as well. The plant that remains green when all else has turned brown and may be covered with white is a reminder that there is life and hope even when it seems that all is dark and dreary.

In the words of gathering this morning we heard once again the prophecy which Isaiah first spoke more than 2700 years ago: "A shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a Branch will bear fruit." (Isaiah 11:1) In this pronouncement, the prophet uses the image of the tree to describe both the difficulty of his own time and the hope of a brighter future.

At one time the nation of Israel had blossomed. It was a vibrant and beautiful country under the rule of David, the son of Jesse, and under David's son, Solomon. But since those glory days, there had not been much good news for the people of Israel. After Solomon's death, the nation divided in two with the northern kingdom of Israel being ruled by kings who were not descendants of David. And even though the sons of David ruled in Jerusalem for many generations, the kingdom over which they reigned grew smaller and weaker and more corrupt. Within Isaiah's lifetime he witnessed the destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria and the southern nation of Judah reduced to merely a vassal state of that mighty empire. What had once been like a mighty tree had been reduced to a mere stump.

But the prophet looked forward to a time when this would no longer be the case. He looked forward to the time when the branch, the one God promised, would deliver his people, would grow forth out of the remaining stump. At that time, Isaiah envisioned a world at peace, a world in which creation would fulfill the role that God had originally intended and all creatures would live in harmony.

I don't think Isaiah had any idea when that time would come, whether it would be in his lifetime or many years in the future. He only knew that God promised that it would come, and that he had an obligation to proclaim that message. Some who are convinced that God will someday make everything right are lulled into complacency. They simply sit back and say, "It doesn't matter what I do. God will take care of it all eventually, why should I bother?" Thankfully, that's not the approach that Isaiah took. He did indeed act to fulfill that vision of the future, to nurture the stump of Jesse that remained in his time. And so his words and deeds remain as meaningful to us today as they were to his audience so many centuries ago.

Some 750 years later there was another prophetic figure who reminded many people of Isaiah. His name was John. And like Isaiah, John was looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, who would fulfill God's promises. Like Isaiah, John worked hard to prepare the people for that time. And like Isaiah, John used the image of a tree in his pronouncements.

But the words of John regarding trees are very different than Isaiah's were. Instead of the promise that a branch would shoot forth from the stump of Jesse, John declares, "Even now the ax is lying at 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)
At first, the two passages that we have heard this morning seem almost contradictory. Where Isaiah speaks of a stump that will yet grow, John talks about living trees that will be cut down. Where Isaiah has a vision of restoration, John foresees destruction. Where Isaiah offers a promise, John presents a threat.

The difference comes from the very different contexts in which these two prophets lived and prophesied. In Isaiah's time, the once mighty tree of God's people had been cut down, but the stump remained. Isaiah could still see this stump, and he insisted that God could still bring life out of this seemingly lifeless stump. The roots of the stump went way back into the past, past the time of David and Jesse, back to Moses and even further back to Abraham. Isaiah reminded the people of his time that God still cared for these roots and that one day the stump would still bring forth a green branch.

But by the time of John, the stump itself was hardly visible any more. Years of exile and persecution and dispersion had caused the people of God to nearly lose sight of their roots. In an attempt to remain a distinct people, they had created many rules and regulations. Tradition was threatening to replace scripture as the guiding influence in their lives. The people's vision was based not so much on the covenants which God had made with Abraham and Moses and David, but on the many ordinances that people had added to those original covenants over the years. So John responds by declaring that this dense foliage of tradition that now obscures the true roots of God's people must be cut back.

His message is for those that have tended to their own plantations and allowed the garden of God to be overrun by weeds and thistles. He chastises the religious leaders of the time telling them that they will one day find their own trees uprooted and destroyed because they have not borne the fruit that God requires.
In their own ways, both Isaiah and John anticipated the True Vine that did grow and bear fruit. Isaiah died without ever seeing the shoot that he knew would someday spring forth. John was fortunate to have been a part of helping Jesus to begin his earthly ministry.

Jesus affirmed the work of both of these great voices from our past, these roots from which his ministry sprang forth. He went to John to be baptized and later publicly proclaimed that John was the greatest prophet that Israel had ever seen. He affirmed Isaiah's words when he appeared in his hometown to announce his public ministry and read from the scroll of Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach the Good News." (Luke 4:18)

Jesus was well aware that his ministry grew out of these roots that were planted deep in the soil of God's people. He came to establish the Kingdom, to be the stalk that grew from the roots that had been set down long ago. He himself said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower." (John 15:1) Rooted deeply in the history of his people, Jesus offered himself as a sign of new life and hope.

This Galilean, whom Matthew tells us was a 29th generation descendant of Jesse, was indeed the "shoot from the stump of Jesse" that the prophet Isaiah had promised. Through Jesus, new hope was given to not only the descendants of Jesse and the rest of the people of Israel, but to the rest of the world as well, just as Isaiah had said: "The root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him." (Isaiah 11:10)

Much as the presence of an evergreen tree thrusting up through the snow in the middle of winter is a reminder of the continued presence of life in the earth, so also Jesus' appearance in the midst of a Roman census in the small village of Bethlehem came as a sign of God's life-giving power in the world. And just as that same evergreen is a promise that spring will once again come, so also the life and ministry of Jesus are a reminder that God will one day renew all of creation just as Isaiah promised. In that day, "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." (Isaiah 11:6)

So it is indeed appropriate that the evergreen tree has become a symbol of this advent and Christmas season. The tree reminds us of the roots from which we, as God's people, have come. The greenery reminds us of the promise of life and hope in the midst of a world filled with death and despair.

And it seems to me that there is yet one more thing that we should think of when we see a Christmas tree. For when Jesus said, "I am the vine" he also told his disciples, "You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit." (John 15:5) And, echoing the words of John before him, he adds, "Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." (John 15:6)

As disciples of Christ, we, too are called to be branches that bear his fruit. We continue to be a part of the growing church, the tree which has come up from the roots of Isaiah and John and from the trunk that Jesus was and is. And if we are indeed connected to those ancient roots through the True Vine, we must bear fruit.
And just how do we do this? Well, John suggests that bearing fruit begins with repentance. (Matthew 3:8) We must repent, which means to turn around. We must turn away from the values of this world and cling instead to the values of Jesus. The fruit which we bear must be the sweet fruit produced by the shoot growing out of the roots of Jesse, not the bitter and rotten fruit that is so rampant in our society.

Writing to the churches of Galatia, the apostle Paul says that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (Galatians 5:22-23) And Isaiah himself, in describing the branch that will spring from the stump of Jesse and bear fruit, uses words like righteousness and justice and faithfulness. These are the fruits that should be evident in our lives. These are fruits that Jesus himself modeled. And they are fruits that our hungering and hurting world so desperately needs.

Our calling as branches of the True Vine, rooted in the stump of Jesse, is to bring these fruits into a hungry world. Where there is hatred, we must offer the fruit of love and kindness and goodness. Where there is despair, we must share the fruit of joy and patience and faithfulness. Where there is violence, we must make available the fruit of peace and justice and gentleness. Where there is greed, we must bring the fruit of self-control and righteousness. Whatever the hunger and the hurts of this world, God offers fruit to satisfy and to heal. And as God's branches, we are the ones who must offer it to others.

Centuries ago, Isaiah and John each looked forward to a time when the Branch would come and bear good fruit. We are fortunate to live in a time when we can look back to the time when their hopes began to be fulfilled. And we are blessed by being able to carry on the work that he, and they, began. For just as they prepared for the time when that righteous branch first grew from the stump of Jesse, so we must tend his garden until he returns.

During this advent season, let us prepare ourselves and our world for that great and glorious day that will occur when the vine-grower returns to reap the harvest. Let us prune back the branches in our lives that do not bear good fruit. Let us graft ourselves onto the True Vine, the Branch that grows from the stump of Jesse. And let us bear fruit for one another and for our world.