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
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
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.