In the last ten years or so, I’ve found myself taking more of an interest in my family tree. This interest has led me to genealogical websites, government records and more than a few cemeteries. I must admit that this new-found interest comes with some regrets. Why didn’t I pay more attention to my grandparents as they told the stories of their relatives in the old country? If now I could only remember some of the names and places they spoke of. As a child I found it all so boring and then later, as a young man, I didn’t have time to listen. My thoughts were too occupied with the future to be sidetracked by, what seemed like, ancient history.
Now my grandparents and their generation are gone. So are their stories. The names and dates that are left to me are like so many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is my family tree. How glad I can be, and you too, that when it comes to our spiritual ancestry—yours and mine, there is no puzzle. Everything we need to know is carefully kept in the Bible’s inspired record. So over the course of these three Advent Wednesdays, we’ll spend some time studying the family tree that is our Savior’s and, by God’s grace, also very own. We’ll do this under an Advent theme that is as simple as it is familiar: Behold, A Branch is Growing. Our family genealogist is the Prophet Isaiah who, in today’s lesson, traces our Savior’s human ancestry back to 1000 B.C. as he shows us A shoot from Jesse’s line.
Knowing our place in the family tree can give us a sense of identity. Knowing where we come from may help us understand where we’re going. As you will recall, Jesus’ family tree was the determining factor in the place of his birth. By decree of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, every resident of Israel was to report to his “own city” that is to the city of his family origin. Jesus’ mother, Mary and Joseph, the man to whom she had pledged herself in marriage, were both descendants of Israel’s famous King David. So both traveled to David’s town—Bethlehem.
Who of us wouldn’t be thrilled to discover royalty in our family tree? But in the case of Mary and Joseph, their claim to fame meant precious little. In fact, the very circumstance of their journey was a sad commentary on what had happened to great David’s mighty kingdom. As you know, Mary and Joseph had not been invited to Bethlehem for a royal reunion. They had been ordered there to take part in a census. The foreign dictator who had conquered their country was counting heads so he could collect more taxes to fuel his war machine. The town of David held no special meaning for Caesar. Chances are he wasn’t even aware of it. As for those Israelites who had gathered there to be numbered in the census, Bethlehem was nothing more than the punchline of a very cruel joke. You see, the mention of David’s name stirred no feelings of national pride. Instead it called to mind the unhappy tale of what might have been. Wasn’t David’s kingdom supposed to last forever? Isn’t that what David’s God had promised – a son who would rule on David’s throne forever? So much for promises.
Yes, so much for promises. If the people had only been paying attention, they would have realized that everything was going exactly according to promise. Consider, for example, the words of Isaiah who lived 300 years after David and 700 years before Jesus. In the days of Isaiah, one of David’s more godly offspring, King Hezekiah occupied David’s throne. In fact David’s kingdom was enjoying a bit of revival. But it wasn’t going to last. Isaiah prophesied as much when he wrote: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; (Isaiah 11:1).
A stump is all that is left when a tree has been cut down. David’s family tree had rotted from the inside out as so many of David’s descendants, Judah’s kings had given themselves over to sin of every kind – idolatry, adultery, murder, greed and theft. It had all the makings of a royal soap opera. What should God do with a people who want nothing to do with him? He turned them over to their enemies to be cut down. So far, so hard would David’s kingdom fall that Isaiah doesn’t even mention David by name. It’s all gone. It’s as if David and his accomplishments had never existed. All that remains to Jesse, David’s father, is the lifeless stump of his son’s kingdom.
David’s family had been faithless, as David himself had once been. The very family through whom God had promised the world a Savior proved unworthy of this great honor. Of course it did. God’s plan to save the world would not come through the good intentions of sinners or their best efforts to clean up their act. The world’s only hope lies with God. He must love those filled with sin’s hatred. He must bring light to those lost in sin’s darkness. He must give life to those cut down by sin’s curse. God must do it all or we must all perish.
So how does it all turn out? Isaiah does not leave the people of his day or ours to wonder. Instead he gives us something to watch for: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit (Isaiah 11:1). Just like that, the prophet carries us back in time to see Christmas through the eyes of an Old Testament believer – Behold a branch is growing! Can you see it? Forget everything you know about the manger and the wise men. Forget the angels and the shepherds. Look instead at the miracle that unfolds from a dead stump that is David’s family tree. Where there is only death and decay, God speaks the word and life shoots up. This life is born into the family of sinful David. And yet this child does not inherit David’s sin for he is none other than the Son of God. He is God become man to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He comes to take our place under God’s law in order to keep it perfectly in our name, that is, to our credit before God. He comes to bear our sin in order to take our place under God’s wrath, that we may have life with God.
But how can such a tender shoot become a mighty tree of life? How can he bear fruit that saves one and all? Isaiah tells us: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him– the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding… (Isaiah 11:2). A tender shoot? Yes, he was – for our sake. He could not spend his days on earth using and displaying all the power that is his as God. So in his great love he chose not to. Instead he took on the very nature of a servant. He humbled himself, becoming obedient even to death on a cross. But don’t think for a moment that he was ill equipped to carry out his work. Throughout his days on earth, God’s Spirit rested on our Savior, giving him the wisdom to know exactly why he had come to our world and the understanding of exactly what he needed to do for us.
All these centuries later Jesus words and works continue to bear the same saving fruit in our lives. Jesus’ living words know exactly what to do for us and when to do it. When our sinful pride has us believing that God somehow needs us, Jesus’ word cuts us down to size, reminding us that we too are dead stumps by nature. We can produce no good fruit in and of ourselves. When sin entices, when Satan convinces us that greed is good, that lust is love, that hatred is healthy, it’s the word of our Good Shepherd that calls out to us lost sheep, showing us just how far we have wandered from his safe keeping. His word bears fruit. It makes us wise to sin’s deadly deceptions.
But wisdom is not enough because we sinners lack the strength to act on it. So Jesus came to be our strength. Isaiah tells us: The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–the Spirit of counsel and of power… (Isaiah 11:2). Sin is a powerful enemy, but it is no match for our Savior. When his word shows us our sin and the great damage it has done to us and those around us, when we have ruined everything yet again, when all is hopeless and we come to realize that we cannot help ourselves, that’s when Jesus comes to counsel us with a simple phrase: “I forgive you.” Simple? Yes! But oh so powerful because the forgiveness he speaks to us is the forgiveness he earned for us. Jesus knows what he’s talking about because he has taken our sin away. He carried our guilt into hell and left it there. It is no longer ours. And there’s more, dear friends. The One who counsels and forgives us is our powerful Lord who has risen from the grave to show us that even sin’s wages, death itself, must serve and obey him. There is nothing he cannot and will not do for us. He who heals our soul with his forgiveness can speak the same word and by its power repair all that sin has damaged in our lives – even our broken relationships and our ruined reputations.
Our Savior does not leave us to flounder in our sin. Isaiah tells us: The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD… (Isaiah 11:2). By his promise, spoken at our Baptism and renewed again and again for us in his gospel, Jesus creates and sustains new life in us. We have a new family and a new family tree. Because of Jesus, we are no longer just sinners; we are now sinner-saints with the knowledge, desire and ability to please our God and so thank him for making us his own. Jesus teaches us the fear of the LORD – not fear in the sense of terror, but fear as in respect and devotion. Like our Brother who carried out God’s will to save us, we say to our heavenly Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.” I see the evidence of this spirit at work right here among a group of people who made the effort during this busy season to gather a second time this week to worship our Lord. I see husbands and wives who put their spouses’ needs before their own. I see grandmas and grandpas, moms and dads, spending their time and energy, not on themselves, but on their children to raise up the next generation to know and trust our Savior God. I see Christians who despite their best efforts to accomplish all these good things and more realize that despite their best effort to do all this good and more, they still fall far short of God’s will. I see people, like me, who must and who can count on our God to cover our sins and failures with Jesus’ blood and Jesus’ righteousness day by day. Yes, as I look at you, I see the members of my family tree, all of us knowing where we come and where we are going thanks to the most important member of our family, the Shoot from the stump of Jesse. He is our identity. From him we draw all our value and worth. And in Him we all have life, now and forever. Amen.