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Advent II: Root and Axe

Reading Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, and Matthew 3:1-12, we see that each of these passages talks about “the root”, but each passage does something different with the theme: Isaiah prophesies about the root, a ruler from the kingly line of David. In Romans, Paul makes that reference specific by identifying Jesus as the root. In Matthew, John the Baptist sternly warns the root, referring not to Jesus, but to the Jewish people more broadly: the people who had David and his sons as their king. These different uses aren’t opposed to each other; they are looking either broadly or narrowly at the same idea. David’s kingdom, David’s royal line, David’s true son. That’s the root of Jesse they have in view.

In Isaiah’s vision, the kingly line of David has been chopped down because of sin, but the good news is that a shoot will miraculously spring up from the dead stump! This life from death leads to a widespread reversal of evil to good: the branch that grows from Jesse’s root will bring justice out of injustice, peace from hostility, and turn enemies into friends. The fruit produced by the branch from this root is righteousness and reconciliation, and in light of such a reign, the root will be a signal to the nations to come and glorify God for raising up such a king.

In Romans, Paul exhorts the believers to harmony and unity, and he bases it on the fact that Christ came to show God’s truthfulness by fulfilling promises and prophecies, and so that the Gentiles (nations) might glorify God for His mercy. In other words, righteousness by faith in God’s promises, and the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, resulting in glory to God. This is the very fruit that Isaiah had prophesied! And to make this point, Paul piles up OT references, culminating with Isaiah’s words: “the root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles.” Therefore, Paul says, live in harmony, so that you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one voice. Why? Because that’s what Jesus, Isaiah’s prophesied root, came to bring about!

Matthew strikes a very different and ominous note, though, talking about an axe that threatens the root. When John arrives to announce the kingdom, Jesse’s tree had been chopped down, so that there is no king from David’s line. But instead of looking for a root from Jesse, the Pharisees and Sadducees settle for Rome’s puppet Herod, so much so that at the end of the story, they say “We have no king but Caesar.” Isaiah had foretold that the king was supposed to bring about reconciliation, but having given up on the prophesied king, the Jewish leaders have no interest in reconciliation, either. Instead of believing like righteous Abraham that God would bless all nations, the Pharisees and Sadducees take sinful pride in being Abraham’s children. They use their ancestry to keep themselves separate from the nations, rather than being a “signal” and welcoming the nations. Israel’s leaders gave up on God’s promise of a Davidic king, and they traded Abraham’s faith for sinful pride that kept the nations away. No righteousness, no reconciliation, and therefore, no glory given to God. That’s the kind of behavior that caused God to pick up His axe to chop them down and throw them into the fire.

Isaiah’s story of a root sending up shoots of new life is a story of resurrection. The story in Matthew of a root that refuses to bear fruit is a story of death. What makes the difference is what Romans talks about: believing that Jesus Christ is the root of Jesse.

And so instead of rejecting the root, God calls His people to rejoice in the root by believing in David’s royal son Jesus, by living out the reconciliation that Jesus brings, by hoping for the spread of the root’s reign, and by glorifying God for the root in song. Believing in the root means trusting that righteousness comes through Jesus Christ, and that Jesus is the one who can put the shattered pieces of a broken world back together. Reconciling through the root means living at peace with those whom the world thinks would be your natural enemies, and making that reconciliation visible to the world through your friendships and relationships. Hoping in the root means joyfully anticipating that the root will produce the fruit of righteousness and reconciliation all over the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. Glorying in the root means lifting up joyful songs of praise together with all the nations. So let us believe, let us reconcile, let us hope, and let us sing, giving glory to God for the advent of Jesus Christ, the root of Jesse.

Posted on Wednesday, December 07, 2016 by CJ Bowen