We begin to settle in to Advent this week with readings that remind us of the glorious promises which are our inheritance as people of faith. Advent is a rime of penitence as well as expectation, a time of remembering things past while also inhabiting the “not-yet” of the coming Messiah. In the darkness and cold of winter, we are reminded of promises made and promises kept. The first promise we encounter this week is the promise in Isaiah 11 regarding the Jesse tree. Jesse was the father of David, and in 2 Samuel 7, David had been promised that one of his descendants would be king throughout eternity. Jesse is thus Jesus’s many-times-great-grandfather. Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, was of course known as the city of David because Jesse was from Bethlehem.
One of the main theses of the gospel of Matthew is that God fulfills the promises he makes, in this case to David, and this reading from Isaiah helps establish proof for that claim in Matthew. Jesus is referred to as the “son of David” ten times in the gospel of Matthew, more than in any other synoptic gospel (the term does not appear in John). Promises made by God are never forgotten.
As with last week’s reading from Isaiah, we have a hopeful vision of the future that the prophet paints for the people of Judah, one that directly again confronts the problem that has led the people astray—that their kings have been false rulers, leading them into apostasy and promoting values at odds with those of God. More specifically, this is one of the three messianic oracles in Isaiah (see also Isaiah 7 and 9). The Messiah was expected to sit on David’s throne and restore David’s line as true king. God had warned the people that choosing to have human kings would get them into trouble, and the situation by the 8th century BCE has proved that point.
The vision recounted here in our Isaiah passage this Sunday ends with a description of a restored creation: many of the animals paired together are domesticated animals and the wild animals who prey upon them, led by an innocent. The vision ends with a reference to the “root of Jesse”—to David and David’s descendants—and again expresses the wish that the entire world will turn its face toward Israel and look to it as the source of salvation. Even though, as Isaiah writes, it appears that the tree of Jesse has fallen, the hope is that a rod or branch will spring up from the fallen tree that will grow to be even mightier than its parent.
Above, you will see one of the most famous depictions of this Jesse tree, from the Chartres Cathedral. This is one of the original windows in the cathedral, from circa 1150 CE. Notice that at the top of the tree is Jesus, with his mother Mary right below him. David and Solomon are also included at the bottom of the tree above Jesse. The tree of Jesse runs through the biblical story, planted in the soil of both faithfulness and mercy.
As we begin year A in the three-year lectionary cycle, we will spend most of this year with the gospel of Matthew. Matthew’s gospel will build the case that Jesus is the Messiah all along up to this point— chapter 1 recounts Jesus’s genealogy and legitimacy as a son of David and as a son of Abraham. Chapter 2 tells the story of the Magi, Herod’s massacre of the innocents, and the flight of Jesus’s family to Egypt. Today’s gospel depicts a prophetic herald warning his listeners that the one who by rights may judge them is at hand. Our gospel this Sunday will also quote Isaiah (chapter 40) as a touchstone to solidify the claims that John will make about Jesus and about himself. John is the one crying out from the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of the Lord. The appearance of John himself in our gospel from the third chapter of Matthew is also a sign or promise fulfilled, since he comes out of the wilderness dressed just so for the role of an Old Testament prophet—his attire is remarkably similar to that of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8.
As the winter nights lengthen, we have the promise of light from light, true God from true God, coming among us, offering salvation and enlightenment for all. We have the promise of not retribution, but mercy coming to live among us, judging with righteousness and equity the cause of the oppressed.
(Photo of the Jesse Tree window at Chartres Cathedral, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:France_Chartres_JesseTree_c1145_a.JPG)