A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
Isaiah 11:1-3; excerpt from Isaiah 11:1-10, lectionary text for Sunday Dec. 8, 2019
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” […] But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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 3:1-2, 7-10; excerpt from Matthew 3:1-10, lectionary text for Sunday Dec. 8, 2019
When are we in God’s work as a dresser of trees. How far along? That’s what I wonder as I read these two texts together. I am struck by the confluence of images and the dynamic possibilities between. Isaiah writes of a shoot springing from Jesse’s stump, of a new branch growing from old roots. Matthew recounts John the Baptist’s threat that ‘even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.’ Is God is the middle of hat-racking the bush that out of it a new branch might grow? Or is God rigorously chopping at the very root, cutting down the fruitless tree to burn the wood? Or are these perhaps the very same when: is the ax John describes as lying there at the root, set on the ground for work yet to come, as if this ‘even now’ is not yet the last moment. In which case, what is the next now to anticipate? And what do we do with this one?
To ‘hat-rack.’ A verb I did not know until a few years ago when Paul so extensively chopped back our overgrown holly bush that only bare branches remained, branches looking unusually naked without their usual dress of leaves and berries. Not a single leaf was left; nor any twigs. Not even a single leaf. Surely the bush was as good as dead. But it was not so. The sturdily bare branches broke out in bouquet-like clusters of twigs; leaves reappeared, as dark and glossy a green as any of those that had been hacked off; the bush’s life seemed revived.
Jesse’s stump is no shrub, of course. An oak is a tree which is felled, rather than hat-racked. Yet now when I read Isaiah’s text the memory of that hat-racked holly shows through the primary image of the rough-cut stump. Jesse’s stump is not desiccated and dead, with the new shoot an unexpected miracle, so much as the tree cut back to allow or encourage that new shoot to appear. The branch is a promise not as a surprise. It is springier than the old wood, and a slightly brighter color, and once it appears, the deep green leaves are soon to follow: wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the LORD.
I have always read John the Baptist’s words as a description of God’s wrathful judgment: the ax already set to its work; the tree already being cut down; the end already begun. But this year, I read Matthew’s text in conversation with Isaiah’s, and I realized the ax is ‘lying’ at the root. It is not striking wood. It is not being swung. It is lying there. Waiting. It will be used, John says, to fell the fruit-less trees for burning. It will be used to fell the fruitless trees. So bear fruit, John urges. Yes, John calls the religious leaders viper’s brood. Yes, John speaks of wrath and of flame. The gospel is not a gentle text. It is violent in its urgency. ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Bear fruit. Bear fruit. For the kingdom.
Because the shoot from Jesse’s stump has sprung, with the spirit of the LORD upon him. But we are not yet in that peaceable kingdom that the prophet describes. The wolf and the lion do not live peacefully with the lamb and the calf and the little child. We do not even live peacefully with each other. We hurt and destroy ourselves and our world, and the earth is not yet full of the knowledge of the LORD even as the sea levels are rising. Isaiah’s vision is full of grace if it’s read just in itself. But Isaiah’s vision is judgment when it is read against the world, when it is read against we who call ourselves the body of the branch which sprang from Jesse’s stump.
Then I go back to the violence of John the Baptist’s proclamation and hear that the divine dresser of trees is not done. Even now the ax is resting at the root. Maybe it will cut back the fruitless branches for new growth. So that we may do as we can, as we are charged to do. Bear fruit.
The shoot from the stump of Jesse has sprung, the branch has grown out from his roots. The kingdom of heaven has come near. Even now.