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11.20.16 A Christian Christmas Tree Isaiah 11:1-10 Sermon Summary

by on November 21, 2016

The Christmas tree symbolizes only half of the Christmas story. Fortunately the other half can be found in a different tree.

Summary Points

  • The spiritual life—how it begins and grows
  • The background to Isaiah writing
  • The powerful imagery of Isaiah’s prophecy—its symbols and their meanings
  • Christmas and Christmas trees—sometimes they work against faith
  • The evolution of Isaiah’s words—how they keep hope alive today
  • How Christ the newborn King is still present in the world

The spiritual life begins when we place our hope in God, when we view and orient our lives around the presence of God. Faith deepens as this view grows longer. Spiritual maturity means living in this long view of faith, especially during trying times.

Normally God in his grace gives us some relief in the short term, but sometimes it takes much longer to understand. The visions and promises of the prophet Isaiah demonstrate this dynamic well, as does the Christmas tree.

As background to Isaiah’s teaching, remember the Kingdom of David in the 10th century before Jesus. This was the golden age of ancient Israel. They were expanding in peace and prosperity and enjoyed national supremacy. But within a few hundred years, the country of Assyria was threatening the Northern Kingdom. As part of their military campaign, Assyria cut down indigenous trees to fuel the war effort and decimate the local economy.

Writing at this time, Isaiah promises that God will abandon Assyria and embrace ancient Israel again. God will cut down Assyria’s mighty trees (their kings and warriors). Then Isaiah likens the nation of Israel to the tree stumps that surround him. He names one of those stumps after Jesse, the father of David, and envisions a shoot sprouting from the stump.

In nature we recognize cycles of devastation and restoration, death and rebirth, loss and redemption. In Colorado Springs we have begun to see the return of trees and wildlife in the burn scars of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and the 2013 Black Forest Fire. This is the image used by Isaiah.

Isaiah promises a new king and a better kingdom. He speaks of a child who has been born who will become this new king. For Isaiah’s audience, the time is close. Seven hundred years later, the people of God were once again in darkness, and they applied Isaiah’s words to the birth of Jesus. Now two thousand years later, we are still awaiting the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision, and so we speak of Jesus’ return and heaven.

What does Isaiah promise? This new king will inaugurate a new age. He will deliver us from disappointments and uncertainty. Isaiah envisions a return to an idyllic time of harmony. He uses symbols of hostility, and reconciles them: The lion shall live with the lamb, the leopard sleeps with a young goat, the cow and bear families share a meal, carnivorous predators become vegetarian, and children play with poisonous snakes without concern.

The presence of a child is itself a profound symbol. In Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve listen to the snake they bring the curse to creation. At the time God says there will be enmity between their child and the snake. Isaiah forecasts the undoing of that curse.

And children represent new life. They imply long life. This child contrasts with Noah who also brought animals together, but did so as an old man. That renewal project didn’t last. Isaiah is saying that since the harmonizer of creation is a child this time, he will usher in an age of enduring peace.

Isaiah’s promise starts with the shoot springing from the stump remaining of Jesse’s family tree. Other branches will grow. The family tree will become full again. But it will take time. Isaiah envisions complete reforestation, but not in an instant. It will begin with the branch who is King Hezekiah, the ruler after Assyria is defeated. This is God’s short-term relief.

The child Hezekiah grew up. He became a man and the king. But the kings of Judah eventually died, and the Kingdom of Judah would die with them. God’s short-term relief came to an end without Isaiah’s vision being fulfilled. It is in these situations that faith is tested and either weakens or matures.

I see this dynamic playing out for many people during Christmas. One of the reasons people experience a letdown during Christmas is because they put all the hope of the longer perspective of Jesus’ ministry on the December 25th holiday. In this way the Christmas tree is a symbol of the first half of Isaiah’s vision.

The Christmas tree appears to have been introduced to the United States by German immigrants in Pennsylvania. When a picture of the Christmas tree of England’s Queen Victoria (with her German Prince Albert) was published, the Christmas tree became a national fad in the 1840-50s. The first Whitehouse Christmas tree appeared in 1856.

Today 85% of homes have trees. In my family we hunt for and find our tree in the mountains. We cut it down and bring it home. We decorate it and place gifts around it. The green reminds us of life in an otherwise dead winter. Lights encourage our hope during the deepening winter darkness. Gift giving gets us outside of ourselves. Then we open our gifts and play with them until we are satiated. Then we undecorated the tree, take it to be recycled, clean up the dead needles, and return to our pre-Christmas lives.

Without a larger frame, the Christmas season, symbolized by our Christmas tree, represents the hopeful and joyful birth of King Hezekiah, his death, and the return to normal. It becomes a test of faith. It can end with a letdown.

But within a larger frame, the Christmas season can serve in the same way Isaiah’s words came to serve. His original audience experienced the short-term relief under the Judean monarchs beginning with Hezekiah. Isaiah’s words to them were, “Hope now, for you will rejoice soon.” But after the letdown, in the longer term, when the people were again in the valley, they heard in Isaiah’s words, “Remember now what God did in the past, give thanks, and let that thanksgiving keep hope alive today.”

Hundreds of years later the church applied Isaiah’s vision to yet another branch, Jesus, and at Christmas we continue to, “Remember what God has done, give thanks, and hope for the future in God’s Kingdom.”

From Isaiah’s vision of a new tree arising from the stump of Jesse, we have enduring hope to last us throughout our lives, through the pickups and letdowns. This is the idea behind the Jesse Tree.

But how do we keep the hope of Jesus’ kingdom alive? How do we keep it from failing as Hezekiah’s kingdom did? After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, when he is no longer present to us as he once was, how do we keep from forgetting? Isaiah promised that the “knowledge of God would fill the earth as water covers the sea.” He said “the root of Jesse would stand before the nations.” How can this be?

The answer is in the final words of this passage, that “the dwelling of the king will be glorious.” Jesus may no longer be here as king, but in baptism, we are in Christ. And by the Spirit, Christ is in us. In baptism we are anointed with the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that rested upon King Hezekiah and King Jesus: The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the reverence for God, the Spirit that enables us to delight in following God. This is why we anoint with oil those who are baptized using these very words from Isaiah.

In baptism and by the Spirit, Christ does remain before the world, because he makes his glorious dwelling—in us. This is the story of Christmas: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossian 1:27) Not only are we born again in baptism; Christ is also born again in us.

So let us enjoy our Christmas trees, for the greenery, the lights, and the gifts. And let us remember the Jesse Tree, for the enduring hope it represents to us, and through us, to the world.

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