Old Testament Isaiah 11:1-10
A King Who is For Us
Northern Michigan was once covered with countless acres of old growth pine forests, but after the end of the 19thcentury pretty much all that had been reduced to fields of stumps through intensive clear cut logging. If we could go back in time to around 100 years ago and drive across the northern lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan we would not see lush stands of forest from scenic overlooks, but instead we would see mile after mile of stumps and open space. The stumps would be blackened by the many fires that swept through after the loggers had completed their work, and the roots of the stumps exposed from soil erosion. Today, even after all this time, in many places the forest has not returned. The pine trees cannot grow again because the soil conditions radically changed with the clear cutting, so now you can see plains full of rotting stumps interspersed with scraggly looking brush where once stood some of North America’s most impressive and glorious trees – massive white pines up to 200 feet tall and five feet in diameter. There are no sprouts of new life from those stumps and there never will be.
This comes to my mind as we hear the Old Testament reading for the Second Sunday in Advent this morning, continuing our look at the prophecies of the prophet Isaiah. The reading today begins, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”1 You see, Isaiah is also talking about a field of stumps in this passage. Earlier he writes, “19The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.2” But he doesn’t mean a literal forest and literal stumps. He speaks of a people who have turned their hearts away from God and abandoned his Law and his promises. What Isaiah calls the “stump of Jesse” is actually the family of David, the line of Jesse his father, which is regarded as lost and shriveled up. About 700 years before Christ, Isaiah points the people toward the terrible judgement that will come when invading armies lay waste to the kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem and carry the people off into exile. The line of kings from David down through Solomon and so on lasted about 400 years, but then it was cut off. Then other powers took over. Persia, Greece, and Rome all took turns conquering the land that God’s people had inherited and squandered. The line of Jesse was like a tree that had been cut down and now all that’s left is an ugly blackened stump.
Can anything grow again from this stump? Well, God is in the business of bringing to life what seems cold and dead, creating new growth and life. Isaiah gives us this promise: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”3 From a stump nearly decayed a little Twig will emerge. The Twig will grown up and make holy and nothing will prevent it. For this shoot is Christ the Lord, who comes in the hour of greatest need and utmost trouble. This has always been God’s standard operating procedure, and he leaves us his Holy Scriptures so that we would know the acceptable time and the day of salvation. That time is right now. As St. Paul reminds us, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand.”4
Christ the Branch comes to bear fruit, bringing back to life what seemed to be lost forever. What is it that is lost? The image and righteousness of God. Our first parents had this in the Garden, but then they sinned and lost it, and set in motion the corruption of our present world. They passed on a spiritual death, the infection of original sin, to everyone ever since. But God is in the business of bringing to life what is dead. So again and again the Holy Scriptures bring us this pattern of life out of death, the new growth out of dead wood. In the sending of His only begotten Son the plan is fulfilled and finished on the cross, which is the reason why He came to dwell among us, born of the Virgin Mary who became the new tabernacle of God, the place where God is. Jesus of Nazareth will be nailed to a tree, a tree of death, and in that moment it seems everything is over. It seems all there is for us sinners are endless fields of stumps. But it was just the opposite. It was only the beginning, for life came up out of that death. Jesus proclaimed victory over sin and hell in His resurrection and now the way to life is open. Forgiveness is at hand. New life is ours to which we are raised in our Baptism. We now have the gift of eternal life, in Christ Jesus, for the cross of death is really and truly the cross of life.
So Christ comes with the promise of a new kingdom, a spiritual kingdom, and He is our King. But this King does not rule like the earthly rulers. His rule is Divine, and His kingdom is of heaven. “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,”5 says Isaiah. This is the Holy Spirit who was given to Christ without measure in His baptism in the river Jordan, when “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”6 God’s Spirit rests upon Him and marks Him as the Saviour, the promised Branch. And because His rule is Divine the justice He meets out is not of this world. Isaiah tells us, “And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”7 This is great news for us dear brothers and sisters! We the people of Christ’s kingdom are the poor, the insignificant, the harassed, the lowly, the fearful – in other words, sinners. And we are the ones He has come to judge; or to put it another way, He will make the just cause prevail for us because He comes to judge with righteousness. This righteousness is our justification. He gives grace to those who fear Him, He forgives the sins of those who repent in faith and believe and trust in His promises. In this way the “branch from [the] roots shall bear fruit.”8 This King, our Messiah, is indeed for us, He’s on our side with His righteousness and faithfulness.
We know this because He has told us through the Gospel message that has been revealed to us through the Apostles. The spoken Words of His mouth are “the rod of his mouth” and “the breath of his lips.”9 This same spoken Word has the power both to save and destroy. It saves those who believe it and make no claims for their own standing and righteousness before God, but it destroys the ungodly who remain stubbornly bound in their wisdom. Only by this Word which goes forth from the mouth of our Lord can sinners come to repentance and turn toward God and faith. We learned this in Luther’s Catechism – “the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church”10
Now the kingdom of the Righteous King prophesied by Isaiah is one of peace and safety for those who are under the protection of the Messianic Ruler. Again, the “branch from [the] roots shall bear fruit” in the form of peace and security for God’s people. Remember last week we spoke of God’s holy mountain, the heavenly city of Zion from where the Word of God goes out? Here again the prophet directs our attention to the mountain of the Lord: “9They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”11 The wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the young goat, the lion and the calf. All these images point us to the assurance that in the Kingdom of our Lord danger and evil and even death itself will be removed. Here there is supreme peace and harmony, people don’t offend one another nor try to destroy their brothers and sisters. Instead they have peace, they make peace. A peaceable Kingdom, now and forever more, for Christ is our peace “who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”12
Today Isaiah shows us a picture of the Messiah as the King who comes for us, who is for us. And because He is for us, who can stand against us? In this season of Advent these prophecies point us to the fulfillment of God’s promises when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, to save us from our sins and lead us to eternal life. So now we look to the day when He will come again in glory, when “the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples”13 and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The King who is coming is for us.
1 Is 11:1.
2 Is 10:19.
3 Is 11:1.
4 Ro 13:11–12.
5 Is 11:2.
6 Lk 3:22.
7 Is 11:3–4.
8 Is 11:1.
9 Is 11:4.
10 Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.
11 Is 11:9.
12 Eph 2:14.
13 Is 11:10.