Jesus embodies ancient hopes for justice, nonviolence, and peace between all peoples. As people grafted into this righteous branch, we must embody these qualities, too. (Listen.)
So it’s Advent: a paradoxical time-slip in which we look forward to the coming of the one who was born, and lived, and died, and was raised, and lives among us now. It’s a time of anticipating more than ever God’s kingdom come. It’s a time of hopeful expectation of a world turned rightside up, a world where love and justice reign, and vulnerable people are raised up, and the arrogant are cast down.
And so it’s also a time of pain. Because we look around, and we see all that is wrong with the world. We see hypocrisy and abuse of power; we see oppression of vulnerable people; we see a rise in hostile conservatism; we see capitulation to the capitalist project; we see utter contempt for the living world. In the face of all this, change can feel impossible and Advent can feel like nothing more than an exercise in futility. Can we really hope in God’s future? Or is this hope just an escape from the harsh realities of the world around us?
Long ago, the people of God were asking similar questions. Their religious and political leadership had failed. The kings had worked in their own interests, exploiting women and labour: and so the monarchy had come to an end. The priests had prioritised scriptures which elevated their own power yet marginalised the most vulnerable; for all their burnt offerings, they had failed to engage in the most basic form of worship, that is, care for the poor.
According to the prophets, these failures of leadership had devastating consequences: invasion, colonisation, puppet kings in the pockets of empire; land degradation, drought, species loss; then finally exile. Betrayed by their leaders, shattered by their collective trauma, and exiled from their homeland, God’s people wondered whether God had forgotten them.
It is to such people that Jeremiah offers a word of hope: ‘“The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, “when I will fulfil the good word I made to the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will make a righteous branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be rescued and Jerusalem will live in safety, and the city will come to be known as ‘God is Our Justice.’”’ (Jer. 33:14-16)
The image of a righteous branch also appears in Isaiah. In chapter 11, Isaiah describes a shoot coming up from the stump of Jesse, that is, David’s father; from these roots a new branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of God will rest upon him. He will work justice for the poor and needy; he will destroy wickedness with words and spirit-breath; and he will gather up all peoples and bring about a culture of nonviolence and peace. Indeed, when the righteous branch is in charge, the wolf shall live with the lamb (Is. 11:6).
These prophecies suggest that, even though the monarchy has become corrupt and been cut down, God will send a new king from David’s family line: and this king will embody justice and righteousness. More, when the king does what is just and right, both land and city will be restored and healed; indeed, the city will be known as ‘God is Our Justice.’
Much later, as people tried to understand who Jesus was and is, they went back to these prophecies. And so, in the gospels, Jesus’s genealogy is traced back to Jesse, establishing him as the new and fruitful branch in Jesse’s family tree. In the letter to the Romans, Paul claims that Jesus is indeed the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. He writes that Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, has sprung from the root of Jesse and gathered up the Gentiles: they can place their hope in him.
What’s interesting in these texts is how the referents keep shifting. When Jeremiah talks of the righteous branch, he refers first to the new king, then to Jerusalem. So on the one hand, there’s a promise of an individual born from the line of David; on the other, there’s a promise that the whole city will embody righteousness and justice. Similarly, in Isaiah 11 first an individual then all peoples will embody nonviolence, protection of the poor, and full knowledge of God. Again and again in the prophets, there’s this ambiguity: Is the Messiah an individual, or is it a whole city? Is it one person or a nation who will bless and heal the world?
We see this pattern continue into the New Testament. First, Jesus is identified as the Messiah, that is, Christ; but then the church is described as the body of Christ and commissioned to bless the world. In others words, the messianic language keeps sliding between Jesus and his people. This is why we often end our time of prayer with the phrase, ‘Grant us the courage and compassion to offer our lives as answers to these prayers’: because as members of Christ’s body, we are called to continue his work. That is, we are called to the work of healing, seeking justice, meeting evil with true words and spirit-breath, and gathering together all types of people as we bring about a culture of nonviolence and peace.
Therefore, in the face of ungodly leadership and institutional failure, we are not called to hopelessness and despair, nor are we called to deny reality. Instead, as a people grafted into the righteous branch, we must live out our calling as the body of Christ. When much of the institutional church is a rotting stump and federal leadership is no better, we must be a sign of justice and righteousness in the land. We must be a witness to healing and reconciliation, nonviolence and peace, between all types of people, whether enemy or friend.
This doesn’t mean power or trumpets or glory. It doesn’t mean domination or even success. Instead, the messianic call is to vulnerability and tenderness: to be a new green shoot. It’s fresh growth, rooted in the decay of the old. As such, it’s small and insignificant: easily broken, easily burned: but each time it’s destroyed, it reshoots. It’s quiet but it speaks volumes, because it reveals how God works: how, in the face of compromised and corrupt leadership, in the face of human failures and human violence, in the face of disaster, despair and even death, God will always work something new.
This is the hope that was born in a manger in Bethlehem. This is the hope that was born again from the tomb in the garden. This is the hope for which we pray, and for which we offer ourselves: that we might be a new branch, a tender shoot, embodying God’s fragile irrepressible life and love in a troubled and hurting world. Ω
Reflect: When has God made something new out of the ruins of your life, the life of the church, or the life of our nation? What new shoots do you see emerging now?
This reflection borrows very heavily from a sermon by my friend and colleague Nathan Nettleton entitled The New Branch; the last paragraph is mostly direct quote. (What happens at the end of a completely exhausting year.) You can find Nathan’s sermon here. A reflection on Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Isaiah 11 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 28 November 2021 (Year C Advent 1) © Sanctuary 2021 except as indicated. Photo by Nagara Oyodo on Unsplash.
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