Today, we look at Jesus’s family tree from Matthew 1 against the backdrop of the prophecy in Isaiah 11 regarding the shoot that shall spring from the stump of Jesse. You’re welcome to read through the first half of the first chapter of that Gospel but for those who may be put off by all those names, here’s a handy little lyrical version that I found on youtube:
Isaiah’s hope-filled vision occurs, interestingly, in the context of the growing Assyrian threat, in a time when the legacy of King David is all but lost in spite of God’s promises that his house would endure forever.
In the midst of those first 39 chapters of the book, we hear the voice of first (or proto) Isaiah: a voice full of judgment and warning about the bad things that are about to happen because the people of God have not lived in right relationship with God nor with one another nor with their neighbours.
It’s a countdown to conquest really; but, against all odds, a new shoot will grow from an old stump – the stump of Jesse who was David’s father and David was Israel’s first and greatest King.
And this new King – the Messiah – will receive the fullness of God’s Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and reverence for God and delight in doing God’s will. Through him, the poor and the needy will find favour and all that are divided will find peace and harmony. There will be no harm, no hurt in his kingdom.
Isn’t that a beautiful image?
A hope to hold on to?
But what do words and pretty promises mean when your home is burning, your child is dying; when you have no freedom; when there is no peace or harmony – only harm and hurt, hurt and harm day after day, month after month, year after year after year?
It was 700 years or so before the promised child was born – so full of Spirit; the Son of God. Born into the midst of Roman occupation and religious exploitation and poverty and need …
… for the more things change, the more they stay the same as we say so casually.
But when we step back a little further and look at Jesus’ family tree, we see, in fact, God’s promise to deliver, to rescue, to save spanning the fourteen generations from Jesus’ birth to the exile in Babylon. And fourteen generations before that between the tile and the reign of King David. And fourteen generations from David all the way back to Abraham, who is known as the father of our faith for God made a promise to him and he left all that he had known to follow God.
Forty-two generations! That’s a long time to wait for a promise; a long time to hold on to a hope when you’re hurting right now.
We will spend a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew in Year A of the lectionary cycle, and you will see how often he draws attention to things happening in fulfilment of what the prophets said. The author wants us to know – in both head and heart – that God does what God says God will do.
But each person has a part, a place, in fulfilling these promises, including:
- Tamar, who was nearly burned to death for being pregnant out of wedlock,
- Ruth, the foreigner,
- Rahab, the prostitute,
- Bathsheba, who was so beautiful that King David had her husband killed so he could have her for himself,
- and Mary, who was pretty much an insignificant little nobody until she was chosen to bear the Christ-child.
Everyone has a place – including those we deem unlikely, insignificant, and unworthy (hence my choice of women from Jesus’ family tree) – in the unfolding promises of God who is active in every generation.
As we hear again in this Advent season that familiar story of the Christ-child born in our midst who will come again one day to establish the perfect peace of his kingdom, once and for all, it would serve us well to wonder – and perhaps to talk about over the table:
- what does that promise really mean?
- what might it mean for those who are in the midst of drought, destruction, and despair right now?
- do we walk with dread each day because of bad things happening?
- do we set out into the world in anticipation that God will draw near to us?
- do we offer hope through pretty words or through active participation in what we see God doing to bring comfort and healing and peace in the midst of harmful, hurtful situations?
My prayer as we travel the prophet’s path is that we will enter into each new day as if God is coming – not in 700 years’ time or 7000 – right here and right now, in the words that we speak, and the love that we share, and the space that we make at the table.