Beckett: Lenten Sermon – Jesse’s Tree

Date: March 18, 2020
Festival: Lenten Midweek 4
Text: Psalm 80:8-19 (antiphon v. 19); Isaiah 6:1-13; 10:33-11:16
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #359 Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Introduction: Burnt to a Stump

In our first reading, we heard God call Isaiah to proclaim a message of judgement against Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, which was to come at the hand of the Assyrians. Isaiah was to tell them their land would be burnt, like a tree reduced to a stump; but all hope was not lost, for the Holy Seed was in that stump. The stump might appear to be dead, but it was not dead; new shoots could sprout from its roots.

In the book of Job, for example, the stump of a tree is contrasted with a person who dies and is buried. Job says, “For there is hope for a tree—if it be cut down—that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grow old in the earth and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put out branches like a young plant” [14:7-9]. While a person who dies and returns to dust cannot rise again at the scent of water, a tree stump can.

So, in the second reading as Isaiah proclaims a message of judgement against the Assyrians and the start of new life for God’s people, Isaiah unsurprisingly returns to the image of the stump in order to prophesy ultimately of the long-promised Messiah. In short, the judgement was necessary, but all hope for the future was not lost.

God’s Judgement Against Unfaithfulness

As you might know, expect, or guess, judgement against Judah was necessary because the people of Judah and Jerusalem—especially their kings—had been unfaithful to God. Isaiah rebukes them for their many sins, but he especially exposes their idolatry—their worship of false gods. Perhaps what’s most striking to our ears is that God, through Isaiah, judges His children of Judah whom He reared and brought up due to their rebellion against Him because our younger generations are similarly leaving the Church in droves.

He calls them a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, the offspring (or seed) of evildoers, and children who deal corrupt who have abandoned God, despised the Holy One of Israel, and were utterly estranged from God. Through Isaiah, God says an ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib, but His people do not know or understand [Isaiah 1:2-4]. Essentially, they are dumber than a donkey and ox! We might say they were dumber than a bag of hammers!

It’s easy for us to read any historical or prophetic account and make fun and point the finger in judgement, but you and I are no different by nature in thought, word, and deed, whether omitted or committed. We fail to fear, love, and trust God above all things, so we end up misusing His name; we skip out on church because we despise preaching and hearing His Word in its verbal and sacramental forms (though now, of course, things are understandably and temporarily different during the current pandemic); we also disobey our parents and other authorities; we do not help and support our neighbours in every physical need; we do not lead sexually pure and decent lives; we do not help our neighbours to improve and protect their possessions and income; we do not explain everything in the kindest way or put the best construction on things; and we are not content with the possessions, people, and animals God has given us.

We deserve not only the sort of temporal punishment God promised Judah and Jerusalem through Isaiah’s proclamation, but we also deserve eternal torment in Hell.

Yet in another agricultural metaphor—that of a vine—our Psalm [80:8-19] recounts the Lord’s favour for Israel and its kings until the people’s unfaithfulness prompted God to permit their suffering, which He allowed in order to call them to repentance. As part of an answer to that call to repentance, Asaph the psalmist pleads for the Lord to favour the king again and restore the people so that they may call upon Yahweh’s name and be saved.

In our service today, we made the psalm’s words our words! We rightly confess our sins not only on Sundays and Wednesdays during this penitential season of Lent, but also every day of every season; for when we confess our sins and trust God to forgive us our sins, then God does exactly that: He forgives you your sins—all of them—whatever they might be, for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Shoot that comes forth from the stump of Jesse.

Jesus Who Sprouted from the Stump of Jesse

By the time of Jesus’ birth, that royal line of David—who was the son of Jesse—seemed long dormant and dead. Yet whether we trace Jesus’ lineage to the Virgin Mary or Joseph (Jesus’ legal father), Jesus descended from David [Luke 3:23-38; Matthew 1:1-17]. The stump of Jesse seemed long dormant and dead, but from his stump sprouted Jesus Christ the Vine. As Isaiah prophesies elsewhere, Jesus grew up like a young plant—a root out of dry ground—of humble origins and an unlikely prospect for success [Isaiah 53:2]. Yet far greater than Solomon or any other king [Matthew 12:42], Jesus is Jesse and David’s key descendant who epitomises all the Lord promised to David [2 Samuel 7:1-17].

Out of His great love for you and me, Jesus was and is the promised Saviour [Acts 13:22-23]. Jesus is the Holy Seed of the woman, who on the cross strikes the serpent’s head to defeat him, though there the serpent also strikes Jesus’ heel to strike Him dead for a time [Genesis 3:15]. The Root of Jesse has conquered Death and the Devil [Revelation 5:5; cf. 22:16], which He conquered for you! As you and I with repentance and faith rally around He who stands as a beacon for the people, we are forgiven, and so we participate in His kingdom of peace and righteousness.

The Atonement We Receive

In the first reading, Isaiah knew he would face ruin in the presence of Yahweh of Hosts because he was a man of unclean lips who also dwelt in the midst of a people with unclean lips. Yet one of the seraphim touched Isaiah’s mouth as a messenger of God’s grace with a burning coal taken from the altar, removing his guilt and atoning for his sins.

This is an odd image. Not only does a burning coal not burn Isaiah’s lips to a crisp, but even odder is that the seraph grabbed the piece of coal with tongs, not its own hands! The coal was so hot that not even the seraph—in all its power and glory much greater than ours—could not touch it with its hands, yet its touch upon Isaiah’s lips was sufficient to remove his guilt and atone for his sins without any pain, purifying him by fire.

I’m not sure how this is possible and no commentary I read has any insight on it, so we’ll just chalk it up to one of the unsolvable mysteries of God’s grace He hasn’t revealed to us. After all, God is known to do impossible things for the sake of His people.

Much like Isaiah though, we who are by nature sinful and unclean cannot stand in the Lord’s presence; for we, too, stand before Him with unclean lips in a culture of unclean lips. We can only stand in the presence of the Holy God by virtue of His first atoning for our sins on the cross and then giving us that forgiveness through His Word—the Word read and preached and administered in the sacraments of Holy Baptism, Absolution, and Communion.

In Holy Communion, the body and blood of Christ are present on this altar in bread and wine, which the pastor distributes and which you receive for the forgiveness of all your sins, and in which you receive life and salvation. As the coal from the Lord’s altar touched Isaiah’s lips and made atonement for his sins, so the body and blood of Christ from the Lord’s altar touch your lips and make atonement for all your sins.

Then, as Isaiah’s service followed his atonement, so our service follows the atonement we’ve received. Not all are called and sent as prophets as Isaiah was—not all are called to be pastors or deaconesses—but we all have various callings (or vocations) in which God has called us to live and to serve one another.

Especially now during the coronavirus pandemic! Christ instituted the Church for times such as these! This is the time for the Church to be the Church! “Church” literally means “gathering.” The Church is not the building; the Church is the people. You are the Church! As the Church, God has called you to various vocations to serve and care for one another, especially in times of suffering like today. We are not a people of fear; we are a people of faith—the faith in Christ who has overcome death.

It is true that a stump, with time, can sprout again after receiving water; and it is also true that when a person dies and returns to the ground, they cannot rise again even when water falls. But this is no longer true for you, for the waters of Holy Baptism have fallen upon you. Saint Paul describes the death and life we undergo in Baptism that also delivers to you the future life that is to come. In these waters, you have died to sin with Christ on the cross, with whom you have also risen into new life [Romans 6:1-4]. This is true for you right now!

In the same way, when you die and return to the ground, because of these waters you will sprout from the ground in the resurrection that is to come! A person cannot rise from death; it’s impossible! Exactly, that’s why you cannot do it, but there is Someone who can. We have a God who actually does the impossible in order to bring salvation to His people. So, He uses water combined with the power of His Word to do the impossible thing of raising you into new life both now and forevermore.

May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, the Root of Jesse, in whom you are baptised and shall sprout forth into new life everlasting. Amen.

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