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A Dead Tree Is Reborn

Date: December 1, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
1 candle lit in the advent wreath

Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-9

We mainline Christians, children of the Enlightenment that we are, have bought into the notion that religion is a private matter, just between us and God, just about our individual, personal salvation. But this notion of religion as having only to do with whether or not I am saved so I go to heaven when I die, but otherwise no bearing on how this world operates, has been used to perpetuate some terrible things. Recently an author has called it “slaveholder religion”[1] —a twisted form of Christianity that allowed many white mainline Christians in the southern United States before the Civil War to go to church on Sunday, hear sermons about personal salvation, but never hear anything that might lead them to consider whether the Bible they claimed to believe in had anything to say about the way they treated other human beings whom they considered to be their property. [2]

The problem is, the Bible doesn’t necessarily lend itself to Enlightenment-style pigeonholing, where we can put religion into a slot on Sunday morning and, having filled that slot, live the rest of the week totally apart from any thought about it.

No, the Bible doesn’t tell us specifically how we should vote, nor does it specifically spell out how our elected officials should act (beyond the things it says to all of us, like love God and love your neighbor, keep the Sabbath, don’t kill or steal or lie or commit adultery, and treat others how you’d like to be treated). And quite honestly, I think some of the political realities of the Bible get lost in translation, because the cultures of the Bible are very, very different from our own culture. (This is the subject of the first books I’m having to read for my Doctor of Ministry program, looking at the economic and social realities of the earliest Christians living in the Roman Empire and how those early Christians might have heard the Gospel and the writings of Paul.)

For one thing, there is no such thing anywhere in the Bible as a representative democracy as we understand it today. The nation of Israel, and later the divided kingdom of Judah, was to a great extent a theocracy…or perhaps the prophets thought it should be. The intention from the very moment the Israelites entered the Promised Land was that they would be a free people ruled by God and God’s Law. When the people demanded to have a king, like the nations around them, God allowed it—but the king was expected to rule according to God’s commandments, and the whole nation was judged by how well the king led them to follow those commandments.

After the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian Empire in 586 bce, except for a very short time under the Maccabees, the Jewish people never again had an independent nation of their own, up until the modern state of Israel was established in 1948. During the rest of the time period covered in the Bible, the Jewish people—from whom all our Scriptures, and our Savior, come—lived as subject people, first to Babylon, then Persia, then Syria, then Rome.

There is no such thing in the Bible as, in the words of arguably our most religious President, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”[3] Thus we’re not always aware of the political implications of some of what’s in the Bible.

As an example: it is thought that the earliest public Christian confession of faith is “Jesus is Lord.” Paul mentions this confession at the start of his extended discussion of the gifts of the Spirit, which takes up the 12th through the 14th chapters of 1 Corinthians. What we may not realize is that, living in the Roman world, making a public statement that anyone other than Caesar is Lord was considered treason! It was very much a political statement—to say Jesus is Lord was, in effect, to say that, ultimately, Caesar is not.

How proclaiming Jesus as our Lord plays out in 21st-century America is something with which I will leave you to wrestle, but I daresay it is potentially every bit as subversive as it was in 1st-century Imperial Rome, although perhaps in different ways.

Have you ever given any thought to why it was important for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem? Again, it’s political, and potentially dangerous.

The most obvious reason is that Jesus is descended from King David. But that’s not just a bit of trivia. It is a political statement. The people believed God had made a covenant with David, that one of his descendants would sit on the throne in Jerusalem “forever.”[4] (That “forever” was qualified, actually: his descendants would sit on that throne as long as they obeyed God’s commandments. And the Deuteronomistic history found in Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings makes it pretty clear that the majority of David’s descendants who sat on that throne did not fully obey God’s commandments, and that this is the reason why the last one was overthrown and carried into exile in Babylon. History tells us there was never another Davidic king ruling from Jerusalem after that.)

Well before the last king of David’s line was deposed, the prophets and the people began to dream of a king from David’s family tree whose reign would be marked by complete faithfulness to God’s commandments. The prophecy of Isaiah 11:1-9 probably came from the time period when Jerusalem was being threatened by Assyria, the empire that came before Babylon, which had just destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered its inhabitants to the wind. The first part of the Isaiah book is pretty pessimistic—remember the Song of the Vineyard we heard two weeks ago, which declared God’s judgment on the people of Jerusalem and Judah, just as a vinegrower would destroy a vineyard that, in spite of his better efforts to get it to bear good fruit, persistently produced nothing but putrid stinkers.

But as Isaiah moves forward with his prophecy, he predicts that the nations who execute this judgment will themselves be cut down. And then we come to chapter 11, after all that desolation, the whole known world looking like a Pacific Northwest hillside after loggers clear-cut it, and there’s a tiny spark of life: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…” Jesse, of course, was King David’s father, so this is a poetic way of saying that another descendant of David will emerge, and will rule, even though David’s line will at some point be cut off.

This prophecy, as I said, came originally from a time when there was still a Davidic king ruling from Jerusalem. The prediction may well have been that, within the people’s lifetime, a king who is of David’s family would emerge, who would rule with God’s own justice and righteousness, unlike just about every king from David on, some of whom followed God’s commandments to some extent, but all of whom had very human flaws.

But after the last Davidic king, Zedekiah, was taken from the throne by Babylon,[5] the prophecy came to be re-imagined. The tree of Jesse was cut down, nothing but a stump left standing…but one day new life will sprout from it. In the Hebrew Bible, whenever God inflicts judgment, it’s done to make room for something new to spring forth.

The hope that came from this re-imagining, not just of this passage but others from Isaiah, and one from Micah—which King Herod’s learned men consulted to figure out that a new “king of the Jews” would be born in Bethlehem—was of a king such that the world had never known. This king would perfectly fulfil God’s Law, would enact God’s justice and righteousness on the earth, and his rule would be good news to the poor and the oppressed. He would be from King David’s family, and he would be born in David’s hometown, Bethlehem.

And that is not just a pretty picture, a pretty family in a stable with the baby in a manger. It is very much a political statement. For David was the greatest king of the independent Jewish nation, and messianic hope centered on a king like David re-establishing that independent nation, ruling from Jerusalem after overthrowing the Roman occupation.

It’s no wonder King Herod was scared—he was nothing but Rome’s puppet, so a threat to Rome’s power was a serious threat to his power.

When the subject Jewish people, whether they be in a ghetto in Babylon or in Roman-occupied Judea or Galilee, started talking about a shoot from the stump of Jesse, what they were saying was that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” And they were saying that the Son of David was their king, not Nebuchadnezzar, not Herod, not even Caesar. And the Son of David would be born in Bethlehem, a king put to bed in a manger, forced to become a refugee before he was old enough to be weaned, a king with no place to lay his head, a king who would turn this whole world upside down.

It’s still a political statement to declare that this Son of David—Jesus Christ—is our Lord above all the rulers of this world, however good and righteous they might be (and a great many of them are not). That’s because from the minute Jesus began his ministry, the Gospels tell us he had some pretty radical things to say. His inaugural address was given at his home synagogue, in his adopted hometown of Nazareth. He began by quoting Isaiah 61:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…”

Isaiah 61:1-2a; Luke 4:18-19

Then he sat down—because rabbis sat down to teach—and said, “Today this prophecy has been fulfilled.”

We can’t fully understand that until we realize that “the year of the LORD’s favor” is the Year of Jubilee. It was commanded in the 25th chapter of Leviticus: every fifty years, slaves were to be released, land that had changed hands was to go back to its original owners, debts were to be cancelled. This was meant to keep wealth from becoming concentrated in the hands of a few; every fifty years, the playing field was to be leveled, by God’s command.

And there is no evidence that the Year of Jubilee was ever celebrated in Israel or Judah.

When Jesus proclaimed that he was the one who would finally bring about Jubilee, his hometown was astonished and pleased: surely this meant Rome would be sent packing, along with their casual cruelty and crushing taxation. It was a political statement! And then he angered even his neighbors and kinfolk by declaring that this Jubilee was not just for his own people. They were so angry, indeed, that they tried to throw him off a cliff!

Preachers ever since have, and rightly so, been leery about making political statements in their sermons. Rightly so, because in a country like ours, where we value highly freedom of thought, faith, and speech; and in a church where we call for unity in the essentials (Jesus is Lord), liberty in the nonessentials (interpretation of Scripture, political affiliation, and the like), and love in all matters; discussions about where faith and politics intersect need to be conversations, not decrees from one person who happens to have “Reverend” in front of their name.

But the truth is that the Gospel, the Good News about the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the king unlike any the world has ever known, who fulfilled every last bit of torah[6] and was totally, absolutely, obedient to God’s commandments even to the point of death on a cross,[7] is very much political, because it has profound implications for how the world’s goods are distributed, and how the peoples of the world are to treat one another.

And it all starts with the seemingly innocent reality that Jesus, the Messiah, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, was born in Bethlehem, King David’s hometown.

[1] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Reconstructing the Gospel:  Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2018).

[2] It is true, as some have said, that the Bible nowhere says slavery in itself is immoral; yet in torah there are rules about how slaves are to be treated and when and how they are to be set free, and a case can be made that in Paul’s letter to Philemon the seeds were sown for Christians to come to understand slavery as contrary to our faith.

[3] Although Abraham Lincoln never officially held membership in any congregation, his spoken and written words seem to indicate a man of great faith, deeply rooted in Scripture.

[4] 2 Samuel 7:16

[5] 2 Kings 24:18—25:7.  Zedekiah was treated very cruelly by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon:  all of his sons were slaughtered before his eyes, then he was blinded, so his sons’ deaths were the last things he ever saw.

[6] See Matthew 5:17-18; John 19:30 (“It is finished” can be translated “It is accomplished”—perhaps what is accomplished at the moment of Jesus’ death is the total fulfillment of torah, which brings about the destruction of sin itself).

[7] Philippians 2:8