Paul and the Shoot from the Stump of Jesse

The first reading for the second Sunday in Advent comes from Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1)

Paul quotes a snippet of Isaiah 11 at the end of the second reading: Romans 15:4-13.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.” Again, it says, “Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.” And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.” And again, Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.” (Romans 15:5-12)

The letter to the Romans is primarily about God’s fulfillment of his promise to Abraham to incorporate the Gentiles into the story of salvation. For Paul, the incorporation of the Gentiles into the promises of God is one of the primary effects of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This is the theme that ties the book together. The emboldened text above illustrates how Paul addresses the issue of Jewish-Gentile unity in Christ as he brings his letter to a close. Paul’s four scriptural citations (Psalm 18:49, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117:1 and Isaiah 11:10) at the end of this short passage also point in that direction. The Gentiles will rejoice in Jesus, the king born in David’s line, born from the root of Jesse, 

For those unfamiliar with the figure of speech to which Paul alluded, Jesse was King David’s father. When the prophet Isaiah speaks about a shoot springing up from the stump of Jesse, he is talking a descendant of King David arising to take the throne of a powerful, ethical, peaceful, secure and unified Israel. To speak about the stump of Jesse is to imply that the monarchy was all but dead – perhaps even cut down – a surprising thing to say since a descendant of David reigned on the throne in Jerusalem throughout Isaiah’s life.

Isaiah has much to say about the shoot from the stump of Jesse.

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him– the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD– and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:2-9)

For Isaiah, the king that will arise from the stump of David’s dynasty will be a perfectly wise and religiously faithful judge. He will issue righteous judgments in court and strike down the wicked in the field of battle. His reign will benefit the poor and the needy. Without drama or conflict, he will win his victories simply with the words that come from his mouth. The emphasis on the effectiveness of his words recalls the power of God’s word in creation. This rhetorical association is not an accident. As a result of the king’s righteous reign, even creation itself will be transformed. Wolves will reside with lambs instead of eating them. All the created world will enjoy the benefits of living under God’s righteous king, including the people of the pagan nations.

In Romans, Paul is only interested in this latter part of Isaiah’s prophecy.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)

In Advent and Christmas, it is easy to turn the prophet’s dream into a Utopian fantasy. Peace and prosperity for all people. Justice in all the land. A community of nations that lives in harmony. These are great things to hope for and to pray for. In Roman 15, Paul reminds us that the road to the Promised Land runs through the death and resurrection of the Messiah and continues on through the church of Jesus Christ where Jew and Gentile are one.

This Advent, evangelicals will want to remind us that Jesus came to save us from our sins. Progressives will want to remind us that Jesus came to establish God’s reign of justice and peace. Both are right. Without denying either truth, we should also listen to Paul. He wants to remind us that the shoot from the stump of Jesse came to graft the people of the nations into the people of God.

When you sing your next Christmas carol, look to your brothers and sisters on your left and right. Remember that Jesus came so that you could all glorify the Lord together. And just as the Lord made room for you at the table, so he makes rooms for all who turn to him in faith. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.