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Second Sunday of Advent: The Branch

Old Testament: Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalter: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Epistle: Romans 15:4-13
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

Two years ago a freak tornado whirled its way through Wyckoff, New Jersey. "This never happens here; this isn't Oklahoma," said the old-timers. Many of us shared that sentiment. What can you count on anymore when even weather patterns, that normally don't produce such destructive entities, prove unreliable?

Behind our house there grows a friendly, but somewhat unruly forest. Several of the more notable trees were felled during our infamous tornado. Gone were the budding trees and the tapestry of green, the light and shadows produced by the foliage. Remaining were naked and embarrassed stumps, pruned limbs and decapitated trunks.

When spring began to tease us, my dog Barney and I romped through the former jungle, playing hide-and-seek. As we walked, my eye fastened on a stump. The tornado had reduced a once imposing old tree to a colorless old stump, lacking height or depth.

However, as I drew a little nearer to investigate, I found the tree wasn't as dead as it appeared from a distance. Pushing their way through the residue of pruning and sawing were small budding shoots, laced with green leaves and stretching toward the sun. The stump still wasn't much to behold, but it held the seed of promise. And it reminded me of a passage from the prophet Isaiah: "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit" (Isa. 11:1).

Out of a burned-out nation, tired politics, and worn-out and unworkable systems, the prophet saw the possibility of some new beginnings. Judah was playing in the big leagues, and they were completely outclassed by their opposition. But the prophet foresaw promise for Judah's future. The winds of change were blowing through the neighborhood, even when Judah seemed most vulnerable to military conquest, political exploitation, and economic disintegration.

Isaiah surely remembered a tree in a primeval garden that offered the option of the knowledge of good and evil. He remembered the man and woman who plucked the luscious fruit and were exiled from the garden of God. God's people had to live with a stump instead of a full-grown fruit-producing tree. That is the legacy of those who reside "east of Eden."

But stumps grow shoots that begin to live again—out of deadness there springs life. Isaiah saw a stump of a country waiting for the signs of a new life. He remembered God's promise that a relative of King David would forever transform the nation's life. Isaiah remembered, and he pictured his hope for Judah's tomorrow in terms of a new, fresh, green, and vital shoot growing out of the weary roots of Judah's yesterdays:

The Spirit of the LORD mil rest on him, the Spirit ofivisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.
—Isaiah 11:2

This new shoot would be belted with righteousness and faithfulness (11:5) and would inaugurate a return to the old harmonies vaguely recalled, but frequently forgotten from Eden: those days, when "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will He down with the goat. . .. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:6,9).

Isaiah looked forward to the moment when the one who was of the "stump of Jesse" and the house of David would appear:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
—Isaiah 53:2

When full grown, this young and tender plant would assemble his pupils and remind them, "Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me" (John 15:4).

The whole story begins in the garden of God and surges toward its conclusion in the city of God where we read:

I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches, lam the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.
—Revelation 22:16

Suggested Anthems

"A Spotless Rose," Howells
[Galaxy]

"Behold a Star from Jacob Shining," Mendelssohn
[from Chrisius (Schirmer)]

"Blessed, Blessed Is He Who Cometh" Saint-Saens (duet)
[Schirmer]

"Cantique de Jean Racine," Faure
[Broude Bros.]

"The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns," Lenel
[Concordia]

"The Rose and the Lily" Rowley
[Novello]

"There Shall a Star from Jacob,"
Mendelssohn
Fischer

"Unto this Rose," Sateren
[Ditson]

"What Is this Lovely Fragrance," Alwes
[Roger Dean Publishing]

(Note: Many other suggestions for congregational and choral music based on the Scripture lessons for this Sunday are included on pages 30-31.)

For the Children

Preparation: Prepare a Jesse tree. I suggest using a tree branch secured with plaster of paris in a large coffee can. The branch can remain in the sanctuary or church school throughout the Advent season. Also prepare a few symbols the children can hang on the tree: David (crown), Adam and Eve (snake around apple), Noah (rainbow or ark), Ruth (sheaf of wheat), Solomon (gold), Mary (heart), Joseph (hammer), Elizabeth (angel), Jesus (manger or cross), and so on.

Begin by talking to the children about families—especially about grandparents, parents, and children. Explain that sometimes people use trees to help them picture their families. Point to your "tree" and briefly explain how the thick part could be the grandparents, the branches could be the parents, and the smaller twigs could be the children.

Tell the group that sometimes we use a tree to help us think about Jesus' family too. Many, many years before Jesus was born God made a promise to a man named Jesse. He said that someone from his family—one of his children's children's children's children's children would be God's own Son. So when we make a family tree for Jesus, we sometimes call it a "Jesse tree." It reminds us that God keeps the promises he makes to his people.

Hold up each ornament and ask the children to identify it. Allow them to wonder about what person in God's family and what promises are represented by the picture. Say each name together and encourage the children to tell you what they know about that special person in Jesus' family.

Conclude by telling the children that the Jesse tree will stay in your sanctuary throughout the Advent season as a very special reminder. It will help everyone to remember God's wonderful promise to send Jesus to earth.