My focus today is on Isaiah, chapter 11, with a special emphasis on verse 1: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[i] Now that our feet are standing within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
Have you ever coppiced? Some of us have coppiced, but are afraid to admit it. People who know how to coppice can make a good living at it. Before you get the wrong idea – to coppice means to cut back in order to regrow.
A traditional method of woodland management coppicing enables new growth from the stump or roots if cut down. You cut the tree stems to about ground level so that new shoots can grow. Then the coppiced tree is ready to be harvested, and the cycle begins again.[ii]
Willow trees are the most popular because of their rapid regeneration.[iii] I have unwanted coppiced trees in my back yard. Some of you have them too. You cut the tree down to a stump, and shoots sprout from the roots. If you want to get rid of unwanted coppiced trees, drill holes in the stump, pour in potassium nitrate and burn them.
Stump growth is quite familiar to Oklahomans and Israelites. Therefore, it is quite logical that when prophesying about the Messiah, Isaiah’s prophecy uses a familiar image. Shoots sprout from stumps and roots bear fruit. However, before examining the prophet’s message, we explore how John the Baptist practiced coppicing along the Jordan River 700 years later.
John called people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” He echoed Isaiah’s words: “Prepare the way for the Lord.” Repentant sinners prepared through baptism.
Those too proud for repentance and baptism faced the ax and fire. As the homeowner of a wooded lot, I know exactly the meaning of John’s words, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” I used a chainsaw before I threw dead trees and rotten stumps into the fire.
Coppicing or cutting down makes room for new growth in forest or field, in ministry or the military. Being cut down or just being cut down to size is humbling and even humiliating. The problem of the Pharisees and Sadducees chastised by John was that they lacked humility, and would not repent. John cut down unrepentant sinners who produced no fruit. His message was much like Isaiah who cried, “The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled and human pride brought low; the Lord alone will be exalted.”[iv]
Like John, Isaiah called people to prepare for the Day of the Lord. And so, we return to Isaiah to see how stump growth is related to messianic prophecy.
When God called Isaiah to be a prophet, an angel flew to him with a live coal from the altar. The angel touched the prophet’s mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”[v] Isaiah then heard the voice of God reveal how His people would be captured and His land wasted. Yet, God promised, “But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”[vi]
The holy seed will be the stump in the land. … Isaiah maintains this divinely inspired stump growth image throughout his preaching. In today’s opening verse, he states, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Jesse, the father of King David, is an ancestor of Jesus. “Son of David” is a biblical term that refers to the Messiah. Thus, the shoot that grows out of the stump of Jesse is the Lord Jesus.[vii]
Isaiah prophesied the Spirit will rest on the Christ, the Messiah. He then describes some aspects of this Promised Messiah. The Spirit will endow Him with wisdom and power, and other gifts; and the poor and needy, He will judge with righteousness. …
You say, “That’s all quite nice, but what does a 2,700 year-old messianic prophecy have to do with Christian living in 21st century America? What message do Isaiah and John leave for us today?” Two words: WAKE UP!!!
Following Christ today is more arduous than clearing a wooded lot, more humbling than basic training in God’s Army. For the mature Christian, following Christ means humiliation, death and new growth. In other words, Christian discipleship involves constant wakeup calls.
An example. Eight years ago this month, my friend, Doctor William Katz, clinical director of echocardiography at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Heart and Vascular Institute, informed me that my mother had between two months and two years to live. At the time, I was serving as a pastor and hospital chaplain in Eureka, California. I asked Bill, “Do you think I should come back?” His one-sentence wakeup call was, “If it were my mother, I would.” Sometimes, following Christ involves not only moving, but also moving out of your comfort zone. Moving from Northwest California to Southwestern Pennsylvania changed my lifestyle and added new responsibilities. Being mom’s primary caregiver changed me, but left me with no regrets.
A more compelling example is from Congressman Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania. I met Mike, a member of Word of God Church, when I served as a pastor there in the mid-90’s. One Sunday morning when he spoke to our men’s group, a member of the church asked Mike how his life changed since he was elected to Congress. Mike response was this.
“As a congressman, you receive a lot of invitations to speak to people. In the first six months, I accepted every request. During the week, I lived and worked in Washington. On weekends, I spoke to groups throughout the district. Then, one Saturday morning I was sitting at the kitchen table with my wife, drinking coffee and reading the paper, when she asked, “How long are you going to do this congress thing?” Putting down the paper, I responded, “What do you mean?” My wife said, “I want to know how long you’re going to do this because I want to know when I’m going to get my husband back, when the kids will get their father back, and when we will be a family again.”
Mike said, “It was like getting smacked between the eyes with a 2x4.” He continued. “I informed my staff that I would take no more Saturday requests.” Mike, who attends church faithfully and participates in a congressional prayer group, learned that the mature Christian sometimes needs a humble smack between the eyes with the proverbial 2x4 in order to make necessary changes to save his marriage and family, to coppice in order to enable new growth.
… Advent is that sobering time when Christians eagerly anticipate the coming of Christ – as an infant on December 25th and as glorious Lord and Judge on a date yet unknown. As that Day of the Lord nears, we have to ask ourselves three questions. First, am I prepared to repent or cut back in order to bear fruit? As I prepare for Christmas, what area of my life do I need to cut to regenerate new growth? If the Holy Spirit could coppice my life, how would that benefit the people closest to me? How would basic training in the Lord’s army humble me and make a better Christian out of me? Instead of watching Sports Center, can I spend more time pondering God’s Word? Am I willing to share more time with my spouse and family and less time on Facebook?
Second, am I willing to forgive because I have been forgiven? As we receive invitations to holiday parties and family dinners, is there someone with whom I need to make amends? You know that person – the one who owes you rent because he occupies so much time in your head and even causes you to sin in thought. Am I as arrogant as a Pharisee on Jordan’s Bank that I need not reconcile? Who have I not forgiven as the Lord has forgiven me?
Finally, do I love with abandon – because God will never abandon us? Do I express my excitement like a puppy? Whenever we come home from work, maybe the spouse or kids do not get excited and run to greet us, but the family dog does and makes us feel like a million bucks because they live totally in the present. … God lives totally in the present. Every time God sees me, he gets excited and runs like some old fool to greet me with hugs and kisses (Luke 15:20). Do I love like that? Do I love with abandon? If not, perhaps the biggest change we can make is to love God and neighbor with abandon knowing that God will never abandon us.As we await the Day of the Lord, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7). Amen.