O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
As a teenager I helped in coppicing woodland. Even the mightiest trees were felled. But the intention, rather than simply destroying the wood, was to allow the old roots to put out new growth. It wasn’t a replacement of the original trees, but something potentially just as useful. With careful management we had chestnut and hazel for woven fencing, cover for pheasants and even willow for cricket bats.
Isaiah saw the great family tree cut down. The legacy of King Solomon, a magnificent temple crowning the royal city, had been destroyed, and the rulers of the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah were taken captive. Surely nothing could arise from this, yet the prophet saw the survival of the stump as a sign of hope. Isaiah’s vision of what it might produce kept the hope of Israel alive through long generations in spite of conquests by foreign powers. However, rather than wondering about what the possibilities of new growth might be, people may have longed for a return to the old days, with a clone of Jesse’s son who might once more slay the new Goliath and throw out the Philistines again.
The descendant whom the nations would seek was no clone. The man who came, humble and riding on an ass, didn’t fit with the expectations of either the zealots or the temple elite. He neither restored the military power of Jerusalem nor added to the glory of the city’s temple.
But how people long to relive former greatness! There is in Britain today a similar longing to recapture the days of former glory, when London was the capital of an empire which reached every continent and included a quarter of the people of the world. In those days Britain was expected to take a leading role on the world stage and indeed did so. But the mighty tree is no more. It will not grow back as it was, and the coppice needs to be valued for what it can produce today.
The false perception wasn’t helped when the rapidly won victories in the Falkland Islands and in Kuwait lulled the nation into thinking that all that was needed on the foreign stage was a continuation of sabre rattling and gun boat diplomacy. We are now seeing that Bush and Blair only thought they needed to give a final kick to a regime in Iraq that was already beaten, and everyone would rush to congratulate them. The ‘special relationship’ with the USA appealed to Blair’s vanity and bounced us into an expensive illegal war with no plan for securing the peace. He clearly thought it was Britain’s role to act as the major player alongside the USA rather than acting alongside our more cautious and larger neighbours such as Germany and France.
But if governments can learn to move from conquest to co-operation, then the churches need to do the same. The stock of Jesse did not ask for Constantinian triumphalism, crusades, inquisitions and holy wars. This tender shoot announced a kingdom which did not require the trappings of worldly power in order to proclaim his universal message. Churches which appeared as temporal powers in nations and empires are increasingly irrelevant to the lives of many, and the wars between the remaining Christians bring faith into disrepute.
If we are truly to offer what the nations seek, then we need to model ourselves more closely on the shoot from the stock of Jesse, whose mission was to the bruised reed and whose message proclaimed justice for all. We need to be seen as the bearers of that hope, offering new life. ‘Come and deliver us’, we cry this Advent – that we might offer this deliverance to all. He offers us a new creation open to everyone, not a return to the past glory of a few.
Tom Ambrose is a priest living in Cambridge.