Sunday, 4 December 2016

Advent 2: Family Trees

“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

I've been thinking a lot about family trees this week, partly because I spent the first few days of it down in Exeter with my mother, catching up on a few things that needed doing. Amidst those jobs was one which we've been putting off for ages, a job which had just seemed too daunting to attempt. That job was to sort through the vast quantities of – mostly loose – family photos she has accumulated, as most of us do, over the years. There are photos from holidays she took with Dad, photos of my and my brother’s childhood, photos of our families, photos of her childhood, photos inherited from her parents, and my father’s parents, photos of friends, and photos of people whose identity is a complete mystery and probably always will be. We got there in the end, at least sorting them into rough categories, but of course each of those pictures was far more than a photo. They were full of memories and stories, pictures of people who had in some way had an influence on my and my mother’s lives. Whether they were related by blood or were friends, they had played some part in shaping the people we were, part of our family tree in one way or another.

That’s why the task had seemed so daunting.  It wasn't just the quantity of photos; it was the quantity of memories they represented which loomed so large.

It was a timely coincidence, then, that our Bible readings today are about a family tree as well, the tree that “comes out of the stock of Jesse” as Isaiah put it. Jesse was the father of King David, and that made him very important to the Israelites; their line of kingship started with him.  At the time Isaiah was writing, though, it looked as if that family tree was coming to an abrupt and brutal end, as the Babylonian army swept across their land. The family tree had been cut down. It was all over for the nation. But Isaiah tells them that it isn't so. Just you can fell a tree in the garden, only to find that new shoots come from its trunk – often more vigorous than the ones you chopped down – so God would enable a new nation to grow, a new family tree to spring up from the old roots.

Many centuries later, the early Christians had an “aha!” moment when they looked at this verse. Hadn’t Jesus fulfilled it? they thought. He was descended from the line of David, born in David’s city of Bethlehem, and in him they’d found a new family, a new kingdom. It was exactly as Isaiah had said.

Jan Mostaert, c. 1500,
By the Middle Ages the Jesse Tree had become a very popular motif in art. Many Medieval churches had representations of Jesse Trees in them – painted, carved, rendered in stained glass. There are many around still. They try to portray the “family tree” of Jesus. Often the tree literally sprouts from the sleeping body of Jesse – it’s quite an odd image – and perched in its branches are all sorts of Old Testament characters who in some way foreshadow and prepare the way for Jesus. People sometimes make Jesse Trees through Advent too – we are doing so at Seal School this Advent – hanging pictures of Old Testament characters in the branches. It’s the equivalent of that process of gathering the family photos as I did with my mum earlier this week, pondering who these people were, and why they mattered.

As I said, the idea of the Jesse Tree came from that “aha!” moment which the early Christians had, when they saw that the “shoot that came from the stock of Jesse” could be seen to culminate in the life of Jesus. He came at a time when, once again, the nation was under threat, this time from Rome, and when many people felt that they didn't, in any case, have much of a place in the “family tree” of Judaism. That’s why his message was received so enthusiastically by those who were at the bottom of the heap; slaves, women, the poor, those whose lives had fallen apart, those who were looked down on by others.

But, as John the Baptist said in our Gospel reading, God was an expert at starting from scratch,  capable of cutting down that old, exclusive “family tree” and growing a new one. “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”  he thunders at the Pharisees and Sadducees who come out to see him – these are the ones who make the repressive rules which keep people away from God, telling them they are unworthy. This new family tree wouldn't be based on physical descent or being a religious insider; it would be one with room for everyone.

But what would this new tree look like? That’s where the analogy breaks down a bit – you can only ever push these sort of pictures so far. When a tree puts out a new shoot from its stump, the new growth will be genetically identical to the old. It will have leaves, bark, flowers, fruit, just like the old tree did. It may be a slightly different shape, like the coppiced trees which fill our woodlands around Seal, with many stems instead of one, but otherwise it will basically be the old tree all over again.

But the new growth God wants to give us isn't just the same old, same old. Isaiah knew that. The new nation he speaks about is one which looks very different from the old. It is a nation where wolves live with lambs, leopards lie down with kids, lions eat straw and little children are in the lead. That’s a very odd vision indeed. The people of his time had never seen anything like it, and we probably haven’t either.

In the New Testament, the early Christians saw what God was doing in Jesus as something radically new too, as strange as Isaiah’s vision. John the Baptist talks about the axe lying at the root of the tree, the fire of the Holy Spirit, the grain being threshed and winnowed. It is all change for those who want to share in the new growth God offers.

In our second reading, we got a glimpse of one aspect of this revolution. Gentiles – non-Jews – were welcomed on equal terms; the old tribal barriers had been abolished. The “family” wasn’t just for those who were genetically related, part of the existing tribe. It was for anyone who wanted to be part of it. “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you,” says Paul, writing to a church where people are obviously struggling to see the family likeness in some of those who are part of their fellowship.

Families can be wonderful, but they can also be restrictive, abusive, forcing people into moulds that don’t fit them, but Jesus challenged this stranglehold and set people free to be who they were called to be. He drew his followers into fellowship with people very different from themselves.  Remember Isaiah’s vision of wolves living with lambs, and leopards lying down with kids? Being part of Christ’s family, his kingdom, means learning to see anew, making friends out of enemies, taking a risk on trusting those you have viewed with fear.  It means listening to those who might seem to have little to offer – “a little child will lead them”- paying attention to the wisdom that might come from those at the bottom of the heap.

The idea of that “peaceable kingdom” was, and still is, a very attractive one, but the reality is that it is hard to live like that. We can’t do it in our own strength, and we can’t do it if we aren’t secure that we belong and are of worth to God ourselves. As Paul reminds us, we are only able to welcome others because we have been welcomed by Christ ourselves.  

Our readings today, then, call us to look both outward and inward. We’re called to look outward into a world which is full of threat and danger. Where we belong and what we belong to has been a hot topic this year. A lot of old certainties have been challenged.  The EU referendum, the rise of a new, sometimes rather aggressive nationalism across Europe and in the US is shaking up old assumptions and allegiances.  What does the future hold? No one knows but it’s clear that it will be frighteningly easy for the weak to be swept aside, for ugly prejudice to get the upper hand. We should never be complacent about that. It’s a moment when it’s really important for us to be clear about what a Christian vision for the world looks like - where wolves and lambs live together, where those who are most vulnerable are most protected, where, above all, we think of ourselves as part of one human family, the family of God.  

Most of us probably don’t feel we have much power to influence international events, but in reality, the changes that matter most are usually local ones – they are things that happen here and now. Our neighbourhoods, our nation, our world, are made up of individuals – us - either loving each other or not. We’re part of God’s work where we are, either building his kingdom, growing his family tree, or not.

But if we’re going to be able to look outward, and play our part, we have to look inward too, into our own hearts, because that’s where the fears and hatreds that warp the world begin.

Those who flocked to John the Baptist in the desert were desperate for hope, and hope was what they found, but it was hope that came wrapped up in challenge. The same is true for us this Advent. Will we go out into the desert, into the place we don’t know and make the real changes in ourselves that lead to change in the world, or will we stick with the same old, same old, and wonder why it doesn't work? Will we risk welcoming people we've been suspicious of, loving people we fear, letting God form us into a new family, where all can feel welcome and have a place? Our families are often precious to us, and so they should be, but the most important family we can ever belong to is the family of God, whose family tree is broader than any we can ever imagine.

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