Advent: The Smoldering Stump and the Branch

In Advent, the Inconceivable One was conceived in the flesh.
This is the season of waiting, of imagination; this is the season of a pregnant pause, where the audience knows what’s coming, but the author waits to deliver the punchline. This is not the season to mourn the Incarnate Word who was silent before his shearers, nor is it the season to mourn that the Author of Life lies dead in a tomb. This is the season to wait for the Word to be mute, only able to cry and scream, to wordlessly call us to repentance. 

This is the season  of waiting, of building up hope against all odds, that God is faithful to his promises.

At the end of the first century BC, Israel is a stump. No longer characterized by individual vine and fig trees (I Kings 4:25), Israel was a tree, dead at the stump (Isaiah 11). Rather than reigning with the knowledge of good evil (promised to Adam through a tree, Genesis 1:29), Israel was unwatered and lifeless. No life could come from this tree anymore, so Israel waited with baited breath for God to “raise up” (2 Samuel 7:14) new life out of the dead stump, out of the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11). Israel was as barren as Egypt during the plagues (Exodus 10:15), waiting for new life to remind them of the time spent amongst the palm trees (Exodus 15:27) with the fountains.  It seemed that while Israel failed to produce fruit, the trees were flourishing apart from God (Ezekiel 31:5-8).

But God promised something different. He gave the prophet Zechariah a vision: the Angel of the Presence standing with four horsemen over the deep amongst myrtle trees (Zechariah 1:6-17). Zechariah didn’t just see any vision: he saw one of the risen king Jesus, enthroned on a war horse surrounded by his saints, king of a new creation symbolized by the myrtle trees, a sign of the Spirit during the wilderness wanderings. Yahweh saw the dead tree and promised something better: out of the stump would grow a Branch (Isaiah 4:2, 11:9; 60:21; Jeremiah 23; 33:15; 48:32; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12), and this Branch would rule over a restored Israel. This Branch would restore the Temple and reach out and graft in other nations (Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12); he would rule as a good king with wisdom and righteousness (Jeremiah 23); the Branch would be the end of the exile as Israel knew it. Israel did not know what to expect; they had their ideas, but God had something better in mind. So they must wait. They do not wait  for their wildest dreams, but for something better: they wait for God’s faithfulness to be manifested in a new, dynamic way. 

The Apostle Paul understood the imagery of the Branch and commented on it during Romans 9-11. He saw that the Gentiles would be grafted on to the Branch of the Messiah that the Jews and Gentiles might both find life in the vine, Jesus the Messiah, the crucified Christ killed and resurrected. Apart from him, they would be a smoldering stump. Again.

But this isn’t the time to celebrate that. Israel is waiting for the Branch to come. Zerubabbel never took the throne as a Davidic King: though he was of the dynasty, he remained a governor. Israel had to wait for God’s promised king to be “raised up”. Israel waits for the day that Yahweh will make his name known, restore Israel, and cause righteousness to dwell in the land. Roman occupation scares Israel: this can’t be her land if she is under foreign rule. The High Priests had been bought out during the Maccabean era, and the Herods were descendants of Esau, enemies of Israel (cf. Malachi 1:1-2; Obadiah). Israel knew she needed priests to marry her, but they would have to wait for something better. How would God cause a King from the line of David to rule over Israel when the world doesn’t seem to be at peace and God’s people are ruled by two foreign powers? Yet, in Israel, some remained faithful. Some waited upon Yahweh, expectant that he would act to fulfill the promises made through Jeremiah (29) and Daniel (9) that in 70 weeks of years he would restore his covenant. Rather than seizing power early and revolting as Adam did, Israel would wait on Yahweh to deliver his promises.

These are the expectations. This is the world that Israel is in waiting for Jesus to appear and deliver his people from oppression and evil.

And we wait. We wait for the Risen Messiah to make his Second Coming, to set the world to peace again. We live in a world of systemic injustice, of violence, of misogyny, of racism, of deceit, of slander, of gossip, of lying, of lust, of abuse, of evil. We wait for his return that he might wipe every tear from our eye, that he might rid the world of the sea that plagues us. We may not be a smouldering stump, but evil still exists. The Church is plagued by the attacks of Satan constantly. We are a tree, and we need to be both pruned (John 14) and protected.

We wait for the Messiah as branches grafted onto a Vine. We are insufficient in ourselves to achieve life. We wait for our tree to bear its fullest fruit: we wait for the ultimate Tree of Life, with twelve kinds of fruit, symbolizing the full fruit of Israel herself, bearing fruit in every season (cf. Mark 13 and the fig tree). We wait to partake of the fruit of life rather and of the Spirit.

Israel, waiting for her Messiah, prays “How long, O Lord? Will you forget your servants forever?”.
The Church prays similarly: “How long, O Lord? Come, Lord Jesus.”

And we wait. Right now, we wait. We don’t celebrate the Risen King. Not yet. We don’t know what to expect when God will make his final move. We have a picture in the resurrection, but God’s plan is greater than our expectations. Now he is teaching us to wait, he is building our expectation that we are more anxious, more hopeful, more excited to see how he will deliver us. What we imagine now, what we pray for now, is nothing compared to what God will be doing. So he is teaching us to wait, making us wait to build our expectations. Because when we expect and hope for more out of God, we ask for more out of God. We can imagine more out of God so we ask more out of him.

Now, we wait. We wait for the second Advent of our Savior, expectant. We expect God to move in our world and set it to justice. We wait for Yahweh to save us according to our righteousness in the Son. We wait with baited breath on the edge of our seats to see what God is doing next. 

Now, we wait. We will mourn the death of our king later. We will celebrate his birth and his resurrection later.

But now, we wait.

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