Come, read the stories, and see for yourself!
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Lord Jesus, in the prophets we find hints of what who Messiah would be. In the gospels and letters we hear how you fulfilled their expectations. Let us listen with fresh ears and look with new eyes to find you still present today.
THE JESSE TREE Prophet, Refiner, Healer, Re-newer, Savior
Our Scriptures and Stories today will cover a range of prophets to Jesus spanning hundreds of years of history bridging from the Old Testament to the New. That is the point of the Jesse Tree. We’ve shared stories and ornaments from the main branches of the Jesse Tree, Jesus’ own family tree. But today, we are going to explore a different branch.
One storyteller built her Advent devotional around an old gentleman carving a Jesse Tree and the young boy who knows nothing about these Bible stories but keeps coming in to interrupt him with lots of questions. Along the way, when the old man mentioned Elijah and Elisha, the boy asked, “Was Elijah one of Jesus’ ancestors?” He asked about Elisha, too, so the old man said, “No, He and Elijah were prophets…They have a separate bough to themselves.” Of course the boy asked why, and the carpenter finally came up with an answer. “because they knew Jesus was coming. Even hundreds of years before he came…They promised God’s people that he really was coming – a redeemer, a rescuer, someone who would forgive them all their mistakes.” (Geraldine McCaughrean, The Jesse Tree, p. 67)
So, what about Elijah and Elisha’s stories? They are just two of the prophets we’ll mention today. Elijah in some ways represents all the prophets, especially when we glimpse him with Moses conversing with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration halfway through Jesus’ ministry.
There are several favorite scenes for me from Elijah’s story. During the drought and famine, when Elijah was hungry and desperate in the wilderness, God sent ravens carrying food to feed him. Then Elijah was guided to the widow of Zarephath who was making a last meal to share with her son as they ran out of food. Yet Elijah asked her to bake a little cake for him first. As she continued to feed him, God continued to provide enough flour and oil to sustain all three of them for a very long time. When her son became so ill, he was assumed to be dead, Elijah prayed over the boy bringing him back to life.
When King Ahab led the nation away from worshipping God, because Queen Jezabel worshipped Baal and supported hundreds of prophets to serve this false god, Elijah came to challenge them. Both he and they built enormous altars and asked their gods to bring down fire. The prophets of Baal prayed all day with no results. Elijah, in spite of the drought, had a trench filled with water around his altar and soaked the wood as well. When Elijah prayed, God sent fire that consumed the wood, the altar, and all the water, too. Then rain finally came ending the drought.
Of course, Jezebel was furious and sent soldiers to kill Elijah. He was depressed and discouraged in the wilderness ready to die. But God sent an angel to console and instruct him. After nourishment and rest, Elijah began his journey again seeking God, and finally in a cave, Elijah heard God not in the earthquake or the wind, but in a still small voice that spoke encouragement to him. Elijah continued to speak God’s message to the people until Elisha, his student, took his place.
Elisha witnessed a chariot of fire coming to take Elijah to heaven, and Elisha caught his master’s cloak as it fell back to earth. Elisha had asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and he received that faith and strength to do God’s work. Many of his stories are similar to Elijah’s.
One story of Elisha includes healing Naaman. Naaman was a military commander who heard about a prophet who could cure his leprosy. Naaman was eventually convinced to go bearing a letter from his king asking Elisha to heal him. Elisha simply told him to wash seven times in the Jordan river. Naaman was angry that Elisha didn’t come out personally to meet him and heal him. But Naaman’s soldiers convinced him to give it a try, and he was completely healed.
As prophets, Elijah and Elisha spoke God’s message to God’s people, even when people didn’t want to hear it. It was not an easy way to live. They were human, too, and sometimes became discouraged or upset. They got hungry or tired just like anyone else. Perhaps the most encouraging thing to me in their stories is that God took care of them and sustained them as they did their best to serve God. I need that as a preacher/teacher, but all of us need to know that God cares for our needs while we do our best for God. I’m reminded of Jesus saying, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) A prayer partner recently reminded me that we need to rest in the Lord, that we aren’t supposed to try to do everything ourselves. Elijah also needed to learn to rest in the Lord, so that when he was refreshed, and when the time was right, God could use Elijah in a mighty way. Jesus’ also spent quiet time alone in prayer as he rested in the Lord’s presence; even though Jesus is part of the Godhead, he also needed the sustaining fellowship he enjoyed with God as Father and Holy Spirit.
Elijah is sometimes represented on the Jesse Tree with the raven sent to feed him, but at other times by the altar of fire representing the great victory at Mount Carmel when Elijah proved that our God was mightier than the false gods of the baal worshippers. The symbol of an altar and fire also reminds me of other stories. I think of Malachi saying that God is like a refiner’s fire. (Malachi 3:2) Peter wrote that our faith is purified by fire. (1 Peter 1:7) But we also know fire was necessary for the sacrifices that were part of ancient worship, and Jesus is the One whose ultimate sacrifice meant these were no longer needed.
Hebrews 9:11-15, NLT
11 So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. 12 With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.
13 Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. 14 Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. 15 That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant.
From Elisha, I shared a healing story, but we know Jesus is the ultimate healer. It was a significant part of his ministry on earth.
Matthew 4:22-24, CEB
23 Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all those who had various kinds of diseases, those in pain, those possessed by demons, those with epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed, and he healed them.
Jesus still offers us healing in many ways.
Of course my personal favorite among the prophets is Isaiah. That book spans a period of time prior to and through the exile. Listen to Isaiah’s call story.
Isaiah 6:1-8, NCV
6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a very high throne. His long robe filled the Temple. 2 Heavenly creatures of fire stood above him. Each creature had six wings: It used two wings to cover its face, two wings to cover its feet, and two wings for flying. 3 Each creature was calling to the others:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord All-Powerful.
His glory fills the whole earth.”
4 Their calling caused the frame around the door to shake, as the Temple filled with smoke.
5 I said, “Oh, no! I will be destroyed. I am not pure, and I live among people who are not pure, but I have seen the King, the Lord All-Powerful.”
6 One of the heavenly creatures used a pair of tongs to take a hot coal from the altar. Then he flew to me with the hot coal in his hand. 7 The creature touched my mouth with the hot coal and said, “Look, your guilt is taken away, because this hot coal has touched your lips. Your sin is taken away.”
8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice, saying, “Whom can I send? Who will go for us?”
So I said, “Here I am. Send me!”
Isaiah felt the need to be purified before he could speak God’s message. God sent heavenly beings to cleanse Isaiah with a refiner’s fire. So, that altar of fire also reminds me of Isaiah.
From Isaiah we get many prophecies that point to the Messiah, scriptures that we hear from the pulpit or in song throughout the season of Advent including the one on which the Jesse Tress is based, “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.” (Isaiah 11:1) Isaiah is the prophet whose scroll Jesus read in the synagogue at Nazareth when he said that scripture was fulfilled then as everyone heard it. He was reading Isaiah 61 which became Jesus’ mission statement, “18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 quoting Isaiah 61) Isaiah said that one was coming who would be the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) and twice presented an image of a wolf and a lamb together as part of his message of peace. The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6) “Wolf and lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but the snake—its food will be dust. They won’t hurt or destroy at any place on my holy mountain, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 65:25) As Christians we believe Jesus is the one to whom all of these prophecies pointed. The wolf and lamb lying together, that’s Isaiah’s ornament on the Jesse Tree.
Another prophet, we might call the reluctant one, Jonah. In children’s Bible storybooks we know him as the one who was swallowed up by a big fish or a whale, because when God told him to go and preach in Nineveh, the capital of a foreign country, Jonah got mad and took a ship in the opposite direction. Jonah was inside that creature’s belly for three days before God had him spit out on shore. Then Jonah went to preach in Nineveh. The people repented and worshipped God. Instead of rejoicing, Jonah sulked. Sometimes we are as hard to teach as Jonah was, but hidden inside Jonah’s strange story is a glimpse of something to come in Jesus’ story. Jonah was trapped as good as dead in the belly of a sea creature, and that parallels the three days Jesus would be in the tomb. Just as God granted Jonah a new life, God raised Jesus to new life. And don’t forget that Jesus’ death was to save sinners like Jonah, like you and like me. That great big fish, or perhaps it was a whale, that’s Jonah’s symbol on the Jesse Tree.
There is another Bible story of someone putting their life on the line to save her people. She wasn’t a prophet, but she did stand up for God’s people in a foreign land, years later than Jonah, Esther became the Queen of Persia. No one knew that she was an Israelite. Her Uncle Mordecai, who was an official in the court, had her keep it a secret when she was taken for potential selection by the King. But because another court official named Haman wanted to make trouble for Mordecai and his people, a day was set for Jews to be killed. Mordecai told Esther that this was the time to speak to the King on behalf of her people. She was afraid, because the laws of Persia prevented her for going before the King unless she had been called. Only if he held out his scepter would she be allowed to speak and to live. Mordecai said that “For such a time as this” she had become Queen. (Esther 4:14) Esther told Mordecai and others to fast and to pray for three days. Then she went to the king and was accepted. In the end the king could not rescind his order, but he allowed the Jews to defend themselves on that horrible day. Esther’s courage saved many lives. A scepter such as the King held out to Esther is her symbol on the Jesse Tree.
Jesus was sent by God to save God’s people, to save us from our own sin and foolishness. Jesus deals with the evil of hate filled people like Haman. Jesus watches over us when we are prayerful and faithful like Esther and Mordecai. Jesus rescues us when we are foolish as the King was, listening to the wrong advice and making big mistakes.
Jesus is our Savior. That’s the prophecy we hear from another prophet, Micah. These are the words remembered by Herod’s advisors when three wise men came following a star and seeking a newborn king.
Micah 5:2-5, NLT
2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel,
whose origins are in the distant past,
will come from you on my behalf.
3 The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies
until the woman in labor gives birth.
Then at last his fellow countrymen
will return from exile to their own land.
4 And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
Then his people will live there undisturbed,
for he will be highly honored around the world.
5 And he will be the source of peace.
Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth foretold by Micah, is another ornament on the Jesse Tree. As Micah said, Jesus would come to be a shepherd to God’s people, to lead us back to God and bring honor to God’s name, to be a source of peace. When we feel too small or too inadequate to accomplish anything for God, remember the town of Bethlehem, small though it was, it was the birthplace of our Messiah.
Many of the prophets and even Esther have their place on the Jesse Tree, because their stories can also point ahead to Jesus, our healer, refiner, re-newer of life, and our savior. Ann Voskamp shares this quote from Phillips Brookes, “It was not suddenly and unannounced that Jesus came into the world. He came into a world that had been prepared for Him. The whole Old Testament is the story of a special preparation…Only when all was ready, only in the fullness of His time, did Jesus come.” (Voskamp quotes Brooks on page 172 of The Greatest Gift.)
Advent reminds us that God prepared for Jesus’ coming the first time long ago as we prepare to celebrate Christmas remembering his birth and his mission in our midst. But Advent is also a reminder that we must be about God’s work, repent and be ready, share God’s message with our contemporaries, fast and pray for such a time when Jesus will come again.