Come, read the stories, and see for yourself!
Both of our scriptures today relate to anointing. But I’m going to save them until I get to that point in today’s stories.
THE JESSE TREE Light, Betrayal, Commandments, Family, Anointing, Shepherd
Hebrews 1:1-2 reads, “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe.”
Last week we recalled the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Our God is sometimes referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The fourth generation of this portion of Jesus’ family tree, includes Joseph. Our first Jesse Tree story today is for his coat of many colors.
Joseph was not the oldest among Jacob’s 12 sons, but he was daddy’s favorite, because his mother was Rachel whom Jacob dearly loved. Jacob gave Joseph a beautiful coat; some say it was long sleeved, others that it was of many colors. It’s frequently drawn with both. But that coat which Joseph wore every day was a daily reminder that father liked him best. It was also a symbol of being a prince. As a boy Joseph dreamt of standing tall like a prince while his brothers had to bow to him. He was not wise enough to keep this dream to himself, and his brothers resented him for his dream and for his coat.
When Jacob sent Joseph out to his brothers one day, they took their revenge. Honestly, some of them wanted to kill him, but Reuben didn’t let them go that far. Instead they took his precious coat and tossed Joseph in a cistern. From there they sold him as a slave to a passing caravan for 20 pieces of silver. They soaked his coat in goat’s blood, and convinced their father that Joseph was dead. In other words, they betrayed him.
Joseph’s life would have many ups and downs after that. But God was always with him, and because Joseph remained faithful and obedient to God, he also had God’s favor. From slave to steward, from prisoner to overseer of all the resources of Egypt, his life is quite a story. Eventually during a famine, his brothers came to Egypt to beg and buy food. They didn’t recognize Joseph, but he knew them. After a time they were reconciled, and Joseph told them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” (Genesis 50:20)
Have you recognized some of the parallels to Jesus’ story from this ancestor? Jesus was betrayed by his own disciple for 30 pieces of silver, and his blood was shed for us upon the cross. Yet Jesus could also have said to those who betrayed him, accused him, tried and sentenced him, whipped and crucified him, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” That is what Jesus did in taking our punishment for us. Just as Joseph was elevated to a position of power after his patient years of obedience, so Jesus has been raised to glory after his life of obedient service.
By the end of Joseph’s story, his father, brothers, and the whole clan joined him in Egypt. But four hundred years later, their descendants no longer hold a favored position. They are slaves making bricks for Pharaoh’s building programs. They are a strong and numerous people as God had once promised both Abraham and Jacob. This made Pharaoh very nervous, so much so that he ordered all Hebrew baby boys to be killed. One brave mother, a loyal sister, two God-fearing midwives, and an Egyptian princess all played a part in saving Moses’ life. He grew up as a prince until he learned his true identity and committed a crime trying to defend his people.
In the wilderness God called Moses into service, to lead God’s people out of slavery, to fulfill the other promise God made so long before, to return to the promised land. God made sure they got out of Egypt and across the sea, then God gathered them and gave them his covenant in a set of laws. The full law is symbolized in the two stone tablets with Ten Commandments Moses received from God on Mt. Sinai.
In her Advent devotional, The Greatest Gift, Ann Voskamp takes the story of giving the Law in a direction I hadn’t anticipated. She compares it to a Jewish wedding. There is the chuppah, a canopy that covers the bride and groom. God came to Moses on Sinai under a canopy of cloud. There is a mikveh, a ritual bath in which the bride purifies herself for the ceremony. God also asked the people to purify themselves before coming to Sinai. There is the ketubah, the marriage contract outlining the responsibilities for a loving relationship. God gave us the commandments not to burden us, but to teach us how to live in God’s love.
When we could not love enough, God sent Jesus, the gift of God’s love, to fulfill the law, to fulfill God’s love for us. Though we have often broken God’s law, Jesus has never failed to love us. In the New Testament we have the image of Jesus as a bridegroom and we, the Church, are his bride. One of my favorite action songs in Children’s ministry was His Banner Over Me Is Love, so perhaps God’s love through Jesus is our canopy. Our ritual bath for purification as we enter this relationship is our baptism. The marriage contract is still God’s Law, God’s Covenant, made new through Christ and celebrated each time we take Holy Communion.
The Hebrews struggled to trust God’s love through forty years of wilderness. They often failed. So do we. Yet God never abandoned them, nor does God give up on us. God does not desert us in the desert of this life, the shallow years, the challenges. God keeps his promise to be with us, and if we trust, follow, and obey, God will lead us to the promised land where life is more abundant.
That doesn’t mean life will be easy. There will be decisions to make and risks to take if we would live into God’s promises. One of the matriarch’s on Jesus’ family tree took that risk when she aided two Hebrew spies at Jericho. She let them out her window and lowered them over the wall by a rope to protect them from those who would have harmed them. Rahab chose to trust God when the walls of Jericho were about to literally crumble all around her. She and her family were saved, because she dared to hang the red cord of the spies outside her window, and like God they kept their promise. That red cord is another Jesse Tree symbol. Voskamp describes it as Rahab’s lifeline. The Hebrew word for this cord is Tikvah, it is the same word for Hope.
Jesus is our lifeline, the one who marks us as his own and comes to save us when the world around us is falling apart. Jesus our Hope. Red ribbons are not unusual this time of year. They may be tied around a package or hang from a wreathe. When you see a red cord, ribbon, or string may it remind you of Rahab’s trust in the God she barely knew. May it remind you of Jesus who shed red blood for your sake. May it encourage you in the midst of whatever you are facing to hold tight to Jesus as your lifeline.
Rahab married Salmon, and they named their son, Boaz. He is important to the next story.
In yet another famine, a time of slim resources, Naomi and her husband went to Moab. But a few years later, Naomi had two daughters-in-law and not much else. She heard that things had gotten better back home in Bethlehem, so she set out on the return journey. She sent Orpah back to her parents, but Ruth insisted on staying with Naomi. In Bethlehem Ruth worked hard gleaning in the fields, so they would have something to eat. Her symbol on the Jesse Tree is a sheath of grain. The field was owned by Boaz, who just happened to be a blood relative of Naomi’s late husband. Boaz was in a position by Jewish law both to buy back the family property and to marry Ruth. It was another kind of salvation, to save them from poverty. The one with that privilege and duty was called a kinsman-redeemer. As this budding romance played out, Boaz indeed redeemed the property and married Ruth. Naomi who came back so empty and bitter was now filled with joy because of her grandson Obed which means servant. Obed grew up to be the father of Jesse, the Jesse for whom the Jesse Tree is named, the Jesse whose youngest son David will grow up to be king.
We are like Ruth and Naomi. Sometimes we feel as if everything has been taken away from us. We can be bitter like Naomi. But we can also choose to be loyal and hardworking and faith filled like Ruth, to do what we can and trust God for the rest. Jesus is our Boaz, our kinsman-redeemer. Jesus is the one who is in the right position to redeem and reclaim us. But like Boaz, this is far more than a business transaction; Jesus rescues us in pure and true love. Jesus came to be a servant and to teach us that serving others is what love does.
Now we turn for the moment to Samuel, God’s priest and prophet, and the role he played in David’s call to God’s service.
1 Samuel 16:1-13, GW
16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you go on grieving over Saul? I have rejected him as king of Israel. But now get some olive oil and go to Bethlehem, to a man named Jesse, because I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”
2 “How can I do that?” Samuel asked. “If Saul hears about it, he will kill me!”
The Lord answered, “Take a calf with you and say that you are there to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will tell you what to do. You will anoint as king the man I tell you to.”
4 Samuel did what the Lord told him to do and went to Bethlehem, where the city leaders came trembling to meet him and asked, “Is this a peaceful visit, seer?”
5 “Yes,” he answered. “I have come to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. Purify yourselves and come with me.” He also told Jesse and his sons to purify themselves, and he invited them to the sacrifice.
6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Jesse's son Eliab and said to himself, “This man standing here in the Lord's presence is surely the one he has chosen.” 7 But the Lord said to him, “Pay no attention to how tall and handsome he is. I have rejected him, because I do not judge as people judge. They look at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.”
8 Then Jesse called his son Abinadab and brought him to Samuel. But Samuel said, “No, the Lord hasn't chosen him either.” 9 Jesse then brought Shammah. “No, the Lord hasn't chosen him either,” Samuel said. 10 In this way Jesse brought seven of his sons to Samuel. And Samuel said to him, “No, the Lord hasn't chosen any of these.” 11 Then he asked him, “Do you have any more sons?”
Jesse answered, “There is still the youngest, but he is out taking care of the sheep.”
“Tell him to come here,” Samuel said. “We won't offer the sacrifice until he comes.” 12 So Jesse sent for him. He was a handsome, healthy young man, and his eyes sparkled. The Lord said to Samuel, “This is the one—anoint him!” 13 Samuel took the olive oil and anointed David in front of his brothers. Immediately the spirit of the Lord took control of David and was with him from that day on. Then Samuel returned to Ramah.
There are various symbols for David, most notably the shepherd’s hook. The Christmon Tree also has a shepherd’s hook for Jesus, who came to be the Good Shepherd, and care for us as if we were God’s sheep and lambs.
In the story just read, there is another symbol, a flask of oil for anointing, such as Samuel used to anoint David, such as we use to anoint our elders and deacons when they are ordained into leadership. That’s what anointing means, that one has been set apart to be a servant for God and a leader for God’s people. This time of year we hear the word Messiah, which means God’s anointed. The same word in Greek is Christ. Jesus is God’s anointed, sent as God’s servant to lead us. We read how Jesus understood his own anointing in the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 4:14-21, CEB
14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. 17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
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.
20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
Jesus still comes proclaiming Good News to us if we are willing to hear it, if we learn how to read the message of scripture portrayed in the world all around us. That good news is about justice and release and recovery and meeting our needs above and beyond what we dare to ask. It is about God’s favor resting on us as it did on Joseph if we choose to live as God asks.
There is one more symbol to consider today, the sunburst or light. In the beginning, when God’s Spirit hovered over the dark chaos, the very first thing God called into being was light. Light has been a symbol for God, for knowledge and for truth ever since. The prophets were like candles flickering in the darkness. Sometimes they needed to shine a light on the truth when God’s people were deceived. Sometimes they were a ray of hope in the midst of despair. Isaiah, the prophet, proclaimed, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light.” John claimed that the light was coming into the world, and the darkness would never be able to extinguish that light. Jesus acknowledged that he was indeed the Light of the World. He has also been called the bright morning star. A star of light showed wise men where to find Jesus when he was born. Jesus tells us to be light for the world, to be the lamp not hidden under a bushel but lifted high on a stand to shine so others can be led to God as well.
What I long for you to see and hear and absorb from these stories is a message of hope, that there is still a light to shine in your darkness, that there is a cord strong enough to hold you, that you are already marked for rescue. I want you to remember that though the journey is hard, and you will face challenges and risks, God is with you and will never abandon you even though some days you turn your backs on God or close your eyes to his invitation. I want you to believe that even the worst thing that happens to you God can somehow use to do something good. I pray that you will recognize that when your circumstances leave you empty and bitter God isn’t finished with you yet. God has a plan. God will put people in your life who will help you. God still calls you into a loving relationship that yes, takes some hard work and obedience, but none the less offers you a lifetime partnership of love and respect and help and promise and good. As we look back on the stories of Jesus’ ancestors from the Jesse Tree, I want you to remember that you have also been grafted onto Jesus’ family tree. This is your heritage. You belong to God.
One final thought from the anointing story of David. He was not Samuel’s choice. Samuel would have picked the eldest, best looking, strong and sturdy son of Jesse, but God said no. The key verse of this passage is this, “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” We too often look at the world around us from that same human perspective, and too often it leads us to despair or even to give up. What I want most for you in your personal and family lives, I want desperately for you as a congregation, that you will learn to look with the eyes of faith and not doubt, with eyes seeking opportunity not wallowing in despair, with eyes that look forward not back. Ann Voskamp reminds us it’s Jesus “who gives us His eyes to really see. To see past surfaces, to the heart of things – all the way down to love.” (p. 128)