Isaiah 11:1 “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
Jesse, as you probably know, was the father of King David. David began a royal dynasty in Israel that provided kings for 350 years. But over the years the proud family tree David established fell into decline. Many of the kings abused their power. Many ruled selfishly instead, not in the interest of God’s people. Some became idolaters and even used their position to lead God’s people into idolatry.
That is what led to God’s judgment upon the nation and the royal family. First he tore the nation in two by civil war. Later he let foreign nations invade. Eventually the capital city was burned to the ground and the best and brightest people taken into exile. Only a handful returned 70 years later.
All that was left of the proud tree David started was a stump. When Jesus was born, there had been no kings in the family for more than half a millennium. There was nothing to suggest this family would ever produce a person of influence again.
The surprising thing about Jesus’ background is not his family’s slide into obscurity or his now humble roots. History is full of stories of peasants and paupers who rose to become great leaders. Think of the stories we learned about Abraham Lincoln in grade school. He grew up in a log cabin. He was schooled by his mother at home. His early life didn’t include the kind of grooming some have had to prepare them for national leadership. Yet he rose to become one of the most influential presidents our nation has ever had. That career path is not unique. We could multiply stories of inventors and explorers and businessmen and statesmen and churchmen who rose from obscurity to change the world.
What stumps us about Jesus’ background, at least from a worldly point of view, is that he had a choice. While others worked their way up, Jesus was, in a very real sense, working his way down. From heaven he oversaw the events that led to his family’s fall from power. He guided the history that went into his being born in a stable instead of a palace, that went into growing up learning carpentry instead of statecraft. Other great men of history may have appreciated the lessons they learned from having humble beginnings. I doubt that they would have chosen such circumstances for themselves. Jesus chose to leave his heavenly throne, and to remove his family’s earthly throne, before he became the new shoot on Jesse’s humble family tree.
Would you? Isn’t our life so often about bettering our position? Don’t we pour ourselves into making our lives easier? Doesn’t so much of what we do revolve around making things as comfortable for ourselves as we can? And doesn’t this so often lead us to a rather selfish approach to life in which we attempt to make ourselves the center of our universe and the god of our own little world?
But though Jesus truly is God, he came to serve. He came to save us from the sinful life and selfish little universe we try to construct for ourselves. And in order to do that he had to become one of us and die in our place. His humble background helped assure that nothing would obstruct his mission. Earthly power and riches never got in the way of people killing him. It also helps assure us there is no one so low or so obscure they are beneath Jesus’ saving work. Jesus was common and ordinary and human, just like you, and just like me. And so we are qualified to be the common and ordinary human beings he came to rescue and make his own.
Isn’t that what rivets our eyes on Christ as we prepare to celebrate his birth? Jesus’ humble background is not just a great human interest story for the 10 o’clock news. It is the story of unfathomable love willing to give up every earthly advantage, and eventually life itself, to set a world of sinners free. He chose this humility, because he chose to make us his family. We are the fruit produced by this lowly branch.