Do you watch “Who do you think you are?” – the programme about exploring the family trees of celebrities. I watch it when I can, when its on, and I have enjoyed all kinds of stories about peoples’ ancestors. They can be full of meaning, and sometimes full of insight. It is particularly interesting to see how people are affected by discovering their ancestors and the trials and tribulations they went through.
In the last series, series 10, Sarah Millican discovered that an ancestor was one of the world’s first divers and Marianne Faithful found out about her mother’s life as a dancer in 1920s Berlin.
When I was in Stockton, my next door neighbour spent most of his time working on the family history and finding out about his family tree. It is fascinating, finding out where you come from because maybe it says something about who you are. You might discover something really interesting about an ancestor and make a connection with one of the descendants, and it seems to explain everything about them. I was talking to someone the other day who was making a connection between a great great aunt and one of his grandchildren, who looked just so alike.
One of the themes of Advent is the Tree of Jesse. And we get it in the Old Testament reading this morning, in Isaiah’s prophecy that a new king would arise in David’s line who would bring political peace and spiritual maturity to the whole nation. Jesse was King David’s father, so he is regarded as the one who started the whole line, the base of the tree. Out of that root, eventually, grows the king who is to come, the one who will change everything and make things right.
In medieval times, the Tree of Jesse was often depicted in art, a sort of pictorial family tree, with Jesse at the bottom of the trunk, David above him, and then Solomon (David’s son) and eventually Jesus. Some of the images show other family members along the branches. A complete Tree would show all 43 generations (according to Luke), but mostly, they would pick out the key characters in the story of the origins of the Messiah. But whereas a family tree usually starts at the top and works down through the generations, the Jesse Tree starts from the base and works up through the branches.
The tree of Jesse is saying something about where Jesus comes from, in terms of his earthly lineage, that he comes from a line which starts with an ordinary man, whose son was picked out by God to be king of Israel and Judah, who was remembered as the best king ever, because he led the people and brought peace. It is saying that Jesus comes from royal blood. But the Tree of Jesse also points to who the Messiah, will be and what he will do. It looks backward and it looks forward.
We saw the passing of another great leader this week, with the death of Nelson Mandela. People spoke of him as the father of the nation, and you could hear the affection in their voices on the radio and television of all the people who were interviewed. He was more than just a politician. To begin with, he was a voice crying in the wilderness. He led South Africa out of apartheid, and brought the whole nation to freedom, where people could work together. There was no bitterness in him about the 27 years of imprisonment. He forgave, and he taught the country to forgive. He was not perfect, nobody is, but for South Africa, for the whole of the African continent, for the whole world, he has become the ideal of a leader who stood up for justice and what is right and good.
Nelson Mandela is at the base of the tree for South Africa. And now the leaders, the politicians, and the people need to grow strong and true to continue in his line. It is not just about individual families, but the family of the nation. And then it is part of the family of the world. What happens in South Africa matters for Britain and for Bensham. The victory over apartheid, over institutionalised hate and racism, matters for us. We too have been liberated from the sin that was apartheid. We too have a hero, an example of what it means to stand up for what is right. In the end, we are all brothers and sisters across the world, twigs on the same tree. What happens in Africa and India and the Americas affects us. When the Philippine islands were devastated by the typhoon, that is part of us.
And the Tree of Jesse is also part of who we are, part of our story. Spiritually, we are descended from a line of kings, of great leaders, which started with an ordinary man who had eight sons. And then, eventually, came the Messiah, Jesus. And now we have been made twigs on his tree by our baptism and by turning to him again and again. And that gives us hope –
- hope for the future, because the tree continues to grow, and we are part of it.
- And hope that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to continue the work, to make a stand against evil, whatever way it pops up in our community, and to go on living faithfully in God’s light, so that we make a difference here, in this place.
- And hope that it will bring us inner joy and peace, even when life is difficult.
It’s not just about where Mandela came from, but about what we did and where he took South Africa and the whole world. It’s not just about where Jesus came from – it’s about what we did when he was here and what he goes on doing. It’s not just about where we are coming from – it’s about what we are doing while we here, and where we are going, where we are taking our church, our community, our country. That’s how we will prepare the way of the Lord.