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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr. David's sermon

5th December 2004

Fr David Shepherd

Advent II

'A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.' Is. 11.1

'Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees.' Mt. 3

If you go to Dorchester Abbey by the Thames you can see the famous 'Jesse window'. It portrays a popular mediaeval subject, the Jesse tree, in stained glass, the carving of the stone work and now lost, in wall painting. The artists drew their inspiration from the prophecy of Isaiah that we read this morning. At the base is the figure of Jesse with his family tree growing out of him. Now destroyed the figures of Mary and Christ were originally at the top. Thus Jesus is rooted in the key figures of the Old Testament; he is in David's line.

Roots have become very important to many people. We all like to know where we come from and where we belong. The modern world destroys this sense of being rooted. Families are divided by distance, people move around, living in places without history. The growing interest in family history and family trees no doubt reflects a desire to reconnect with our roots.

Our faith can give us a sense of belonging and continuity, of being rooted. I thought of this celebrating the Eucharist of St. Clement before our last PCC. We are in continuity with a man who lived in the first century and was probably a disciple of the apostles. That is just one example amongst the millions of connections Christianity gives us.

Our reading of the scriptures and reception of the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday reinforces that sense of belonging and gives us hope. Writing to the Romans, St. Paul expressed it thus: -

'Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.'

Being rooted in faith gives us hope in the God of hope who fills us 'with all joy and peace in believing.' In so far as our desire to be reconnected with our roots points us to God then it is a good thing. But there are dangers. This leads me to my second text: -

'Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees.' Mt. 3

Those words come from St. John Baptist as recorded by St. Matthew. John Baptist is a key figure in the Christian family tree. He belongs to the tradition, the last in the line of Old Testament prophets, the forerunner of the new dispensation given in Christ. Yet he was a fierce critic of those who trusted in the externals of traditional religion. 'You brood of vipers,' he called the Pharisees and Sadducees. The axe is laid at the root of such over attachment to the past. By his stern preaching John urged his hearer to repent and to look forward to the coming of the Christ. We should remember too that Isaiah's vision was essentially forward looking albeit rooted in the traditions of Israel.

Thus we discover the tension and paradox that so often lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Yes, we are rooted in the traditions of our faith as expressed in the Old And New Testaments and in the subsequent story of the Church. Yes, it can be a good thing to rediscover our personal roots in family and place especially when that leads us to reconnect with our deepest roots in God.

But, an axe always hangs over those roots ready to cut down and throw into the fire trees that do not bear good fruit. An excessive attachment to the past, to hidebound tradition, can deaden and ultimately destroy faith in the living God who reveals himself to us in Jesus. Faith rooted in tradition is also meant to be forward looking and full of hope in the future coming of Christ and his kingdom. It takes the gift of discernment to get the balance right, to hold together the old and the new in creative tension.

As we pray for healing in this service we can ask God for that gift of discernment. We can examine our roots to see what needs cutting away because it stands in the way of our growth. We can seek God's will for our future. We can make St. Paul' famous prayer our own.

'May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.'


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