Winter 1989

Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 4

Reverend Charles McGowan is the senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.  On the board of numerous organizations, McGowan is also vice-chairman of the Mission to North America Committee for the Presbyterian Church in America and a ministerial advisor to RTS.

The Christmas story told by Isaiah hardly resembles the one that is familiar to us. He never mentions a star, a hillside with shepherds, a stable with a manger. In a sense Isaiah brings us to reality. He forces us to correct the charming, somewhat distorted, picture we have constructed in our minds.

The real story is not so quaint. Oh, the manger was real and so were the shepherds and the star. But it was not warm and cozy. The spotlight of history was not focused on Bethlehem as it is on London when a royal baby is born. Unlike royalty, Christ grew up unnoticed. His ministry was not widely accepted.

The amazing thing about the Christmas story is that Christ survived the antagonism of Herod; that anyone would follow Him; that the church was established; that the message of His redemptive ministry is known around the world. The astounding thing is that this baby born in obscurity became the most significant personality in human history. That is the real story.

Isaiah speaks of Jesus Christ 600 years before His birth. He speaks of Him in majestic terms as one would expect the Messiah to be described. He would be Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He would be the light shining in darkness.

But Isaiah also speaks of Him as one who would be despised and rejected of men. His initial entry, according to Isaiah, would be like a “root out of dry ground.” He would grow up as a “tender plant.” It is the picture of a fragile little shoot that begins to bud and grow off the edge of a stump cut close to the ground. The huge tree is gone. There is only the tiny, tender sprout. With only a slight touch it could break and fall away.

To make the picture more drab, the stump with its tender shoot is located in a barren, dry desert. The chances of surviving the burning heat, the scorching noonday sun, and the waterless environs appear to be nonexistent. It is Isaiah’s way of saying that the Messiah’s life would be hard and unattractive — no mighty oak growing majestically in a prominent place. The chances of survival, much less success, would be slim by human estimates.

But, perhaps even more importantly, Isaiah suggests that Christ would derive nothing from the soil in which He was to grow. He would not depend on the environment to sustain His life. He would survive and grow in spite of it. In fact, this tiny, tender plant would grow to be such a lovely and magnificent tree that only its presence would make the barren desert livable.


Now study the Gospels carefully. It becomes quickly clear that Jesus, the Messiah, derived nothing from His surroundings or circumstances throughout His life that enabled Him to accomplish His mission successfully. He was the descendant of David, but all the glory of that kingdom had disappeared. He was the rightful heir, but the crown had disappeared. Had He descended from Pharoah or Caesar there would have been glory. But His natural human descent was barren, dry ground.

His heritage as a Jew added nothing. It was respected only in Jewish circles. It was honorable to be born of Abraham’s seed, but it added nothing to His stature. Judaism was dead politically and religiously. Ritualism and legalism had drained it of life. Had He been a Greek, His status as a teacher would have been elevated. Roman citizenship would have provided protection. But a Jew! Being a Jew was dry ground.

The men He chose as disciples added nothing to His stature. Had He chosen influential politicians, He might have had access to Caesar. Had He chosen philosophers or great orators, He might have made His mark in Athens or Rome. But ordinary, unlearned fishermen? From the obscure fishing villages and towns of Galilee? Dry ground!

Add to all this the age in which He lived — a time when immorality and idolatry were rampant. The hostile spirit of the era resisted the very idea that there was only one God; that love was stronger than hate; that faith was more critical than reason. The spirit of the world was a stark, barren, and dry desert–an unlikely place for a tender plant to survive.

Yet, the Root survived. A Tender Plant sprang up. It even grew. Today it stands as a magnificent tree. The influence of His life, like a giant tree, extends beyond Palestine. The shadow of His life is cast across every part of the world. The shade of His Gospel provides a place of refuge and hope for thousands who have languished in the hot, dry, and barren world.


What a blessing to know that Jesus, like a root in dry ground, not only survives but takes root and grows in the most unlikely places! Think of the human heart. Jesus never finds fertile soil when He comes to the unconverted. He derives nothing there, but He gives everything — conviction of sin, grace to repent, faith to trust, hope for tomorrow and all eternity. He gives life.

Jesus needs nothing except space. Given that, He will take root and grow. And as He grows, He gives power because He is powerful. He gives wisdom because He is wise. He gives supernatural capacity to love because He is love. The human heart has nothing to offer but dry, barren wasteland; yet, when Jesus is planted there, He takes root and the desert begins to change. A lovely garden begins to emerge.

The same is true of a family — often a barren, dry desert also. Nevertheless, there is a Root which grows in dry ground that can dramatically change such a family. I have seen it happen. The pastor gives up. Then one of the marriage partners yields to Christ. That new life eventually results in restoration and healing of the marriage. The bitter and broken heart was not fertile territory, but Jesus took root and turned the desert into a garden.

And what about a city, a nation? Can Christ take root in the utter wasteland of x-rated movie houses, adult bath houses and massage parlors, and drug-infested housing projects where crime runs wild? Is it possible that the Tender Plant could survive and grow there? History answers, “Yes!” It occurred within 400 years of His birth. Martin Luther and the other reformers planted the Root in the spiritual darkness of Europe in the sixteenth century, and it became a mighty tree. Oliver Cromwell boldly planted the Root in corrupt, war-torn England, and a mighty tree emerged.

So we must not lose heart as we view our world. We must simply recommit ourselves to planting the Root even in the most barren of deserts. Plant Him in the ugly, hopeless projects in the heart of our cities. He will do more than survive. He will eventually change the face of those cities. Plant Him among the headhunters of Borneo. He will survive and grow. He will change the entire culture so that the flower of love and compassion will eventually bloom. Plant Him in China. Plant Him in Iran. Think of the most dismal, barren place or circumstance. He will take root and grow.

Plant Him in the most cold and apathetic church. Though for years vibrant worship has been replaced by detached, empty ritual, His presence will change it. Lovingly and faithfully plant Him there. In God’s own time He will take root.

The thrill of this truth is beyond compare. Nothing is beyond His reach. No situation is beyond His power to change. Think of the driest place imaginable–maybe some part of the world or in your town. Or what about the hardest, coldest heart, the shattered marriage. The Root of which Isaiah spoke will produce a shoot and thrive there!

Think of your own heart. As Christmas approaches it may be one of the driest, most barren places of all. Well, here is the amazing Christmas message. Christ is the Root that thrives in dry ground. Give Him that parched and thirsty place. He will turn it into a garden. He lives. He survives. He reshapes, restores, and makes beautiful the most desolate and hopeless place.