I love books. I read a lot – perhaps too much. Sometimes I wonder whether I give each book the time it deserves to really appreciate it. But now and again a book comes along that wrests my attention for long enough to leave a lasting impression.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor was one such book. I read it a couple of years ago and cannot recommend it highly enough. The time frame for the plot covers just one day, dipping into the lives of various residents who live on the same street somewhere in England. The beauty of the book lies in the space given to the details of individual lives and to the stories that lie, unknown, behind the many front doors. The lasting impression was that the extraordinary so often lies hidden behind the ordinary, unnoticed and unremarkable because nobody brings it to light.
When I first scanned the names that appear in Matthew 1, I found myself making mental note of the ones that were familiar to me, assuming that they would yield enough material to dig into and write about. Jesse seemed to be a natural addition to that list – his name was familiar as the name that appears in Isaiah among the prophecies of Jesus’ birth, surely the man named so prominently as the stump from which Jesus sprang must have a good story to tell?
So I went looking for his story – but all I found was a man who played a bit part in the story of his son, David, whose presence was but a supporting role to the main player.
We first meet him when God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to appoint a new king from among Jesse’s sons. At Samuel’s request, Jesse parades his sons in front of him to discern which one God has chosen to be king. Starting with the eldest, the first seven pass by, but each one is unsuccessful; only David, the youngest, is left, but he is away, tending his father’s sheep. Samuel asks Jesse to send for him – and Jesse does so. When David arrives, God speaks to Samuel – this is the boy who has been chosen to be king.
David’s reign doesn’t begin immediately – there is already a king in place, Saul – but from that day, God’s Spirit begins to do its work, preparing David for what was to come. In going to David, the Spirit had left Saul, who became troubled and, on the advice of his servants, began looking for a harp player to soothe his soul. On a further servant’s recommendation, Saul sent a message to Jesse asking him to send David, a talented musician. So Jesse prepared a donkey, loading it with bread, wine and a young goat, and sent it with David to Saul’s palace.
Jesse’s final appearance in the story comes in the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. His three eldest sons have gone to battle, following their king. By this point, David spends his days travelling between his role as shepherd to his father’s sheep in Bethlehem and his role as harp player to the King, engaged in battle on the frontline. In the midst of the forty days that Goliath spends issuing his daily challenge, Jesse asks David to take bread and grain to his brothers in the army camp, with cheese for them and their commander, and to bring back proof that they are all right. David makes what turns out to be a life-changing journey, for it is while visiting his brothers that he successfully takes on the challenge of killing Goliath, saving the Israelites and beginning his rise to kingship.
Throughout the story, Jesse stands in the shadow of his more famous son – what new light can this bit-part player shed on the Christmas story?
I’ve been thinking about the role of Joseph more than ever this year – thanks in part to Twitter conversations with Richard Littledale – and in many ways, Jesse reminds me of Jesus’ earthly father. Both are men known for their role as parents, fathers who seemingly exist solely for the purpose of raising their more important sons, men who stand in the background so that others can take the limelight.
Like Joseph, Jesse cares about his sons, sending David to the frontline with provisions, desperate to hear news of how his children are. Also like Joseph, Jesse is a man who quietly and with great practicality gets things done – sending for David at Samuel’s request, loading the donkey and sending David to the palace at Saul’s request – his role in the story is to do what is necessary to move things on, to allow God’s work to unfold. And there is one more thing they share in common – just as Joseph is set apart by God through the angel’s visit, Jesse is also set apart for God by Samuel on his initial visit to anoint the new king, they are men who work for God.
A new bishop was announced last week for my hometown, Bradford – Nick Baines, currently Bishop of Croydon. Curious, I looked up his blog and came across a post that talked about Christmas, of how Jesus’ birth, an event that heralded a new order for creation and would turn the world upside down, happened in a very ordinary, unnoticeable, undisturbing way. To the world around him, Jesus was just another baby, born far from home to parents who appeared just like any others – Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi had an inkling that this baby was different, but did anyone else even notice that he was there?
Nick’s blog goes on to talk of God coming “into the ordinary where life just carries on”. God comes to stand with and work with those like Jesse and Joseph, who epitomise reliability, men who quietly get things done, playing their part in God’s extraordinary dance, hiding their dance steps behind an ordinary and unremarkable façade.
As I try to live out my faith in my own quiet little corner of the world, it’s good to be reminded that the God who hid the extraordinary behind ordinary men like Jesse and Joseph is the same God who hid the extraordinary birth of his son behind the ordinary in Bethlehem all those years ago – and the same God who, maybe, hides a little bit of the extraordinary behind the ordinary he finds in me, the God who steps down into our ordinary, everyday lives and walks alongside us…