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Sun, Nov 29, 2015

O Come, Thou Root of Jesse

Duration:19 mins 59 secs

On this first Sunday of Advent, our Second Reading comes from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 11, verses 1-9. Throughout the opening chapters of Isaiah, we find the prophet bringing a word from the Lord that is predominantly a word of judgement. Using a variety of metaphors, like a vineyard, a great forest, and a mighty river, the prophet speaks of the coming destruction of God’s people at the hands of their enemies. And yet, even in the midst of destruction there is hope, for from the stump or root of the people new life will emerge. Let us hear this Word of God.

1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

As I thought and prayed about a theme for our Advent and Christmas season this year, I found myself drawn to the ancient Advent Hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. This was before the recent terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, Nigeria, Bagdad, and Egypt. This was before members of our congregation suffered strokes, were diagnosed with cancer, or passed from this life to the life eternal. This was before the fire alarm started going off in the middle of Sunday worship two weeks ago and the fire department arrived threatening to close us down while I prayed, “O Lord, give us another 25 minutes before the alarm goes off again!” Yes, even before all of that, I felt drawn to this prayer of longing for God to come and be with us.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is an ancient hymn and its history stretches back to the origin of the “O Antiphons.” Traditionally the “O Antiphons” were prayers said on each of the final seven days before Christmas. In their structure, each prayer follows the same pattern, resembling a responsive liturgical prayer. Each begins with an invocation of the expected Messiah, followed by praise of him under one of his particular titles. Each then ends with a petition or request for God to act on behalf of God's people. Then the cry for God to "Come".

So the prayer for the Messiah to come is ancient indeed. However, it is not until 1710 in a German hymnbook that we find the seven O Antiphons set to music as a hymn. If you happen to remember the hymn as we sang it this morning, you might be surprised to hear it linked to “seven” O Antiphons because in both our red and our blue hymnbooks there are only three verses to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Even more, both hymnals have the same three verses. It seems that as we Presbyterians tried to reclaim the “O Antiphon” prayer ritual from the pre-Reformation church, we just picked the verses we liked best. So over the next three weeks, we will look at the three verses in the hymnbook: O Come thou Dayspring; O Come Desire of Nations; and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. But today, we are picking one of the forgotten verses – “O Come, thou Root of Jesse.”

What sort of longing for the Messiah is expressed in that verse? “O Come, thou Root of Jesse?” At the second congregation I served, The Presbyterian Church of Lowell, we had church-wide work days in which everyone took part. One year, the workday fell on the Saturday before Palm Sunday as we were trying to care for the grounds and beautify them for the coming Easter week. I spent my time weeding one of the flowerbeds and so my head was down close to the daffodils and the dirt. At one point, to rest my back, I stood up and looked toward the front of the church. Where there had once been large, full, green six to seven feet tall bushes, there were now only six inch brown stumps. There was not a drop of green left anywhere around the front of the church.

So, I casually walked over to the chair of the property committee and asked about the bushes. He responded that it was the only way to care for them. They could no longer just be trimmed; they had to be pruned, cut way back. But soon, he assured me, they would grow back and be even more beautiful than before. I must admit I was skeptical. Couldn’t they have waited until the fall, or at least after Easter to cut down the beautiful, full, green bushes? Ironically, when we arrived at church on Easter Sunday morning, the town of Lowell had given the church a Lowell Beautification Award. I joked that all we had to do was cut down the bushes to make the whole town more beautiful!


Perhaps if I had remembered this scripture text from Isaiah or at least had a little more faith in the property committee chairman, I would not have been quite so anxious about cutting down the bushes to their stumps. For he was right. It was not long before small leaves returned to those barren bush stumps. And in just a few weeks, we saw a sprig, a sprout, new life.

What I did not realize was how much of the life of a plant, or a bush, or a tree, happens far beneath the ground in the roots. You may appear to kill or destroy a bush, but the roots remain. And God remains at work deep in those roots. That is the longing expressed in this particular verse of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The whole verse goes like this:

O Come, thou Root of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee O Israel.

Yes, the longing is for freedom from all those things that appear on the surface to draw us away from God. Longing for freedom from terror and illness and death and false alarms. Longing for nothing less than resurrection as the slate is wiped clean so that a sprig of hope might burst forth from a tree stump.

Yes, my friends, as long as you know about the roots, there is hope. As long as you pray the prayer expecting that the Messiah will come, there is hope. As long as you know that God keeps God’s promises, there is hope. And hope is a beautiful … and powerful … thing.

That is why in these verses from Isaiah this root of Jesse is tied with such a powerful vision of the world set right:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea

Wow! That is quite a vision. It is such a vision that it seems downright impossible, doesn’t it? That wisdom, understanding, council, might, knowledge, fear of the Lord, righteousness, faithfulness, equity and peace might be possible in this crazy, mixed up world of ours. It is too much. It is too much.

Yes, my friends it is too much without hope. Not mere optimism. No optimism is not good enough. For optimism is the assumption that everything will soon get better. No hope is rooted in God’s promise. Hope rests on the memory that God has acted before and so will act again. Hope testifies that no matter the circumstances, ultimately God’s good will for us and all creation will prevail. It is hope that emerges even when the stump looks dead, because God is at work in the roots.

Professor David Lose puts it this way:
Hope is located beyond our immediate circumstances. A terminally ill patient may not be optimistic about the treatment she is undergoing, but may remain hopeful that God keeps God’s promise of resurrection. And while preachers from Norman Vincent Peale to Robert Schuler to Joel Osteen peddle optimism and success as the heart of the Christian Gospel, we cannot afford to be fooled by such a distortion. Christian faith does not guarantee success or health or wealth or any of the other things we may long for. Christian faith promises life, abundant life, that is available whatever one’s immediate circumstances and while it starts here and now stretches beyond the confines of life as we know it. That means that hope does not exempt us from pain, suffering, or disappointment but gives us the resources not just to endure these things but even flourish in light of God’s promises. Resurrection, after all, presumes death…and only then new life.

My friends, if we believe in the resurrection, there is hope. If we believe that God has called us to be children of God, there is hope. If we believe that Christ is coming soon, there is hope. And hope is energy, it is new life, it fuels change in our lives and in our homes, in this congregation and in this community, and in our world. That is why hope is not satisfied with the status quo. Yes, hope is a beautiful … and powerful, even dangerous … thing.

There is a scene in the film version of original The Hunger Games movie that captures this more dangerous side of hope. Every year, the oppressed districts send two young people, a boy and a girl, to compete in a fight to the death “Hunger Games.” President Snow, the totalitarian ruler of futuristic Panem, asks his chief Games-maker – the one charged with creating the Hunger Games as a spectacle as entertaining as it is barbaric – why they must have a winner. The Gamemaker seems puzzled. Snow’s answer? Hope. He wants to give the oppressed people of Panem hope that maybe, just maybe, the odds may be in their favor and they may win the Hunger Games and escape their life of servitude. “Hope,” he explains, “is the only thing more powerful than fear.” But for that very reason hope is as perilous as it is useful to a dictator. He continues, “A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.”

Yes, a little hope keeps us satisfied that someday things will be better. A lot of hope is dangerous because it sees beyond the present circumstances, it sees beyond and beneath the terror and illness and death and false alarms, to a new world already emerging from deep roots. A lot of hope transforms the present because it knows that our work today is not in vain. Our work is a part of God’s work of redemption and new life in this crazy and mixed up world. A lot of hope is dangerous because it brings change as we are freed to throw our hearts and souls into this small corner of the world in which God has placed us. A lot of hope allows that root of Jesse to grow in your life and in mine, to heal that broken relationship, to aid those in distress, to seek justice and righteousness, to bring peace where there is division and pain.

My friends, as we begin this Advent season we pray O Come, thou Root of Jesse, so that we might be a people with a lot of hope. God is already at work deep in the roots. May we be a sprig of new life from that barren stump.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:
O Come, thou Root of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell thy people save
And give us victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee O Israel, to Reid Memorial, to us. Amen.

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