O Come, Thou Root of Jesse's Tree - Isaiah 11:1-10
The lion was proud of his mastery of the animal kingdom. One day he decided to make sure all the other animals knew he was king of the jungle. He was so confident that he bypassed the smaller animals and went straight to the bear.
"Who is the king of the jungle?" the lion asked.
"Why, of course, you are," the bear replied. The lion gave a mighty roar of approval.
Next he asked the tiger, "Who is the king of the jungle?"
The tiger quickly responded, "Everyone knows that YOU are, oh mighty lion."
Next on the list was the elephant. "Who is the king of the jungle?" the lion asked.
The elephant immediately grabbed the lion with his trunk, whirled him around in the air five or six times and slammed him into a tree. Then he pounded him onto the ground several times, dunked him under water in a nearby lake and finally dumped him out on the shore.
The lion — beaten, bruised and battered — struggled to his feet. "Look," he told the elephant, "just because you don't know the answer is no reason to get upset."
This morning we continue to look at ways in which the classic carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” leads us back through the Hebrew images of the Messiah to depict who the Messiah would be and what the Messiah would do. Last week we heard the promise of the Messiah who is Emmanuel—God with us and the authors of the carol pulled from both Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1.
Today, though we come to an interesting verse, or actually pair of verses, based on Isaiah 11:1-10. In our hymnal, we sing a verse written in 1986: “O Come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree, an ensign of thy people be; before thee rulers silent fall; all people on thy mercy call.” Missing from our hymnal, and many hymnals, is one of the original verses also based on our Isaiah passage, hear these words as I read them from the 1941 Lutheran Hymnal: “Oh Come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny; From depths of hell They people save And give them vict’ry o’er the grave.” These two verses capture the juxtaposition of the first and tenth verse of our Scripture reading today: “A shoot [or rod] shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”
Now before I go further this morning, I don’t want to assume too much. There may be some of us out here scratching our heads saying, “Who is Jesse and what does his stump have to do with anything?” And if that is a question rolling around with anyone, that’s okay, I’m going to explain it in a very brief history of Israel’s monarchy. God’s people did not have a king…they demanded that God through the prophets appoint them a king. They ended up with a king name Saul (who is not to be identified with the Saul of the Acts of the Apostles). Saul didn’t turn out to be a very good king, so God sent the prophet Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel, following God’s direction, went to the home of Jesse in Bethlehem…after going through what he thought was all of Jesse’s sons, he had not found the one God wanted him to anoint as king. However, there was still the youngest of Jesse’s sons, David, who had been out tending the sheep. When they sent for David and he came in, this youngest son of Jesse was the one that God had selected and so Samuel anointed him as set apart to be king. David eventually took the thrown after the death of Saul and was considered a man after God’s own heart and considered the greatest of all of Israel’s kings, and this was despite the many failings that he had. Prior to his death, David received a promise from God through the prophet Nathan, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your thrown shall be established forever.”[i] So this promise was made to David that someone from his lineage would sit on the throne of Israel forever. However, like David, his sons did not make wise decisions and the nations of Israel fell apart…it divided into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah, which contained Jerusalem, and from which descendants of David ruled, though many turned and walked away from God and his commandments, leaving God’s people in ruins…and thus leaving the “family tree” of Jesse as nothing more than a stump. However, God had made a promise to David, and one thing was for sure, God keeps his promises, so the people looked for that day when a shoot, a branch would rise up out of the stump. It is for this reason we learn the importance of the genealogy found at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew (that so often we want to skip over)…for it traces Jesus’ lineage through his foster father Joseph all the way to David, and even back to Abraham, and in doing so links Jesus as the complete fulfillment of Nathan’s prophecy that a descendant of David would sit on the throne forever.
In this recounting, we also see how Jesus fulfills the paradox of being both the rod and root of Jesse’s tree. It is through the God’s calling of Jesse’s forefather, Abraham, and then the anointing of David, that God sets first his people apart and then sets the line of Jesse, through David, apart. God gives life to the tree…then God, through Jesus, gives brings new life to the tree…a family line, all but completely destroyed, becomes the link to the salvation of Israel and the world.
Jesus, both Rod and Root, is King…in fact, He, as declared in both 1st Timothy and in Revelation,[ii] is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords…and as King, Jesus is the one frees God’s people from the binding of Satan, the sentence of hell, and the sting of death…he is also the One who silences the powers of this earth, and offers mercy to His people…a Ruler with Power and Grace…
The question for us during this Advent season…as we live between the time of God’s first Advent in Jesus and the second Advent when Christ returns, is are we living under the Kingship of the One we call and sing of as our King and the Lord of our lives?
Prior to Jesus’ coming, we could not help but sin. Satan, from the point of the Fall, had bound us. Just as our foreparents, Adam and Eve, we tended, even in what appeared to be good and positive actions, acted in our own self-interest, and everything we did was tainted with sin. Because of our sin, we were rightly sentenced to death, and eternal separation from God. However, with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Satan has been completely defeated and Christ rules both heaven and earth. As the Rod of Jesse, our King, Jesus has gone into battle before us and defeated Satan, the one he called “the prince of this earth.” Our King has freed us from the slavery of sin which had bound us. We have been freed…in this monarchy there is complete freedom. We do not have to sin. We do not have to live self-focused. We have the freedom to continue to voluntarily bind ourselves to Satan, but we also have the power to reject those shackles and live as we were created in the image of God, acting in selfless love of God and neighbor. The question then becomes, how do we live in this freedom? Do we live in such a way that honors our King? Do we take our freedom and use it to completely surrender our lives to our King? Do we bow before Him? Do we seek to serve Him? Do we truly live as if He is King and Lord?
Sometimes we seem to voluntarily enter back into kingdom of Satan. We give in to our addictions. We are like one little drink…one little hit…one little smoke…one little shopping binge…one little half a cake…. We choose pleasure and party over worship and service…such as when our friend’s neighbor’s third cousin that we haven’t seen in thirty years decides to drop in unexpectedly and we need to hang out late with them, so we just slept in Sunday morning, besides, they didn’t have anything to wear. We remain silent when we should speak up, like in the face of racism…and speak out when we should keep our mouths closed, because we can’t help but share the latest gossip.
To live out what it means to call Jesus Christ the Root and Rod of Jesse…the King of Kings, means complete surrender of our lives…it all belongs to Him. It means that we let Him have control of our lives…we let God dictate the use of our time, our talents, our finances. It means we pledge our allegiance to Him above all else…above our country, our political party, our friends, our families, and ourselves. He becomes the sole/soul focus point of all our decisions and living.
Isaiah gives us an image of what the world will look like when we arrive at that point “when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” We see what it will mean for every living creature to bow before the rule of our King, no longer acting in our own interest, but wholly focused upon God: “…The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will 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.”
In this imagery we see all of creation returned to the peaceful state that it was in prior to the fall. What we call natural enemies are now friends. There are no more predators, no more prey…for all of creation will no longer be interested in what I can get for myself, but how I can live with my brothers and sisters in the peace and grace that is the Kingdom of God.
Yet, we know that we are going to fail…we know that this side of the grave, there are times where ware going to mess up…those times when we allow sin to lure us back in. What do we do then? Sometimes we struggle with our response to being confronted with our sins. Sometimes we deny that it was us…there must be some mistake, there must be someone else who did something so much worse. At other times we simply declare, “that’s just the way I am” or “God made we this way.” In saying that we deny that a good God made us and we suggest that God made mistakes as He knit us together in our mother’s womb. At other times, we cower in fear, afraid to face Christ, even in seeking the forgiveness of our sins.
It is here that we need to remember that Christ is not only the Rod of Jesse, but also the Root of Jesse. Christ reigns not only as the one who has claimed victory over Satan, but also as the ensign to all the world. We look to Jesus and we see God, for “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of the knowledge and 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.”
It is when we fail that we need to remember that the King of all creation is the one who judges us, not the world with its unforgiving hardness, making its judgment in the empirical fashion of what it can see and hear, but Christ judges us with the full wisdom of God. Our King judges us not by simply what he can see or hear, but he judges us based upon the intention of our hearts. He knows the intention of our actions…He see those who outwardly are seeking to be righteous, “and honor [Him] with their lips, while their hearts are far from [Him]…”[iii] Our King wants to see a people, though they fall, who seek with their hearts and souls to live after him…whose hearts have been broken and poured out and are striving after Him. Remember, David, as much as he messed up, was considered, as we said earlier, a man after God’s own heart. That is what God seeks from His people…that though we fall down, we get back up…we confess our sins…and we strive, not simply in word and deed, but strive with our very hearts, to be ones that bow before God in complete surrender.
My brothers and sisters, as we kneel before the King who is both the rod and root of Jesse, let us remember that in the same way, He is both the rod and root of our lives. It is Christ who has set us apart, it is He who has claimed us as His people, just as he did with the nation of Israel, and just as he did with David. He is the one who has given us life. He is our Root. He is also our rod, our branch, He is the one who gives us new life, the one who can come even into the darkest of places, the darkest of lives, and create us anew. There is nowhere too desolate or too far gone of Christ to reach. If we only surrender our lives to Him, His life will sprout from us, and we will find ourselves a new creation.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.