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O Antiphons – O Root of Jesse


St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Second Sunday of Advent (December 4, 2016)
Isaiah 11:1-9 – “O Antiphons – O Root of Jesse”

We continue our sermon series on the O Antiphons. To catch you up on last week and what we’re doing here, the O Antiphons are ancient chants and prayers that Christians have been praying during Advent, since at least the 8th Century. There are seven of them, each prayed to the messianic titles for Christ found in Isaiah. If this sounds obscure to you, maybe the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is more familiar—it was based off the O Antiphons. Our music, prayers, and sanctuary artwork is organized around four of the seven.

Last Sunday’s was “O Wisdom” and today’s is “O Root of Jesse.” Today’s Scripture reading is the same as last Sunday, a from Isaiah, chapter 11. Let’s listen for God’s Wisdom and Word…

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
a branch will sprout from his roots.
The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed[c] together,
and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young will lie down together,
and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
just as the water covers the sea.

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.

To let this image sink in for you, a brief anecdote…

Before we moved to Tucson, Elizabeth and lived in Roanoke, Virginia. We bought our first house there, a nice 1000 square foot, ranch style brick house. The yard was manageable enough for me, or so I thought. Small yard, easy to mow (except I used one of those old reel mowers). Bushes were in the front and back beds. All you had to do was trim them. That shouldn’t take too long, right? But then there were two trees by the back steps. With one we had to get up on a ladder to cut the hundreds of little branches. With the other, it was shorter, but the branches would scrape up against our bedroom window. Elizabeth asked me to trim them.

So, I went to Lowe’s and bought what is apparently called a branch “lopper.” And I starting clipping. And clipping. And clipping… This was around springtime, and summer was coming. I wanted to take care of this now and not have to worry about it later. So I kept clipping. When she got home, I proudly showed her my handiwork. “What in the heck did you do to our tree?! You killed it!”

Apparently, pruning can go too far.

I know slightly more about the Hebrew Bible than I do gardening. The King James version of this this first verse reads: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” “Stem” is putting it too gently. The version I read first does a better job with miggeza, “out of a stem.” “Out of a stump” is better.

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.

Stump. Growth is cut off from a stump. A stump is a done deal. Practically dead. No hope.

The prophet Isaiah is a literary genius with the use of this image here. In the chapter right before this one, he also declares, “See, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will lop off the boughs with great power. The lofty trees will be felled, the tall ones will be brought low.” [1] It’s hard to tell what Isaiah was referring to, precisely, with this stump reference. Was it simply the monarchy of Judah that was cut down? If you remember last week, they were in time of political upheaval: King Hezekiah, a very wise and just ruler, was dead, and they weren’t sure how his son would fair. Was the stump the northern kingdom of Israel, a great tree chopped off by the invading Assyrian empire? Or did the stump have to do with the Judah, the southern kingdom, who were about to be severed and thrown into the heap of exile in Babylon?

The point is, at this point in history, hope was cut off.

Later interpreters read this as a reference to Jesus assuming the throne of his ancestor, David. That’s a powerful image, too, because for 400 years, God’s people had felt very much “cut off.” In either case, the same is true: Isaiah envisions a new beginning through God’s anointed, and though all he could see was a lifeless, truncated stump, he is convinced hope will sprout again.

Jesus’ life, indeed the whole story about him, can be interpreted through the lens of hope; hope being the possibility that God would bring life out of no life. Think about it… The resurrection mystery is probably the most obvious example of this radical hope. But also his Kingdom of God project. Remember when he said during his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
[that’s what “Messiah” means, anointed].
[She] has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. [2]

Healing those with lifelong illnesses and socially-stigmatizing infirmities. Restoring to community those who had been ostracized. Calling out systems that exploited those who were vulnerable. Preaching forgiveness to those with checkered pasts. Proclaiming mercy for those who had done wrong. Jesus was all about the hope of a new beginning. I think that’s why his story and his presence has offered, and does offer, hope to so many people who are lost and broken: it offers the opportunity for a fresh start. Where hope has been chopped off, new growth emerges.

I’m glad Advent brings this back to my attention, because I, for one, am in sore need of hope now. Am I alone? Didn’t think so! In the big picture of a warming planet, international instability, and disturbing developments at home, I think we crave an assurance that all is not lost. That change is still possible, even if it seems like, particularly with social justice issues, every time some new shoot of progress sprouts up, somebody comes along with a lopper and savagely slices it off.

And when it comes to the infinite number of personal challenges we face, growth and possibility seems perpetually cut off. Family conflicts, divorce, unemployment, addiction, financial trouble, whatever it is that threatens overwhelms us—you name it—makes cynicism and despair tempting. In other words, it’s easy to look around at the world and our own lives and see stumps.

But hope isn’t an option just for Pollyannas. Hope is the only option for those who truly want change.

Right before worship today, Irv Richards pointed me to the December 3rd entry in this year’s Advent devotional. Hans Hallundbaek, who is a professor who ministers in prisons, tells this story that illustrates how crucial hope is:

On the final night of my eight-week spiritual development class in Sing Sing, a maximum security prison, I brought in ceritifcates of completion, telling the class we would celebrate with a ritual by lighting a candle I had brought with me.

One of the men jumped up, “Pastor, are you crazy? Candles are contraband here.”

“But wait, I said. “My candle is a virtual candle… a candle you can see only in your mind’s eye.”

Placing the candle I pretended to pull out of my bag on a table, I reached into my pocket for virtual matches. When Anthony agreed to light that candle, I knew my wonderful stduents had embraced the game. When the candle was lit for all to see and certificates had been hadned out, time was up and I was preparing to leave.

“What about the candle?” someone said.

“Just blow it out,” sad another.

“No,” came a voice booming from the back of the room. It was Jerome, a big, strong man with a 45-year sentence.

“Please, please never blow out that candle,” he continued in a trembling voice.
“I want it to stay lit so that every time I enter this room I can see hope.”

Last I looked, that candle is still shining bright in Sing Sing. [3]

It’s so, so tempting to only see stumps. But the season of Advent takes us back to the hope that Christ brings, the light shining into the darkness of this world. And Christ’s is not a passive hope, but an active one that enlists us in its service as partners, as co-creators.

One such person I can remember was crouching in a chair in his assisted living apartment in when I met him. I was interning at a church in Blacksburg, VA, right after seminary. Dr. Dick Rus was, at the time, 97 years old and a retired professor of physics from Virginia Tech. Dr. Rusk was stooped over and could barely walk, but never mind that; what he could do was write and make phone calls! Dr. Rusk was passionately preoccupied with global climate change. He was convinced that there were concrete consumer and policy changes than can be made for us to crawl out of this mess.

When the Blacksburg Kroger put in new gas pumps, he was appalled that there were no charging stations for electric-powered vehicles. So he wrote corporate headquarters in Cincinnati to demand they install one! All this from a living room straight back chair!

I asked him, “Frankly, Dr. Rusk, why bother? I kind of doubt this technology will take here in Appalachia. This is coal country.”

You know what he said?

“You’re kind of hopeless for a religious man, aren’t ya?”

This week I texted the people who bought our house. I asked them to take a picture of the stump. I wanted to tell you that it is sprouting new growth despite my lopping, but sadly, it is not. I’m a terrible gardener. But I am a person who hopes, not because of who we are, but because of who God is. Christ comes to us in people like Dick Rusk… and people like you.

As the Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme. [4]

May this Advent prepare us for such a tidal wave.

[1] Isaiah 10:33, New International Version.
[2] Luke 4:18-19, Common English Bible.
[3] Hans Hallundbaek, Proclaiming the Good News of God’s Peace: Reflections on Mass Incarceration and Immigrant Detention (2016).
[4] Quoted from his play, “The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes,” published in 1991.