Of the many names for Jesus, the one you very-rarely-if-ever call on is “Rod of Jesse.”
Yet, there it is – perched awkwardly atop a stanza of a familiar Advent carol: Rod of Jesse. “O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny.”
We lift up the unusual name “Rod of Jesse,” in passionate melody, during the darkening days of every Advent season – and so also too, indirectly, in our fervent prayers for ourselves and our world that better, less-tyrannical, more-peaceful days will lie ahead: “From depths of hell thy people save, and give them victory o’er the grave.”
Let’s do a little unpacking of the uncommon-yet-holy name “Rod of Jesse.”
First, “rod” – a shoot, a stem; literally sprouting from a dead stump, unexpectedly budding as a sapling branch from roots long thought to be dried-up and lifeless. Those roots belong to Jesse, father of the Old Testament’s much-beloved King David, an earthly ruler over God’s people known far and wide for being fair, just, righteous, and God-fearing – though not without imperfection. David’s royal heirs, because of their sins, eventually get themselves booted out of the line of royal succession. Yet God promises David that his seed, however cracked and flawed, will indeed establish God’s rule forever.
And thus they do – the legal right to David’s throne flowing through the generations and finally coming to rest in Jesus, a wise and just ruler like his ancestor David. Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us, the very Son of both God and Man, brimming with both divinity and humanity.
Plus, God’s Holy Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and reverence rests upon him by baptism. And bearing those gifts, Jesus, Desire of Nations, comes to clean house, take charge, and re-establish justice.
Jesus brings hope to the remnant of God’s people who find themselves living in their own brand of bleak midwinter, a leaderless place, desperately holding on for dear life in a time when everything’s spinning out of control! Even more terrifying, the sharp ax of God’s judgment is coming, and the nation will be left with nothing but a seemingly lifeless “stump.”
But the Dayspring, the morning dawn, one day will break to renew the face of the earth and the hearts of its people. What surely now seems a dead, decaying stump will bring forth new life in the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who vows to come again one day, and to wipe away every evil and every tear once and for all.
Listen for that Good News in the Word of the Lord from the pen of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.
Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot – yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.
And the Spirit of the LORD will 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.
He will delight in obeying the LORD. He will not judge by appearance nor make a decision based on hearsay. He will give justice to the poor and make fair decisions for the exploited. The earth will shake at the force of his word, and one breath from his mouth will destroy the wicked. He will wear righteousness like a belt and truth like an undergarment.
In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all. The cow will graze near the bear. The cub and the calf will lie down together. The lion will eat hay like a cow. The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra. Yes, a little child will put its hand in a nest of deadly snakes without harm. Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with people who know the LORD.
In that day the heir to David’s throne will be a banner of salvation to all the world. The nations will rally to him, and the land where he lives will be a glorious place. (Isaiah 11:1-10)
The wordsmiths at Merriam-Webster recently picked “gaslighting” as their word of the year.
In this our age of misinformation – of “fake news,” conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls, and deepfakes, “gaslighting” – “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone for one’s own advantage” – fuels widespread disorientation and rampant mistrust.
Here’s how gaslighting erodes our confidence: Basically, if you hear a lie relentlessly told over and over and over, its repetitive bombardment upon your conscience mind unconsciously transforms fiction into fact, alternate truth, despite the lack of solid, reliable evidence to back up those claims. Gaslighting is what stirs your desperate cry: “I just don’t know what to believe anymore!”
And then, into your confusion parachutes the prophet Isaiah, with most-welcome word of better days ahead, of reconciliation for the estranged, all stemming from a surprising sprout of truth: Fresh, new life arising from stone-cold death, a different vision of community cut from wholly different cloth, a glorious fabric woven tightly with vibrant threads of peace, justice, and the long-awaited righting of wrongs.
So, let’s paint that picture and set the record straight:
It is not true that Creation and humanity are doomed to destruction and loss. This is true: Father, Son, and Spirit so loved the world they created, that God gives us the only Son, that whoever believes in that Son shall never-ever perish but have everlasting life.
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction. This is true: “I have come,” Jesus declares, “that they may have abundant life.”
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever. This is true: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders. His name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world. This is true: “To me is given authority in heaven and on earth,” Jesus shouts, “and lo, I am with you, even until the end of the world.”
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, prophets of the Church, before we can be peacemakers. This is true: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your young men and women shall see visions, and your old men and women shall dream dreams.”
It is not true that our hopes for the full liberation of humanity – for justice, dignity, and respect for all life – are not meant for this earth and for this history. This is true: “I knew you before you were born; I knit you together in your mother’s womb. You are fearfully and wonderfully made!”
So let’s keep slogging through Advent in hope, toward the manger in hope against hope.
Let us see visions of love, and peace, and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, and with courage: the Christ Child of Bethlehem truly is the life of the world. And indeed, our prayers have been answered: “O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny. From depths of hell thy people save, and give them victory o’er the grave.”
May it be so, sooner rather than later: Come, Lord Jesus. O come, thou Rod of Jesse. For Scripture also understands “rod” as the hook of rescue, the staff carried affectionately by a caring Shepherd. Therefore, we sing a song of David in our morning psalm:
The LORD is my shepherd; I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honor me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23)
Which is why, in another carol, we sing of the glory that lies ahead: “Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing; O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, December 11, 2022, the fifth Sunday of Advent at First Presbyterian Church. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Allan Boesak and Gene M. Tucker inform the message.