121128 Isaiah 11:1-5, 10

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 November 2012 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: Isaiah 11:1-5, 10
Theme: Oh, Come, O Root of Jesse
"Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel" is probably the most familiar Advent hymn in our hymnal. Because of its popularity at this time of year, the song is sometimes lumped together with traditional Christmas carols like "Joy to the World" and "Away in a Manger" and "Silent Night."

The title brings to mind Isaiah's prophecy: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means, 'God with us'" (quoted in Matthew 1:23). Seven hundred years after Isaiah wrote them down, those words came true. God's Son was born into the world. We know that. We hear Luke's account of Jesus' birth every year. Many of us can recite those verses from memory. As a result, the season of Advent may seem like little more than a warm up. Advent is something we have to get through to get to the good stuff of Christmas.


We may know how the story ends, but that doesn't have to spoil the entire season for us. The weeks of Advent are precious because they allow us to prepare our hearts for what is to come. We look forward to Jesus' birth and to his return on the Last Day.

Because the focus of the hymn and the focus of the season are one and the same, "Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel" is a fitting theme for our midweek Advent devotions this year. Each week a different verse will provide the framework for our meditation. And beginning tonight we will consider what we are saying when we sing...

Oh, Come, O Root of Jesse

An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory terms are combined. For example, "deafening silence" and "random order" are oxymorons. At first glance, the hymn verse under consideration appears to open with another oxymoron. We are asking a root to come.

When I think of a root, I picture something strong and sturdy. The roots of a tree push down deep into the ground. The roots of a tree keep it from being pushed over by strong winds. And if you have ever tried to pull an old tree or shrub out of the ground with your hands, you know that a strong root system makes it almost impossible.

So what kind of root can we expect to come to us just by asking? A very special root. It isn't connected to a tree. It has never been planted in the ground. The Root of Jesse is a reference to a person, not a plant, a person who came from Jesse's family, the same person Isaiah referred to in our lesson for today. The Root in question is none other than the promised Messiah.

When he does come, what are God's people asking this Root of Jesse to do? The verse continues: "Oh, come, O Root of Jesse, free your own from Satan's tyranny." The Israel of Isaiah was nothing like the Israel Jesse knew. Jesse was the father of David, the greatest of Israel's kings. David united the twelve tribes. David established the capital at Jerusalem. David's reign is sometimes referred to as Israel's golden age.

But the expanded borders that David had established didn't last forever. When Isaiah came on the scene some three hundred years later (c. 700 A.D.), only two of the original twelve tribes remained. The other ten had been destroyed or carried off into captivity by the Assyrians.

I'll spare you the gory details, but the brutality of the Assyrian armies is well documented. As a result, Isaiah's brothers and sisters in exile didn't have to imagine what tyrannical rule was like... because they lived it.

As bad as their situation was, as hard as life was, physical captivity was only a symptom of a much deeper problem. Long before the Assyrians invaded the Israelites were being held captive by Satan. God's people were enslaved by their sins, idolatry, greed, lust, hate, and there was no way they could break sin's chains.

When we use terms like "tyranny" or "tyrant" today, we might picture a dictator like Saddam Hussein or Fidel Castro. Tyrants are powerful leaders. Tyrants maintain their power by the use of force, and this force forces people to act against their will.

Satan's brand of tyranny is somewhat different. The devil is powerful, but he is also extremely clever. When he tempts people to sin, he often convinces them that they are doing what they wanted to do in the first place. He packages slavery to sin as freedom of choice. He makes the Word of God out to be nothing more than a book of rules, and everyone knows that rules were made to be broken.

Tyrants also make use of grand processions and military exercises and sometimes even public executions to show their strength. Why? Because power discourages opposition. Because a show of strength can put down a rebellion before it starts.
Satan is a tyrant, but he doesn't always follow the tyrant's playbook. Instead of flexing his muscles, instead of a full frontal attack on our faith, the devil often engages in what might be called subtle tyranny. He desperately wants to control our lives, but he doesn't necessarily want us to know that he is in control.

For example, instead of getting up in your face and claiming that God is dead, he might whisper in your ear: "If your God really exists, then why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? Or "If God really loves you and cares about you, then why does he allow so much trouble to come into your life?"

It probably wouldn't do the devil much good to try to convince the people in this room that Jesus' birth isn't worth celebrating this year. But if he can get us to spend all our time and energy on things like cards and parties and decorations and gifts so that the "Christ" part of Christmas becomes an afterthought, then you might want to ask yourself: "Who is in control?"

Like the Jews in captivity, we need to be freed us from the tyranny of Satan. Like every other person on the planet, we need to be rescued from our sins. And as the hymn verse continues, we are reminded how serious the situation is.

"From depths of hell your people save." What are the depths of hell like? Better question, do you ever want to find out? Hell is more than an abstract concept. Hell is real. God warns that eternal death is the eternal destiny of everyone who breaks his law.

And so these words are more than poetry put to music. The hymn writer didn't choose these words because they fit the meter and rhythm of the verse. He is making an impassioned plea, the plea of every sinner who recognizes the damning consequences of his sin: "Dear God, I know what I have done. I know what I deserve. I know that I can't do anything to make things right. You are my only hope. Help me! Save me!"

The final line of the verse assures us that our prayers have been answered: "And give them victory o'er the grave." Isaiah lived hundreds of years before Jesus was born. He trusted in God's promise to send a Savior. The Lord even allowed Isaiah to write down some very detailed prophecies about his saving work (see Isaiah 53, for example).

But as much as Isaiah knew, we know more. Isaiah knew that God had a plan to save the world. We know how God put that plan into action. Isaiah knew that the Savior would be led like a lamb to the slaughter. We know that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Isaiah trusted in God's promises for the future. So do we, but we are doubly blessed because we also know that God's promise of a Savior has been fulfilled.

During the season of Advent, we celebrate Jesus' birth. We cherish the images of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in the manger. We cherish the fact that God lived among us, that God's Son lived as one of us.

But Jesus didn't come into this world simply to commiserate with us. Jesus was born to die for us. Jesus was born to die for the sins of the world. Jesus was born to go to the depths of hell and declare victory over the devil. Jesus was born to rise from the dead and give us victory over death. Without Advent, there could be no Easter. Without Easter, Advent would have no meaning.

That is why it is so comforting for us to know the whole story. The Root of Jesse has come. The Root of Jesse has freed us from the tyranny of Satan. The Root of Jesse has saved us from the depths of hell. The Root of Jesse has given us victory over the grave.

Now is not the time to learn some new and exciting news. Advent is a time when we prepare to hear the old, old story of Jesus and his love, the same story we heard last year, the same story we will hear again, Lord willing, next year, the good tidings that angels announced to shepherds two thousand years ago: "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11).

This life-giving, world-changing truth makes the refrain of "Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel" more than the last line of a hymn. It reflects an attitude of joyful confidence, and with one small change it provides our devotion with a perfect conclusion: "Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, has come to you O Israel." Amen.

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