One of the most loved of all the Advent hymns is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We sing it at the end of Advent. This hymn has a long and interesting history. It really goes back until at least the 8th century and is based on the refrains/ antiphons that were chanted during the Vespers services. These refrains/ antiphons were at the beginning and at the end of the Magnificat, the song of Mary recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel. There were seven of them and a different one was chanted each day from 17 to 23 December. Today, being the19th, the antiphon that was sung is: O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all His people: come to save us without delay.
Together these seven are called the “O Antiphons”. The “O” shows the intense longing for the long promised Savior to come--O Come! And then each of these 7 O Antiphons is full of marvelous theology as each one uses an ancient biblical image that the OT faithful used of the Savior. Yes, the OT faithful believed simply that the long promised Savior was coming. But they used beautiful poetic imagery to describe the Savior--who He is and what He would do: O Wisdom, O Adonai, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel--and, of course, today’s: O Root of Jesse. Here we see that Jesus is the fulfillment not only of the longings of the OT faithful, but as we today join the OT faithful in their longings, using their imagery of the coming Savior, we are confessing that we are one Church with them--the Church is made up of all believers in Jesus--and we are confessing that all our hopes, dreams and longings are fulfilled In Jesus. And that is the purpose of Advent: it prepares our hearts and rekindles in us that fervent longing for Jesus to come, to return--but this time, not as a Baby born in Bethlehem--but in glory on the Last Day as Judge. In Advent, we find ourselves in the shoes of the OT faithful and cry out with them in fervent longing: “O Come, Lord Jesus, Come.” As we prepare our hearts and homes for Christmas, for the celebration of Jesus’ first coming, we are also reminded that He was faithful and did come; and we can be certain that He is faithful and will come again.
We will spend a few moments today reflecting on today’s O Antiphon: O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples… This image of Jesus as the “Root of Jesse” comes to us from the OT prophet, St. Isaiah who prophesizes: There shall come forth a Shoot from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots…. And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, Who shall stand as a banner to the people; for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious. This prophecy is also the background to the lovely Christmas carol: Behold, A Branch is Growing.
Jesus is described here both as the Shoot/ Branch from the stem of Jesse and as the Root of Jesse. To understand this image, we have to remember that Jesse is the father of King David. And from David came all the Israelite kings; and God promised David that one of David’s descendants would be the long promised Savior, the Messiah. And that’s why we read in the Christmas account [Lk,. 2.3-4] that all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. So what does this point us to--except the humanity of Jesus, that Jesus is true man, truly one of us.
And now look at the image--Jesus, a Root of Jesse. Where is the root? It’s in the ground. You don’t see the root; it’s buried. And so Jesus as a Root of Jesse means what? That He/ His human nature is “buried” in the long line of the patriarchs. This means that Jesus didn’t just drop from heaven with a human body but that He truly came, according to His human nature, from a long line of ancestors going back to David, Jesse, Noah, and finally Adam. In other words, Jesus is truly one of us! In order to be our Savior it is absolutely vital that Jesus truly be one of us, a true human being. That means that Jesus could truly be our Substitute--both in obeying God’s law for us and in suffering and dying for our sins on the cross. So calling/ recognizing Jesus as a Root of Jesse means that, yes, Jesus was hidden in the root, in the seed of the patriarchs, but He would be revealed/ He would be seen/ He would come at a certain place and in a certain time of human history. That’s why St. Isaiah says of Him: there shall be a Root of Jesse, Who shall stand as a banner to the people--there would come a time when He is no longer underground and invisible. And that time began at Christmas [Lk. 2.11,12]: For there is born for you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. Here God truly became man --visible to all. He, the true God, took on a true human nature and from that point into all eternity, the Son of God is both true God and true man.
Now let’s look at the beginning verses of this prophecy from St. Isaiah, where Jesus is called a Shoot/ Branch: There shall come forth a Shoot from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The image here is of a tree--think of a family tree. But the tree has been cut down so that all that’s left is a bit of the stump and the roots. That’s what happened to Jesse’s descendants/ to the descendants of King David. The line of the kings from David ended. The Israelite nation and monarchy ended about 500 years before Jesus, when the people were brought into captivity in Babylon for 70 years before being allowed back--but there was never again a king from the line of David. We read of King Herod at Jesus’ time but he wasn’t even an Israelite. That line, that tree of Jesse that produced kings was cut down. That lowliness we see in today’s OT reading. Bethlehem--the town where Jesse and his son, King David came from, is lowly and insignificant: But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah. But what will happen there? David’s descendant, the Savior, the King of Kings will be born there: from you, will go out the one who will be the Ruler for Me in Israel. He is not just a normal man/ Ruler but the eternal God Himself: His goings forth are from the beginning, from the days of eternity. Or, as Isaiah puts it in our text: There shall come forth a Shoot from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The life is in the roots--and that life will show itself in God’s time. And that’s why the OT saints would cry out: O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all His people: come to save us without delay. And that long awaited Savior, Jesus, did come of a lowly virgin, who, too was a descendant of David, and He was born in poor, insignificant Bethlehem. Jesus grew as a shoot from the stump of David’s cut down dynasty.
Again, yes, Jesus, according to His human nature is in the line of Jesse and David; He is a Shoot from the stem of Jesse and as St. Paul writes [Rm. 1.3]: Jesus Christ our Lord ...was born of the seed of David according to the flesh. And this is the wonderful thing: when Jesus was born, He was born already as King. What did the Wise Men say [Mt.2.2]? Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? Notice: kings aren’t born already as kings; they become kings. Jesus is already born as a king; a true and proper king who is the perfect and holy king--what is Jesus quoted as saying in today’s epistle? --Here I am. I have come to do Your will. And what does all this mean? --It means that Jesus got His humanity/ human nature from David, as a Descendant of David, but not His kingship since the line of Jewish kings from David is cut down; Jesus’ Kingship is divine, from God since He is God, whose goings forth are from the beginning, from the days of eternity. O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all His people: come to save us without delay.
And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, Who shall stand as a banner to the people; for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious. Do you notice that change/ shift of image in that verse? --That Root of Jesse, a root is normally something hidden, is now standing as a banner. The Root of Jesse--Jesus our Lord, the God-man, is revealed! He is no longer underground and invisible. He has come-- just as the OT saints had been longing and praying. Notice how He is pictured: as a banner/ an ensign/ a standard. This is a military image. This banner or standard would be high on a pole and the troops would gather around it. Jesus Himself is that banner/ standard high and exalted.
Yes, through His earthly ministry He gathered people around Him--those who recognized Him as the long awaited Savior. By His preaching and miracles many came to know Him rightly. But in a wonderful and amazing way Jesus now stand[s] as a banner to the people. And that is by His holy cross. Jesus tells us [Jn. 12.32]: And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die. The whole purpose of Jesus’ coming was to bring about the salvation of the world, to reconcile us sinners to the holy God by His holy sinless life and His innocent suffering and death. When Jesus died for our sins on the cross, there He is drawing us to Himself. He is saying: Here is the forgiveness of sins. Here is eternal life. Now He stands as a banner calling us to Him. The one troubled over sin/ the one who fears God’s wrath, looks up and there sees Jesus on the cross; there sees Jesus dying for His sin; there sees that in this suffering Savior, this King, is the forgiveness of sins and the kingdom of heaven standing open. And so the repentant sinner is drawn to and gathers around Jesus, the one who stands as a banner to the people. Repentant sinners from all nations and peoples flock to Him, their Lord and Savior, as loyal troops around the flag. We, dear Christian, gather around the cross of Christ. All who fervently pray in faith: O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all His people: come to save us without delay.
This is the glorious work of our crucified and risen Savior! Yes, He died on the cross for our sins, but He rose again. That means that He paid the price fully and completely for our sins and that heaven now stands open to us as He ascended to heaven and opens it to all believers. Now, by the work of His Holy Spirit, Jesus is gathering all people to Him in His Church: for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious. As the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin by the holy Law of God, we feel our need for a Savior from sin. And that’s such a vital part of Advent--using it to examine heart and life to see our sin and God’s wrath so that we all the more long for Jesus to come to us in His holy word and sacrament giving us the forgiveness of sin and every heavenly and spiritual blessing. When we recognize our sin and what we earn/ deserve for it we cry our in fervent prayer: O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all His people: come to save us without delay. When we long for Jesus and His gifts and blessings and cling in faith to Him alone, then we have come/ been gathered to Him. And there, in Him, is life and every blessing, joy and peace for us. Now Jesus gives us His glory and peace as He dwells in our hearts by faith; and we now rest in Him. Just think--when other kings die, that’s the end of their reign; but from His death Jesus reigns gloriously forward--because He rose from the dead and lives and reigns eternally. That’s the fullness of life He is calling us to now and which will continue forever in heaven. He came the first time, becoming man, to bring it about for us by His life, suffering and death--to set up His kingdom; He comes to us now in His word and Sacrament giving us its fruits and blessings and He will come on the Last Day to bring us eternally into His heavenly kingdom in soul and glorified body. O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all His people: come to save us without delay. INJ