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Advent 2 - Trusting our Roots

A sermon on Isaiah 53:1-3 & Hebrews 11:1-13a

(For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Kaja Reichardt on Unsplash)

If there is one thing that I am confident I will never do well, it is gardening.

It’s not that I don’t want to be able to grow things. My mom has a fruitful garden that she tends with care, and I love eating fresh-picked veggies when I visit her. I would be thrilled to be able to eat from my own back yard on a regular basis.

I have tried on various occasions to keep houseplants, or even just kitchen herbs. But they always die.

Once I even managed to accidentally kill bamboo! The invasive plant that is supposed to be impossible to eradicate… I killed that while trying to keep it alive.

I clearly do not understand how plants work. So, suffice it to say, I’m not at my most comfortable when preaching with plant metaphors.

However, in this particular case, I think my total ineptitude in the garden might actually be an asset, because it has given me a deep and abiding respect for roots.

More precisely, my inability to get plants to cooperate has included spending roughly three hours one Saturday afternoon wrestling -unsuccessfully - with an ugly, tangled root buried in one of our flowerbeds.

It seemed like the kind of garden task that was made for me, because it was actually my GOAL to kill the thing. We wanted to get this root OUT of the flower bed so that it could not send up any shoots that could interfere with the fishpond we were re-installing in that part of the flower-bed.

The only problem was… the root was too strong for me.

It looked incredibly unimpressive: dirty, and gnarled, and dry. It certainly had “no form or majesty that we should look at…”

But it gripped the soil with a tenacity that defeated me. It wrapped itself around stubborn rocks, and wormed its way under the paved path, and insisted on the chance to stay where it was buried, so that – come Spring – it could send up another shoot, to seek a new life against all the odds.

This is the root that I think of when I read today’s prophecy from Isaiah, and when I contemplate the description of Christ as “the root of Jesse.”

I think of the strength that can be hidden in the dark, underground, where no one notices it.

I think of the stubborn persistence of a root that won’t let go of its purpose, even when it looks fruitless.

I think of the possibility for new life to spring from a stump even though it seems dry and dead.

Such a root represents hope it its most gritty, unsentimental form.

A hope that has nothing to do with Pollyanna optimism or toxic positivity.

The hope of the root is a hope buried in the dirty reality of actual life, refusing to let go of the purpose for which it was made.

I think this hope is why we hear Jesus referred to as the “root of Jesse,” rather than as the “root of David,” Jesse’s famous, kingly son.

Jesus’ lineage from David is a marker of power and authority. David is the archetypal king. Imperfect though his real story is, for the people of Jesus’ time, David represents the pinnacle of human achievement.

When they spoke of Jesus as the Son of David it was a Messianic title. It declared his heritage as a ruler and powerful savior.

But Jesse was nothing special. He was just a shepherd. No one would have predicted that his youngest son would become the country’s greatest king.

And so, the title, “root of Jesse” reminds us that the unexpected can happen. Just as the story of Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah – in their apparently barren old age – reminds us that nothing is impossible with God.

The root may look unpromising, even half dead, but even such a root can bring forth life.

I don’t know about you, but I need this kind of gritty hope these days.

A few months ago, I was cautiously hopeful that surely, by Christmas, life will be at least close to normal again. It will be safe to gather for Christmas parties. We will sing Christmas carols together without having to breathe through masks.

But now the omicron variant is confirmed in New York. And New Jersey hit an 8-month high in new daily cases. And COVID hospitalizations are impacting access to care for other emergencies.

We need a gritty kind of hope.

More than twenty years ago the whole nation was shocked and grieved by the shooting at Columbine High School, eliciting nation-wide vigils and a Michael Moore documentary.

But this week yet another school shooting (this time in Oxford, Michigan) took three lives, and traumatized countless others, but such violence has been repeated so often that it barely made the 24-hour news cycle.

And whatever the root problem is, whether it is access to guns, or inadequate mental health care, or our country’s addiction to violence, we seem unable and unwilling to do much of anything about it.

We need a gritty kind of hope.

Even in church, the place we come for hope, we face grim realities. We are back to in-person gathering, but not everyone is back – either in-person OR online. And churches around the country are asking hard questions about whether we can ever go back to what it was before.

This Fall, The Atlantic published an article by an Episcopal Priest in Richmond, Virginia who is grappling with the hard questions about whether the pandemic changes to church are permanent.

She writes “In 2020, no one could come to church. Now some of my parishioners are choosing not to.”[1] When a colleague shared this article in a group this week, every response affirmed the same feeling.

Platitudes and optimism are not enough, we need a gritty kind of hope.

And so, today, I am celebrating that Jesus is the root of Jesse.

I’m choosing to trust that something can be despised and rejected by others, but still strong, still capable of producing new life.

I’m reminding myself that external appearances do not tell us the whole truth, and that God has fulfilled unbelievably unlikely promises before.

I’m holding tightly to my memories of yanking at that stubborn dry root in my garden until my hands were raw, until I realized that I could never dig it up because a root can still have tenacious life even when it looks dead.

In fact, sometimes the apparent death is essential.

Our reading from Isaiah today is taken from a longer passage known as the “fourth servant song.”

It is a poetic passage that describes God’s Suffering Servant in grim terms, cataloguing not only the “suffering and infirmity” that we heard read today, but intentional wounds and chastisement, conditions that, in the cultural context, meant rejection and judgement by God.

But the song explains that this suffering has a purpose, for by his unmerited suffering the Servant “will deliver many” (Isaiah 53: 11).

It is this passage that the apostle Peter quotes in explaining that “by his (Jesus’s) wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

I think we need to be very cautious about the idea of redemptive violence, the idea that innocent death can be justified by the change that it causes.

That certainly is NOT case with the hundreds of thousands of victims of COVID, nor of the victims of this week’s school shooting or of any other school shooting.

There is no justification for such suffering. But there can be learning; there can be change.

We can hold onto the lessons of the pandemic and shift the way we understand Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We can grieve for the lives lost to school shootings by examining ALL of the factors that go into this scourge and we can work for societal healing of the conditions that feed violence and rage.

We can see in the shifting landscape of the church and ask God to lead us into what comes next, even if it looks very different from what used to be.

We can look for hope even in the face of death. We can look for the new shoot, springing out of the dry root.

Jesus, the “Root of Jesse” reminds us that a root doesn’t produce exactly the same plant that originally grew.

Jesus is not David… and thank goodness! For Jesus offers a hope of new life that David never could.

And that is our gritty hope when we are grieving what is gone.

The hope that something new can sprout up, and that we can be part of that growth.

Thanks be to God.

[1] “My Church Doesn’t Know What To Do Anymore,” by Elizabeth Felicetti.


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