The Root of Hope
The landscaping at our house could use some work. The first step in changing the look of the house we purchased on Francis Street was to cut down the evergreen trees and shrubs that had shielded most of its front from view. I don’t care for feeling “boxed in,” so when we bought the house one of the first things I said was, “Those trees are going to have to go.” And so this past spring, they did come down. My father showed up with his chain saw, and we cut down everything that was growing in the front of our house, including both evergreen trees and holly bushes, leaving nothing but stumps, as low to the ground as we could get them.
The second step in the process is the one that ended up never happening. Due to financial constraints, we never covered over those areas and re-mulched them. It didn’t take long for weeds to grow up in the soil that hadn’t seen much sunlight in many years. This was unremarkable and easily fixed with some weeding. But what happened next surprised me. All of the holly bushes began to grow back. I’m not sure how they managed it — after all, we had cut them off at ground level, and not a single twig of greenery had remained. And yet up they came, new shoots, growing out of the stumps of bushes that had been deliberately cut off.
I was not, necessarily, reminded first of Isaiah’s pronouncement of the shoot that would come from the stump of Jesse. Knowing me, my first thought was probably of Dr. Ian Malcolm in the film Jurassic Park stating, “Life… finds a way.” Malcolm was the prophetic voice of the film; and though his general message was one of impending doom — believing all along that it was only a matter of time before the dinosaurs ran amok — his most-quoted thought, “Life finds a way,” intended as a warning, is nonetheless a word of hope.
In its context, Isaiah’s prophet utterance is also a word of hope couched in a general message of doom. Isaiah is reflecting upon the current state of Judah’s affairs. He is writing during the difficult times surrounding the Syro-Ephraimitic war of 733 BCE when the northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus tried to force Judah and King Ahaz to join their rebellion against Assyria. On Isaiah’s advice, King Ahaz refused. But then Ahaz went a step further, alerting Assyria to the mounting rebellion — a move that Isaiah opposed. The Assyrians, predictably, responded strongly, destroying the northern kingdom of Israel altogether. Isaiah, looking around him after the devastation of Israel, put his hope in God’s covenant with Israel and, more particularly, in the House of David. He hoped that the young Hezekiah, who would follow Ahaz as king, might be the righteous Davidic king God’s people — and especially the prophets — had long hoped for.
Our current reading from Isaiah is one of three passages in early Isaiah that are thought of as Messianic oracles. At first, Isaiah sounds hopeful that this righteous “anointed one” would come during his lifetime. But by the time he wrote this morning’s passage, his tone had changed, and he now sound to be looking to some distant future. He has indicated that Assyria will fall like a tree that will never sprout again. He then turns his attention to the house of David, and although it, too, appears to be falling like a tree, from its stump shall grow a new shoot. This imagery is important because it tells us that this foretold ruler won’t be like all of the other kings of Israel and Judah, branches that have each grown more feeble or more twisted than the last, with few exceptions. Instead, the tree having been cut off, the life of David’s House — the life of God’s covenant people — would “find a way,” sprouting a new shoot whose beginning may be traced back all the way to the root of Jesse. This one would be a new David — a new king to judge righteously; to decide with equity for the poor and the meek; who will vanquish his enemies not with violence, but with the word of his mouth. Righteousness and faithfulness will be endemic to who this ruler is, and the experience of the real presence of God will be pervasive over all the earth.
Old Testament prophets like Isaiah uttered their prophetic oracles in the future tense. But when we turn to New Testament authors, we begin to read about the Kingdom of God in the present tense. Paul explicitly says, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The point of this passage, as it comes toward the end of a longer section of the Letter to the Romans, “is that God’s decision, enabled in Christ, to unite Jews and Gentiles into one people of God is not a recent divine decision, but was part of God’s plan for a chosen people from the beginning.” It comes on the heels of Paul having taught the Romans that those strong in the faith must learn to accept those who are weak in the faith, as Christ has accepted all by doing what God willed: unifying all people by bearing their sin (15:3).
Now, Paul goes further, noting that not only has Christ united strong Christian disciples from weak ones, but he has also united humanity across far more difficult barriers: cultural barriers, religious barriers, racial barriers, gender barriers, national and political barriers — all such barriers fall away through our unity in Christ. It was always meant to be this way, Paul opines, and he cites scripture to prove it including Isaiah’s image of the root of Jesse, out of which a new shoot would spring who would rule not only the Jews but also the Gentiles. And “in him, the Gentiles shall hope” (15:12).
In this passage, Paul enumerates two specific gifts of God to his people: hope and harmony. In fact, the reading is bracketed by statements of hope, for it begins with “Whatever was written in former days was written… so that… we might have hope,” and ends with, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Hope is not a denial of reality; it is not a generalized emotion, or wishful thinking, or even the self-deluding practice of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. We cannot willfully ignore or deny the facts as they are. Paul does not live in a post-truth delusion, and neither can we. The world is full of strife and pain, and we deny this — or scapegoat others for it — at our peril. In fact, much of the pain we personally experience, and virtually all of the hardship that this world experiences, is directly attributable to human sinfulness. Despite this, those who know God — who experience God in Christ — have hope, that is, they trust that God’s steadfast promises are reliable. Because God is steadfast, we also can remain steadfast. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ,” Paul writes, mentioning God’s second gift.
Harmony comes when we reject the sinful ways that have led to the world’s sorry state — humanity’s inhumanity toward humanity, to say nothing of the rest of creation — and to instead, “Accept one another, just as Christ has accepted you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). Such harmony is couched in God’s steadfastness; that is, we are able to accept one another — tearing down those artificial barriers between peoples that God has eradicated through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ — because the steadfastness of God’s covenant with us has been proven by Christ’s faithfulness to God’s will.
As a musician, I love the word harmony. It has a very specific definition in music that illustrates Paul’s point remarkably well. Melody is a line of music performed by a single voice. It’s what you get when someone sings a solo, or when an entire section of instruments plays in unison. They all play or sing the same note, which often lends strength to that musical thought. That’s melody. But Paul says that the God of steadfastness and encouragement has granted us to live not in melody, but in harmony.
But when the basses, the tenors, and the altos sing different notes from the melody that the sopranos are singing, when taken together, they make the music more rich, more interesting, more beautiful. The point of using a word like harmony to describe how we are to accept one another, just as Christ has accepted us, is to illustrate that becoming “one in Christ” does not mean that everyone must now think, act, live, or sing in unison. We have been gathered together in Christ as the people of God, but that doesn’t mean we’re only allowed to sing a single line of melody. The richness and beauty of the people of God are found in its ability to make something more beautiful together than we could on our own. Paul might have written, “There is no longer brass or woodwind; there is no longer strings or percussion; for we are all one symphonic orchestra under the direction of Jesus Christ, our Maestro!”
But I’ll also add this about harmony. Not all harmonies are pleasing to the ear. There is consonance — the sound of two different notes that compliment one another; and there is dissonance — the sound of two different notes that seem to clash with one another. What music students learn, especially in advanced theory classes, is that dissonance is not necessarily a bad thing. Dissonance is desirable when its resolution to consonance makes music more beautiful and emotive. In fact, dissonance can be beautiful and emotive in its own right, even when it doesn’t resolve. The point is, whether we like every note our neighbors sing or not, we are able to trust that the harmony being orchestrated and directed by our Maestro will resolve into something beautiful, because he knows better than we ever could what key we’re singing in, and how our harmonies will resolve when we reach our final cadence.
As it happens, music also deals in roots. The root of a chord tells a musician how the chord ought to be “spelled,” how it relates to the chords around it, how its dissonances might resolve. Those roots are the pathway through music that determines the relationships of every other note, and their purpose in the grand scheme of things. How apropos, then, that Paul, citing Isaiah’s image of the root that has sprung from the stump of Jesse in order to bring hope not only to Israel but also to the Gentiles, would use a word like harmony to describe peace. For it is the root that guides us in the way of peace, defining relationships, and teaching us how to anticipate the resolution of dissonance.
 Paul J. Achtemeier, “Second Sunday of Advent; Rom. 15:4-13; Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 39.