O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree,
free them from Satan’s tyranny;
That trust thy mighty power to save,
and give them victory over the grave.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
I said last Sunday that we Christians should be the most discontented members of the human family. We hold on to a hope for a better world – a hope based in God’s promises. We yearn for a world free from want, suffering, hatred, sickness, and death. The four-week season of Advent gives voice to our discontentedness and yearning, which is expressed most clearly in the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Its seven verses, rooted on Old Testament images and dating back at least to the 8th century, are a significant feature of our liturgy at the lighting of the Advent wreath. This morning we open our hearts and minds to longings for the Branch of Jesse and for the Key of David.
Jesse, as you may know, was David’s father. In 1 Samuel 16 we learn that he had eight sons, David being the youngest. God sends the prophet Samuel to Jesse’s house in the town of Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons as the new king. Samuel supposes this will be the eldest, a man who is tall and strong. But God has other ideas and uses different standards of measure and says to Samuel, “Take no account of how a person looks, for I do not see as you see. You judge by appearances, but I judge what is in the heart.” And based on this criteria God chooses David to be king.
The image of the Branch of Jesse is drawn from the 11th chapter of the book of Isaiah. Written at a time about 250 years after David’s reign, the kingdom has been divided between the north and south and the entire northern kingdom of Israel has been laid to waste by the Assyrians. Even the forests have been cut down. In our time it is not uncommon to see large tracts of land logged for commercial purposes or development. Initially it is not a pretty sight. Imagine an entire region devastated in such a fashion. Isaiah’s image proclaims a message a hope: just as new shoots grow out of stumps, so too will a new ruler rise up from the root or stump of Jesse.
This image of longing looks back fondly to a golden era and hopes for something from it that will endure and restore what has been lost or forgotten in the present time. It is rooted in a feeling that something has gone amiss; that somewhere along the way we have taken a wrong turn; that we need to get back to our first principles, back to our roots. When talk radio hosts speak about the intentions of the founding fathers, they are taping into a similar yearning, but we Christians long for something much deeper just politics.
The pace of change in today’s world has made looking back very difficult. From the dawn of human history up until the Industrial Revolution, change and innovation were not the norm. If you wanted to know how to farm or to hunt or to cobble a shoe, you learned the tricks of the trade from your elders. Wisdom and knowhow were passed down from one generation to another. Every now and then someone might figure out a better way to, say, create an arrowhead and this knowledge then was assimilated slowly into the culture. Morality and religion were transmitted in the same fashion; with younger generations learning from their elders.
Well, we live in a very different world where the dizzying rate of change renders yesterday’s knowhow obsolete. There is an old Jackson Browne song from his younger years where, in trying to sort out his relationship with his father, he says, “make room for my 45’s along beside you 78’s.” Well, back in the 70’s, at least both generations had records in common, even if they revolved on a turntable at different speeds. Neither of my daughters has ever owned a record. The big technological breakthrough of my youth involved converting my albums to cassette tapes. What do you think they would say if I offered to show them how to do this?
And this is just one small example of how more and more less and less of what an older generation knows is of use to the newest generation. The pace of change is so rapid that those of us who don’t keep up (or can’t keep up or won’t keep up) are left behind. This reality around technology has a way seeping into morality and spirituality. Young people, whose lifestyles are geared toward new technology rather than handed-down methods, are forsaking old religious and moral expressions in order to make up their own formulas on the fly.
Still, there is a yearning for something that endures; for something that is rooted in the practices of the ancient past. In the devastation of our present day, with its here today and gone tomorrow approach to just about every aspect of life, there is a longing for shoot to rise out of a stump; a shoot that will remind us of what it means to be human, that will help us to know how to treat one another, that will help us to connect with the Ultimate Source of all reality. Even with all that is right in our society – and there is much for which to be thankful – we look back and know that something is being lost, that there is something we must not leave behind. We yearn to know what it is and how to keep it with us.
If the Branch of Jesse is an image that looks backward, the Key of David is one that looks forward. It is an image derived from Isaiah 22, where the prophet pronounces judgment on a public official named Shebna. It seems that this fellow was some type of steward or comptroller in the king’s palace who kept the keys to the doors of the royal home and Temple. It was his job to ensure that the doors were open when they were supposed to be open and closed when they were supposed to be closed. It was an important position to be sure, but it seems that Shebna’s actions exceeded his station. He rode around town in a fine chariot (read here a luxury car well-beyond anything he could afford) and through use of diverted public funds was building an extravagant mausoleum for himself in a place reserved for royalty (and some people say the bible doesn’t speak to contemporary issues!). Well, this didn’t sit too well with Isaiah who pronounced prophetic judgment on the self-serving, over-reaching, embezzling civil servant. The keys, along with other symbols of that office, such as a robe and a sash, would be taken from him and given to a person worthy of the position.
The person who held the Key of David literally had control over who got into God’s house and who did not, over who got to meet with God’s chosen leadership and who did not. In the Book of Revelation, John picks up on the image and says that Jesus now holds the Key of David and adds,
“When He opens, none may shut,
when He shuts, none may open.” (Rev. 3:7)
As the hymn suggests when it says,
“O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home,”
this image has been linked with access to heaven; the idea being that Jesus will allow some to enter while excluding others. If the Branch of Jesse looks backward for something that will endure, the Key of David looks forward seeking assurance; a powerful yearning indeed.
I wonder how deep this yearning is in us. I don’t remember the last time I heard an Episcopalian say, “I can’t wait to get to heaven.” Our great pursuit is to know God in the here and now. We long and yearn for a vital, dynamic connection with the Holy One, but struggle to find it. This is by no means a new challenge. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, wrote this:
Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek You, where to and how to find You… You are my Lord, and I have never seen you. You have made me and remade me, and You have given me all the good things I possess, and still I do not know You. I was made in order to see You, and I have not yet done that for which I was made.
A thousand years later Anselm’s experience resonates with ours and his yearning to see God gives expression to a longing deep with us.
In John’s Gospel, the Apostle Phillip recognizes that Jesus somehow has connected with God in way that he and Anselm and you and I have not. So he says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father.” Jesus answers him, “Phillip, have I been with you all this time and you do not know Me? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:8-9). This suggests that Jesus does not so much hold the keys to the door of an eternal place where we might want to be someday, but that He Himself is the key who allows us to know and see God through Himself. We, who yearn for a meaningful connection with the Divine Majesty beyond our knowing, find the key to this relationship in the life and words of Jesus Christ.
We yearn for something from the past which endures and for something in the present to connect us with God. I am encouraged that people are finding satisfaction for these longings in the life of the Episcopal Church. Young people across the country are entering faith communities like ours where ancient practices are celebrated: practices such as daily prayer, weekly gathering for worship and sacrament, the formation of a rich community life, and hospitality to the surrounding community. In an ever-changing world, these settings are helping people learn how to be joyful, how to be caring, how to be prayerful, how to be attentive, how to mourn, how to recover, how to receive mercy, how to forgive, how to rejoice… how to be all that God intends us to be. They are places where people discontented with the emptiness of life find both a branch from the past and a key in the present.