This past spring I went to turn over the soil in our garden boxes and found a distressing sight: masses of tiny roots had made their way into every inch of our dirt. I started to pull them out, but was puzzled at what they were. Eventually I realized that the maple tree in our front yard was reaching up into all of these boxes of good soil to find water and nourishment. Some of the boxes are thirty feet away from the tree, yet it worked its way up to the surface. Pretty impressive.
Plants are amazingly persistent; their tenacity and strength is demonstrated whenever we spot a small tree finding its way up through the asphalt or concrete of a city to burst into growth in the light of day. The life in the roots is so bold that it won’t be stopped even by a seemingly impenetrable slab of rock.
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet delivered a promise from God that his troubled people, suffering judgment and oppression and seemingly without hope, would witness life breaking through again like those persistent stalks of green we’ve all see busting up through city sidewalks. From the family of their long-dead but well-remembered king David, a renewal of promise would come.
A shoot will come up from the stump of [David’s father] Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him. (Isaiah 11:1-2)
When we read these words thousands of years after they were spoken, we see in them a clear picture of Jesus, “great David’s greater Son,” who continues to bring hope to a world in great need of it. In another famous later passage in Isaiah, which the New Testament connects to Jesus, the same image is again employed:
He grew up before [the LORD] like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground. (Isaiah 53:2)
These words that Isaiah speaks, and which fit so well with Jesus’ coming and life, death and resurrection, tell us that God can and does work where there seems to be nothing to work with. This shouldn’t be surprising. He is the one who created the whole world out of nothing.
At Christmas we celebrate this inbreaking hope and grace. One of the songs we sing to remember these promises is a 16th century German hymn which in translation bears the mouthful of a title, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” The title may be daunting, but the song is a simple reflection on these words of promise in Isaiah. In “the cold of winter,” this “tender stem” has burst forth as a beautiful rose, a sign of colour and life where no one could have expected it. Jesus is this hopeful rose.
Sometimes life feels like it’s heavy around us, and the Christmas season seems to amplify these pains. This month we are aware of friends who have lost loved ones, those who are dealing with diseases, and those who are struggling with other heavy concerns. And of course there is the weight of the pandemic, which may not be getting heavier but certainly feels like it has settled over us for a long winter. When we are weighed down it is hard to see our way out because we can’t seem to summon any feelings of hope.
There is a phrase, twice repeated in the words of the hymn, describing the time when Jesus came. According to the hymn-writer, this gift of hope, this blooming rose, came “when half-spent was the night.” Now, I don’t have the most botanical knowledge and experience of anyone in the world, but I do know that the darkness of night isn’t the ideal condition for growth. Growing seasons depend on long stretches of daylight hours. The hymn writer emphasizes that Jesus’ coming, though it was foretold by the prophets, still came as a surprising event.
We might also feel that if hope were coming into our life surely things would look better than they do now. But Jesus’ coming into the world was and continues to be an unexpected bloom when hope might seem to be lost. So we approach Christmas as people who need to trust again that God speaks into darkness and says, “Let there be light”—he looks at a piece of dry ground or dead rock and says it’s time for a flower to grow. He’s done it before, and has done it decisively in Jesus. As we trust in Jesus we know that he continues to work this renewal of hope for the world and for us.
This rose-blooming-in-darkness work always centres around Jesus, who alone could rescue us from sin and death. As the one who in the beginning was the agent of creation (Hebrews 1; John 1; Colossians 1) yet who became one of us, and as the one who burst forth from the hopelessness of the tomb, he is uniquely our Lord and Saviour, the hymn finishes by putting these truths into words:
This flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
dispels with glorious splendour the darkness everywhere.
True man yet very God, from sin and death he saves us
And lightens every load.