Restoring the Desert Places

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came, a flow’ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind;

These beautiful words from the traditional German carol “Lo, How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming” set the stage for the Old Testament prophecies that take us straight to the manger. Jesse’s lineage was indeed sung of men of old, recounting the family line from Ruth and Boaz to Jesse, then to King David, and finally to Jesus. And so this “rose” is firmly established as Israelite royalty….of a kind.

It was Isaiah who foretold it. We pause the beautiful hymn at just this spot to consider this: what exactly did Isaiah foretell about the Messiah? Would he be a conquering hero who would deliver his nation from the grip of Roman tyranny? Would he establish his rightful throne and rule with power and might? What did God anoint the Messiah to do when he came to reign?

Isaiah 61 (Common English Bible)

The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
    to bring good news to the poor,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim release for captives,
        and liberation for prisoners,

It must have been startling to the original hearers of this passage to see their anticipated anointed-one described in such a way. He will come to speak to the poor? Tend to the broken-hearted? Liberate the captives?

Where are the royal power and might here?

    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
        and a day of vindication for our God,
    to comfort all who mourn,
    to provide for Zion’s mourners,
    to give them a crown in place of ashes,
    oil of joy in place of mourning,
    a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.

Isaiah continues to paint a very different picture of what the Savior will be like. This description was not in keeping with Israel’s expectations. And yet, Jesus looked just like this. Jesus came to comfort those who mourn. He came to uplift the discouraged and vindicate God. Those who wore the sackcloth and ashes would be rebuilt…from the inside out.

They will be called Oaks of Righteousness,
    planted by the Lord to glorify himself.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins;
    they will restore formerly deserted places;
    they will renew ruined cities,
    places deserted in generations past.

The promise that the formerly deserted places would be restored really alludes to spiritual landscapes rather than physical ones, wouldn’t you agree? Jesus came to renew people with justice, peace, unity, and goodwill. The deserts he came to fill were the empty hearts, the cold attitudes, the lack of humanity, and the absence of compassion that were prevalent in his time…and in ours.

Oh, how we need him now!

In Luke 4, we see that this passage from Isaiah is the very one that Jesus quoted in his first sermon. That day, he stood up in the temple and read it aloud. He closed the scroll and said, “Today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing.“

May these words be fulfilled in our hearing as well.

This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

Lo, How a Rose by Jan Wilson

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