By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 18, 2022
Isaiah 7:10–16 (ESV)10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.This is another one of those weeks where I enjoyed just sitting with scripture in prayer. I often speak about the life of prayer, because prayer is central to faith. In our own purpose or mission statement we say, “Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the love of Christ with others.” This I believe is the best purpose statement a meeting can have. It encompasses worship, discipleship, and mission. And the best thing about that statement is that it came about during a trial where we as a community of Friends, took the time to wait on the Lord and listen for the Spirit to move. We waited, we listened, we discussed, and that simple statement became who we are. We are a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. Its a great statement, but what does it mean? Loving God is worship. Worship takes many forms. It is not just singing, although that is a large part of it. Worship is where we as a community come together to express our devotion to God. This can be in silence, in tears, in laughter, song, dance, in just about any expression you are led experience if it is done with others and devoted to God it is worship. Worship is not something that we can do singularly, it requires community. God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (Genesis 2:18) We often regard this verse as speaking of only the creation of Eve, but it is a testimony of our nature. We are not meant to be alone. We need others with whom we can share life. The third aspect of this statement is, “Living the love of Christ with others.” This too speaks of community. We are not only supposed to worship together, but to work together and to encourage one another. How we live our lives among the people of the community outside this Meetinghouse will speak volumes more about our faith than memorized verses. This has been part of what Friends have taught from our founding, and it is something that saints of old have taught as well. St. Francis is credited with saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”Living the love of Christ with people, is our ministry and mission. And this mission is reared in worship within a community. It begins with worship and is fulfilled in mission, but there is something in between. Embracing the Holy Spirit. This is the part where things get a bit tricky. Worship is with others. Mission is with others. Embracing the Holy Spirit is intimacy. It is that thing that is shared with the closest of loved ones. This is prayer. Prayer is where we have conversations with God. Like spouses talk at the end of the day, when all the chores are completed and the children are put in bed. Prayer is central.I want that intimacy with God to grow within us each. And this intimacy comes when we allow scripture to direct our life of prayer. We can look at scripture as the answer book. Many wonderful ministries have been built on this, and there is nothing wrong with that. But if scripture was for deriving concrete and concise answers only, the structure is all wrong. Scripture is arranged for a conversation. And we do find answers through conversations, but we find more than answers. We find an experience. I study scripture a great deal. It is probably my favorite hobby, but there are days where I just cannot study. I will stare at the screen, yes I mostly use a screen of some sort to read lately, and I just cannot move my eyes. I have found that it is in those moments God is calling me to prayer. I also have found that when I wake up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason I am also supposed to pray. Only to later find that someone in the meeting needed the prayer at that time. As I began to study, I read the passage. I know this passage. We read it nearly every year either in the pages of scripture or in song. But for some reason, my eyes would not let me look to the good part of this passage. I could not move toward Immanuel and I desperately wanted to get there. I yearned for Immanuel, and yet my eyes kept getting tripped up by Ahaz.I would jump ahead to try to get to Immanuel, and I would find that after I blinked, my eyes were again fixated on Ahaz. It is my practice to use scripture to lead my prayers, so I was able to discern that I needed to stop and pray. I needed to let the Spirit speak to me about Ahaz. I know I do not often speak of these sorts of things in detail but I find it necessary today.“Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz.” I think this is where my scholarly stumbling began. I know who Ahaz is, I have read about him before, I have laughed with the kids as the video series we watch Sunday mornings sang a song listing him among the kings of Judah. Why am I tripping over this seemingly in consequential verse. To let you know just how odd it is, only one of my many commentaries I use gave more than a one sentence statement on this verse.Again, the verse says. This leads us to believe that Ahaz previously had conversations similar to the one in the following verses. Previously Ahaz spoke with God and was offered a sign, and yet the one thing that all the commentators had to say about it is that Ahaz did not listen. My scholarly traffic jam began to open a bit, I began to wonder about Ahaz. Ahaz was the third king of the four during Isaiah’s ministry, and he was the eleventh king of Judah after the division of the kingdoms. Just prior to the verses we read today we see Isaiah speaking with Ahaz concerning the invasion they faced. The northern kingdom (Israel or Samaria) and Syria allied together against Judah. I do not think we really grasp the reality of this invasion. Israel today is not a large nation. It is densely populated but as far as area, it is small, about the size of New Jersey in the United States. That is today, in Ahaz’s time, it was less than half that size because he was king of only the southern portion of Israel, Judah. Syria was over ten times the size of Judah. Ahaz is looking out the palace window and he sees the armies of Israel and Syria. These two kingdoms have joined together to take hold of Judah. And it is at this moment Isaiah comes to speak to the king. Take hold. Names in ancient times carried meaning. They often became a prophecy in themselves. I do not know if this is inspired or simply because people have a tendency to become what they believe they are meant to be, so if your name means something in particular you make it happen. My name means Ruler called by God, so if that is the case I guess I should run for president. Ahaz’s name is derived from a verb that means to take hold or grasp and was often used in reference to property. This does not necessarily mean that when used as a name it bears the same meaning, but when we look at the timeline I think it is important. Ahaz is looking out at the encampment outside of Jerusalem, and the prophet is there speaking with him. Isaiah tells Ahaz:It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.This is why I hit a road block in my study. As Ahaz looked out the window, seeing the armies of his enemies, God told him that they would not stand. Not only would they not stand, but within a generation they would all but cease to exist. And God is urging this king to take hold of that promise. Grasp onto the words. Have faith! God is crying out to the king of his covenant to trust the very God that gave him the land and entrust his life to him. Ahaz, I imagine, had the history of his people running through his mind at that moment. The signs of Moses, the parting of the Sea, the conquest of Joshua, the struggles during the era of the Judges, and the golden era of his ancestor David. How many times had his people been in a place very similar to this, and how many times did God remain true to His word? And God is asking Ahaz to believe.“Ask a sign of the Lord your God;” the Lord says to Ahaz, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” God is pleading for Ahaz to trust him, he is just waiting for him to open the door and face the battle set before him saying, “as for me and my house I will trust in the Lord.” But that is not what Ahaz does.“I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Ahaz relaxes his grasp and lets go. Ahaz turns away from the God that had watched over his people for generations. He turned from hope and instead of having faith he grasped fear and this fear consumed him. He embraced any and every superstition, offered sacrifices to any deity whose priest claimed assistance and he even looted the temple so that he could pay a tribute to Assyria to save him from the invasion set before him. He put his trust in the kingdoms of men and he lived out his days in fear. “O house of David!,” God says to Ahaz, “Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” This sentence structure comes across odd in English. To weary is to annoy physically or mentally. But it can also refer to giving up, struggling, or becoming tired. Ahaz gave up on his own army, he gave up on his own people and God is asking if he is going to give up on him as well. Ahaz was offered anything he could imagine, and God looks at Ahaz’s response and he saw through the words. “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test,” were the words that Ahaz used. To us this might sound good, even pious. But what is he saying and what are we saying when we say these words?We see a form of this response all over. “I will not go to church until I have my life in order. Or if I step foot in church lightning would strike it.” These are things we often hear as excuses given by outsiders. But even people that claim to have faith say similar things. “The Lord does not give more than you can handle.” It sounds good, until you actually read scripture. How we word things often points to what our faith is in. In both the insider and outsiders’ response the faith is not in God but ourselves. When we are unwilling to take our concerns to God, we are telling God that we do not trust him. When we are unwilling to even trust the smallest things to God, when the armies come to camp outside our gates how will we trust God in that situation? We do not trust, we give up just as Ahaz did. We say things that sound good, but our actions speak differently. There is no intimacy, only empty words.But God knows who we are. God sees us, and speaks to us not from where we think we should be, but in the reality we are experiencing. God knew Ahaz. He knew that Ahaz was nothing like his ancestor David. He knew that Ahaz was more closely aligned with the enemies at his gates than the God that put him into the throne. And yet God encouraged Ahaz to ask for a sign. It is interesting what sign God encourages him to ask for, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” God does not even care what he asks for at this point, only that he asks. God is willing to unleash Hell on earth if that is what it would bring Ahaz back to Him. We often do not know what we ask as we pray. Only after years of experience do we recognize the folly of our words, and yet often God does grant us what we ask. And there are times God leaves our prayers seemingly unanswered. The reason is not because God does not care, but it is because he does. Each of us is at a different place within our life of faith. Some of us are able to see the hand of God working in something seemingly insignificant where others require the dramatic. God will do what is necessarily from His own perspective to deepen your faith. Notice I said from his own perspective. Often, we pray for our own desires. And often we do not get what we ask. When we pray for healing and we do not see the results, it does not mean God cannot heal, it simply means that the influence of the Kingdom spreads in a greater way without the healing than with. I know that sounds crass. But I have seen it in my own life. I prayed that my little sister would be healed. And I was told that if I had enough faith she would be healed by many well-meaning Christians. She was not healed, and as I have matured God has shown me why in many ways. It is not about us personally, but the Kingdom. Yet God tells Ahaz, ask for anything, from the depths of hell to the highest heaven. What will it take for you and your nation to turn to God? He was given something that we could only dream of. He was given basically the same offer that God gave to Solomon, and instead of taking hold of it Ahaz let go. He let go, but that did not stop God. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” We know this prophecy well. Through Ahaz’s weary rejection of God, God does not give up, instead he doubles down. Immanuel. This is a compound word in Hebrew. El means God so it is a declaration or profession of a relationship with God. Remember this word for God is not only Hebrew, but it is the name for the Most High deity even among the idolatrous nations fighting against Ahaz. The next part that is of special interest is “im”. Im means to be with, or in some cases as good as if with. So, God with. And the last part is relational, “manu.” This is basically us. God with us. This could be taken in the literal sense or symbolically. By saying that this young woman would name the child Immanuel, is God telling Ahaz that though it looks dire right now the people of your land at this very moment are considering this, Immanuel, as a name.Stop and think about that for a moment. Remember these words were written to be encouraging at that moment, as well as providing future hope. A prophet’s writing would not have survived this long if there was not something important at that moment to glean from the words. We read this passage through 2000 years of church history and we clearly see this as a reference to Jesus, but what did it say to Ahaz and what could it say to us?“Behold the virgin.” If you have done any study on the internet at all you will find countless videos attempting to tell us that the word for virgin is referring to a young woman and not a technical virgin. Those internet scholars are not completely wrong, there is a word that could have been used to speak of an actual virgin, but instead Isaiah chose to use young woman instead. This is cultural. In ancient times, once a woman reached the stage of maturity they were given in marriage. Often these weddings were arranged years in advance, so the likelihood of a woman not being a virgin prior to conceiving is slim. This young woman is coming of age at this very moment. She is entering into her adult life with all of this turmoil going on around her, and as she bears her first child the name she urges her husband to choose on the day of presentation is, God with us. Remember this is not only a prophecy of the far future, but a word for the moment. Isaiah is telling Ahaz there are people alive right now, looking at this chaotic situation and instead of looking at it with dread as their king is, they are looking at it with hope. God is telling this weary king. Even though you may not grab hold of what God is offering you, your people will. With or without you God’s influence in the world will prevail. God will be with his people. Isaiah continues to tell us what God is revealing and says, “He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”This child, Immanuel, will be born into a world filled with war. His formative years of development will occur under the ever-present shadow of terror and threat. When wars break out we often forget the toll it has on the children. The children of Ukraine at this moment do not go to school. Their schools are trying their hardest to offer online classes because they do not want to bring the children into one location because Russia has chosen to target the innocent in this war. Often children suffer during times of war. The children of the deployed worry about their parents. And so many children will never know the love their parents had for them because they gave their life in defense of their nation. Isaiah is telling Ahaz, this is war yes, but the emerging generation will name their children Immanuel, and these children will not eat the meals of the destitute, but they will eat the fruits of the land. When Moses spoke about the land God promised to Abraham, he described it as the land flowing with milk and honey. This is a phrase that alludes to abundance. In an age without refrigeration one does not just keep milk around. It spoils. So you make it into cheese. And if you have milk to make cheese, this means that the livestock are so well fed that there is more milk available than the offspring can eat. Isaiah is saying the boy will eat of the luxuries the land has to offer. Ahaz is dreading the war, but the people coming into adulthood at this moment will not be cowed by the threats of the godless. And God will be with them just as he was with their ancestors. Finally, Isaiah says “before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” Before the child is considered an adult, before he reaches adolescence or the age of majority, the land you dread will be desolate. God did fulfill this promise. Ahaz saw the land of Syria and Israel laid waste by the king of Assyria. But at that moment Ahaz did not trust God. He heard these words and they did not give him hope, but pushed him further into the dread that gripped his soul.These words do speak to us about our life of prayer. Prayer is intimacy with God. It is where we and God meet face to face, and God is with us. What is God telling us as we look at these words in prayer? Are we hearing the hope? Are we being called deeper to the point where we can entrust more aspects of our life to God knowing that he will carry us through? Are we assured that the trial that we face in this moment will not last forever?“Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” God is calling out to us to trust him. He asking us to give him a chance to show us an immanuel life. I sat looking at this passage wondering where I might go since I could not seem to get out of the first verse. And I realize now that we made it all the way through, God is simply calling us to pray. He is calling us to remain in that place where we can Love him through our worship, where we can live the love of Christ with others, but most of all he wants us to remain in the center, and embrace the Holy Spirit in prayer. Will we grab hold of that life offered to us through Jesus the fulfillment of this prophecy? Will we take possession of his life and lifestyle here today? Or will we sell ourselves and our people out for the false securities offered by the kingdoms of men? Ahaz had a choice. He grew weary of God and instead grab hold of Assyria. He put his trust and his faith in the kingdoms of men. From that moment on, until a brief era in history the people of God were by all accounts ruled by an outside empire. The choice of one man changed the course of history. Will we choose Immanuel?
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 11, 2022
Isaiah 35:1–10 (ESV)
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; 2 it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah is filled with some of the most beautifully encouraging lines of prose. As well as some of the most dreadful. But there is a pattern or a cycle to the lines of poetry. Isaiah speaks of the dreadful, and he follows it with hope.
We need to remember this as we read through the verses. First many of the words are poetry and not to be taken literally. When we read poetry, we need to remember that the writer, or speaker, is speaking in figurative language. They are creating an image in our mind that suggests features but these features may not be real. Consider the description of the love interest in the Song of Solomon. “Your hair is like a flock of goats. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes.” Is Solomon in this case saying that his beloved’s hair is like a bunch of goats? Some of you might know goats, and you might know that some of the greatest most valuable fibers come from goats, but most of the time goats are not something I would want to be compared too. Goats can be stubborn, aggressive, and annoying. Depending on our experience with goats we might look at these words from very different perspectives. You might see this individual’s hair being soft and luxurious, or wild and uncontrollable. Of course the context tells us what to think. He is speaking of the one he loves, so more than likely he is referring to the silkiness of cashmere.
When we take poetry out of context we can come up with some pretty bizarre mental images. Which is why I often dislike much of contemporary eschatology. It takes words of poetry out of context and tries to incorporate things from our age and place them into ancient days. It might be that this is truly what the prophet meant by the words, but how would that be encouraging to people two or even three thousand years ago? Just as speaking of beauty like a flock of goats would make little sense to the vast majority of people today since many of us have rarely been around a goat for long enough to see the beauty or the frustration.
Today’s passage is the second half of a poem. The first half speaks of desolation, and the second speaks of hope. The first half speaks of sorrow, and the second half speaks of redemption. We love the words of redemption but we often neglect the words of condemnation.
So, before we go into redemption, we need to have a bit of understanding as to where this hope emerges from. Chapter 34 begins, “Draw near, O nations, to hear, and give attention, O peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that fills it; the world, and all that comes from it. For the Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter”
I mention this because we often look at Isaiah as being written to only Israel, but it is not. The ancient worldviews were different than ours today. The supernatural and natural worlds were seen as connected. Each nation had their own god, or divine protector or host. As these nations interacted with one another, as they battled, it was not only their terrestrial power that was gaining prominence but also the influence of their deity. Israel was part of this ancient worldview. Their understanding of the world around them was based on these concepts. But there was a slight difference. Their God acted differently. Most of these national deities were only concerned with their own people, where Israel’s God commanded His people to be hospitable to the nations around them.
You might question my understanding of scripture, when Joshua was commanded to exterminate entire nations of people, but there is a difference in how God speaks of the people on the nations in that conquest and the nations in general. If we look at the law given to Moses, we see the heart of God, where God tells the people of Israel to be hospitable to the alien and the sojourner. He commands them to treat the people of the nations as if they were one of their own. God commanded this because the nations had their hosts, but the hosts were subject to the Most High God. We can see this in the writing of their own religious writings. The Greek pantheon has lower deities, and higher. They also have a class of divine creatures called the Titan, who were defeated by the gods of their pantheon. But even closer to Israel, they found documents called the Ugaritic texts and in these texts they speak of Baal as being the subordinate of El. The prophets of Israel often speak against the worship of Baal. They speak out against it because they worship the lesser instead of the Most high.
Isaiah is telling the nations, you have placed you hope on these lesser divine creatures that are subject to the Most High. They have twisted your attention away from the Most High and directed you to worship them instead. And God will not allow this forever. This is not how God created the world to function. Because of this devotion to the lessor instead of the greater, we are bringing about our own destruction. We are being given over to our own slaughter.
Isaiah tells us that the nations will face a sword sated with blood, and the soil will be gorged with the fat of the things the nations value as signs of wealth. And the vengeance of the Lord with turn the streams of Edom, to pitch and the soils to sulfur, and her land shall become burning pitch. Such a lovely picture of desolation.
Isaiah is telling us, “We are what we eat.” Those that live by the sword will die by the sword and those that seek gain from the earth without reverence will cause their own destruction. War, pollution, greed, and envy. These are the characteristics of rebellion and sin, and not the identity of the people of God.
I want us to reflect on this for a moment. We see this in the news daily. We often do not want to hear about it, and we have labeled those that mention them as being political. Those that speak out against global climate change are deemed as being liberal environmental activists, and we stop listening to them. Could it be that they are our present day prophets telling us that if we do not change course our land will be like the Jackal filled pride land of the Lion King? We see reports about the war in Ukraine or maybe the various conflicts in Africa, and we might think of it as being something far away that we should not be concerned with, but is it? What is causing the conflicts? What drives the war? Is it not the same story that drove the peoples of ancient times into conflict and what became their inheritance? How many cultures today can trace their roots directly back over three thousand years, and if you can think of any, what do they teach?
We need to see the reality of who we are. We need to see our destiny if we want to keep to these paths. Only then will be able to understand the hope of a different life and lifestyle.
Once we are able to see ourselves in chapter 34, are we able to see the truth of chapter 35. We are causing the soil to become burning pitch. We are the ones participating in the ways of the sword. But the wilderness and the dry lands shall be glad. Why? The desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus. When there is nothing left to exploit, when humanity has exhausted itself from its pursuits of glory, what happens to the land? My mind often goes to the song written by Eric Bogle, No Man’s Land when I read this passage:
The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing down
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
Till’ man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation were butchered and damned
Nature returns and those that were once exploited and harassed rebuild what was destroyed.
“They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” Isaiah says. They, the nations, shall see the glory of the Lord. They witnessed the destruction of men now they will see the majesty of God. The majesty of God is the sun shining down on these green fields of France that were once the trenches of the war to end all wars. The Majesty of God is the poppies dancing in the wind, where once bodies laid. The majesty of God is not in the strength of might that mankind can wield against each other. But it is the hospitality we share.
“Strengthen the weak hands,” Isaiah proclaims, “and make firm the feeble knees.” These are the characteristics that the kingdoms of men disregard, they label them as cowards. But are they?
Those that go into the wake of destruction are not cowards, but beacons of hope. Those that can face the ones that were once regarded as enemies and build friendships and encourage a new direction are not weak but are those that are driven by compassion. Isaiah is urging us to turn from the ways of kingdoms of men and embrace a different life and lifestyle. To show a different way of living together. This is not just a hope for the distant future when Christ returns, but it is here now. The imperatives of this poem are plural, meaning God is calling us to participate.
I find this interesting. I find it challenging and at times condemning. What am I doing to show the world around me this type of life? We are to, “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to the anxious hearts, Be Strong; fear not!” We are to do these things but often I find myself in fear’s cold grasp. I look around and I do not see the desert in bloom, but I see the dry sands blowing in the wind.
It takes discipline to change. It requires sacrifice and struggle. We must participate with God in making the world around us into something greater. It takes humility. It requires us to recognize the possibility that we could walk down an unrighteous path, even when we are striving to show God’s goodness.
“Then,” when we determine to participate with God, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” I want us to consider this for a moment. It is easy for us to jump forward in history and look to Jesus. It is easy for us to see the miraculous wonders that were performed during his earthly ministry and miss the years that the people of Israel sat with these verses without Jesus to consider. What happens to the blind in a world that is bent on utility? What happens to the deaf in a world that seeks only gain? What happens to the those that are disabled in a nation where value is determined by what is produced?
This challenges me. It challenges me because sometimes we do not always fit into a box expected by others. This does not mean that you do not have value or that you are not contributing to society as a whole. Many of the greatest leaders within the world of business, if judged by educational degrees would be considered failures. And the greatest theoretical physicist in recent history, was confined to a wheel chair and could only communicate through a computer. I could even get more personal I was born with a 70% hearing deficit in one ear, most people would not know this. And that is the problem, most things that hold us back we do not see. I cannot tell by sight who in this room is struggling with anxiety or depression. We do not always know who might have ADHD or dyslexia. And some of those that do have these struggles would surprise you. Even though they have learned to adapt and have found a way to compensate for their weakness it does not mean they do not struggle.
“And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.”
I like that verse. Some of you might like lame leaping like deer but I like this verse. I like it because it is real. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and if you have ever been in the middle of nowhere you will know that there are often roads that do not exist on maps. And if you happen to turn down one of those roads you never know where you might end up. But if you come across a highway while you have been traveling on these seemingly nonexistent roads, you can quickly gain your bearings. And if you were to take that highway you will be able to find where you need to go.
Isaiah is not speaking of an interstate highway system, but a well-traveled path. Highways in ancient times were not what we know today, it was not until the Roman era that engineering of roadway systems were developed and even that was far in the future from when Isaiah was teaching. But even in ancient times there were roads. There were pathways through the desert that lead you to where you needed to be. If you are ever walking out in the wilderness you will often find little deer trails, where the animals have found a way through hills and growth that will often lead you to water. And in ancient times people would also find a way through the rugged terrain and would continue to follow the same path over and over again, and if you were lost and you found one of those pathways, you would be wise to follow it. This is what Isaiah is speaking of.
The Way of Holiness, is a pathway, it is a lifestyle that has proven to be beneficial. Too often we look at this verse and we see it as shutting the door to those who do not believe, but that is not what it says. It is said that the unclean shall not pass over it. I want us to just think about that for a moment. You are wandering in the wilderness and you come upon a well-trodden path. What do you do? You have two choices really you either walk down the path or you avoid the path. If you are unclean and have no desire to be found by others, you turn away from the path, because if you cross the path you might be seen. But if you are wanting to be found, If you have struggled through the wilderness and you are thirsty and starving, you will take the path because you know that eventually you will be found, or you will come to a place where you can find assistance. You will find your way if you follow the path, even if you are foolish. Even if you have no real sense of direction if you stay on the path, you will get to a destination.
There is a different perspective to this as well. Ancient highways were well traveled paths, but they were not only traveled by people with good morals. Highways can be dangerous, even today. If you were to go to Walmart and look at the board of missing children, you would find that the vast majority have gone missing from a city near a major highway. When I worked in retail security, the stores that were in neighborhoods that appeared to have lower crime rates often had more theft if they were located near the highway. This happens because the highways provide a means of escape.
Highways can be both a blessing and a curse, but Isaiah is telling us if we turn from the ways of the kingdoms of men, and if we seek something greater. If we are willing to even see those among us that are struggling and provide encouragement to them, even the highways will be safe. Nations that have greater access to systems of education have lower crime. And most places with higher education have less poverty. You could find instances to prove me wrong, but in general you know it is true. And often in those places, you will find that even the less fortunate have access to the means of survival.
“But the redeemed shall walk there.” This highway, this way of Holiness. Is not a barrier but is a lighthouse showing safe passage. The redeemed, the ransomed of the Lord. Isaiah uses this language for a reason. In the Evangelical world we often use these words so often we have forgotten how important they are. These are words foreign to our experience because they speak of bondage and exploitation. But they are important. Those that have lived in addiction know the struggle and the powerlessness they have to their addiction. Those that have lived within a toxic or an abusive relationship, understand these words when they are finally able to break free of their tormentors to a place of safety. These are words of rescue from bondage, of freedom from the people or substances that wish to control your life.
We need to remember these words, and what they mean. We need to recognize that as societies change over time, the bondage and exploitations that people experience though may be different than they were before, are still painful. And we should be able to see the truth. Let us strengthen the hands of the week and make firm the feeble knees, let us encourage the anxious hearts, and provide care for the disabled. Let us become springs of fresh water watering the soils filled with pitch. Let us be beacons of hope, and distributors of joy. Let us be the highways of safety for those seeking freedom. And let us be the bearers of light in a dark and dangerous world.
I attempt to look at this passage as much as I am able without the history of the church, and yet the message remains the same. God’s kingdom and God’s goals have always been the same from the fall in Eden to this very hour. He is calling all nations, all people back to him. But often we are distracted by the ways of humanity. Even I fall victim to this I will argue my positions to the point that I will alienate my own family, so we must be careful. If we rely only on ourselves we are no better than any other nation or kingdom of humankind. And this is why Jesus is so important. Yes, I truly believe, that Isaiah had a vision of Jesus when he wrote these words, and that he was blessed to see something that I dream of seeing. That is the greatest hope we have in our faith tradition, it is not the weakness of men that bring about the change in the world, but the strength of our God. A God that loves us so much that he left his throne in heaven, and lived among us. He showed us himself what this life should look like and he inspired people to write down and live it out. And he gives us the strength to live it out not because of who we are but who he is. He took on the wages of sin and faced death with us and for us. Even the most shameful death of being crucified on a tree. He was buried, and on the third day he rose again. Jesus is our hope. And if we strive to live with him and follow his teachings we will see everything Isaiah saw and more. This is not just hope for tomorrow but it is hope for today. Right here, right now. Will we be brave enough to step into that pathway?
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By Jared A. Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 4, 2022
Isaiah 11:1–10 (ESV)
1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. 6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 9 They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
Out of the root of Jesse a shout will come. How many times have we heard this passage as the seasons progress toward Advent? It is the perfect hook. A phrase that attracts our attention and excites within us a desire. Every time I read it, the voice of my inner monologue takes on a different tone. It is no longer my voice but the voice of “The Blind Surfer.” If you do not know who that is, he is the voice actor that voices many of the trailers for action movies. And just so you know he is actually blind and he is a surfer.
I want us to listen again to that first verse, but instead of hearing in my voice imagine that action movie voice over. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”
It almost causes a shiver to track down your spine when our mind considers those words spoken in that manner. That is the feeling of the Holy Anxiety of Advent. This spontaneous yearning for something beyond what we are experiencing in our daily life. I like the term Holy Anxiety. Our society is very aware of anxiety, but generally the negative aspect. The feelings of dread, the sense of worthlessness, and the uncontrollable urge to do something yet having nothing to offer.
Anxiety is crushing our human spirit. Our muscles are so tense it feels as if our bones will snap under the pressure. Why then would I like a term like Holy Anxiety? I do not know if anyone else speaks like this, but to me it reflects what I feel.
Isaiah lived through an intense period of history. I mentioned last week that his ministry stretched through the reign of four kings in Judah. He witnessed the destruction and for lack of better words the extinction of the ten northern tribes of Israel. Some people, hoping to garner greater legitimacy for their nation or group, have tried to claim that they are one of those lost tribes. We might laugh now but this was very prevalent a century or two ago. So prevalent that some religious groups within our own nation were founded on these concepts. Just so you know there is greater probability that the Ark of the Covenant is in Ethiopia than a significant population from one of the lost tribes to have settled in America.
Isaiah watched as Israel crumbled. He warned the people of Judah that the same fate would visit them if they did not repent. He watched; he voiced his concerns. I imagine with each passing year, and each new king, anxiety gripped him. Remember Isaiah was not just some random guy living in the dust filled wilderness. He was a king’s cousin, a man of position, and even he seemed powerless when he looked at the weight of wickedness around him.
We can understand this aspect of Holy Anxiety. I cannot count how many sermons and prayers I have heard voicing this very thing. How many of us have prayed, “Lord Come!” I usually say that prayer right before I pay my taxes, on election day, or when I hear someone calling my name over a loudspeaker to go to the office. There is a sense of dread, a resignation to the inevitable because we are powerless to change the situation at that moment.
Year after year, Isaiah walked to the temple to celebrate Yom Kippur. Year after year he watched as the priest would symbolically lay the sins of the nation onto the goat, and then chase it out to the wilderness. And as he watched he knew the corruption never left the city walls.
And yet out of this anxiety, he wrote one of the most encouraging phrases in all of scripture. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” After 2000 years of church history we recognize this as a prophecy depicting the coming Messiah, and it is. But is it only a prophecy? Does it only describe the far-off misty future just over the horizon of time? Or does it speak words of encouragement to the people both in the past and today?
True faith requires us to be honest about the reality of today, and hopeful of the future. Isaiah recognizes that. If we were to read the verses prior to this, Isaiah speaks about the oppressive and vile world. He says, “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! … Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.” Isaiah speaks these dire warnings to his own people, and the words do not just fall on the godless of the northern kingdom, but includes Jerusalem, and even Mount Zion.
Isaiah says, Isaiah proclaims that God, is at work even in the wickedness. He is using the most ruthless of all the ancient empires to pass judgment on his own people. He does this for a reason. They decree iniquitous decrees, and their writers keep writing oppression. They turn from justice and rob the poor.
“When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes.”
My greatest desire as a pastor is to be encouraging. I want to express that everything will be fine, that the world is a wonderful place and if you just pray everything will turn out the way we want it to. But there are times where encouraging words do not come. There are times when nothing makes sense. What do we do in those times? We need to learn the skills of lament, because life is hard.
Isaiah spends some time speaking about how terrible life is, and how the godlessness of Israel and Judah will lead to their destruction. He even says that the instrument God uses for that judgment will also meet the same destruction. Jesus taught this as well. Those that live by the sword die by the sword. That is my own paraphrase of the statement that can be found in Matthew 26, but it rings true. Abuse births more abuse. Violence often leads to more violence. Wars foster more wars. It does not matter if we are speaking of the school yard bully, our family dynamics, or the relationships between nations. If these cycles continue, they tend to come to the same conclusions.
But Isaiah says there will be a remnant that will return out of the lost tribes of Israel. And there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.
I want us to really consider these words. Last winter, there was a fire that went through the area I grew up in. It spread to cover three counties in North Central Kansas. Kansas is one of those squarish states of our nation, so counties tend to be uniform. My home county is nearly 900 square miles. This fire covered three counties, approximately 2700 square miles. If we were to drive from here west to Topeka and then north to St. Joseph Missouri that is approximately the size of the fire. My oldest son’s grandparents lost their house and most of their cattle in that fire, and someone from my hometown lost their life. Our small little church helped the families that were affected by this. As much destruction as that fire caused it is nothing compared to what happened under the hands of Assyria. When I drove home after that fire, there was nothing but dry dusty wasteland. It would be easy to get discouraged. But grass grows again. When you cut down a tree, new growth is prompted. We saw that in the church yard after we cut down trees earlier this year. Written within the DNA of nature is this strong desire to live, and to regrow. A shoot will grow out of the stump. And a branch from the roots will bear fruit.
I do not know how God inspired Isaiah to write, but I image as Isaiah carried the transcribed decrees of the king to deliver to various cities around the kingdom, he came across a vineyard, or a grove that had been damaged. As he traveled from town to town, he observed nature doing what nature does. He watched as new growth began to come forth from a stump of a tree that had recently been cut, and it caused him to think.
There will be a time where life can be lived. There will be a time where the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon the offspring of Jesse. And the Spirit will give him wisdom and understanding. The Spirit will give him influence and security. The Spirit will give knowledge and reverence. Those that remember. Those that returned to God. Those that desire to live their life with God will see something that others will miss. They will see hope. Where there was once devastation, delight will take root, and the people will return to the life and lifestyles God created us to enjoy.
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
These words. If only these words were the words that we lived. They carry the same meaning as the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do for you.” Isaiah speaks of a time and place where we are not swayed by words or imagines. Where we can see through the rhetoric of various forms of media, see the truth, and respond.
There will be a day where righteousness shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. You might recognize a reoccurring theme here. A few months ago, we considered the statement that “the poor will always be with you.” I encouraged us to not look at it in terms of wealth, but power and influence. When scripture speaks of the poor, it does not necessarily mean those without money. The poor are often without financial security, but it more often refers to helplessness. To be poor means that the substance of your continued existence is based on the generosity of others. I want us to really let this sink in. Everyone is poor in some sense.
The CEO of a company requires their employees to provide services so that they can profit. The employees require wages paid by the CEO so they can pay rent. The landlord requires the rent payment so they can afford the service required to maintain their property. Everyone is poor, because we all require others to generously provide their goods and services for a reasonable price. It is important to recognize our own needs, and where we fit in that cycle. But we often do not hear of the plight of the poor CEO? We do not hear those stories because there is more to wealth than finances. Those that possess what a culture regards as greater wealth often take advantage of the helplessness of others.
Those that have, gain more. The bigger farmers ended up with more land and small family farms tend to disappear. Microsoft is used by more people and because they are used by more people it is difficult to find an affordable computer that does not have Microsoft products installed. Walmart moves in and the small community-based stores vanish. Amazon takes hold and suddenly we do not even go to the store now. I sound anti-capitalistic, but I am not. What I mean is that those with what society deems as get attention, and privilege. This is not necessarily bad, but it can be problematic because they often make the rules for everyone else.
This year was the first time in thirteen years my family went back to the farm to celebrate Thanksgiving. For thirteen years I could not even enjoy the day set aside to be thankful for what we have, because it was mandatory that I go to work so that the store could be ready for the busiest shopping day of the year. Why do retail workers have to work on Thanksgiving? Because they are poor. They must work because those that hold the power make the rules. If the largest retailers changed the rules, every person could be home for the holidays.
Now for the meek. If you listen to Jordan Peterson, you probably have heard that we have the word meek all wrong. He got a great deal of attention for saying that, but he is wrong. Since words evolve, we must look deeper. When it comes to the word “Meek” we often think of it as being weak. This is primarily because it rhymes, but meek in this sense means bowed. It refers to those that are forced to do something that provides a disproportionate benefit, often by force. The meek are the exploited, the enslaved, and those that have no other option.
This can happen in various ways. America, contrary to nationalistic belief, was built on the backs of the meek. We can point to slavery and see this, but that is just one very vile example. Indentured servitude, though less vile than slavery, was also a form of exploitation. And we celebrate Labor Day, because people in the past decided that it was better not to work than to work in unsafe conditions without proper compensation and safety precautions. Those that had the wealth and influence made rules that others had to abide by. We need to be able to recognize the reality of the world around us. Recognize where we caused suffering, where we have improved, and continue to strive for something better.
Isaiah looked at the world around him, he saw the wickedness, and he knew that it would only be a matter of time before the end would come. Labor strikes if their voices are not heard and nations invade over perceived threats. These only changes those that possess influence, it does not stop the cycle. “The poor will always be with you. The cycle of violence and exploitation will continue until someone decides to stop.
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.”
Each of these phrases speak of danger. The predator and the prey live in a constant battle for survival. Unfortunately, if you are poor and meek you are often the prey. Isaiah saw his people as the prey, they were the ones upon whom Assyria gazed with greed and envy. Isaiah looked at the reality of the world and he saw through the short term destruction to the hope. If we could stop the cycles the world would change. What would happen if Walmart closed for Thanksgiving? What would happen if they closed the Friday after thanksgiving? What would happen if the large farmer chose not to buy more land? What would happen if Microsoft encouraged smaller companies? What would happen if we lived for mutual profit?
My idealistic mind yearns for this with holy anxiety. I yearn for it because I know that it can happen if we let it. I yearn, knowing full well that I am caught in the cycle. I struggle just like everyone else, and yet I encourage my children to strive for something different and greater. I have sacrificed and will continue to sacrifice, I will live my life to the best of my ability to break these cycles in my own family, and with those that I meet. I will live within this holy anxiety because I know that God created the trees to send up a branch from the roots to reestablish the devastated orchard. I know this because the branch of Jesse did come. He lived a complete life among people not so different than us. He taught and he lived that life so we could see that there is a better way. Unfortunately, cycles are hard to break, and that branch was crucified on a tree, chopped down in the prime of his life. But even in that perceived defeat, a shoot emerged from the stump and life emerged from the devastation. There is hope in the future, the cycles can be broken, but this will only happen if it begins right here in our homes, meetings, communities, schools, and cities. Will we live in righteousness and bring hope to those living in hopelessness. Will we allow hope to return?