A while back I led a girls' Bible study and we spent two years working our way through the book of Isaiah. I fell in love with the book at that time, and if I had to choose just one book of the Bible to keep with me, it would be Isaiah. It's all there, God's power, human sin, destruction, desolation, judgment, hope, rebirth, renewal, love, and forgiveness. The whole story of the Gospel is in there. It's no wonder that so many of the passages we love to read at Advent come from the book of Isaiah.
One of the favorites at this time of year comes at the beginning of chapter 11. Wait. Stop. Don't go flipping to it yet, those of you who are inclined to do so. We have to work up to it. It loses its power if you don't read it in context. The book of Isaiah has four key themes (to my mind), the first is that God is in control. Total and absolute control of what is going on in the world. The second is that this all-powerful God hates pride. He hates the pride that says we humans can do anything ourselves. The pride that says we don't need God. The pride that says we are better and more powerful than God. The pride that leaves no room for God in our lives. The third is that God is going to bring us to a place where we realize that we do indeed need God. And finally, the fourth is that God loves us. God loves us so deeply and with such passion that He has a plan for a better world that He will bring about.
Before we get to chapter 11, in the first ten chapters, we have already encountered these four themes a few times. There are accusations that Israel is not doing what is right. The leaders are selfish and immoral. They do not care for the poor and the downtrodden. There is no good in the government that the people have allowed to rule them. As a result, God will allow catastrophe to happen. Foreign armies will come and invade and take away the people of Israel. (This is the prediction of the exile which is to come.) But always, after descriptions of desolation, there is the hope held out that God has a plan to fix this. The Messiah is promised. And with the Messiah comes the promise of a new world. A world of beauty and peace and love. In chapter ten, once again we read of the coming judgement and desolation. Because we have already read of these events in previous chapters, not only do we have in our minds what is currently being read, but we have the memories of the past accounts as well. The cumulative effect is powerful. At the end of chapter 10, we hear about people fleeing, huge trees cut down, and a land left lifeless.
I know that 2016 has been a fairly dreadful year for more people than just me. Frankly, it has been truly hard. Hard in so many ways. It has felt like loss upon loss upon loss. I'm sure there are very few of us who cannot think of a time when hope felt like a very distant thing. Perhaps this is where you are right now. It is a dry place, a hard place, a lonely place. All through this year, I have had an image in my head that won't let me go. If I could paint, I would put it on a canvas. I cannot paint with paints, but I can paint with words.
Imagine this painting. It has very little color, a lot of ash grays and dull browns. As you get closer, you realize that it is the remains of a large forest. Jagged stumps protrude and broken trunks litter the ground. There is no greenery; all leaves have been stripped and lie scattered and brown. In the distance a few small figures flee the devastation behind them. There is nothing left. The scene leaves little doubt that the destruction is absolute. There is nothing that can be saved. There is no life here, only reeking ash, dust, and smoke. And yet, your glance heads toward the bottom corner of the painting. What is that? You look closer... and closer. So small that you almost don't notice it, you see something small and green coming out of one of the dead and desiccated stumps. Stepping even closer you realize it is a green shoot. A scrap of life growing in this utterly dead place. Against such desolation, a fresh green leaf of such brilliance and beauty that it reminds you of the iridescence of a hummingbird.
"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit." Isaiah 11:1
What we don't see when we read just this verse is the total devastation that preceded it. Notice that it was the stump of Jesse, the father of David, to whom the promise of an eternal kingdom was given. Before chapter 11, it seemed even the promise of a better future had been destroyed. The promise seemed to be dead, wiped out, hopeless.
Not only does God promise hope rising out of the devastation, but it is a hope that will be good. It will bear fruit. The next nine verses of the chapter go on to detail what this is going to look like. There will be justice and peace and the whole natural world will be remade. The lion will lie down with the sheep and a little child shall lead them.
We don't live there yet. The book of Isaiah not only details what will happen in the immediate future for Israel, and promises a return to the land God gave them, but it also deals with events that have yet to happen. It is a book that is the past, the present, and the future all at once. The now and the not yet.
Advent is a time of waiting, of preparation. It is a time of hope when the world around us seems hopeless. But God does not leave us hopeless. Life may be hard, but He promises something better. Keep watching that small little shoot and remember that the best is yet to come.