God Does His Best Work with Stumps
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The 5th Sunday after Epiphany, February 10, 2019
Old Testament – Isaiah 6:1-13
Epistle – I Corinthians 15:1-11
New Testament – Luke 5:1-11
I suspect that our lectionary thinks that we have a short attention span. It shows in the brevity of the scripture passages that it assigns for our readings in worship each week.
In most cases, particularly in the New Testament, this is not a huge problem because episodes in the lives of men and women in the New Testament are often captured in a relatively few verses. The story of Simon, James and John catching such a haul of fish that their nets nearly broke is covered by Luke in only 11 verses. Likewise, Paul’s account in I Corinthians of Jesus’ resurrection appearances first to Cephas, then to the 12, then to 500 more brothers and sisters, then James and all the apostles and even the “untimely born” Paul – these are all encapsulated in 11 verses.
But the Isaiah passage for this week? Those 13 verses don’t come close to telling the whole story!
It reminds me of a time long ago in the ancient of days before cellphones, ipads and social media – before Jay-Z, Travis Scott and Maroon 5 inhabited our radios – there lived in this land a news commentator by the name of Paul Harvey. Harvey achieved fame on the radio by uncovering the news behindthe news. He trafficked in information about either the behind-the-scenes machinations of men and women – both good and evil – who caused a particular news event to happen. Or he would tell us what transpired after the news media lost interest in what had previously been a “hot” story.
For this reason, Paul Harvey regularly ended his newscasts with the words, “And that is the rest of the story.”
Our lectionary reading from Isaiah this morning certainly does not include “the rest of the story.” It tells us of Isaiah’s calling and his mission, but nothing of the aftermath.
Poor Isaiah! In this passage, he comes face-to-face with the Lord God himself. He is high and exalted seated on a throne. Isaiah is awe struck. He is convinced that he is ruined because he is a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips.
But that is not the half of it because Isaiah learns to his great dismay that he is being commissioned not onlyto be the bearer of bad news but alsoto stop the ears of those who are in danger, to shut their eyes to the approaching threat and to dull their minds to their calamitous predicament. He will do all this, as the Lord says, so that “they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” of their iniquities.
Well, to this, poor Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?” And he receives this appalling answer: Until God has laid waste the Israelites’ cities. Until their houses are uninhabited. Until their land is desolate, and everyone has been sent far away.
God is telling Isaiah of the affliction that the Assyrians will soon visit upon a sinful and unrepentant Israel. The Assyrians will wreak havoc on Israel. They will take the cream of Israel’s society and forcibly scatter them across the length and breadth of the Assyrian empire. Only a remnant shall be left to live in the rubble that they once knew as the promised land.
What a message! What a mission! A message of doom, and a mission to dull the people’s minds so that they do not anticipate what will befall them and repent.
And yet there endeth the lectionary reading for today.
If this is all we get, then what are we to make of it!? The other two lectionary readings for today show forth the Son of the same God helping his disciples catch so many fish that their boats start sinking. Paul in I Corinthians recounts the many resurrection appearances of Jesus – the Son of God – who had just died for our sins.
So how does one square these images of God revealed in the life of Jesus Christ with Isaiah’s God who not onlypredicts calamity on his chosen people but alsoinstructs his prophet to mislead them?
Our lectionary reading from Isaiah only provides a single clue to “the rest of the story,” and it is enigmatic at best. In verse 13, God compares Israel after the Assyrians’ future onslaught to “an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” And then he says, “The holy seed is its stump.”
The holy seed is its stump? Could the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the God of Isaiah and the prophets – the God of Jesus of Nazareth, his only son – be any more cryptic?
If the lectionary had allowed us to read on in the Book of Isaiah, we would have discovered that God tells Isaiah more – much more about Israel’s future. God tells of the eventual judgement that God will visit on Assyria and its king after they have laid Israel low.
Then in chapter 11, he declares this:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
(Isaiah 11: 1-5)
From this shoot that shall spring from Jesse’s stump, God says further that the whole creation will be transformed for
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. …
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; …
On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people …
(Isaiah 11: 6, 9b, 10a, 11a)
Sound familiar to you? It certainly should because that part about “a little child shall lead them” is often quoted at Christmastime as the prophecy that foretold a certain babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger – a child born of the house of David – of David whose father was Jesse, the stump that is the holy seed.
You see “the rest of the story” that our lectionary omits is that it is from the stump of Jesse that Israel shall be restored.
No, not just restore, but reborn!
You know, it is a curious fact that throughout the history of God’s dealings with his chosen people, God has done his best work with stumps. God birthed the beginnings of a great nation from the stump that was the barren womb of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. God freed the captive Hebrews from Egypt when their future prospects looked as lifeless as a stump. God gave new life to Israel from a bare remnant – a stump of their former number – left to struggle for survival in a land laid waste by the Assyrians. God also raised to new life the stump of his own Son’s crucified body that lay moldering in a grave. And that same God who made a shoot of new growth spring forth from the stump of Jesse can and will raise you and I up whenever our own lives seem like little more than a barren stump.
Who among us has not had such a moment – those periods in life when despair, disease, disgrace or discord seem to have extinguish our every hope? But, you see, in God’s kingdom, the stump isthe holy seed. From the deadened stump God brings forth new birth.
That, my friends, is “the rest of story” in the book of Isaiah. In fact, it is “the rest of the story” to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; “the rest of the story” for all the letters of the New Testament; and “the rest of the story” for any of us who will but trust and believe in God’s Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
No matter what our affliction – whether it be self-inflicted or visited upon us – “the rest of the story” is this: For those who trust in the Lord, God does His best work of redemption when we are literally stumped by a desolation that threatens to overwhelm us.
For this good news, may the God of Isaiah be ever praised!
This sermon was preached on February 10, 2019
at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church by Joe Coalter