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Dr. David Evans
December 4, 2016
The armies of the mighty nation of Assyria are even now sitting on the doorstep of Jerusalem. Like Sherman’s march to the sea during the last days of the Civil War, the powerful Assyrian army overwhelms everything in its path. Plundering citizens. Deporting whole populations of peoples. Filling the Mediterranean world with terror.
The future of the nation of Judah hangs in the balance. Then Isaiah shares his vision of the future and paints a beautiful picture of a radically different world. Hear the Word of God as it is recorded in the 11th chapter of the prophet Isaiah:
A shoot shall come out from the stock 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.
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.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
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; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Family lines can be fragile affairs. The Evans family line was about gone ten years ago. My grandparents, Jim and Vona Evans, migrated to Texas from Tennessee and Alabama respectively in the late 19th century. From the large family that came from this marriage, the only male Evans’ left were my two cousins, my son Matt, and me. Three of us were well past our child-rearing years. That left our son, Matt, as the only hope of the Evans name continuing into the future. So in the fall of 2006, when Matt and Maya announced they were pregnant with twin boys, my father, then in the last years of his life, was overjoyed. The Evans name, which had been hanging by a slender thread of hope, now had not just one but two heirs to carry on the legacy of my grandparents.
All this came to mind this week as I immersed myself into Isaiah’s world in those hope-less years of the Assyrian occupation of his homeland. Sometimes hope hangs by a slender thread. And it is a challenge to maintain hope when all seems hopeless. Jim Wallis once wrote: “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.” I believe that precisely captures the worldview of the prophet Isaiah 11. Isaiah lived in a time of devastation and despair. The world as Isaiah knows it is over. David’s line was hanging on by a slender thread. There would be no going back to the good old days when David was King. There would be no going back to the peace, prosperity, and stability of David’s reign. Now Isaiah’s people are ruled by despots. Isaiah’s world has been overrun by foreign occupiers. It is as if a “scorched-earth” policy has destroyed every hope.
So who has a word for such despair? Isaiah does. “Stop! Wait! It won’t always be this way,” Isaiah declares. And then he describes the hope in a vivid metaphor: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse…” In other words, in a time of despair Isaiah looks to his family tree. Even in the despair of a seemingly hopeless situation Isaiah finds a tender and fragile cause for hope in an unlikely place. A shoot will grow out of the seemingly dead stump of Jesse, the father of David. A baby will be born who will do remarkable things. A baby seems to be an improbable place to find hope.
Yes, the Kingdom that flourished under David has been laid bare. Yet Isaiah is convinced that out of the burned over stumps, a branch will grow out of the roots. A child will be born who will restore hope. A child will be born who will change everything. There is reason to hope. Because one who loses hope loses life. Hope…even a tender and fragile hope…is a stubborn treasure.
See if you recognize this. It is the fall of 1945. World War II is over and a young soldier arrives in New York City after three years in the European Theater of Operations. Soon he discovers that the woman he met and married just before he shipped out for Europe has been unfaithful to him while overseas. She has no interest in being married. So he heads out west. On a bus he finds himself defending the honor of a young Hispanic woman…and after they are thrown off the bus she confesses that she is going to her home in shame. She is pregnant with an illegitimate child. Does this sound vaguely familiar? In one of those decisions that changes the course of a life the young soldier agrees to pretend to be her husband. The woman’s father…for whom the family’s name and honor are everything…would otherwise disown her. Does this sound vaguely familiar?
Thus the young soldier finds himself arriving at a beautiful Spanish villa in the wine-region of California. The villa sits on a hill among the clouds. For generations the family has developed and grown a precious variety of grape and produced fine wines. The vineyard surrounding the villa is their life and their love.
But tragedy strikes. One evening during a freeze the vineyard catches fire. Flames leap from grapevine to grapevine and fire lights up the night sky until every vine sits black and smoldering. All is lost. The family is in despair.
Then the young soldier remembers something. He climbs to the top of the hill where the original grapevine…lovingly transported from the old country decades before…had been planted. The burned stump looks hopeless. But as the soldier digs through the blackened earth he finds the roots unharmed. The gnarled roots are unearthed and he carefully carries them down the hill. The roots look so tender. Hope seems so fragile. They would have to begin again. But begin again they would.
Perhaps some of you recognize the plot from Linda’s favorite movie, A Walk in the Clouds. It is a reminder that the vision that the prophet Isaiah had centuries before continues even to now. And our job as people of faith? It is to uncover those fragile places of hope in the midst of despair of announce them to the world:
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
And a branch shall grow out of his roots.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.”
A tender, green shoot will grow out of a dead stump.
A fragile baby will be born in a manger into a dreary world.
And that baby is our only real hope.