Sermon: Looking Farther Than Our Eyes Can See
Scripture: Isaiah 11: 1-10
Date: December 6, 2015
I can remember as a small child, going to a place in the Colorado mountains with my grandfather where there had recently been a forest fire.
It was a place of utter desolation.
As far as you could see up the mountainside, there was no life. The animals had all left. The birds had no place to roost because the trees
were all gone. All you could see were the charred stumps of where the trees once
stood tall. Such a contrast to the beauty of the mountains that surrounded that place of complete devastation. It was a scene I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Isaiah must have seen the same kind of
picture in his mind’s eye as he stood on the walls of Jerusalem
and looked north, across the Wilderness of Judea to what had been the
Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Assyrians had completed their
conquest. They had completely destroyed all the towns and villages. Salted the fields so they could not produce again for many years and
cut down all the trees to help fuel the army and support building
projects back in Assyria. They had enslaved the Israelite men to
serve the army. They had carried the children and younger women and
wealth back to Assyria. And they had left the old men and the
old women behind to weep for their land and eventually die.
It was a scene of utter desolation. Piles of rock where homes and
towns had once stood. Stumps and charred remains were all that was left as
far as one could see. For more than six centuries what was
the Northern Kingdom, was essentially a wasteland. In Nazareth, for instance,
archaeologists have found pottery and other artifacts dating around 750 B.C.,
and they have found artifacts dating around 100 B.C. But from 750 B.C. to 100
B.C., there is no evidence of life in Nazareth. It was barren and deserted, completely and utterly destroyed. We have seen similar
scenes in more recent times. I was watching the History Channel
not long ago and they were showing pictures of Berlin in the last days of World
War II. The once beautiful buildings had been reduced to piles of rubble. People wandered the streets in shock and despair. It was a scene of great desolation. Or think of the pictures that we’ve seen of
Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb was unleashed.Charred and, twisted and
melted ruins were all that was left of that city. No life could be found. I remember reading a book in a college history course in which the author said
that Hiroshima should never be rebuilt and that all subsequent discussions to end
mankind’s wars should be held in the ruins of Hiroshima as a constant
reminder of the horrors and desolation and hopelessness of war.
But we don’t have to go back even that far to see what Isaiah saw.
We have seen the melted and twisted wreckage of the World Trade Center,
and the bombed out cities of Afghanistan, and Iraq and now Syria. You see, the truth is that whether it be because of events on a
global basis, or those of a more personal nature, all of us face
wastelands in our life. Wastelands of despair, grief, pain, anger, fear,
discouragement, depression and hopelessness. And like Isaiah,
there are times when we can hear the footsteps of forces that would
seek to conquer us coming our way. Ready to lay siege to
our health and our wealth and our security and our happiness. Perhaps we are
hearing those footsteps as we approach this Christmas. The footsteps
of war and young men and women who continue to be placed in harm’s way.
The footsteps of terrorists and the continuing and escalating threats of terrorism
both here and abroad. The footsteps of refugees fleeing the horror in their homeland. Violence in our communities. The footsteps of
continuing economic struggles – lack of security, uncertain jobs. Or perhaps those footsteps are even more personal. Failing health. Depression. Anxiety. Grief. Despair and hopelessness can come in many disguises. And do we really
need Isaiah to remind us of our seasons of despair.
One writer sets the stage for Isaiah with these words:
The prophet Isaiah began his ministry around the year 740 B.C.,
about seven centuries before the birth of Christ.
His job was to warn the people of Judah that they would be destroyed
if they didn’t turn back to God. At this time Judah was financially prosperous, but spiritually bankrupt. The judicial system was corrupt. The wealthy were taking advantage of the poor. Judah’s king, Ahaz, pretended to be a
believer, but, in reality, he was a power-hungry politician who
turned his back on God (and sought to appease the enemy.)
As if all this didn’t make Isaiah’s job hard enough,
listen to this: From the very beginning of his ministry,
God cautioned Isaiah that the people would not listen to him,
and that he would witness their destruction in spite of his hard work. Yet in spite of that, Isaiah offers this incredible word of hope. Out of the despair and destruction, the seemingly dead stumps of the promised land, Isaiah says that life will come again. But nobody knew what he was
talking about. Because the people of ancient Jerusalem did what
we often do today. They focused only on the present circumstances.
We confuse prophets with fortune tellers. Prophets tend to take more
of a world view, while fortune tellers take an individualistic view. Prophets see the world as it will be and then dare us to place ourselves into
God’s plan. Isaiah sees new life springing from that which was assumed to be dead.
A shoot from the roots of stumps that would lie dormant for centuries,
suddenly come to life. Israel, God’s people would flourish once more. A kingdom of peace would be established. But the people
did not find hope in Isaiah’s words because they
wanted to hear other words. They wanted to hear
how they could stand up to the Babylonians,
whose army was the most powerful in the world and they were
approaching the outskirts of the city. And they wanted to know
what they would eat when supplies were cut off and their
fields were spoiled.
Never mind about this child to lead them, who was going to lead them in battle
when the Babylonians were knocking on the gates of the city.
And even seven centuries later, when the child was born,
the people did not know. They were still so consumed with
dead stumps, that they could not see the shoot of everlasting life,
springing from its roots. The experts say that we need a lot of things this Christmas. They say we need assurances that our military and law enforcement officials can be successful and that the lives that have
been lost and will be lost are not lost in vain. They say we need to
have confidence that the economy will come back completely.
They say we need to be vigilant and alert to other terrorist attacks,
though I’m not sure how we do that. They say that we need to be
patient. That this war on terrorism will take time and there are
those who despair that it will never really be over. That our lives will never
be the same as they were before September 11, 2001. And maybe we do need all of that. But I suspect that what the world really needs this Christmas is a prophetic word of hope in the midst of our anxiety. Isaiah is able to rise above the despair and discouragement
because he remained committed to his vision. Though the drumbeats
of war beat on the distant horizon, Isaiah saw paradise. And that vision pulled
him towards God.
Several years ago, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers was
interviewed. And the interviewer said to Jobs: Mr. Jobs, even though
Apple is just getting off the ground, you are already starting your next company.
You must be a driven man – – is this what causes you to start companies?
To which Jobs gave a most prophetic response. He said:
No, I don’t feel like I’m a driven man. I have such an exciting
vision of what my team and I can accomplish that it’s like I’m running
toward a magnet. I have dreams where I am literally running toward
an image of our goals. I guess you say I’m a pulled man.
We tend to think that prophetic vision drives us or pushes
us toward a world that God desires, but the truth is the vision that God puts in the hearts of his prophets should pull us toward a world that God has already created. The people didn’t understand Isaiah when he talked of enemies lying down next to one another
because they thought that the enmity that existed between people
was the natural way of things. We have become so accustomed
to a world that is fallen, to lives that are fallen, that we can not
conceive of the world as God the Creator meant it to be. We look at the
Christmas story and marvel that God would choose to come in such
humble circumstances. Jesus was born out of the mainstream. But the truth is that God never intended a world that was at war with one another
because of cultural and economic and religious and political
differences. Never intended a world where some would become
rich and powerful and some would be poor and outcast and weak.
That kind of a world was created by man, not God. The prophetic vision
was never one of re-creation but restoration. It pulls us beyond
the current circumstances to the Kingdom of God,
the peaceable kingdom. One writer says:
So we gather in church (at Christmastime.) We pray that God will give us eyes able to see the advent of God among us and that we
shall be a part of that incoming kingdom. This is not what we are to do,
but a vision of what God is doing. We are not so much asked to do but rather to see. In this vision is our hope.
And in this hope is our redemption.
But that often runs contrary to reality. Get out of the way Isaiah so
we can see the enemy coming. So we can prepare. So we can
brace for the attack. “But look,” Isaiah says,
“and see what God will do and is doing.” But they could not look.
They could not see. The play The Man of La Mancha, of course, tells the
story of Don Quixote, who often saw things that were contrary to reality.
And near the end of his life, people were convinced that Don Quixote
was insane, and Don Quixote asks in his own defense:
Who is crazy? Am I crazy because I see the world as
it could become? Or is the world crazy because it only sees
itself as it is?”
God’s vision pulls us beyond the reality of current events. And so we struggle to
comprehend. When Isaiah’s people looked beyond the walls of Jerusalem,
they saw the stumps of despair and a powerful enemy coming for them.
They saw destruction and enslavement and exile, even death.
But Isaiah challenged them to look farther. To see the shoots springing forth
from the stumps. Life returning to the land of Israel. Peace rather than war.
The glory of God. And his words challenge us this Christmas
to look beyond San Bernadino and Syria, to understand that God’s
vision is not diminished by the circumstances of our life, no matter
how bad they seem. In fact, it is when we have sunk the furthest into despair
that His vision pulls us all the more. In his book, High Performance.
Ted Engstrom tells of a little girl was cruising with her father. It was a
beautiful day on the ocean. No clouds. No wind to stir up the waves. Visibility seemingly unlimited. And standing on the deck, staring out at the ocean
the little girl said, “Daddy, I can look farther than my eyes can see.”
I like that. God’s vision causes us to look beyond the current circumstances of our life, to look farther than our eyes can see. And what
will we see when we look farther than our eyes can see. Isaiah says that
the vision begins and ends with a child. The shoot from the root of Jesse,
the baby of Bethlehem. Jesus Christ. That is where the vision must lie for all of us, if God’s peaceable Kingdom is
to come for us Jess Moody tells the story of Rose Kennedy, in his book, ClubSandwich Goes Great With Chicken Soup. We know her story. She
suffered so much pain in her life. A son killed in a plane crash. Two sons assassinated. Her only daughter with profound special needs
and institutionalized. Moody recalls a conversation that he had with
her in which she talked about giving up on God after the birth of her special
needs daughter. She completely withdrew from life. And then one day one of her
maids who had been with her for many years confronted her. She told her,
“you’ll never be happy until you make your heart a manger where the Christ
child may be born.”
Her words at first infuriated Rose Kennedy. She fired the maid. But her words continued to play in her mind. And that night, before she went to bed, she knelt by her bed and prayed that her heart would be a manger
where the Christ child could be born. And from that moment on her
life took on new meaning. She had an inner peace she had never felt
before and the assurance that no matter what the current circumstances were,
God was always drawing her near. Pulling her to a peaceable kingdom.
Isaiah envisioned a world that would be forever changed because of the birth of one child. Because God’s Kingdom, the peaceable
kingdom, will come to those whose hearts become mangers in which Jesus can be born. But for that to happen for you, you may need to
look farther than your eyes can see.