Hope for a Stump
by Jack Wald | November 20th, 2016

Isaiah 6

In our series of sermons from the Old Testament appearances of God to his people, we come to a well known passage, Isaiah 6. We think of this as the call of Isaiah to be a prophet to Judah, the southern kingdom of Solomon’s Israel.

(Just as a reminder, after the death of Solomon, Israel split into two kingdoms: ten tribes formed the northern kingdom of Israel with Samaria as its capital, and two tribes formed the southern kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem as its capital.)

Isaiah’s call to speak God’s words to the people of Judah came in 740 BC, 20 years before the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and 156 years before the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. There were other prophets contemporary with Isaiah whose writings are in our Bible. Micah was also a prophet to Judah. Hosea was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel.

As a young man, Isaiah witnessed the rapid development of Judah into a strong commercial and military state. Under the rule of King Uzziah, Judah attained a degree of prosperity and strength not seen since the rule of King Solomon. This meant that Isaiah grew up in a time of great national pride. The wealth of Judah increased which meant the wealth of the citizens of Judah increased. Life was good.

But along with power and wealth came an excessive and insatiable desire for more material wealth. In Ecclesiastes, written during the rule of Solomon, the writer observes, (Ecclesiastes 5:10)
Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.

This lesson was lost and the pursuit of wealth and power became a form of idolatry. In addition to material greed came religious formality (Isaiah 29:13)
The Lord says:
“These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is based on merely human rules they have been taught.

corruption. (Isaiah 1:4)
Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.

and oppression (Isaiah 1:16–17)
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

No amount of superficial, formal religious rituals would cover up the greedy, sinful behavior of Judah. (Isaiah 1:11-15)
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!

Judah grew in material wealth and power but declined in spiritual wealth.

It is into this context that Isaiah received his call in Isaiah 6. It is likely that Isaiah had been serving as a prophet before this experience in the temple. It may be that he had been called by God to speak to the king and now he was being called to speak to the people. This makes Isaiah 6 a reconsecration or rededication to his prophetic ministry.

As I mentioned last week when talking about the meal Moses, Aaron and two of his sons, and seventy elders of Israel ate in the presence of God, it is difficult and really impossible to describe a heavenly reality in earthly terms. That is also the case with Isaiah.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

Isaiah writes, using earthly imagery, to describe this heavenly intrusion in his world. God is present, high and exalted, filling the temple. The seraphim are in constant motion. The three verbs: covered, covered, and were flying are verbs of continuous action. There was light. There was continual motion. There was noise. There was a presence that filled every corner of the temple. This was an ecstatic experience and Isaiah does his best to describe it.

There are lessons we normally take from this passage and I want to briefly mention a few of these.

First, we see that an experience of the love and grandeur of God leads to an awareness of sin.

In the midst of this overwhelming vision of God, Isaiah sees more clearly who he is and who the people of his country are.
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Awareness of sin can be a destructive and debilitating condition. Psychologists have lots of work to do with people who have a negative image of themselves. Depression can result as well as self-abuse and a number of other destructive behaviors. Awareness of sin without knowing we are loved is destructive.

But when we first are aware of the love and grandeur of God, then our awareness of sin has a positive effect on our lives. When we know we are deeply loved, then we can see the truth about ourselves and become aware of how desperately we need to be saved. When we know we are God’s beloved daughter or God’s beloved son, we are made strong, from the inside out. Awareness of sin when we know we are loved leads to a greater intimacy with Jesus.

When you begin feeling bad about yourself, when you struggle because you are beaten down by a poor self-image, what you most need is to draw near to Jesus and see yourself with his eyes. What you think about yourself is determined by what the most important person in your life thinks about you. So if Jesus is the most important person in your life, you are fortunate. God thinks you are absolutely wonderful. You are precious in his sight. Draw near to God in worship, in prayer, in song. Sing praise to God and allow yourself to feel loved.

Second, the call of God results in service.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

We are deeply loved by God. This is why God was born in the flesh. This is why Jesus died for us. Part of his love is to draw us into service with him as he steadily works to rescue people in each generation. Could he do this work without us? Perhaps. Probably. But because he loves us he calls us to work with him.

I have a cousin who believes in reincarnation. He once told me that in addition to having been a Mayan and a highway robber in 18th century London, his current assignment in this life was to be on vacation. Jesus loves us too much to let us waste the talents and gifts he has given us by being on a life-long vacation. His love calls us into service and we are given the privilege and the joy of serving him, working with him to build his eternal kingdom.

It is interesting for me to note that the more dramatic the call, the more the person called is asked to sacrifice. Many people want the call Isaiah received or the call Saul received on the road to Damascus. But how many people are willing to suffer the way Isaiah and Saul/Paul suffered?

In Mark’s gospel, James and John came to Jesus to ask him a favor. (Mark 10:35–40)
“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

James was the first of the disciples of Jesus to be killed when Herod had him beheaded. James drank the cup Jesus drank. John alone of the twelve disciples died in his old age. I have often thought how wonderful it would have been to be one of the disciples, traveling with Jesus. But do I want to be beheaded? Crucified?

My call to follow Jesus was not spectacular. Most followers of Jesus were not called with a spectacular vision. Perhaps Jesus knows when our future following of him will be more difficult and gives us a greater vision of himself to help us persevere. However we were called, we are grateful that we have been called to follow Jesus. May we serve him with all the talent and ability he has given us.

These are great lessons for us, but what I want to focus on this morning is the message Isaiah was called to proclaim.
He said, “Go and tell this people:
“ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”
And he answered:
“Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
12 until the Lord has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
13 And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.

This is a harsh message and there is a hint of the harshness of this message that is given at the beginning of the chapter. Isaiah does not begin saying, “In the 52nd year of the reign of King Uzziah,” he says, “In the year that King Uzziah died.” Isaiah was given a message of judgment against Judah. Despite the wonder of the vision of God Isaiah received, Isaiah 6 has the ring of death and destruction.

Remember that this message came at a time when Judah was prospering, when Judah was once again a powerful nation. But God is not impressed with earthly wealth and the idolatry and corruption of Judah earned Judah his judgment against them.

This must have been a difficult message for Isaiah to receive.
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Jonah was sent to pronounce judgment against Ninevah. Jonah tried as hard as he could to speak in a way that would make it difficult for Ninevah to repent, but to his dismay, the people of Ninevah repented.

In the case of Isaiah, the message God gave Isaiah was a prophecy in itself. No matter how clearly, how simply, how eloquently, how often Isaiah proclaimed God’s word that was given to him, the people were not going to repent. God will give them a chance through his prophet Isaiah, but God knows what will happen. Judah is going to fall into ruins.

We can see that Isaiah found this a difficult message. He was not about to argue with God but he did ask,
Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”
And he answered:
“Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
12 until the Lord has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
13 And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.

God’s answer to Isaiah’s question was not encouraging. Perhaps Isaiah was hoping God’s judgment would last for a year, maybe two years, but the answer to “how long, Lord,” was until Judah was completely destroyed. The city walls of Judah in ruins, the cities empty of inhabitants, houses left deserted, fields destroyed, the people of Judah taken away into exile. And even if a small part of Judah is left in the land, it will again be destroyed.

No amount of superficial, formal religious rituals would cover up the greedy, sinful behavior of Judah. (Isaiah 1:11-15)
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!

Judah grew in material wealth and power but declined in spiritual wealth.

When I read the prophets and God’s accusations against the people of Israel and Judah, I wonder about our modern world.

Is there a thirst, a lust for material wealth in our countries? Are the people of our countries consumed with an excessive and insatiable desire for more material wealth? Are the religious institutions of our countries focused on service to Jesus or on their own survival? Do people start churches to serve Jesus or to make money? When we look at how our countries operate, do we see corruption? Is there injustice? Is there one set of rules for the rich and powerful and another set of rules for those without power? Is there oppression in our countries? Do our countries seek justice? Defend the oppressed? Take up the cause of the fatherless? Plead the case of the widow? Do we welcome the stranger, the immigrant? Do we defend those who are not able to defend themselves?

We deserve the judgment of God, just as Judah deserved the judgment of God. I have often wondered why God seems to be withholding his judgment. It is a mystery to me. But perhaps the reason why judgment is being withheld is that there is a minority that is taking on the heart of God for the world. In my trip to the US in October I was encouraged by the many people I met who are working to welcome immigrants, who are caring for those who are caught in abusive relationships, who are seeking justice for the oppressed. There is a faithful remnant that is working with Jesus. There is hope.

The message Isaiah was given to proclaim is not a message of hope. But there is still the second half of verse 13 I have not yet read.
13 And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”

God called Isaiah to proclaim the destruction and ruin of Judah, but he ended with hope. The stumps of the trees in the land will be a holy seed.

In the despair and depression of all his suffering, Job wrote: (Job 14:7–12)
“At least there is hope for a tree:
If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
8 Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
9 yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
he breathes his last and is no more.

Job suffered and despaired but was without hope. He repeatedly cried out for a redeemer, but did not know about Jesus who was to come.

We are not without hope. We are never without hope. On our darkest days, in the bleakest of circumstances, we have hope.

Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, the four weeks that precede Christmas. The birth of Jesus the angels announced to shepherds in the field is (Luke 2:10) “good news that will bring great joy to all the people.”

Isaiah proclaimed a message of judgment but the hope that was to come out of the stump, the holy seed, was so powerful that it oozes from the pages of Isaiah and the other prophets.

(Isaiah 60:1)
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.

(Isaiah 9:2–7)
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.

Micah, who as I mentioned was a prophet during the time Isaiah was a prophet, spoke about the coming destruction of Judah but then proclaimed (Micah 5:1–2)
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”

Isaiah 53
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

Even in Jeremiah, who was a prophet to Judah when Judah was conquered by Babylon, there are brilliant rays of hope. (Jeremiah 23:5–6)
5 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
6 In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.

There has always been reason for hope but the birth of Jesus brought our hope to us. This is hope that cannot be defeated.

There is hope for our nations.

Psalm 2 asks the question (Psalm 2:1–6)
1 Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
3 “Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”
4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
5 He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
6 “I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”

In Psalm 46 we read (Psalm 46:6–7)
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Our world seems increasingly dangerous as leaders with large egos make their political and military moves. But God is sovereign. God is in control. Empires have risen and empires have fallen. The church has been persecuted in the past and in many countries of the world, the church is being persecuted now. The world has moved through devastating wars and plagues in which 30-50% of the population died. The world has survived destructive natural disasters. The world has survived genocide. Despots have come and despots have died.

And through it all, Jesus has been at work rescuing the lost and bringing them into his kingdom.

There is hope for people we love and hope for ourselves.

Jason Gray wrote a song with this lyric
I’ve spent some days looking
For a length of rope
And a place to hang it
From the end of my hope
But where I thought hope had ended
I always find a little bit more

Our own lives can seem dark and hopeless. We can feel trapped in a relationship that is not giving life. We can feel trapped in a job that is neither paying enough or giving fulfillment. We can feel imprisoned by our physical and mental struggles. We can feel trapped by a system that keeps us away from our families.

Whatever your circumstance, whatever your mood, whatever your condition, I want you to know there is a stump of hope and life will come out of it. The love and power of God is at work in the world and if the gates of hell will not prevail against the church Jesus is building, then neither will world leaders, dispassionate corporations, our own negative experiences, or unfulfilling relationships.

We enter into Advent and will celebrate the birth of Jesus with Christmas songs, the lighting of our Advent Wreath, with a Christmas tree and lights. We celebrate this each year because with the birth of Jesus came hope that brings light into the dark spots of our lives. This is my prayer for us this Christmas season: As we approach Christmas Day, I pray we will grow in hope, that the light of Jesus will shine on the dark parts of our lives and give us hope.