Lectionary reading for 12/14/2021: Isaiah 11:1-9; Numbers 16:20-35; Acts 28:23-31
Selected passage for reflection: Isaiah 11:1-9
“The Peaceful Kingdom”
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.
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.
Poets and prophets (and often they are one and the same), often tell us the truth of how the world is. They tell us, through photographs, through music, through paint on canvas and words arranged just the right way, that things aren’t as they should be. After all, there is poverty, power being used to abuse, and seasons of pain all around us. Our poets and prophets show us the world as it is, and they show us what hurts and where.
But poets and prophets also tell us that this isn’t the way it has to be, nor is it the way it always will be. They don’t just show us where we are, but they also point us in the direction of where we should go and what we should do to make things better for all of us. They show us visions that can carry us through the painful seasons and towards seasons of warmth and ease. Poets and prophets use art to bring us hope where hope is not easy to come by.
And this is what the poet and prophet Isaiah is doing in the book named after him. The beginning of chapter 11 is often titled something like “a peaceful kingdom” by various editors long after it was written. And it depicts the possibility of a peaceful, just and beautiful kingdom to the people of Israel who are caught in a violent struggle. Isaiah writes to people who have witnessed atrocities, who are captured, carted off and who are refugees in places other than their homeland. To these people, Isaiah paints a picture with words that is meant to show them what could be and what they can hold on to in a season more painful than words can express. Isaiah paints a word picture that begins with a tree stump nursing a tiny shoot growing up out of devastation. And he uses it to bring his people hope in what could be possible.
When I read this first stanza of Isaiah’s poem, I think about a section of land in Western Washington state where I’ve spent a good amount of time. It is a land drenched in rain most of the year and covered in a green so bright it cannot translate to photographs. It is a place that is devastatingly wild with rock outcroppings that give jaw-dropping views of Mount Rainier/Tahoma, it is the traditional land of the Nisqually and co-Salish people, and…it is in the middle of land now owned and clearcut by the Weyerhaeuser logging company.
I used to hike on this section of land a lot and on one side of the trail, I could see miles of vast forest. On the other side, all I could see were remnants of trees that had once stood, and who now lined up with roots exposed to the air to tell the stories of what had happened. No matter how sustainable a logging company strives to be (and Weyerhaeuser at least claims to be striving towards sustainability), it is hard for me not to see a clear cut field as devastation. Where once a forest stood, now only stumps remain.
But as I get closer and walk among the dead, I find that isn’t all there is. Upon closer inspection, stumps I thought were dead now host a veritable forest of mosses and new tiny branches reach up out of the roots towards the sky. Where there once seemed to be only death, the field is sprinkled here and there with evidence of new life that I can bear witness to if I just bend close enough to see it.
While the prophet and poet did not write this poem to us today, we certainly can hold on to the image of stumps and new shoots for our own seasons of clearcutting and death. And this year has been a year of it, has it not? We are weathering the deaths of plans, longings and most heart wrenchingly, the deaths of dear ones we love. Perhaps our lives feel like they’ve been bought by some cosmic logging company which has laid the axe head to our very souls.
And Isaiah does not forget that the seasons of devastation in our lives are just that…devastating. Isaiah acknowledges the pain and tells the truth about where we are. There are no platitudes (thank goodness). This poet and prophet does not shy away from sitting in the pain. Most of the book of Isaiah describes it after all. Isaiah writes of a God who knows pain and does not demand that God’s people “just move on.” There are healthy portions of lament and demands for justice that to those of us not suffering can feel like overkill. To those of us in the middle of it, these portions of our sacred text are water to the soul. We aren’t alone. And the text is full of these blessings for those suffering.
But at the same time, in a few chapters (including this one), Isaiah also invites readers to drink the healing waters of some hope too. Isaiah offers to his people (and I think we are invited to receive it as well) the reminder that that new shoots of tiny green stems and leaves are in the realm of possibility after clear cutting. Our thriving and the thriving for all in our communities (friends, family, strangers, animals, and the earth!) is not beyond the reach of God. Healing can come. Justice is still at the heart of God. There will be equity for the meek of the earth, the wolf shall live with the lamb, and out of the stump, a tiny sprout appears.
As you are weary from these months of grief and death, may you know that your feelings and body exhaustion are not written off by poets and prophets, and they are not written off by God. Don’t write them off yourself either. May you know that your pain is acknowledged and grieved over. May you have space and all you need to grieve in whatever way feels most right. May you feel held in the loving arms of God as you stand in the middle of the devastation.
And in the devastation, may the Spirit of God also give you courage to get close to your pain, close to the stumps so that you can smell the nourishing dirt and imagine the new life growing in the dark. May your thriving come to pass, springing forth into the air, stretching up from the stumps and up from the roots. And may you, oh beloved of God, have the eyes to witness it.
Divine One, Show us that you are the one beside us in seasons of devastation. Let us feel your arms around us and not be pressured into moving past our pain and grief too quickly. And Spirit of new life, give us hearts of hope and eyes to see the new life that you are growing within us and around us. We pray these things in the name of God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Spirit among us.
About the Author
Ellie VerGowe is a new ACPE chaplain resident at the VA Puget Sound Hospital after serving as a parish minister at a church in Seattle and a chaplain intern at Harborview Medical Center. Ellie feels honored to hear people’s stories and meet with them in moments of crisis. She lives in West Seattle on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people with her partner Aaron and their Australian shepherd puppy Fiona. She loves being in the mountains, singing, painting and writing, eating good food with good people and reading a well written book on a rainy day with a cup of tea (Ellie is a grandmother at heart!).