A prophetic nudge

October 31st, 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10

Every now and then, Isaiah taps us on the shoulder to say, “You better sit up straight and listen to this!” Today’s reading is just such a lesson. I call Isaiah 11:1-10 a prophetic nudge.

Isaiah was a pretty tough prophet. He pulled no nudges with the people to whom he directed his thoughts. He still doesn’t pull any nudges.

Prior to this episode of his prophecy, Israel had been humbled and laid low. To put it another way, the land looked something akin to areas of California ravaged by wildfires in recent years. Israel was a smoldering wasteland. The people had brought God’s judgment on themselves; consequently, their neighbors measured vengeance on them. But as always with God, complete annihilation did not occur.

Here’s the scene. Months and months after devastation, Isaiah is walking amid the desolate land. The smell of soot and ash fills his nostrils. Certainly, this is the last straw. Finally, Israel has paid the price. Her sin has found her out and, seemingly, she is no more.

Isaiah sits and ponders God’s warnings to Israel and the impending consequences. All around him is evidence of a nation that has thumbed its nose at God.

As Isaiah thinks, he looks down at the log upon which he is sitting and notices something amazing. In the midst of the charcoal and ash he sees something protruding from the log. It’s a tiny, green shoot reaching for the sun. In a flash, Isaiah senses God’s presence: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). In the midst of a seemingly dead and lifeless setting, God may admonish and discipline but never to the point of abandonment.

Like all previous generations, a learning moment is emerging once again for Israel, a moment that will influence all future generations. In God’s future will come One who will be the image and the model for all humanity. In Advent, we look back and recognize the person Isaiah points to in the future to be Jesus of Nazareth.

But we have to be careful here. A literal translation will not work when we read verses 6-10. The prophet acts as an artist, painting a picture of what life can be like when God’s integrity and justice are living and thriving realities in the actions of people. If we take any route other than the metaphorical one, then all we will accomplish is a trip to the emergency room if we allow our children to play with poisonous reptiles.

As a young boy, I recall our dog and tabby cat romping and playing together in the front yard. Captain was a terrier-hound mix, always frisky and ready to launch. Rusty was no cozy cat. He walked on his toes, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. We would let them out of the house and they would make our huge front lawn their playground. Rusty would chase Captain in circles. I can still see him tucking his tail and bouncing in a circle to avoid Rusty’s grasp. But eventually, Rusty would grab him and slam him to the ground. Drivers would actually stop and watch them play. Obviously, they didn’t fit the stereotype of the dog-cat relationship.

This is what can happen when adversaries turn their respective protected territories into sandboxes and play with one another. When the oppressor and the oppressed become advocates for a single cause and bury the hatchet, a community benefits. I believe it was President Lincoln who said the objective for ending the Civil War was to turn enemies into friends. When the lamb and the wolf romp, it means just that—enemies are being turned into friends.

In God’s scheme of things, the lowly in this world are not to be the prey of the powerful. Big companies do not take advantage of smaller companies and devour them by running them out of business. The rich and powerful become the advocates for those who are oppressed by economics. Or, when business owners cooperate by reaching out to the indigent poor who reside in streets and alleys, this is evidence that God’s realm is emerging in our very neighborhoods.

When we as a nation work together to reach out to the dispossessed and disenfranchised and take steps to help them help themselves and become part of the valued community, then we make our communities safer places for children to live and thrive. The image of the child playing over a rattlesnake’s hole is a picture of a community that values rehabilitation and recovery in order that its children may not become the victims or prey of those who desperately need our compassion and help.

In these days, whether it is to the local church or the international neighborhood, I believe Isaiah has much to nudge us about. When he says, “The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, / a living knowledge of God” (v. 9 THE MESSAGE), is he not speaking about nations having dialogue and sharing resources on behalf of the poor and oppressed?

Think what the world might look like had our nation begun the arduous and difficult task of calling Arabs and Muslims from around the world to discuss why the twin towers disaster in New York City happened rather than designing a war room? For those who hold America’s legacy of peace and nation-building initiatives dear, it is disturbing to see these values shelved in favor of war and nation-destruction.

Does this make any sense? Can we sense a prophetic nudge in such matters? Is there evidence of such transformation, due to God’s presence in our city, our state, our nation, even in our global communities?

The prophet is not nudging us to come up with another abstract cause and do nothing about the real issues that exist in our communities. He is nudging specific people to do specific things, to help God transform this world and help it reflect the truth that God is with us.

Advent is a time to be stirred from our spiritual stupor and stirred by the truth of Isaiah’s prophetic nudge.

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