It’s safe to say we—not just in the United States but all of Western civilization—are living in a cataclysmic time right now. That’s not just because we are in the middle of a pandemic, a brand-new infectious disease that we are learning about in real time, just figuring out how to prevent it and how to treat it. The upheaval we’re living through started a long time ago; some argue it began with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, which called into question what Christians understood about creation and humanity’s place in it. (Personally I was not raised to see the theory of evolution and my religious faith as incompatible, but I know many people were, and I also know that this wasn’t really even a question before 1859.)
The late Phyllis Tickle said that roughly every five hundred years, Western civilization and Christianity have what she described as a “garage sale” (see her book The Great Emergence for more information). We might think it happens suddenly, but what seems sudden, like the publication of the 95 Theses in 1517 and the explosion of the Protestant Reformation, is actually rooted in events that came before—in Martin Luther’s case, the suppressed preaching of Jan Hus, the invention of the printing press, Dutch philosopher Erasmus’ Biblical scholarship, and the plagues of the Middle Ages. (Yes, I know that oversimplifies the matter quite a bit, but I have only got so much time this morning.)
The first of these, Tickle said, was the “Christ-event,” as theologians call it—the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the creation of a movement around him that came to be known as the Church. Almost 500 years later came the fall of the Roman Empire—another fascinating example of a single event that seems to come without warning but is actually the product of seeds sown years, even centuries, before. In 1054, a little over 500 years after Rome fell, came the split of Christianity into an Eastern and a Western form. And then the Protestant Reformation began on October 31, 1517, but has roots that go back at least a century before that.
Phyllis Tickle believed we are in the midst of a time like that now.
If we know our history, and we see how the previous housecleaning seasons shook out, we find that it’s not a tidy, simple, linear adjustment. There are fits and starts, reactions and backlashes, and there is a substantial amount of violence involved each time. And it feels like the end of the world. Actually it is the end of the world, at least the world as we know it; and we cannot even imagine what might come next.
That’s what it looks like when everything is changing on the macro level—but it happens in communities, in families, and to individuals, too. Things go wrong, people die, businesses fail, fortunes are gained and lost, life-altering illnesses or injuries happen, addictions tear lives and families apart. And in the midst of it, it’s easy to feel like it’s the end of the world.
With that we turn to the prophet Isaiah for some guidance.
Normally we hear this Scripture during Advent; it’s actually hard to find commentary that doesn’t tie it to Advent, to the expectation of the Messiah’s coming, to the birth of Jesus. But Advent isn’t the only time it speaks to us: any time our lives are a mess, or watching the news terrifies us, or we’re standing amid the ashes of our hopes and dreams, Isaiah 11 just might bring us some good news.
Do you remember when Mount St. Helens blew her top? Hard to believe, but it’s been 40 years now! That eruption was a different sort than the ones we see in Hawai’i that go on for months or years, just pouring lava out and down a mountain, sometimes into the ocean; the Cascades when they erupt just explode, sending ash and rocks and poisonous gas into the air, and the ash settles on the mountain and for miles around.
Locals told me that before the eruption, St. Helens looked like Mt. Fuji in Japan, a nice, symmetrical cone-shaped mountain. Afterward it was flat on top, and at first it looked totally dead, with ash everywhere, trees knocked down in mudslides, just destruction everywhere. There was even a lake on the side of St. Helens…but the eruption destroyed it. And people talked about the loss of forests, wildlife, the beautiful landscape that was now gone. Folks wondered how many years it would be before anything could grow on that mountain again.
But they didn’t have to wait nearly as long as they thought they would. The very next spring, people went up on the mountain to study it, and they found patches of wildflowers. How could this be?
Remember how people lamented all the wildlife that was lost in the eruption? Well, when people looked at those patches of wildflowers from the air, they noticed that they each had a particular shape. They were shaped like elk, and deer, and whatever other kinds of animals had lived up there before the eruption. Every place an animal fell and died and was buried by ash, its body provided nourishment for wildflower seeds carried in on the wind.
This is the lesson of Isaiah 11.
The world is a mess right now. For some of us, our lives are a mess. And we may look at the ruins of everything we had counted on or cared about and think, “There’s no way we, no way I can recover from this.”
But we are people who live in covenant with God, and so we can call to mind something that perhaps others who don’t know our God, don’t follow Christ, can’t: The stump of Jesse was cut down. The vineyard that was Israel was allowed to return to a wild state. The Hope of the World, the Son of David who was supposed to reign from Jerusalem forever, was executed on a cross. But in God’s sight, the end is not the end.
Maybe we, in our sinfulness, ran away from God’s covenant; but the covenant still stands and God is still keeping God’s end of the bargain. A shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse. A true Vine will grow in God’s vineyard.
Our Lord, executed on Friday in the most horrible manner the Roman Empire had to offer, got up and walked out of his tomb on Sunday morning. If God could do that, then God can bring forth something new out of ruined lives, even out of the fall of civilizations.
We might be living through terrifying times, individually and as a world, but we need not fear our ultimate fate. All is not lost. On that ash-ruined hillside wildflowers grew. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes with the morning.
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.