“The stump will be the holy seed.” In our text for this week we just heard about the prophet Isaiah having a vision where he saw god in all his glory. A vision of god filling the whole earth with his majesty and holiness. Seeing and experiencing this picture of the true god, Isaiah quickly realized how rebellious and sinful he was and how all of his people were against the true god even though they claimed to follow him. They were nothing but an unclean people, who refused to walk in the ways of the living god who created all things.
In response to Isaiah being overwhelmed by this, god took Isaiah’s rebelliousness and sinfulness away by putting his burning word on Isaiah’s lips. This word burned Isaiah’s sinfulness away making him pure and holy in the eyes of god, ready to speak his truth. And then god spoke, wondering who would be his messenger to his rebellious people who had turned away from him, “Who will I send and who will go for us?” Inspired by his forgiveness, Isaiah volunteered cheerfully for the job. He wanted to be part of god’s people turning away from their sinful and rebellious ways of life, “Here am I! Send me!”
But god’s message and job for Isaiah was one he never expected. God said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive. Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Make the hearts of the people insensitive, make their ears deaf, and make their eyes blind, so they cannot see with their eyes, hear with their ears, or understand with their hearts, so they do not return to be healed.” Astonishingly, Isaiah’s job was to harden the people’s hearts. His job was to blind them, to make them deaf, and to confuse their understanding so that they wouldn’t be healed. Utterly baffled, Isaiah asked, “Lord, how long?” How long was he going to have to do such a hard and terrible task? What good was preaching if people were only going to harden their hearts and hate you because of it?
The lord responded, “Until the cities are devastated and without inhabitant, until the houses are without people, until the land is utterly desolate, until the Lord has removed the people far away, and the land is filled with abandoned places.”
After Kings David and Solomon died, their kingdom split in two when the northern ten tribes decided to leave because of how they had been enslaved, abused, and oppressed by Solomon. The northern ten tribes, based in Samaria, were called the “kingdom of Israel” and the remaining two tribes in the south, based in Jerusalem, were called the “kingdom of Judah.”
The time that the prophet Isaiah had this vision was about a year or two before the Assyrian Empire started taking captives from the northern kingdom of Israel. The kingdom of Israel tried to make a political alliance with surrounding nations to stand against the great Assyrian Empire—they even went so far as to attack Judah in the south in order to try to force them to join this alliance. For twenty years during this terrorizing by the Assyrian Empire, Isaiah told them to repent of their trust in armies and political alliances and to throw themselves completely into the hands of god. And for twenty years they ignored Isaiah’s preaching and hardened their hearts, and eventually Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, was destroyed after a three year siege by the Assyrian Empire.
The kingdom of Judah in the south was also terrorized by the Assyrian Empire during this time. When they saw that Assyria might be in a weakened state they made alliances with their neighbors and even the hated Egyptian Empire in order to revolt against the Assyrian presence in their territories. This revolt failed miserably and all their fortified cities, except for Jerusalem, were attacked, seized, and destroyed. And just like the northern kingdom, Isaiah told them repeatedly to trust in god alone and not in any army or political alliance—but they couldn’t help themselves and they continued their army building and their political scheming. Their hearts were hardened, their eyes were blinded, and their ears were deafened. And in the end, everything the southern kingdom had built was chopped down and destroyed—first by the Assyrian Empire and then by the Babylonian Empire.
But this was god’s plan all along. God knew Isaiah’s preaching would be ignored, he knew that it was only when everything the people valued and trusted in was destroyed and chopped down that they would once again have eyes to see and ears to hear the truth. For god had told Isaiah that first day of his prophetic ministry, “There will be a tenth left in the land and they will again be subject to burning. But then, like an oak whose stump remains when it is felled, the stump will be the holy seed.”
God didn’t want the people to “adjust” or “tweak” their lives, he didn’t want them to make baby-step changes towards something better, god wanted everything to come crashing down, he wanted it to completely and totally collapse, he wanted a total reset—for once everything was destroyed, the bare and lifeless stump would be the place where god would start again. He would rebuild his people from scratch, he would make them anew from the ashes. Adjustments and tweaking do not work—when the very foundation is fundamentally corrupted there must be a total restart.
This preaching task of Isaiah’s was not unique to him alone. In fact it is the way and pattern of all the true prophets of god. John the Baptist came preparing the way for Jesus, saying, “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And even with Jesus himself, this preaching task did not change. When asked why he spoke in the cryptic and mysterious way of parables, Jesus responded, “I speak to them in parables so that seeing they will not see and hearing they will not hear or understand.” Jesus himself preached in order to further blind us and deafen us, in order to further drive us away from god so that we might lose everything—and then there at the bottom, with nothing left, he would restart and remake us anew.
As we await the coming of the lord this Advent season, we are challenged to reflect on the purpose of god’s word in our lives. Have we truly come to grips with the reality that god’s word is meant to harden our hearts, make us angry with him, and even drive us to rebel against him? God’s word does this in order to further drive us down our paths of self-destruction. It does this so everything we have built for ourselves—our entire lives and all our dreams—will come crashing down. It does this so that we will be at rock bottom, stripped of everything, emptied of everything, and thereby ready to be remade in a new image—the image of Jesus, the servant of love, who let go of everything, who gave everything for the sake of you and me and all our neighbors. God is coming into our lives and into our world to do a new and marvelous thing, but it is “the stump that will be the holy seed.” Amen.