Clear the Old Growth

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 10.33-34
33 See, the Lord, the Lord Almighty, 
will lop off the boughs with great power. 
The lofty trees will be felled, 
the tall ones will be brought low. 
34 He will cut down the forest thickets with an ax; 
Lebanon will fall before the Mighty One.

Matthew 3.10b
10b Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Reflection: Clear the Old Growth
By John Tillman

I worked, for a few weeks, as a lumber surveyor’s assistant in the piney woods of East Texas.

I would drive a stake in the ground and then plow as straight a path as possible along a compass heading, dragging a long, smooth strip of hard plastic, called a “chain.” I wasn’t to turn to the left or the right. Unless it was impossible, I had to push straight through brush, bushes, or thorns. 

The surveyor would step on the chain to stop me when the tape reached the stake. Then, I would drive another stake and wait. By tugging on the chain, he would signal me to continue straight or turn 90 degrees left or right. In this way, we marked off squares of wooded land, and calculated the value of its trees based on the ratio of “quality” trees to trees that were not useful or valuable.

In Macbeth, the wicked-hearted king is given a prophecy that he cannot be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Macbeth assumes he is invincible. For when does a wood travel?

Similarly, Assyria grew overconfident. Sennacherib knew God’s word well enough to twist its meaning in his threats to Jerusalem, yet he had no respect for God. He thought he was a god and all other gods were idols. He expected to overwhelm Jerusalem as easily as Samaria. Sennacherib’s army was an impossible, forest-like foe, covering the ground and overwhelming the land. 

The foes we face don’t determine our fate. Like Hezekiah, we can turn them over to God. Isaiah promised that the Assyrian army would be cut down in a day. The “lofty” and “tall” trees would fall before God’s ax. 

In the ancient near east, trees were valuable and important—especially the highly valued cedars of Lebanon. Yet no earthly value or importance will stop God’s judgment. God’s ax “is already at the root of the trees.” (Matthew 3.10)

Instead of focusing on outward enemies we have little control over, let us survey our inner forest and the foes we find there. With sober judgment, let us clear the old growth, turning neither to the left nor the right, cutting down pride, selfishness, hatred, fear, greed, and lusts so that better fruits may flourish in the forests of our hearts. 

“Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our god. — Psalm 92.12

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 10.5-34 (Listen – 5:13)
Matthew 24 (Listen – 5:59)

Read more about Uprooting and Replanting
People uproot thornbushes and burn them. Then they plant fruitful vines in their place.

Read more about The Ever-Patient Agriculturalist
God wants to give us every opportunity to flourish. We, however, can put a halt to his husbandry…uproot in our hearts what he plants…

Evil, Judgment, or Discipline?

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 9.12b
12 …Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.
Reflection: Evil, Judgment, or Discipline?
By John Tillman

Bad things were happening to Judah. Why?

Three times in this chapter, Isaiah repeats, “Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.” (Isaiah 5.25; 9.12, 17, 21; 10.4

Sometimes “bad things” happen simply because evil exists. Stephen King, who has spent a lifetime writing about evil, put it this way in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, “The world has teeth and it can bite you with them any time it wants.”

Sometimes bad things happen as part of God’s judgment. Individuals or groups, by action or inaction, spurn God’s calls for justice, and as Johnny Cash sang, “You can run on for a long time…sooner or later, God’ll cut you down.”

Sometimes bad things happen as part of God’s discipline. Discipline is not “pleasant,” scripture says, but is not intended for harm. Where judgment destroys evil, discipline attempts to turn us from it. Discipline proves that we are loved by God and he intends good things for us.

God’s hand of blessing and protection was lifted from Judah, allowing great suffering, but no matter how bad it got, the people still wouldn’t return to God. They’d do anything other than repent. Anything other than helping the hurting. Anything other than admitting complicity in suffering. Anything other than walking humbly, loving mercy, or acting justly.

Some explain bad things happening saying, “We are being judged because of those sinners over there!” However, Israel’s prophets never say, “This drought is because of those sinful Moabites.” Judgment begins in the house of the Lord.

We need to pause and consider what kind of suffering we are enduring. Are we simply facing an evil world? Are we being judged? Are we being disciplined? Is God’s hand upraised against us?

If we are suffering for doing good, let us rejoice. (1 Peter 3.13-17) In suffering of this kind, God is our comforter and partner.

If we are suffering for resisting evil, let us endure. However, let us not turn to evil means of survival, but rather overcome evil with good.

If we are suffering for sins of commission or omission, for our apathy toward or complicity in the suffering of others, let us repent. For God longs to lead us back to himself. His raised hand of discipline will lower to wipe our tears and “there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.” (Isaiah 9.1)

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth tremble before him. — Psalm 96.9

Today’s Readings

Isaiah 9.8-10.4 (Listen – 8:50)
Matthew 23 (Listen – 4:53)

Read more about Different Kind of Exile
Peter encourages his exiles not to allow the oppression and suffering they are going through to be something that crushes their faith.

Read more about The Wrong Fear
This is how people act when they are living in fear. But this is not the reverent fear of the Lord that Peter speaks of.

Temple Confrontations

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 6.1-6
1 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. 
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.”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” 

2 Chronicles 26.18-19
18 They confronted King Uzziah and said, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.”

19 Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the Lord’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead.

Reflection: Temple Confrontations
By John Tillman

Unlike many prophets we have read, Isaiah was no outcast. He was a palace insider, accustomed to power, a friend to kings. According to Jewish tradition, he may even have been of royal blood himself. There is no question, however, that Isaiah’s writing is among the most treasured of the prophetic books. He was a highly educated, poetic, artistic, skilled writer who lived in a golden age of mostly good kings. 

We often think that a bit more power, a bit more influence, one “godly” leader will be just what we need to restore a “golden age.” But every earthly golden age has been built by corrupt power that stood on the backs of oppressed people.

Isaiah saw this power and pride up close. He saw it corrupt the hearts of at least two good kings—Hezekiah and Uzziah. Both were exemplary leaders up to a point. Both were brought down by pride.

Uzziah’s death, interestingly, is mentioned right before Isaiah describes encountering the Lord in his Temple. Uzziah’s experience in the Temple was humiliating, (2 Chronicles 26.21) resulting in his exile and death. Uzziah’s fate must have been in the back of Isaiah’s mind as he was confronted by a vision of God’s heavenly throne room overlapping the physical Temple.

Standing where Uzziah was struck with leprosy, Isaiah expected to be ruined. He knew that he, like Uzziah, was unclean before the Lord. But Isaiah’s outcome was different. Uzziah angrily claimed purity and was made unclean. (2 Chronicles 26.18-20) Isaiah fearfully confessed uncleanness and was made pure. 

Like Isaiah, we need to be confronted with our individual and collective uncleanness. (Isaiah confesses both.) That confrontation can go like Uzziah’s or like Isaiah’s. When we confess that we deserve censure, the censer of God burns away our sin, yet we are miraculously not consumed.

Normally, when ritually clean things touched ritually unclean things, the clean became contaminated. However, the coal from the altar purified Isaiah as Jesus purifies us. Jesus touched unclean lepers and they became clean. No matter how corrupted or sinful we may be, Jesus is willing to make us clean. (Matthew 8.2-3)

Isaiah can testify that golden ages aren’t what they are cracked up to be. Rather than an earthly golden age, we need a heavenly one. This begins by acknowledging that we deserve ruin, and getting renovated instead.

“Here am I, Lord. Send me.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. — Psalm 85.10

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 6 (Listen – 2:24)
Matthew 20 (Listen – 4:22)

This Weekend’s Readings
Isaiah 7 (Listen – 3:51), Matthew 21 (Listen – 7:10)
Isaiah 8-9.7 (Listen – 7:02), Matthew 22 (Listen – 4:56)

Read more about Where is the Love?
Thank Jesus for caring enough about you to keep kicking over your tables and cleaning up your mess.

Read more about Seeking After a Seeking God
God is a seeking God, he is always ready to meet us where we are…He will meet with us in a corrupted Temple, as he met with Isaiah.

Bad Crop

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 5.1-2, 4
1 I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?

Reflection: Bad Crop
By Erin Newton

From childhood, we learn about the world through stories. The best stories engage our emotions and immerse us within the narrative. Jesus was a skilled storyteller and used parables to explain things about morality and ethics. God has always spoken to us through language and images we can easily understand.

Anyone who has attempted growing vegetables or fruit trees will resonate with the parable in Isaiah 5. It is a painful story of the beloved’s effort to cultivate a garden only to have bad fruit emerge. The rhetorical question, “What more could have been done?” implies that God knows that his nurture, care, protection, blessing, and love for the vineyard were sufficient. The bad fruit is antithetical to the preparation and cultivation. Is God a poor gardener? Somehow, did a drought sneak up on him and ruin the crop? Certainly not!

Like Jesus often did with his disciples, Isaiah explains the parable. The vineyard is the nation, the people are the vines, and the bad fruit is injustice. In this parable, God has already explained that he did all that was needed to provide security and blessing for Israel. In return, they ought to be beacons of righteousness.

A counselor once told me, that when you are feeling big emotions (fear, grief, anxiety, anger, etc.) it is normal to instinctively respond by trying to lay blame somewhere else. Hardship was coming to Israel and, when the pain began, they would likely try to blame God.

Yet, Israel was responsible for the judgment they endured. God went in search of justice. The people he found were violent. God went in search of righteousness. The people he found were oppressive and apathetic.

Where Israel failed, we have the opportunity to bear good fruit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23). It is easier to recognize when we are bearing bad fruit by looking for the opposites: hate, suffering, chaos, impatience, rudeness, malice, abrasiveness, indulgence, etc.

The remedy for bad vines is to prune those branches and toss them into the fire. We have hope in our ability to bear good fruit through the work of Jesus. He assured us that the key to fruitfulness is abiding in him. There is nothing left undone by God in order for his vineyard to be productive and good. It is now our response that is our responsibility.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, Lord God of hosts; let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me. — Psalm 69.7

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 5 (Listen – 4:48)
Matthew 19 (Listen – 4:04)

Read more about Cultivation Requires Planning
No park or garden is “natural.” Even the garden of Eden was planted by the Lord…We need to follow his example of supernatural cultivation.

Read more about Cultivation Starts With Destruction
Cultivation often begins with the smell of fire, the wielding of sharpened metal tools, and the sounds of chainsaws.

Explain Yourself

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 3.14-15
14 The Lord enters into judgment
    against the elders and leaders of his people:
“It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
    the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
15 What do you mean by crushing my people
    and grinding the faces of the poor?”
declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty.

Reflection: Explain Yourself
By Erin Newton

Summer has started which means exponentially more time with my four kids and their antics.

Not a day goes by where one kid doesn’t do something hurtful, dangerous, illogical, or nonsensical and I ask them, “What in the world were you thinking?” The goal of asking is to help them assess their own motivations and redirect their attitudes.

The prophetic ministry of Isaiah spans multiple decades. We have already read through the minor prophets in chronological order. As we step back in time, it is interesting to note how much of the Old Testament is prophetic material, more than half. This should remind us of the dire necessity that we learn from what the prophets are saying and often repeating.

By now, we should know that Israel was being judged for their injustice, mercilessness, oppressive behaviors, immorality, and apostasy. It is easy to look at the call to love mercy and do justice, thinking “Yes, yes, I know. Let’s move on.” If the prophets repeated themselves for centuries, problems will not be easily remedied.

The question posed by God here is much like the questions I ask my kids. But God is asking as a judge, not as a concerned mother. It is one thing to deter the antics of children, it is another to call to account the misbehavior of adults.

Why are they crushing people with oppression? What reason do they have for grinding the faces of the poor? Really. What inner desire is being fed?

We sit at the feet of God who asks us these same questions. We have the same greed, pride, arrogance, self-righteousness, hate, and selfishness as Israel did. 

Why can’t we live with less so the poor can be fed?

Why can’t we face a little humiliation so victims of sexual abuse can be heard?

Why can’t we avoid dehumanizing language that causes those far from Christ to question his love?

Why can’t we quiet ourselves so the oppressed can express their pain and frustration?

Why can’t we open our doors so the hurt can find safety?

Read Isaiah with the intent to examine your life and make practical changes. The call to live like Christ means giving ourselves away be it renouncing pride, possessions, or our lives. It is never the right time to choose self over neighbor, reputation over justice, hate over love.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus said: “As long as the day lasts we must carry out the work of the one who sent me; the night will soon be here when no one can work. As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world.” — John 9.4-5

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 3-4 (Listen – 4:34)
Matthew 18 (Listen – 4:25)

Read more about The House God Desires
God accepts the immature like children and leads toward growth and maturity those who will listen.

Read more about Chastened Towards Freedom
“The chastening of a child of God does not have a penal aspect…if we judge ourselves, we are not chastened.” — Francis Schaeffer