Clear the Old Growth—Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice Month:
This September, The Park Forum is looking back on readers’ selections of our most meaningful and helpful devotionals from the past 12 months. Thank you for your readership. This month is all about hearing from you. Submit a Readers’ Choice post today.

Today’s post was originally published, on June 14, 2022, based on Isaiah 10.33-34 and Matthew 3.10b
It was selected by reader, Brad, from Texas: 
“I found this devotional poetically crafted and incredibly dense with meaning: turning our impossibly sized enemies over to God, trusting Him to deal with them as we remain steadfast in our trust and devotion to the many dimensions of God-honoring character.”

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—Readers’ Choice
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
I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me out of all my terror. — Psalm 34.4

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Jeremiah 50 (Listen 8:42)
2 Corinthians 9 (Listen 2:26)

This Weekend’s Readings
Jeremiah 51 (Listen 10:15) 2 Corinthians 10 (Listen 2:45)
Jeremiah 52 (Listen 5:49) 2 Corinthians 11 (Listen 4:46)

Readers’ Choice is Here!
Thank you for your recommended posts from the last 12 months. Which one helped you understand scripture?

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

Two Roads Diverged in Barren Land—Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice Month:
This September, The Park Forum is looking back on readers’ selections of our most meaningful and helpful devotionals from the past 12 months. Thank you for your readership. This month is all about hearing from you. Submit a Readers’ Choice post today.

Today’s post was originally published, on July 7, 2022, based on Isaiah 35:8a
It was selected by reader, Jon: 
“As a child, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost was my favorite poem, long before I had any idea of what it really meant. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about the poem that drew me to it as a kid, but every time I read those words, I am flooded with a feeling of childlike wonder. I don’t know, maybe it is Narnia-like in its calling to the road not taken…”

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 35:8a
8 And a highway will be there;
    it will be called the Way of Holiness;
    it will be for those who walk on that Way.

Reflection: Two Roads Diverged in Barren Land—Readers’ Choice
By Erin Newton

At the end of Isaiah’s long prophecy of judgment, the message shifts. A vision of the future—a vision of all things made right.

Isaiah describes God’s people like a caravan along a road in the wasteland. Distraught and downtrodden, a new path is cut through the desert.

One path is silent, cold, and stark.
The Way is filled with praise and joy.

One path is a road winding down into a desolate land.
The Way cuts through the wasteland leaving signs of life along the way.

One path is burdensome and hard, a place where strength and hearts fail.
The Way whispers, “Peace, be still. He is coming to save.”

One path is often difficult; strength and ability are stolen away.
            The Way makes one whole; it heals the body and soul.

One path is deadly; there is nothing to sustain life.
            The Way turns death into life; it has everything needed to thrive.

One path is traveled by wicked and dangerous people.
            The Way is filled with redeemed travelers singing songs of praise.

One path is marked by hopeless sorrow and afflicted groans.
            The Way bestows burgeoning gladness and eternal joy.

Like the poem by Robert Frost, two roads diverge. To continue on our usual path would mean continuing in a fruitless journey, exiled from God. But how exactly do we step onto the path that leads to life?

When Jesus warns his disciples that he must leave soon to return to the Father, Thomas asks for a roadmap to heaven (John 14). “How will we know the way?” Jesus simply replied, “I am the Way.” The path to life is through Jesus himself.

Even though Isaiah described a marvelous future promised to God’s people, we struggle to see this kind of utopian future now. The flowers are not bursting forth in song. The blind and lame and deaf are without healing. Ravenous beasts meet us on the road to harm us.

The Way of Holiness is a via dolorosa, a difficult path. Our Lord walked this path to redeem us from death. Let us take up our crosses to follow the Way.  It is not without hope.

We take the first steps of this new road paved by the blood of Jesus. The world around us still shows signs of desolation and despair but the word in the air says, “Peace, he is coming.” The Way is good.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. — Psalm 62.6

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Jeremiah 49(Listen 7:15)
2 Corinthians 8(Listen 3:25)

Readers’ Choice is Here!
Thank you for your recommended posts from the last 12 months. Which one helped you forgive?

Read more about The Path of the Cross
A Christ who brings earthly victory enjoys near universal welcome…Everyone rejected this suffering Christ. Even the closest of his disciples.

The Way of the Remnant

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 37.32
32 For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant, 
and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. 
The zeal of the Lord Almighty 
will accomplish this. 

Reflection: The Way of the Remnant
By John Tillman

At this point, Isaiah has seen kings come and go. He has seen that ultimately his country is doomed to destruction and his people are destined for exile. But even with darkness looming, there is light and hope for God’s remnant. 

Isaiah has no illusions about suffering, hope, and ultimate reality. After seeing God’s throne room, kings like Sennacherib, who threatens Judah, seem unimpressive. Isaiah brushes off Sennacherib’s boasts with a strong rebuke and a promise of God’s protection. 

Sennacherib’s army will be conquered by the God he compared to a powerless idol.
Sennacherib will be killed while praying to his own powerless idol, which could not save him from the ambition of his own sons.

The way of kings seems to have a pattern:
Out of callousness, cruelty.
Out of confidence, despair.
Out of pride, disgrace.

There is a different pattern for the remnant that God will zealously protect:
Out of hopelessness, faith.
Out of shame, honor.
Out of loss, victory.

This faith, honor, and victory won’t always look like that on the surface. There won’t always be miraculous deliverance from armies. We won’t always see the convenient self-destruction of our foes. Sometimes the enemy army will win. Sometimes, like the faithful remnant, we will be taken into exile. Sometimes, like Isaiah, we will suffer, and perhaps die. 

This suffering we endure won’t always be at the hands of enemy kings, like Sennacherib. That might be easier to understand. We are just as likely to be harmed at the hands of unfaithful or misguided fellow believers as unbelievers. 

Isaiah was killed by the last king of Judah he served, Manasseh.
Jesus was killed by the Romans, but it was at the insistence of the most dedicated and well-respected of Jewish scholars, scribes, and teachers. (Luke 19.47)
Stephen, the first martyr of the church was killed by zealous followers of God, the Sanhedrin.

If we suffer, let it be for doing good, not evil. Let us suffer for generosity not selfishness. Let us suffer for kindness not violence. If we, like Isaiah, keep the image of God’s throne room in mind, that vision can wash away misplaced reverence for human leaders or fear toward human enemies. 

Let us embrace the way of the remnant—rejecting callousness, confidence, and pride. God is zealous on the remnant’s behalf. Let us be faithful in hope and trust in God’s ultimate victory.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
I will call upon God, and the Lord will deliver me.
In the evening, in the morning, and at the noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice.
He will bring me safely back…God, who is enthroned of old, will hear me. — Psalm 55.17

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 37 (Listen -6:47)
Luke 19 (Listen -5:29)

This Weekend’s Readings
Isaiah 38 (Listen -3:20)Luke 20 (Listen -5:07)
Isaiah 39 (Listen -1:35)Luke 21 (Listen -4:18)

Read more about Temple Confrontations
Like Isaiah, we need to be confronted with our individual and collective uncleanness.

Read more about Clear the Old Growth
The foes we face don’t determine our fate. Like Hezekiah, we can turn them over to God.

Wisdom & Persuasion

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 36.10-11
10 “… Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this land without the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.’”
11 Then Eliakim, Shebna and Joah said to the field commander, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don’t speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall.”

Reflection: Wisdom & Persuasion
By Erin Newton

The book of Isaiah breaks from the prophetic oracles of judgment. Sennacherib and the Assyrians taunted the Israelites, calling their confidence into question. Not only that, but they humiliated the Israelites’ leaders. Every jab was within earshot and in the common language of the people.

Assyria was stoking the people’s fear. Subduing another nation was simplified if they could be convinced to give up and take the short-term compromise.

The leaders of Israel attempted to hide the conversation by asking to change to a lesser-known language. They either wanted to save face or protect the people against being drawn into fear-mongering rhetoric. The leaders were embarrassed that someone would openly mock them. Furthermore, targeting fear was a potent tactic.

Some of what the Assyrians shouted was true. Isaiah prophesied that Assyria would be sent as a rod of God’s judgment (Isaiah 10.5-6). Israelites would recognize the prophet’s words in the mouths of the Assyrians. The temptation to believe what they said hung upon these partial truths.

What happens when an argument holds some elements of truth? Not all ethical and moral dilemmas we face are straightforward issues. What do we do with the myriad of nuances that each situation provides? Should Israel save their neighbors and children from impending death by surrendering?

The fatal flaw to Assyria’s tactic was their degradation of God. Their appeals to compromise could have convinced several Israelites. Belittling God, calling him just another conquered deity, allowed the Israelites to see through the propaganda.

From all sides, there are voices demanding our attention and allegiance. Sometimes there is pressure to let go of beliefs and embrace convenience. How do we discern the voice of the enemy from the voice of the prophet?

What we learn here is crucial. How God is represented can be an indicator of motives. The Assyrians claimed God was a nobody. Isaiah heralded the supremacy of God. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14.1).

We have faced major ethical issues in the last few weeks. People have demonstrated online and in the streets to persuade the world of one perspective or another. It can be intimidating. As the voices continue to shout, let us listen for how the message represents our God. Does it support our God who calls us to love others, administer justice, care for the weak, and pledge our allegiance to him alone?

Lord, give us wisdom.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Cast your burden upon the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous stumble. — Psalm 55.24

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 36 (Listen -4:00)
Luke 18 (Listen -5:27)

Read more about Jesus Concealed and Revealed
Jesus walked along the Emmaus road simultaneously concealing his physical presence and revealing his presence throughout the scripture.

Read more about Unhurried Wisdom
Wisdom is not a character trait abruptly gained. In our quick paced world, we forget to think before we speak.

Two Roads Diverged in Barren Land

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 35:8a
8 And a highway will be there;
    it will be called the Way of Holiness;
    it will be for those who walk on that Way.

Reflection: Two Roads Diverged in Barren Land
By Erin Newton

At the end of Isaiah’s long prophecy of judgment, the message shifts. A vision of the future—a vision of all things made right.

Isaiah describes God’s people like a caravan along a road in the wasteland. Distraught and downtrodden, a new path is cut through the desert.

      One path is silent, cold, and stark.
            The Way is filled with praise and joy.

      One path is a road winding down into a desolate land.
            The Way cuts through the wasteland leaving signs of life along the way.

      One path is burdensome and hard, a place where strength and hearts fail.
            The Way whispers, “Peace, be still. He is coming to save.”

      One path is often difficult; strength and ability are stolen away.
            The Way makes one whole; it heals the body and soul.

      One path is deadly; there is nothing to sustain life.
            The Way turns death into life; it has everything needed to thrive.

      One path is traveled by wicked and dangerous people.
            The Way is filled with redeemed travelers singing songs of praise.

      One path is marked by hopeless sorrow and afflicted groans.
            The Way bestows burgeoning gladness and eternal joy.

Like the poem by Robert Frost, two roads diverge. To continue on our usual path would mean continuing in a fruitless journey, exiled from God. But how exactly do we step onto the path that leads to life?

When Jesus warns his disciples that he must leave soon to return to the Father, Thomas asks for a roadmap to heaven (John 14). “How will we know the way?” Jesus simply replied, “I am the Way.” The path to life is through Jesus himself.

Even though Isaiah described a marvelous future promised to God’s people, we struggle to see this kind of utopian future now. The flowers are not bursting forth in song. The blind and lame and deaf are without healing. Ravenous beasts meet us on the road to harm us.

The Way of Holiness is a via dolorosa, a difficult path. Our Lord walked this path to redeem us from death. Let us take up our crosses to follow the Way.  It is not without hope.

We take the first steps of this new road paved by the blood of Jesus. The world around us still shows signs of desolation and despair but the word in the air says, “Peace, he is coming.” The Way is good.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Small Verse
The Lord is my shepherd and nothing is wanting to me. In green pastures he has settled me. — The Short Breviary

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 35 (Listen -1:43)
Luke 17 (Listen -4:22)

Read more about The Path of the Cross
A Christ who brings earthly victory enjoys near universal welcome…Everyone rejected this suffering Christ. Even the closest of his disciples.

Read more about No Such Thing as God Forsaken
It may be a long road and a long exile between condemnation and redemption.