God’s springtime begins with renewal within you.
The renewal comes out of dryness and wilderness. Dryness. Wilderness. Hear those words as by words for crisis. Spring springs forth from death. It unaccountable, inexplicably, unexpectedly shows up in the least likely places and most unpromising circumstances.
Maybe the death of someone you love. Maybe the loss of a job, or a tortuous stretch of poor health, or a long and twisting road of emotional upheaval, or a deep valley of depression. Maybe a season of conflict in your home or workplace or neighborhood or church. Whatever, the crisis makes your heart bitter soil or frozen ground, too hard or too parched or too leached to nourish any seed to life, maybe even to receive seed at all.
And then one day it breaks, suddenly and everywhere all at once. And the only way you can explain that is God did it. God acted. God intervened. As an is on the move.
And when God moves, everything is different. Isaiah gives us three vivid touchstones — emotional renewal, physical renewal, and moral renewal. Any of these alone is a good indication that spring is upon you. Together, it’s certain. In fact, one form of renewal implies and invites others. Just as earth’s sudden flourishing implies that almost anything will grow, and invites you to plant a garden, so an emotional renewal implies and invites physical and moral renewals. Restored joy often prompts renewed physical activity, which often leads to a fresh resolve to live well. And the sequence can work in any order. We’ll look at that in detail in the next chapter. But for now, let’s understand each of these renewals.
Emotions that winter ( or desert) have bruised to withering, spring heals and restores to vigor. Look again:
Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution He will come to save you” (Isaiah 35:3-4).
Times of crisis often enfeeble and terrify us. We hide in clefts and jump at shadows. We cower in upper rooms. Our confidence in God, in ourselves, in our church, in others, whistles down to nearly nothing. We just want to go away, but we’re not sure where. Anywhere but here. Better, we want to fall asleep like bears do, all winter, and wake up hungry and feisty and curious again.
Sometimes those around us try to cheer us up with platitudes. These are galling. We do not need people, in winter, telling us how to buck up or snap out of it. We do need people (more of that in a later chapter), but we mostly need their silence or their laughter, their willingness to stay with us in the darkness or their ability, sometimes, to distract us from it. But their lectures and provides are typically worse than useless.
But when springtime arrives, words of cheer are the only ones that make sense. Hearty exhortation is the order of the day. Such speech, to use a popular phrase, resonates. It matches our mood, and heightens it. Triteness sounds profound in springtime. Be strong. Cheer up. Do not be afraid. Get out in the garden. Strengthen those feeble hands and shaky knees.
Buck up, indeed.
Yes, we say. Exactly what I was thinking.
Isaiah gives and commends such pep talk: “Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong.’ “ What sounds shallow and hallow in winter looms deep and rich in spring.
But pep talk quickly turns sour. God, He says, comes with vengeance and retribution. He’s gonna get the bad guys. There’ll be blood on the tracks when this is over.
Grim, but if you’ve ever had an enemy, this, indeed, has the ring of good news. Isaiah was writing to a people who had an enemy, several in fact. They endured much from the bad guys. The chapter preceding this one announces judgment on the nations who have opposed God and, by implication, God’s people. And Isaiah lived and prophesied in the days when looming over Israel was the ever-present threat of a brutal and bloodthirsty regimes, the Assyrian powerhouse. Those are people Jonah wanted nothing to do with, and for good reason. They carried out retribution with ruthless efficiency. They conducted military campaigns with scorched-earth policy, leaving rubble and smoke in their wake, and vast fields of the dead. For Israel, there had to be a certain satisfaction in knowing that what goes around comes around. God has marked a target on their enemy, and it’s them, not you, who will soon be cowering.
That’s good news to my ears.
Only, I’m not supposed to admit that.
But here’s what I can admit, and long for: vindication. Underneath Israel’s thirst for vengeance was a hunger for vindication. Vindication is when the wrong done to us is set right, fully, finally, and publicly. The insults we endured are rebuffed. The wounds we took are healed. The gossip that assassinated our character, ruined our reputation, blighted our influence, sidelined our participation — it’s proved empty and false. The hurt done to us boomerangs on those who caused it.
And when it happens, something inside us that crawled into a hole and curled up to die is suddenly given a new start and a fresh resolve. We stand tall again, and stop shaking.
When I first became a pastor, I stumbled across a prayer of St. Augustine’s: “Lord, deliver me from the lust to vindicate myself.” At the time, I hardly knew what it meant. Now, a couple of decades into this work, I pray it almost daily, with great feeling. And my wife does, too, often with greater feeling.
Not that I have many enemies. I’ve a few, and at least half of them well- earned. But still, it’s just a few. What I have lots of, though, are critics. There are people — more than just a hand full, I’d say, — who find fault with me. Things I say, or don’t say, deeds I do, or don’t do, attitudes they detect in me or detect the absence of. Sometimes, I’m scorned or scolded for personality deficiencies, which admittedly — I abound in. I am not warm and cuddly like pastor so-and-so. I am too bloody-minded, or — conversely — an incurable soft touch. I don’t preach a clear vision. I do preach a clear vision, but not a compelling one. I do preach a compelling vision, but compelling us towards the wrong ends. I talk to much about money from the pulpit. I don’t talk about it enough.
When winter is upon me, all this makes my hands feeble and my knees weak.
But spring brings vindication. The vision proved right after all. More money came in, with just the right amount of talking about it or not talking about it, and we hired a pastor three times as warm and cuddly as pastor so-and-so. My bloody-mindedness routed a coup, and my soft touch won all the culprits back.
At least, that is what it feels like. It feels like I’m winning again, after such a long dismal season of losing.
All this raises one question, What if there’s no “enemy“ that drove me into winter? My own wintertime, following Carol’s death, had an enemy, for sure, but the battle wasn’t against flesh and blood — or it was, but obliquely, at a slant. It was a battle against death and its cruel devices, the twisting and the breeding of cells, the vandalism of a body turned in on itself. So it was a battle of death in the lowercase: resisting death’s plundering, inch by inch, by throwing at whatever surgeries and therapies, diets and regimens, we could muster. But it was just as much a battle against Death in the uppercase: standing down, like the lone man who stopped, for mere seconds, the convoy of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the bureaucratic violence of a ruthless faceless principality as it lumbers ever closer. The body count of nature is genocidal. It’s rigged to win, by hook or by crook.
Spring is vindication against that cosmic rigging. The church (in the northern hemisphere, where most of its story unfolded until the past few hundred years) has always connected the happy coincidence of Christ’s resurrection with the advent of spring. Both spring and resurrection are kind of insurrection against death’s domain. Both are vivid lessons of death being swallowed up by victory: put a dead thing in the ground — a seed, a bulb, a body — and just wait. Each spring reminds us that death doesn’t have the last word.
Paul calls death the last enemy. With quite confidence, he announces its defeat at the hands of Jesus. “Death, ” he asks, rhetorically, tauntingly, “where is your sting? Where is your victory?” The enemy casts a shadow, dark and menacing. But there’s no substance behind it. It has a stinger, but it’s lost its venom. It has a bark, but no bite. We’ll all suffer death in the lowercase. But by Christ’s good graces, no one need to suffer death in the uppercase. Death at that scale has been undone. Death still has battalions on the ground, pitching battle, making havoc, quibbling and collaborating among themselves. But the empire backing them has collapsed.
The paintings of Jesus during the middle ages and into the Renaissance largely depict Him in His death throes: staggering beneath the weight of the cross, hanging limp and bloody and cruciform, held pale and lifeless in the arms of His mourners. There’s a morbidity to it that has more to do with certain fashions in art at the time than with any fascinations with the atonement. During this period, few painters depicted the resurrection. But the few who did brought an exhilarating vigor to the task. My favorite work in this motif is by Piero della Francesca. The painting is simply called Resurrection. A muscular Jesus, draped in red cloth, stands triumphant, one foot raised up on marble pediment, His left hand resting on His bent knee with ease and poise. Four Roman soldiers swoon or sleep at His feet. Jesus is wounded — hands, feet, side — but they’re clearly the wounds of a war He’s won, and they’re not slowing Him down any. His expression is candid, serene, assured. It’s as though He is saying, “Told you so.” He holds in His right hand a flag emblazoned with the cross.
In the backdrop, a row of barren trees stands on one side of Christ, but a forest flourishing stand on the other.
Spring is vindication. It’s a season of emotional renewal. The barren tree grows fruitful.
Death, where is your sting?
A clear sign of emotional renewal — in part causing it, in part announcing it — is springtime’s physical renewal.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
“Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, and do not fear; your God will come, He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution, He (Jesus) will come to save you” (Isaiah 35:3-4).
“In the midst of a prior description of a wasteland and a coming prophecy of war and sickness, Isaiah speaks words of encouragement to the people of God. This still speaks to us today. You may look at your past and see a wasted life. You may look toward the future and all you see is doom. But take hold of another reality in the midst of your suffering: God will come to save you! So don’t give up. Be strong. Do not fear. God was faithful in Isaiah’s day, He will be faithful today.”
Today’s commentary by:
Dave Whitehead, Author of Making Sense of the Bible)
Just imagine. . . You are about to graduate from high school as part of the National Honor Society, you have plans to further your education by going to college to be a minister of God, leading up to graduation you studied the Word of God and began preaching, a week after you graduate you’re given technical independence from your parents because you turned 18 in the United States of America, and you bought a pre-owned sports car for all your hard work leading up to that point as a celebration. However, about a month after owning the sports car, you get into an almost death-inducing car accident that threw you in a month-long coma. I can speak to it because it happened to me. Yet, I knew the one who specializes in bringing dead (or seemingly dead things) back to life.
All I had to do was wait. “It was a battle against death and it’s cruel devices.” Over my life I have many instances where God saved me from death. One of which was July 3rd, 2019. See, at the time of the incident I was and still am an insulin-dependent diabetic for over 35 years. I had the day off from work and looking forward for the rest of my family to go and see my daughter who was doing an internship.
I was so focused on seeing my older daughter that I didn’t take care of my health like I know that I should. On July 2nd, when I was working I must have caught something, and this was the first time I was physically sick other than your common cold which I’d suffer rarely from. I began to throw up — a combination of gastric fluids, microscopic pieces of partially-digested food, and water came rolling up from my stomach to my mouth. “Well, ” I said in my head, that’s not good, I’ll lie low for the rest of the day.” Nothing, I thought, was going to stop me from seeing my daughter.
Then, in the early afternoon, another incident where I found myself giving the toilet a bear hug. All this minus the microscopic bits of food because I had not eaten anything for a good long time. Still determined but my body said differently. And with sickness, I feel, the medical professionals still haven’t got the fact that sickness messes with your blood glucose levels because my blood glucose began to rise : 200, 300, 400, 500. I was suffering from an extremely high glucose which diabetics know that isn’t too good. My wife got home from work and instead of packing our things for the trip we were about to make, she had to continue her job as a Continuing Education nurse in taking care of me.
Later that night, I began rambling some football stuff about Tom Brady and how great he was when my wife and youngest daughter were making an evaluation of me. They told my wife that my blood glucose raised to nearly 1,000 units per deciliter said the emergency medical technicians as they brought me to the hospital. The EMT’s were shocked when they found my blood glucose so high. They were surprised that I didn’t have a heart attack, but they found me operating at a semi-conscious level and knew that they had to get me into an emergency room where the doctors and nurses could get my blood glucose levels down.
I am not for sure who was at fault: picking up the illness at work, the relatively new insulin pump I was on, or myself who should have been keeping better watch of what I take into my body. Most likely, all three. Yet God!
Two times God saved me, and my spirit takes me to what God’s Spirit says in Romans 8:26-30:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (ESV)
I spent 5 days in the hospital, thanking God that He once again spared my life. Spring is vindication. . . . Death where is your sting? . . . Where is your victory?
~ Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger ~