Our hope is rooted in our memory. We must remember well in order to look to the future with expectation. Paul writes, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Desire can be wakened by other means, wishing and wanting draw from other sources, but hope is rooted in memory.
Israel’s memory begins with God’s commitment to the earth and all that live on it. Israel knows there are chaotic powers that threaten to overwhelm ordered life in the world, but Israel affirms that God’s covenant is unshakable. “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). The story of creation, flood, and covenant was written down for our instruction.
Israel’s memory includes the stories of the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God makes a promise to be with this community, to give them land, children, and a great name. In every generation of mothers – from Sarah to Rebekah to Rachel – the future is in question because heirs are lacking. And each time, wondrously, a child is given and the future is kept open by God. The story of bold faith and the dependability of this God from generation to generation was written down for our instruction.
Israel’s memory includes the liberation from slavery, when God’s people escape from Pharao’s realm, and Miriam and her sisters sing and dance on the shore of freedom, proclaiming the victory of God. Israel knows there are systems of oppression and exploitation at work in the world, but Israel affirms that God’s will for justice is stronger. God makes a covenant with the former slaves and they become a people on the way to the land of promise. The story of liberation from oppression and toward covenant faithfulness was written down for our instruction.
Israel’s hope is rooted in the memory of God’s fidelity. Never was the future more in question than when the Babylonian Empire swallowed Jerusalem and the throne of David and the temple and the land and every visible, tangible support for faith. Nothing about the circumstances was promising; on the contrary, the circumstances were defined by the undoing of every promise. How could this happen? Was there any reliable ground for hope? The writer of Lamentations put into words the loss and grief of the people. “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I hoped for from the Lord.’ The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!”
Letting the eyes travel from the end of one line in the text to the beginning of the next is not much of a journey, but the writer of Lamentations did the hard work and dug a well in Israel’s memory and emerged with a word of hope: “My soul … is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:17-23). It was written down for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
Our hope is rooted in memory, Israel’s and ours, of God’s faithfulness. I imagine Isaiah walking across the bare hills of Judah, circling Jerusalem, the city whose corruption has led to its destruction. I imagine him walking through a desolate landscape of hacked down trees. Everywhere he goes, not a single tree is left standing, only stumps. It was a common tactic in war: the enemy troops set up camp in a ring around the city, just without reach of the defenders’ spears and arrows. They stopped all incoming and outgoing traffic, putting an end to all trade. Then they burned all fields and systematically chopped down every fruit-bearing tree in walking distance, clearcutting a wide swath of land around the city. Then they just waited until the inhabitants ran out of food and water and were ready to surrender.
I imagine Isaiah walking amid the stumps. The land of promise has become a wasteland; the ruins of the city sit in the dust like a forgotten dream. The prophet’s eyes don’t search the horizon, he looks to the ground, longing for a sign of hope, waiting for a word from the Lord. Dust and ashes, stumps – everywhere.
On one of the stumps he notices a tiny green shoot, no bigger than the flame of a candle, but just as bright. He kneels down, his fingers touch the tender promise, and the words come to him, a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots (Isaiah 11:1).
Jesse was the father of king David; that was long before Isaiah’s time. God had made a promise to David that his house and kingdom would be established forever. Only David’s house had collapsed long before the enemy came from far away and cut down the family tree. Israel and Judah had not had much luck with their kings and queens. Instruction for good government could be found in the commandments, in Psalms, and in the words of the prophets – but who was wise enough to read and heed?
Hopes were high for every king to judge God’s people with righteousness, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor – that justice might flourish in his days and peace abound until the end of time (Psalm 72:1-7). Hopes were high that the reign of God in heaven would be reflected in the life of God’s people on earth. But it wasn’t justice and peace that flourished in Isaiah’s days; the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, much as in our own time.
I imagine the prophet kneeling in the dust speaking of the faithfulness of God. A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,and a branch shall grow out of his roots. This one wouldn’t be a puppet of the powerful, for a change. The spirit of the Lord would rest on him, and his actions would be in tune with God’s will. This one would judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
Isaiah knelt in the dust of lost promises and he received a word of hope. He received a reaffirmation of God’s will for peace – peace within and between nations.
We have grown used to consuming more and more and we have grown used to a politics where the people who have economic might or military power get their way. But there is a better hope, and Isaiah’s word goes way beyond just good government:
Wolf and lamb together, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, cow and bear grazing on the same pasture, a little child tending that mongrel herd, and infants playing safely next to poisonous snakes. Animals and humans, even the snake, all playing together under the trees of paradise. Isaiah dug a well in Israel’s memory and he emerged with a word of hope too large for just one nation or one city; it was a word of hope for all creation.
A wolf’s idea of peace is simple. It is the good life without competition: no leopards, no lions, no bears or shepherds; just a steady supply of tender lambs, fatted calves, and juicy kids – all for the wolf.
A wolf’s idea of paradise is simple. It is a world where the lambs are so fat that they can’t run away, or so stupid that they won’t even try. And a lamb’s dream of paradise is a world without wolves.
Isaiah gave us a word about one who will bring peace for wolves and lambs. One who will reconcile mutually exclusive dreams of safety and good life. And it was all written down for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
We live in times when dreams of what constitutes the good life, visions of justice and how to establish it clash all the way from the global level down to the local. Anxiety and fear have become the undercurrent of our life together. We may not be wolves and lambs, lions and kids, but we tend to live and treat one another like them. It’s an eat-or-get-eaten world, we say.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the biggest challenge facing the church was for Jewish and Gentile believers to learn to live and worship together. Paul read the Scriptures carefully in light of the resurrection of Jesus. He found that Gentiles worshiping the God of Israel had been part of God’s promise since the days of Abraham. And so he admonished Jewish and Gentile believers in the church not to insist on their own way, but to welcome one another just as Christ had welcomed them. Make room for each other. Respect each other in your distinctiveness. Recognize and accept one another as members of one community. We may not be wolves and lambs, lions and kids, but we tend to live and treat one another like them. Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.
The biggest challenge facing the church today is not for Jewish and Gentile believers to come together. The whole world is struggling to negotiate our differences of culture and ethnicity, theology and politics, education and income, and to live as one community. And a church that only reflects the social, ethnic, cultural, and political divisions of the world is no challenge to those who draw their power from those divisions. To settle for comfortable disunity because that way we can all be ourselves and keep things the way we have always known and done them is a betrayal of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We owe it to the world to read what was written in former days and also what is written in our own day in a new light: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. His love reconciles our clashing dreams by welcoming us all. He invites us to let our hope be rooted not in the memories of our respective pasts, but in the memory of God’s faithfulness – the fidelity of God whose steadfast love never ceases, whose mercies are new every morning and never come to an end.