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The Rev. Roger Salter: “Like a Tender Shoot” (Isaiah 53:2)

December 30, 2010

From the Rev. Roger Salter of St. Matthew’s Anglican near Birmingham, here is another thoughtful meditation, this one being “Like a Tender Shoot”, based on Isaiah 53:2:

“LIKE A TENDER SHOOT” (Isaiah 53:2)

We humans are incurably forward-looking. Our perception of the future determines our state in the present and may compensate for the difficulties and disappointments of the past. We survive and thrive through hope, and our hope is founded upon prospects and promises. Prospects are based upon our envisioning of the outcome of current trends, and promises are grounded in assurances that we trust will never be broken by bad faith or thwarted by adverse circumstances. From the human point of view we can never be absolutely certain. Unknown factors can wreck prospects and human changeability can rescind promises. Life is a risk. We do not know what will happen and our sense of wellbeing cannot be guaranteed. On the other hand we cannot conclude that ill fortune will never be reversed.

From the outlook of Christian faith the future is in the hand of God. He foresees it because he has foreordained it. With this awareness we may posit that prospects are our guesswork premissed on what we perceive in the present and predict if current trends continue. Promises are the certainties that emerge from the Word of God. Prospects may alter. The promises of God are absolutely sure because they are backed up by the reliability of his character and the immutability of his nature and will. Prospects are the products of man’s mind. The promises of Holy Scripture are definite because they are the pledges of God, “who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).Therefore, whilst we may legitimately speculate in the light of appearances and events, entertain hope where signs are propitious, and take precautions to avoid danger and disaster where we are able, we cannot be absolutely confident in the inferences we draw. God may not turn in his nature and purpose, but he may turn to us in mercy or judgment in a way that radically transforms any situation, and we must all be ready for that critical point when God actually terminates the course of time and we merge with his eternity in the enjoyment of his felicity or endurance of his displeasure.

The Lord does not survey the scene of human affairs from the vantage point that we occupy. We are in the midst of the stream of events and swept along by it. He guides the water course from where it springs to where it arrives. The direction and speed of its flow are subject to his control. Its currents and eddies are occurrences determined by him. To put it another way, he is the master of the tides and they advance or recede at his bidding. We may observe but it is dangerous to opine. Often the outlook of the people of God is dire. When that is the case our angle on matters breeds anxiety. Israel in Egypt could not begin to create better prospects in minds that were crushed by misery and despair. Abraham and Sarah had long demolished the family nursery. Ezekiel surveyed endless piles of sun-blanched bones that were dead set for inevitable and total decay. Generation after generation of God’s people have stared into futures devoid of prospects, they have gazed along time tunnels with no point of light at the end that they could see. Only the promises of God entered their perception to uplift their eyes beyond the dead ends of their histories to the deliverances and delights of God in store for them. Holy and inspired prophets intimated to his chosen people of old the reality of his power, the fact of his faithfulness, and the certainty of coming acts that would realize their rescue and establish their welfare for ever. Precious and perhaps long term promises cancelled out grim prospects or afforded the resolve and perseverance to pass through them and beyond them. Our reckoning may be reasonable but never final or complete. The last word has to be God’s, and he may yet utter a fresh word that ushers in new life and renewed hope.

God often works through instrumentalities that are foolish and fragile. He operates where there is weakness, and intervenes where there is hopelessness. These are circumstances where his power is proved. His “piece de resistance” is the defeat and reversal of death, the donation of life upon things non-existent or inert. God is the source and force of life whose commanding might brings vitality to whom and what he pleases whenever he chooses. Wherever his breath blows life buds and grows. His energy generates our élan and animates all creatures. A supernatural exhalation produces all life and nothing can prevent the bestowal and continuance of the gift of life until God withdraws it. Life is the inherent possession of God and his unique power which he shares with all that is living. He gives it out of himself. When he sovereignly exerts that power it is irresistibly effectual even if, beyond the moment of creative exertion, that life form is frail. It depends upon his protection and the portion of time allotted to it. In creation God displays his strength and sensitivity. In salvation God restores his creation ruined and ravaged by sin. He sets out to redeem man and renew our environment (a new heaven and a new earth).

The “root and shoot; bud and branch” theology of Isaiah is multi-dimensional. It declares hope where optimism is dead, deliverance where there is despair, and the persistence of divine purposes through means that are vulnerable. God’s attentive husbandry of the tender shoot addresses the blessing he will lavish upon his people (Isaiah 4), the gift of the Messiah, the fulfilment of the Davidic line, through whom all mercy comes (Isaiah 53:2), and the blessing of all those whose trust is rooted in Christ (his offspring).The abiding image is of a dead stump so dry and decayed that nothing can spring forth from it. To the human eye it is barren and useless. But beneath the surface there is yet a single root that connects the stump to the life-giving nutrients of the soil. From the slenderly surviving stump there emerges surprisingly one delicate shoot or twig, and contrary to all normal expectations and natural hazards the tender shoot gradually develops into a branch that extends and guarantees the life of a revitalized and fruitful tree. Everything in Isaiah’s vividly illustrated message points to the miraculous work of God – the complete salvation believers enjoy depicted in nature’s fertility and earthly prosperity and joy: the successful assignment of the Saviour achieved through suffering and sacrifice that reconciles his chosen with the Father and reunites them with the source of life: the ongoing strength and energy that will sustain the people of God and renew them in seasons of decline. The tender shoot is the salvation that will prevail in unlikely conditions on behalf of the people of God. The tender shoot is the incarnate Redeemer who appears when human hope is at its lowest ebb and overcomes all the vulnerabilities and viciousness of a fallen and sinful world rebellious against the Lord. God nurtures and nourishes the tender shoot of both his purpose and the Person of the God-man. And the same divine tenderness enfolds the life of the people who derive their life from Christ the Branch from whom they spring as the fruit of his obedient mission. When things appear dead and dry we may not conclude that they are beyond hope. The tender shoot of revival and restoration may spring forth at any time. We may scan and scrutinize present circumstances and consider them hopeless, but there is an ancient promise ever true, fulfilled and still being fulfilled. It is found in Isaiah 11:1. The Messiah is still the source of life.

Indeed, “in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

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