By Cal Robertson
September 24, 2000
Isaiah 1: 1-9 & 2:1-4. and John 2:13-22
Sense: In the midst of death, we are in life.
To identify with people's up and down experiences as reflected in
contrasting images in scripture, art and personal experience.
image of complete desolation permeates
this mornings anthem, the text of which is taken from Is 19, an oracle against
the nation of Egypt. The part from
which the words so effectively used by Virgil Thompson reads in full, “The
waters of the Nile will be dried up, and the river will be parched and dry; its
canals will become foul, and the branches of Egypt’s Nile will diminish and dry
up, reeds and rushes will rot away... all that is sown by the Nile will dry up,
be driven away, and be no more.” In his
musical setting, it sounds to me like Mr. Thompson has in mind the rattle of
wind blowing through dried reeds, (sound) with each phrase as it crescendos and
decrescendos. A dry, hot wind across
the plains of the Nile, that results in ecological devastation. The fertile Nile valley becomes a wasteland.
Much like the
image read earlier from Isaiah chapter one.
Yet this image applies not to some foreign nation, but to a nation
closer to home, indeed to Israel. More
specifically to Judah itself, to Jerusalem, the holy city of David. Now, it was common for Israel to pronounce
oracles of destruction and desolation on some other nation, but the prophets,
Isaiah among them, did not let Israel herself off the hook. If they didn’t straighten up their act, so
the thought went, they too would be made desolate.
desolate? When invading armies
conquered a neighboring country, they were merciless. People were killed, houses leveled, even the landscape was made
bare. Destruction has always been complete in war time. “Your country lies desolate,” the text
reads, “your cities are burned with fire; in your presence aliens devour the
land... daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a
cucumber field, like a besieged city... like Sodom and Gomorrah” epitomes of
this sort of thing. My wife Cathy and I
recently watched a movie made in Bosnia during the siege of one of their major
cities. It was a frightening story of
war, of the strife between two similar peoples, so similar that many of those
fighting didn’t even know the difference.
It was a story of families, even husbands and wives torn apart by this
racial conflict. In the closing scene
of the movie, an airplane takes off. We
see an ariel view of the city. It is
rubble. Much of what is left is in
flames. What took many years to build
is now a waste land. Buildings crumble
under the attack. Not to mention
Many of you
hold images of destruction from other wars.
From Vietnam, and World War II., of Germany, France, England,
Nagasaki. We have seen Brady’s pictures
of the Civil War in this country.
Charleston laid waste. The siege
of a city in ancient times, though they didn’t have modern fire power, was just
as bleak. Supplies were cut off, food
and water ran out, future food supplies were destroyed. A city was left like a cucumber booth in the
field, says Isaiah. Jerusalem would be
too. After a siege by the Assyrians,
who have been on the offensive,
Jerusalem the sacred capitol would be laid waste, the Holy of Holies
defiled, the temple made like a roadside fruit stand out of season. No life, no
purpose, no reason for being.
Rubble. The people too have
bruises, sores and bleeding wounds.
That is the
image we get from this first chapter of Isaiah.
image, however, is balanced by a beautiful image of a restored kingdom, the
Peaceable Kingdom. When Zion, Jerusalem
the Holy City, the place of the temple will be restored, resurrected, and
re-established as God’s place of instruction.
People will come from all around, from many nations they will flow into
the city like a stream. They will
forget war and study peace, beating their weapons into cultivators, their
swords into plowshares.
What a contrast
of pronouncements we have here in these opening chapters of Isaiah. They are placed so closely together, yet
they are so far apart, so different.
One of absolute desolation where a dry wind blows, the other of
practically a renewed Eden with lush greenery.
These contrasting words lie side by side.
of imagery is common throughout the Old Testament prophetic books. Scholars over the years have scratched their
heads and wondered how could a single prophet be so gloomy, then so promising
at the same time? Many concluded then,
that the contrasting oracles must not have been from the same prophet, neither
from the same time period. An easy way
out, it seems. Just date the oracle of
reconstruction later. Surely it
couldn’t come from the same person. No
single person would paint such a contrasting picture, such a chiaroscuro of
experience, such clarity in the midst of obscurity, such light in the midst of
Well, but other
artist’s do. Rembrandt, the master of
chiaroscuro, used light against darkness for emphasis in many of his best known
paintings. Mahler’s symphonies change
from banal sounds of street music to the sublimity of his most original
phrases; from the ominous death march to a confident march of victory, often
all in the same movement. Thomas Hardy
starts a sentence on a happy note, only to end in despondency with just a turn
of a phrase.
while it calls us beyond our immediate circumstances, reflects the contrasts of
the experiential it seems to me. And I
suspect we have all experienced a similar rapid change of scenery in our own
lives. One day we get up full of energy
and ready to go, a spring in our step from the subway, only to arrive at the
office with the worst news in years. A
grey cloud descends. Everything was
going great, just bought a new house, have two children and one on the way, but
the scene at work makes all this look grim.
You wonder if you’ll make the cut this time.
Or we’re the
picture of health. After all in the
last physical the doctor said you were in excellent shape. Suddenly its cancer, insidious cancer. As they say back home, your “eat up” with
it. If its not you it’s a family
member. Fear takes the place of
confidance. Dreams crumble to
dust. Love slides into sarcasm then into
scorn. Our laughter quickly turns to
tears, and we find out how close those two emotional expressions really
experience ups and downs over a course of a day, a week, a year or a life time,
we all at some time experience life’s twists and turns. The Israelites of Isaiah’s time new military
conquest. They saw the rubble, yet they
had seen this before and rebuilt. They
will rebuild again. There is hope in
the midst of desolation.
once said, “In the midst of life, we are in death.” I think the Psalmist would also agree that in the midst of death,
we are in life. That’s what the
prophets tell us. In spite of present
desolation, there is hope for the future.
We need a word of hope.
Sometimes we can’t see beyond the present desolation.
When you think
of desolation, what do you see? What
images come to your mind? Withered
reeds in the wind? A ghost town? An abandoned building? A hungry child? An old man walking the streets alone?
My family and I
lived in the border town of Bristol Tennessee, Virginia for three years before
we moved here to New Jersey. I was on
staff at the First Baptist Church of Bristol, VA. Bristol has been in a recession for quite some years. Its in far Southwest Virginia, yes that is the
Appalachian region, but it is urban Appalachia relatively speaking. There has been a lot of industry in the
town. But in the last 15 years, one
business after another has closed.
First, it was Sperry. Then a
pharmaceutical plant. Then the regional
telephone headquarters moved to North Carolina. When we were there, the Raytheon Plant closed. The loss of jobs sharply impacted the local
economy of course, not to mention our church membership.
our house to the church, I would pass by a restaurant that had recently
closed. The parking lot was empty, sand
had blown into piles here and there.
The door was boarded up. It was
vacant, desolate. If you looked through
the window, it looked as if some tables were still set, but no one would be
sitting down to take up the napkin.
Down the road just a little further was a new restaurant. It’s lights were bright at night, the
parking lot full. Cheer’s bit the dust,
but Appleby’s was booming. The activity
just moved from one place to another.
Also in town,
the old hospital building set prominently on a high place. You could see it
from the main street. Why they ever
left this building standing, I’ll never know.
It was really old. In fact, it
wasn’t the building that was used before the present new facility, but the
building before that. It has been
vacant a long time, and its an eyesore to the town. As you pass by, you look up
to a huge, square brick facade. Its
shutters hang to one side, the masonry of the front stairs is crumbling, the
whole face of the building looks as if it is weeping. I passed it many times on my way to the new hospital that gleamed
in green tinted glass, a nice circle driveway out front with a working
fountain. When I passed the old
hospital, I couldn’t help but think of what the inside must be like. Rooms where the sick were nursed back to
health must now be inhabited by wild animals.
Once sterile, restricted areas must now be violated and contaminated
beyond any hint of cleanliness. The
delivery rooms where new life was once welcomed were now probably scattered
with skeletons of rats. Opossum’s
scurry in the hallways. (Cf. images of
desolation elsewhere in the prophets: Isaiah 13:21-22, 34:13-15; Jeremiah 9:11,
14:1-6 among others.) The new hospital where Warren and Samuel were born is a
When I was in
seminary, I would travel from my home in South Carolina to Louisville, KY what
I though then was a very long drive, some 9 and half hours. I would get so bored of the interstate. There are two things I like to do to relieve
the monotony of a long interstate trip.
First, I like to turn on the car radio, to AM. This is especially a treat when you ride through East
Tennessee. Try it next time you go down
I-81 through Southwest Virginia into East Tennessee. You might only find two stations to chose from. So long as both are not talk shows, you’ll get a good taste of local
flavor. You’ll either get such and blow
preaching or the twang of mountain tunes by a string band. You’ll think you’ve
gone back in time with the music and voices that come from these parts of the
country. It’s quite an experience.
The other thing I like to do is just get off the interstate for a while
and take an old highway, even a back road.
You see a lot and hear a lot this way.
One section I would drive though in South Carolina took me by my
mother’s hometown, where we visited my grandparents before their deaths back in
the mid 70's. I have been through there
many time since then, but this one particular time as I was heading back to Ky
after a Christmas break was especially striking. You see as you ride along the rode in Edgefield county, South
Carolina, you quickly learn the agricultural base of the region: peaches. I have enjoyed New Jersey peaches this summer,
but with no offense intended, Edgefield, South Carolina peaches are simply the best. To me anyway, because they
bring back a taste of my childhood.
You see when we
went to my grandparent’s in the summer time, they always had peaches. “”Get you a peach on the back porch,” my
grandfather would say. They were laid
out on newspapers. Orange, reddish
orange, and ripe. We’d make peach ice
cream, have peach pie, do whatever you could to a peach.
On our way back
home to Charleston, we’d always stop at Wise Acres’ peach stand. One of those fruit stands announced by a
sequence of signs as you approach it on the highway, “Fresh”... “Peaches”...
“Ahead.” Dad would tool the big green
72 Impala into the gravel parking lot in front of the stand. Most times, you had too pull far beyond the
stand, there were so many cars parked there.
And far as far as you could see on both sides of the roads were row upon
row of peach trees, their limbs weighted down.
The stand was not much, but is was clean, freshly painted, a green and
white awning out front to cover baskets full of the prized fruit. You could buy a bushel basket, half bushel
or a peck. We’d jump out of the car,
rush to the stand, and pick out a basket from the bounty.
Once Dad gave
me the money to pay for them. I put the
money out on the counter and the person I always assumed was Mr. Wise raked in
the money. He had a crooked hand, so he
just sort of did the best he could.
“Let’s see now, here your change.”
And we’d get back in the car and smell the peaches all the way home.
But this time
on my way back to seminary, it was winter.
I passed Wise Acres farm. The
trees were bare. The limbs were pointed
and crisscrossed against the sky like jack straws. The stand was boarded up, the awning removed. Grass grew along
the side of the stand. If it was there
in the summer time you would never see it.
There were no other cars around.
I was alone on the highway. It
was a desolate, deserted, abandoned scene, this road side fruit stand out of season. (Cf. Isaiah 1:8) Bleak as a biblical scene
of destruction and desolation.
scene was desolate, one need only take a closer look at the trees and consider
the time of year. Look closely at the
bare trees. Look, there are buds on the
limbs. Look closely at the buds. Soon, in just a few months, flowers will
bloom, and then leaves will again appear.
And by summer the fruit will bear, and weigh down the limbs. And see, people from all over will come,
they will stream into the gravel parking lot. (Cf Isaiah 2:2) They will jump out of the car and have a
choice of all the baskets of peaches.
Then they will take them home, handle them with care, and spread them on
newspapers on the back porch. They’ll
make ice cream and peach pie. And grandchildren
Today the choir
will sing a second anthem. Keeping the
first anthem in mind, that desolate image of the paper reeds by the brook,
listen now for the pronouncement of Streams in the desert. A return of life to a barren land.
May it be so with you and
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