Deep Darkness Before Dawn

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The prophetic books of the Old Testament don’t always lend themselves to easy application. When I preach, I try to set these ancient prophecies in context, explain their meaning, and show how some have already been fulfilled in Christ.

The prophets are illuminating, yes. But immediately applicable? Not always . . . unless we broaden our view of application and consider the story behind the symbols.

Shoot from a Stump 

I preached recently from Isaiah 11, where the prophet foretells the coming of a future Ruler who would be “a shoot from the stump of Jesse.” Isaiah’s audience would have known Jesse as the father of David, the greatest king in Israel’s history. In other words, a King was coming, a descendant of the great king David. We see the fulfillment of that prophecy in the coming of Jesus.

To apply this verse, I pondered the imagery of a shoot coming from a stump—a picture of new life rising out of the place of death.

Originally, this imagery indicated a future for Israel in which things would get worse before they got better. God warned that he would discipline his people for their persistent sinfulness. Through the prophets, he foretold a time he would whittle down the numbers of his chosen people until there would be only a remnant left.

But out of that stump, a shoot would come forth. A stem. Life out of death! Exile would not be the last word for God’s people. A return would take place.

Darkness Before Dawn

My family has endured the most difficult year of our lives. We’ve experienced unexpected grief and have, at times, felt overwhelmed by darkness. But in the midst of our sorrow, we have found hope in this image from Isaiah. The picture of new life emerging from the old stump has helped us place the sorrows of the past year within a bigger story.

The best stories chronicle a journey toward redemption. Just when you think the main characters have made substantial progress toward the goal, whether it be in a relationship or in a physical journey through danger toward safety, there’s always a moment when some awful setback happens—something so dramatic that it makes the reader think the situation is utterly hopeless. But then the climax turns everything around. That last surprise is what J. R. R. Tolkien called the eucatastrophe. It’s the opposite of the catastrophe that started the story’s drama. This is the moment when everything reverses. It’s what paves the way for the story’s resolution.

Once you know how stories work, you see this narrative arc everywhere. You see it in comedies, and in superhero movies, and even romantic flicks. (The guy and girl are almost together and then—bam!—the Hallmark movie mom ruins it all, or some secret comes out and it’s hopeless again.)

Stories work this way because the true Story of our world works this way. The shoot coming out of the stump. The whittling down of God’s faithful people to a remnant, where it looks like all of God’s promises are lost, and then, here is Jesus! A shoot is coming out of the stump. New life out of death.

Pressing On in the Dark

In that simple picture of a shoot coming out of a stump, I find hope to press on through dark times. It’s not applicational in that it gives me a task I need to do this week. But it applies to me because it reorients my thinking so that I see myself as part of a bigger story that God is writing, a story of his glory and my good.

Great stories always include moments that seem hopelessly dark. Oh that we would trust in the Storyteller during those times! God is weaving together a masterpiece that will make sense of everything in the end. It’s the dark before the dawn, as Andrew Peterson sings.

Perhaps as you read this, you’re at such a low point that my words carry no hope at all. There’s no return, you say. Maybe you’re in the depths, or facing the end of your life, and you think: This is it. There’s just a stump. No shoot.

Look to Jesus. Even in his story, there was the point of despair. In Gethsemane, praying to the Father in agony. Before the rulers, beaten and bruised, crushed and slain. On the cross, crying out that God had abandoned him. If ever there was a dark moment, a catastrophe for one innocent individual, it was when Jesus was crucified, when the Light of the world was extinguished on the cross, when the Tree of Life was felled, so that only a stump remained. Silence. Darkness. Death.

But then—the shoot from the stump just before sunrise on Sunday morning. Resurrection! New life. The eucatastrophe that turns everything around!

So take heart today. The story of Jesus will be true of us, whether in life or death. His story is our story. Our story is part of his story. That’s why we can trust Jesus with our life. We can trust him in our death. No matter what’s going on in your life right now, the day is coming when it won’t be all hell breaking loose, but all heaven breaking loose for you forever.

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