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“Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Earlier this summer I was helping a friend straighten his fence. He didn’t like the way it swing, or, in this case, didn’t swing. We did one side and it seemed to be working well. We turned to the other side and for the first time I looked at the bushy vine that had embraced the tall fencepost. “Are you sure that’s not poison ivy?” I asked. “Nothing is sure but death and taxes,” came his reply. Well, sure enough, though I had tried to stay away from the stuff, one swipe of it left me with a rash on my arm. My friend, sadly, fared worse. His work near the fencepost got him a rash all over his head and shoulders.
Worse than poison ivy, though, is the new warning about giant hogweed. It can be a tall plant—6 to 12 feet tall with broad tropical, fuzzy leaves. It’s not a native. It was brought to the U.S. as an ornamental plant for gardens. Get their sap on you, add a little moisture, like sweat or water, and then some sunlight and you have a toxic poison on your skin. It will leave you with a blistering rash and you’ll feel like you’ve been burnt by a hot stove. After it passes, it can leave you with a scar. Touch it to your eyes, and it can even cause blindness. This is a new pest to Michigan and men in hazmat suits are sometimes called out to take the stuff away.
I hope you’re not dealing with giant hogweed or even poison ivy this year, but I know that if you have a garden or a yard, you’re dealing with some of the consequences of the fall with what comes up from the dirt itself. Anything left unattended will soon be overgrown and overrun with all kinds of unwelcome plants. This is not the way God originally made the creation. This is part of the brokenness caused by the rebellion of Adam and Eve. Answering Adam’s sin, God told the man: “Cursed is the ground because of you. In pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.” We live in a world which is still God’s good creation, but it does not gladly bear sinners who live in opposition to God. If you read the great spiritual writers of history – Martin Luther and John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards – they all assert that this creation has no peace for those who have no peace with God. They look to the verse in Romans 8 which states, “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it.” They understand this “subjected to futility” to mean that the creatures – the plants and the birds and the animals and the fish and all—were put under the domination of human vanity. But they did not like it. It’s not what they were made for. Creation was made for the glory of God, but they suffer under the sinful folly of man.
So as long as we live out of sorts with God, we live out of sorts with nature as well. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a delight to be in the Michigan summer – with the sun and the beaches and the forests, the rivers and the lakes. When I was growing up, the celebration of Michigan harvests reached all the way to Missouri, where my mother would be delighted if she could get her hands on some Michigan peaches for canning or just enjoy some blueberries. Yet the beauty of creation contrasts with the ugliness of our own souls, when we are full of sin and selfishness. And yet, of ourselves, we know of no other way. Like thistles and poisonous plants, sin grows naturally native to our souls. It should come as no surprise to us, the way we tend toward vice rather than virtue. Virtue is hard work, done only with the work of the Spirit of God within us. It takes dedication and perseverance. Grow a bit lax, slack off a bit, and the progress we gained is quickly lost. Lust and hatred, anger, disobedience, and greed, apathy and unbelief sneak back in, send their roots down, spread out their foliage, and begin to bear their deadly fruit. This is the way for us, with weeds in our souls, and the way of the world, with poisonous and thorny plants in our gardens.
But this isn’t the way it had to be and, more importantly, it’s not the way it will always be. In our reading from Isaiah, the Lord explains how in the face of our futility, the Lord’s Word accomplishes His purposes. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:10-11). The Lord’s Word doesn’t make weeds, it makes seeds to sprout and grow and give life as He desires. And it’s powerful and effective to do His good pleasure. Like soldiers on a mission, His Words get their job done, performing what they say.
This is what gives us confidence to come together every Sunday morning with the expectation of blessing from God. When we come to this place where His Word is read and spoken, we come knowing that His words are filled with His power. With forgiveness pronounced in the name of Jesus, we receive forgiveness in the name of Jesus. When the Spirit is promised, the Spirit is given to us. When life and salvation are foretold, our hope is made secure. God is not leaving us in a world of weeds to be overcome by the consequences of our own sins. God has other plans for us in the name of Jesus.
Jesus, after all, is the effective and powerful Word come forth into the flesh to become a man, our Savior and God. He did the Father’s good pleasure, living a perfect life, helping those in need, loving all, and proclaiming God’s truth. Jesus effectively bound Satan. He successfully made atonement for all sins. He returned to the Father – not with empty hands – but with nail pierced palms which defeated death. He ascended with those hands full, carrying you and all sinners into the Father’s heart of grace and mercy.
Isaiah speaks of the next marching orders for God’s Holy Word and the effect Jesus will have in your life: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Is. 55:12). Because we now know peace with God through Jesus, even the creation rejoices over us. Jesus brings us into peace with the Father and through Him peace with all the created world. There is no better joy than the joy of knowing that God loves you and that you are His. There is no greater peace than the full assurance that our sins have been dealt with and God’s favor rests upon us because of Jesus Christ. When the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve are restored to God’s family like this, nature itself partakes in the joy and the peace. In our restoration lies its restoration. As Paul states in Romans 8, when we are brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God, free of sin, free of all its corrosive and destructive effects, creation too will be drawn up after us. This old fallen world will be renewed as a new heavens and a new earth. No more thorns, only fruit and flowers for the good pleasure of God.
Isaiah finishes his prophetic word before us today, saying that this shall all redound to the glory of God: “It shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Is. 55:13). God will be clearly be shown and God will clearly be known as the God who restored creation. The glorious new world will provide a constant witness to who God is in His very nature. He’s the one who takes fallen things and sets them up again. He takes corrupt things and purifies them. He takes what’s broken and fixes it. He reverses the curse and puts blessing in its place. He takes what’s dying and what’s dead and makes it alive again. Forever this new world will stand –without weeds, without thorns or thistles but in beauty and holiness – as a testimony to the power of His grace.
Like the allies storming Normandy on D Day, the new world already has a beachhead in this old world. God’s Word is having its saving and healing effect right here among the people of God. We may have weeds in our gardens. The church property may have its own issues with thistles and thorns and dandelions. Nevertheless, God has gotten a name for Himself by gathering this assembly and drawing us to His worship. Here is the clear effect of the successful work of Jesus and of the sanctifying power of His Spirit. Here are the redeemed and God has gotten a name for Himself: Redeemer, Savior, Deliverer, and Lord. And since we are eternally saved in Christ, these are everlasting names for God. And we ourselves, sinners joined in this holy community of saints, already experience the beginning of the transformation by the good work of God’s Spirit within us. have become the initial evidence of the everlasting sign that Isaiah foretold.
In a world of weeds God yet is at work. Nothing says that more than the salvation we share, the salvation we proclaim in the Name of Jesus Christ.