No neutral ground in this universe.
I just missed my train by moments this Wednesday and so I found myself sitting in Aughton Park railway station for 14 minutes. It was then that I realized that this small railway halt is about to be swallowed up by the encroaching forest. A total transformation since the disaster of 2008. This was when I was commuting to the Liverpool Cathedral library each day during my sabbatical. Suddenly, without notice, Network Rail sent a team of contractors to clear the embankments of trees – and it was brutal. Tree stumps as far as the eye could see, all undergrowth removed. Gone was the staccato roll of woodpeckers. No more the sight of trees in blossom. Agent Orange had hit Aughton. Obviously passengers were upset. And angry. When I went check train times, even before I spoke the booking clerk handed me a phone number for the complaint he was anticipating. No one likes to see nature annihilated. But that was nine years ago. Now nature has not just recovered but flourished, flourished with a vengeance against Network Rail. This autumn even more leaves are going to be dumped on the tracks. For God uses stumps. The prophet Isaiah is preparing his people for tough times. Such is their disobedience, their failure to live as the covenant people of God, that God is having to take drastic action. In a word, the Assyrians. So Isaiah speaks of this all-conquering army in language recently familiar to passengers at Aughton Park station. “See, the Lord, the Lord Almighty, will lop off the boughs with great power. The lofty trees will be felled, the tall ones will be brought low. He will cut down the forest thickets with an axe; Lebanon will fall before the Mighty One.” (Isaiah 10:33f) God is sorting out his people. Their mission to be a light to the nations is much too important for him to allow them to go their own way. Theirs is a responsibility to be shouldered, not a privilege to be enjoyed. At the time the Assyrian conquest appeared as a catastrophe. But the prophet wants his people to know that this is not God’s last word, no way. In a passage familiar from carol services, the prophet foretells a remarkable future: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1). All you can say is that it was not obvious at the time. But the prophet is able to see a glorious future even through the present disaster. God promises to transform his wayward people, his wayward world even, through the gift of the Christ, When you see a stump – or in the case of Aughton Park railway station, rows of them, it appears profoundly depressing. Yet in reality what you are seeing is the promise of exuberant growth. What we call in the trade “the eyes of faith.” But it takes some courage to hold onto such promises – and yet that is what God continues to expect of us as we follow Christ. The problem (at least it is to me) is that we flourish best when we least feel like it, during times of testing. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,” writes the apostle James, challenging the basic assumptions of our hedonistic culture. Not the kind of message we like to hear. He continues: “You know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:3f). For this is God at work, the vinedresser pruning his people to quote Jesus. But it is not easy. Who likes being pruned? C S Lewis could see this. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” That is, courage to continue to trust God when entire branches are lopped off, even as whole trees are felled. God knows what he is doing. “All you need to remember is that God will never let you down,” urges the apostle Paul. “He’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) Hold onto that.