Hope in the ashes of catastrophe

Dr Shane Clifton takes a sobering look at recent natural crises, and like the prophet Isaiah, longs for green shoots of new life to come from what seems dead and hopeless.


Dr Shane Clifton is a post-Pentecostal disabled theologian and ethicist. His recent book is Crippled Grace: Disability, Virtue Ethics, and the Good Life.

Hope in the ashes of catastrophe

Dr Shane Clifton reflects on the outrageous promise of God in the face of crisis.

Daily Reading Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Spring is normally a beautiful time of year. The chill of winter is behind us, the weather is warm (but not too hot), the bulbs are bursting out of garden beds surrounded by plants full of colour, and the world seems full of life and joy.

But not this year. This year, with drought connected to a warming climate and unheard-of spring temperatures, the forests of the east coast of Australia have been burning. People living nearby have had the fight of their lives, surrounded by flames that firefighters, for all their valour and wisdom, have been unable to control. Lives were lost and homes destroyed. Even those of us living in protected areas experienced the darkness and fear of the blanket of smoke that seemed to hang around forever.

Unseasonal fires and overwhelming scientific evidence for human caused climate change should have stimulated reflection and repentance, a taking account of our collective failures, but instead our political leaders have given us more of the same platitudes, and no meaningful commitment to action. While it may be true that nothing we do today will make a difference to the fires of next year, no one seems to have a longer term vision. And thus it is easy to become cynical, resigned to the inevitability that nothing will be done, that the catastrophe scientists predict is a foregone conclusion. And climate is just one of many calamities we face today.

Which brings us to Isaiah 11:1-10. The context is a national catastrophe. Experiencing the failure of bad leadership, half of Israel had been wiped out, and the other half survived under the rule of a violent oppressive state, ever fearful that things would get worse. Amid this horror and uncertainty, along comes Isaiah with a bold vision of hope, one that stirred the imagination, but must also have seemed absurd.

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse”; from the ashes is the promise of new life. That promise rests with a leader, not the same as the ones that had led them to disaster, but one full of the Spirit, who would fulfil the vision of David, the idealistic but failed original. The Messiah would act without self-interest, for the needy, the poor, the oppressed. Oppressors would be removed from power, and peace would emerge from the midst of an unruly, eternally warring, and scary world.

As I read the text again, I feel the ludicrousness of the promise. Messiahs then and now promise revolution but generally bring more of the same, a mere changing of the guard. (Even Barack Obama was a letdown, although he now looks like a saint).

And yet I read the text again, and despite it all, I feel a spark of hope.

I’ve known a crisis or two, and even though I continue to live with the consequences, I’ve also known green shoots of new life to come from what seemed dead and hopeless.

Christians identify that shoot with Jesus, whose birth at another catastrophic point in history was also a seed of hope.

2000 years later, the world again looks bleak. But the outrageous promise of nations rallying to him to bring universal justice and peace remains.

We Are Longing: An Advent series from Common Grace