Isaiah 11:1-9
December 9, 2001


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

Isaiah 11:1-9

The night before his reluctant conversion to the Christian faith, C.S. Lewis walked for several hours with J.R. Tolkien, the famous novelist who wrote Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, a deeply committed Christian, was doing his best to convince Lewis of the credibility of both Christ and the Church. All along the way, Lewis spouted out one objection after the other. At some point in the conversation, Tolkien insightfully responded: “Your inability to understand stems from a failure of imagination on your part!”

Have you ever been involved in a major power outage? Our electricity in Kenya used to go out all of the time. We’d be making dinner at home, and the stove would simply shut off with the food half-cooked. I’d be teaching a class when, without warning, the lights and the overhead projector died. In such moments, I’d find myself just standing there, either tapping the pan or staring at the students. Had Tolkien been there and witnessed my frustration, he might have replied, “Your inability to cope with the situation stems from a failure of imagination on your part!”

But what is imagination? In our culture, having an imagination is frequently equated with fantasy. We picture the cosmic adventures so evident in Star Wars, or the somewhat mythical inventions like those in Harry Potter. If a child draws a bizarre sketch or concocts a ridiculous story, we often conclude that he or she has a vivid imagination. But fantasy and imagination, though related, are in fact not the same thing. While fantasy typically has no apparent connection to our real-life situations, imagination creatively intersects with what we actually experience.

Come back for a moment to those infamous power outages in Kenya and how I might have responded in those situations. In the kitchen of our house, fantasy would invite me to envision Emerald Logasi or the Galloping Gourmet flying in on the back of a stork and converting my half-cooked chicken into a salad from the California Café. Imagination, by way of contrast, would take stock of the situation, recognize the dilemma, and suggest creative alternatives. Imagination might whisper, “Put the chicken back into the refrigerator until tomorrow, and instead hollow out the two pineapples and fill them with yogurt, slices of banana, and pieces of mango. Perhaps even sprinkle a few nuts on the top.” In the classroom at the university, fantasy would conjure up glimpses of Beth Huffnagle and Josh Coles appearing with some of their many colorful props and mesmerizing skits. Imagination might simply encourage me to move the class outside and begin an innovative but relevant discussion. In essence, fantasy is an escape route from the problem, while imagination provides a fresh and potentially helpful way to transform the situation. Fantasy can be fun and exciting. Imagination can be liberating. “It’s my conviction,” Thomas Moore once wrote, “that slight shifts in imagination have more impact on living than major efforts at change....”

Here in Isaiah 11, the prophet addresses a community that’s entangled in despair and lacking an imagination. The threat of foreign invasion looms constantly on the horizon, and the people of Judah’s internal condition is marked by both social and religious decline. Isaiah has in previous chapters scolded the people for their own corruption and lack of faith, and he has repeatedly invited them to take a good look at themselves in the mirror. “Look what you are doing. Where will it lead you? Trouble surely lies ahead.” Prophets do that some times–it’s part of their job. They push people to take an honest look at their lives so they can see clearly where they are heading. Yet, when people do really see themselves and their circumstances, they are often left numb and paralyzed, like me standing by the stove or in the classroom in Kenya during a power outage.

During our first three years working at the college, Deb served as the Resident Director in Bittner dormitory. We lived in the first-floor apartment there, and students frequently came to chat in our living room. On one particular occasion, a senior walked in. We knew her rather well, so the conversation that followed had a context of previously established trust. Anyway, she began to tell us this story. At some point during her childhood, she inadvertently discovered some pornographic materials that her older brother had left somewhere in the house. One thing led to another, as they often do, and this young girl eventually became a full-fledged sexual addict. As she was talking, she mentioned that she could now think of nothing else. When she tried to study, or as she was lying in bed at night, her thoughts always focused on her obsession with sex. She even mentioned that she could go home anytime she wanted and “play around” with a variety of men who shared her addiction.

After listening to her, I pushed her to take an honest look at herself. No, I never said, “You filthy and despicable person. Get out of our apartment!” I just asked her a simple question. “If you continue to live like this for the next five years, what will your life be like?” Do you know what she said? “I’ll probably be dead.” “If not,” she continued, “I’ll at least never enjoy the type of intimate relationships with a husband and children that I’ve always longed for. I’ll never experience the peace of God that others talk about. My life will be an even worse mess than it is now.” So I asked her a follow-up question. “Just imagine,” I said, “that with God’s grace, our help, and your courage, all of this changes–you break out of the cycle and are freed. Then who would you be five years from now?” I’ll never forget her reply. “I have been this way for so long, I can’t even begin to picture things being different.” Desperate. Numb. And absolutely no imagination. She had been living with these conditions for so long that she now accepted them as a normal and unalterable part of life.

Some of you no doubt feel like that this morning. You’ve been a certain way for so long, you find it impossible to imagine anything changing. You’ve struggled with the same habits, tripped over the same sins, and been defeated by the same old problems. You are caught in a cycle, and life has lost its zip. Everything is now the same old routine. There is no passion, no sense of wonder, no imagination.

If you feel that way, you are not alone. In fact, much of our world has little if any imagination. People all around us have lived under certain conditions for so long that it’s difficult for them to imagine anything else. Take violence, for example. People on every continent seem now to assume that, if they are attacked or hurt in some way, they should respond in kind. If you hit me, I have no choice but to hit you back. If you take my toy, I’ll grab at yours. Even if you don’t take my toy, I’ll take yours. It only makes sense–it’s the natural thing to do.

Or think of the condition of so many marriages in our own country. With some 50% of marriages in America ending in divorce, leaving a spouse over even a minor squabble seems reasonable. Many people simply cannot begin to imagine how wonderful and exciting and exhilarating and intimate and adventurous marriages can actually be! And so it goes. Life as usual. People get up, run to work, drag themselves home, count their money, perhaps drown out their trouble with a drink or two, drop into bed, and then start all over again the next day. Along with the young woman in our apartment, the world cries out, “We’ve been this way for so long, we cannot imagine being anything other than what we already are.”

So what are we to do? Just what Isaiah does here. In the face of the people’s despair, the prophet in essence shouts, “I’ll be your imagination.” Notice the series of stunning images and familiar symbols that he uses to alter the community’s perception of the situation–a shoot growing out of a seemingly dead stump, animals of all varieties grazing with each other, and children playing harmlessly with poisonous snakes. Everything in this imaginative kingdom, however, is out of whack. Wolves and lambs do not live together. Little children neither stroll with lions nor put their hands in a snake’s hole. Isaiah’s depiction is totally unrealistic.

Or is it? Which world is the real one? The peaceful and orderly world depicted here in Isaiah 11, or the chaotic one in which we now live? Which world most approximates life as God intends it to be? Walter Brueggemann has suggested that the images here in Isaiah 11:6-9 are in fact unheard of and abnormal; wolves do not live with lambs, cows do not graze with bears, and children do not play with poisonous snakes. “But then I look again,” Brueggemann continues, “and notice something else. The poet means to say that in the new age, these are normal things. And the effect of the poem is to expose the real abnormalities of life, which we have taken for granted. We have lived with things abnormal so long that we have gotten used to them and we think they are normal.” Isaiah, rather than engaging in pure fantasy, seeks to challenge his people’s conceptions and provide a wonderful array of new possibilities.

Think again of the young woman who came into our apartment several years ago. When I asked who she might become in five years if, with God’s grace, our help, and her courage, she put her obsession behind her, you recall that she answered, “I have been this way for so long that I can’t even picture my life being different.” She had struggled to free herself from her condition, without success. Now she was weary, void of an imagination. She needed some symbols, images, metaphors, something to free her from condition. So I said, “Let me tell you the woman I see you becoming in five years if, with God’s grace, our help, and your courage, you put all of this behind you.” And I began to describe what I saw. With each descriptive phrase, she cried just a bit more. “Do you really think I could be like that?” she asked. “Do you really believe that I could be the woman you are describing?” And each time she asked, I simply responded, “Yes, I do.” Here was a defeated person who needed someone to serve as her imagination.

J. R. Tolkien awakened C.S. Lewis’ imagination. He turned the power back on and ended the blackout. And look what Lewis became. On that evening years ago in our apartment, Deb and I sought to awaken a young woman’s imagination, and to turn the power back on and end her blackout. I’m thankful to say that she too is alive and well today. You and I live in a world that has lost so much of its God-given imagination. Things that are far from what God originally intended are now commonly accepted as normal parts of life. People all around us, people right in this room, are desperate for symbols, for images, for pictures, something to get a hold of. Something to awaken them from their despair. Something to shatter their hopeless conceptions of life. “Won’t someone turn the power back on and end the blackout?”, the world cries out. “Won’t someone be our imagination?” Who is in a better position to stand up and say, “We will,” than energized and invigorated followers of Jesus Christ? To many people in our world today, the church is irrelevant, out-of-touch, stuffy, and self-centered. Let’s show them otherwise.