Scripture: Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
– Robert Frost
Have you ever taken a “leap of faith”? Many of us call it a “leap of faith” when we ask for someone’s hand in marriage, or accept an invitation. A major change in one’s career path, or the decision to retire at a certain age, is often experienced as a “leap of faith.” “Leaps of faith” tend to be taken when the way ahead forks in two different directions and which fork to take isn’t entirely clear, as when poet Robert Frost wrote of two roads diverging in a yellow wood. We take a “leap of faith,” heading down one road over the other.
Some of these leaps go well for us. We leap and a net appears. Other times, it doesn’t go so well. What separates a leap that truly moves us to a better place from one that ends in disaster?
The Bible is full of leaps of faith. Some involve brilliant decisions that made all the difference. Others were not so brilliant, ending quite literally in death and destruction. The Bible pays careful attention, therefore, to these “leaps,” showing some to be authentic leaps of faith and others to be mere flights of fancy, fear, or ego (or all three).
King Hezekiah, who reigned over the southern kingdom of Judah in the late 8th Century BCE was familiar with both kinds. His story is instructive to any of us who are faced with making the difficult choice between two or more paths.
His story begins in 715 BCE, six years after the defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians. For decades the Assyrians had been expanding their empire in all directions from their capital of Nineveh which lies on the Tigris River opposite modern-day Mosel in Iraq. In 721 BCE, Assyria sacked Israel’s capital city of Samaria – the northern kingdom’s last hold-out against the Assyrians, after demolishing most every city in its path and carting off their inhabitants into exile, from which they would never return.
To save the southern kingdom of Judah from suffering a similar fate, Hezekiah’s father, King Ahaz, had paid Assyria a healthy tribute (read “extortion money”), and continued to pay so much tribute that he had to clear out much of the gold, silver, and precious stones from the great Temple in Jerusalem just to meet their obligations. Adding insult to injury, the Assyrians installed an altar to their god, Ashur, within the Temple walls – something many Jews would rather die than behold. Needless to say, Judah’s hatred of Assyria ran deep.
For years, King Hezekiah had quietly been planning for the day when he could throw off the yoke of Assyrian oppression. This was risky business, as the Assyrians did not take rebellion lightly. It was not unheard of for an Assyrian emperor to slaughter the entire family of a rebellious king before their eyes, then gouge the king’s eyes out so that this was the last thing he ever saw. Any massive rebellion always resulted in mass graves. So Hezekiah had to keep quiet about his preparations.
Gradually, he fortified a number of Judah’s cities with double-walls and sent massive stockpiles of grain and other non-perishables to these cities in large jars marked only with an inscription on the jar-handles reading, “For the king.”
One of the truly incredible achievements during this slow, quiet preparation was the tunnel Hezekiah burrowed from within Jerusalem’s walls to a spring a third of a mile away outside the walls. Water was essential to any city that would one day have to withstand the Assyrian onslaught. It meant the difference between resisting a siege for days or months to holding out for years (provided the walls held).
Imagine starting an excavation through solid rock at both ends of the tunnel, stretching for nearly six football fields in a zig-zag pattern and the excavation being so precise that the tunnel dug from both sides joined in a precise match. I think it surprised even King Hezekiah, who had an inscription carved in the tunnel’s wall at the joining-point, praising Yahweh. You can view the inscription to this day at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
Our present story takes us to one of those “leap of faith” moments in Hezekiah’s path.
A decade into Hezekiah’s reign, in 705 BCE, the emperor of Assyria, Sargon II, suddenly died, leaving his son Sennacherib in charge. With this transition of power, a number of nations sought their freedom, including Egypt and Babylonia, who both promised military aid to Judah if they would join the rebellion.
It seemed like the perfect time. Hezekiah’s tunnel was in place, his cities were fortified and their larders were full. With the overtures made by the Egyptians and Babylonians, it seemed like the signal light had changed from red to green and Hezekiah could “put the pedal to the metal” to his plans. It all seemed so obvious – so obvious, in fact, that Hezekiah didn’t seem to think that consulting his God was necessary. Why wouldn’t Yahweh want Israel to rebel at the first real opportunity?
Only there was one problem. The prophet Isaiah, whose “words from the Lord” had proven themselves to be true time after time for many years, was warning fiercely against taking that fork in the road. In effect, he was saying, “This ‘leap of faith’ you’re plotting isn’t a leap of faith at all but a leap into a chasm that will end in the deaths of many.”
Doubtless many of Hezekiah’s military advisors were painting Isaiah as an Assyrian sympathizer. The last time an opportunity like this had arisen, Isaiah had walked around Jerusalem for three years naked – yes, naked – symbolizing what would happen to any country that rebelled against Assyria at the time; that they would be stripped and hauled off into exile like the northern kingdom had been.
I guess it didn’t matter to Hezekiah or his advisors that Isaiah had called that one right. The countries that rebelled before had been utterly destroyed by the Assyrians. But now was different, they argued. Assyria was in a more vulnerable position owing to the awkward transition of power to Sargon’s son, Sennacherib. The increasing power of the Babylonians and Egyptians was also a significant factor, as was their firm promise of military aid. All the arguments based on reason, logic, and probably more than a little data collected through espionage indicated that the light had changed from red to green on Judah’s bid for independence.
Only, Isaiah insisted that the light was still brilliant red. His argument? “God says so.” As one of the preeminent practitioners of spiritual discernment, Isaiah knew that taking leaps into the Great Unknown are foolhardy if the Holy Spirit isn’t in sync – especially if the fall could be great. He knew that the greater the risk, the more certain you must be that the Spirit is behind your action, not merely your intellect. After all, the Spirit has a far better view of the true situation. The Spirit is connected not only to you, but to everyone – and everything – around you. The Spirit knows the mind of your enemy, not just your own. And the Spirit knows your strengths and weaknesses – and those of your opponents – better than you do.
The Spirit is also connected to dimensions of time and space that you and I have no direct access to. It sees not just the present moment, but past, present, and future. So the hunches and intuitions we experience in response to the Spirit often run against common wisdom. Its view of the situation is vastly greater than ours.
Yet what happens when visible evidence is countered by an invisible God? It’s not hard to guess. Hezekiah chose to trust his military advisors over Isaiah. He – and the whole kingdom of Judah – paid dearly for it. Not only had his advisors misjudged Assyria’s military strength but they also misjudged how much help would truly come from Egypt and Babylonia, which was precisely zero. Assyria swept down from the north, sacking 46 Judean cities, including those that had been so carefully fortified by Hezekiah.
The city of Lachish is just one example. It was one of Judah’s most heavily fortified cities. Yet Sennacherib’s victory over Lachish was so decisive that Sennacherib had a series of reliefs carved to adorn his walls back home to re-live the glory. Mass graves have been found in Lachish containing the bodies of scores of Israelites from that conflict – covered in pig bones to further the shame of defeat.
Assyrian vengeance brought the warriors all the way to Jerusalem where they laid siege. It is during this siege that our story picks up – with the Assyrian general demanding immediate surrender. The case he made for surrender was terribly compelling. Assyria had successfully – and decisively – defeated every nation, and group of nations, that had rebelled against it in the last 40 years. For Judah to stand against Assyria in this moment would be like a fly standing its ground against a giant fly swatter. The results of standing firm were obvious.
If King Hezekiah surrendered, the Assyrians promised to keep the population alive. If not, they would become like those of Lachish. The case was so clear that anyone within Jerusalem’s walls with even the most rudimentary level of intelligence could have made the decision: surrender!
This time, however, Hezekiah is wiser than before. Before making the “obvious” decision, he does two things. First, Hezekiah sends messengers to Isaiah, asking him to pray and offer a word from Yahweh, which Isaiah does. The fact that Hezekiah intentionally sought out Isaiah’s advice is telling. It suggests he was honestly interested in hearing a “word from the Lord” instead of just the word of his advisors.
This time, instead of urging Hezekiah to accept Assyria’s yoke as he had done before, Isaiah insisted that it was Yahweh’s will that Jerusalem resist. He promised that this time Yahweh would make a way where there appeared to be no way, despite all the evidence that this was absolutely impossible.
The fact that Isaiah changes his message indicates an extremely important principle of spiritual discernment: Just because you’ve accurately discerned the will of the Spirit in the past doesn’t mean that the Spirit’s message will never change. This point seems a bit obvious. The world around us is constantly changing, offering new possibilities that did not exist earlier, and closing off other possibilities. Therefore, the Spirit’s response to the world is constantly changing as well.
Yet how often do we fall into the trap of relying on an old “word from the Lord”? We want to take whatever that word was in the past and enshrine it forever as some holy relic that is meant to stand for all time.
Churches and other communities of faith are especially prone to this temptation – especially larger, “successful” ones. These communities frequently seek to continue doing whatever it was that made their church large and successful in the past on the assumption that this is what they’re always supposed to be doing. What they don’t recognize is that the world has changed around them and with it, the whole possibility horizon.
In our day, church after church continues to cling to what it “heard” from the Spirit in previous years rather than staying open to what the Spirit is hoping they will hear in the present. As a result, huge sections of both the liberal and conservative church are dying – and have been for years – simply because they have failed to keep listening.
On account of these churches, millions of people are dying. Am I exaggerating? How many LGBT persons, for instance, have committed suicide or “self-medicated” themselves into wasted lives, struggling with completely inappropriate guilt and shame inflicted by churches who have failed to listen for the Spirit? How many wars have we entered because churches remained silent when the Spirit has tried to move them to speak up? How many conflicts will we enter in the future in part because faith communities have failed to recognize that the Spirit is calling them to recognize that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God?
And for every one physical death, I wonder how many people have died spiritually because the faith communities no longer seem to be interested in listening to God’s “still speaking” voice?
Years ago, I sat in a coffee shop in the little rural town of Canadian, Texas, with a man named Bob. Bob told me he’d been a faithful church member for over 30 years but hadn’t been coming in the last 6. “Tell me more about that,” I said.
Bob explained that six years prior the minister had been preaching against the theory of evolution, claiming that the world was created in six days and was just six thousand years old. Bob publicly questioned the minister about his assumptions … and was driven out of his church. No, he wasn’t driven out by the Creationists. He was driven out by his friends – friends who agreed with Bob!
“Don’t rock the boat,” they told him. “We can’t afford to split the church.” Really? Even if staying together means ignoring the Holy Spirit?
Well, Bob listened to his friends. He agreed that questions he had – and many others besides – could split the church, and it broke his heart to envision his friends in turmoil. So he quietly absented himself. On Sunday mornings he sat not in the church pews but the coffee shop, dying spiritually so that his church could “live.”
As Christian churches, we’re not always faced with decisions about whether to go to war or not, but we are always faced with the decision whether or not to listen to the Spirit. And while people may not be dying openly in the streets when we shut down the communication channels, make no mistake: the choices we make have real consequences. Our time is not so different than Hezekiah’s.
One Small Step …
So one thing Hezekiah does is seek the advice of a spiritual mentor – one whose ear was still wide open to what the Spirit might say next. Yet another thing Hezekiah does is pray himself.
Hezekiah seems to have finally recognized that he could no longer simply “outsource” his relationship with the Holy Spirit. He wouldn’t “outsource” it to his political and military advisors, nor would he rely solely on Isaiah to convey the “word from the Lord” at such a crucial time with so many lives at stake.
His decision was brilliant. For although Isaiah did, in fact, make the right call, there was no guarantee that he would. After all, who among us hears the “word of the Lord” with perfect clarity? As the apostle Paul observes, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). When it comes to hearing from the Spirit, we’re all a bit like dogs trying to interpret the word of our Master. A well-trained dog with long experience may be able to interpret the Master’s word better than a less experienced one, but this doesn’t make the dog infallible.
I strongly suspect that the Holy Spirit was speaking not only to Isaiah but to Hezekiah himself. Likely Hezekiah had been actively seeking the Spirit’s guidance ever since he’d made his impulsive decision to rebel against Assyria a few years earlier.
What this looks like in real terms is that each time Hezekiah turned in quiet surrender before the Spirit, praying, “Your will be done, not mine,” he received back hunches and intuitions that all pointed in a similar direction. When he told the Spirit that he was fully willing to surrender to the Assyrians if it was the Spirit’s will, what he experienced was a nagging feeling in his gut. Moving in that direction may have seemed intellectually like the right thing to do, but it felt very different. And when Hezekiah offered to do what intellectually would have seemed like suicide, resisting Assyria, what he would have received back was a sense of peace and quiet resolve.
In effect, what the Spirit was calling Hezekiah to do was take one giant leap of faith. Only it was a leap of faith based not on a single moment of openness and surrender, but a whole series of them. The Spirit led him to the edge of the cliff through a thousand small steps rather than one giant one – such that taking that step, though incredibly stressful to the strategic brain, felt like a natural continuation of a long journey. When Isaiah sensed the right decision, and Isaiah confirmed his decision, he moved forward swiftly and with confidence. He resisted Assyria with all his might.
And the result? By one account, a great plague swept through the Assyrian encampment, killing 185,000 troops and sending Assyria scurrying home with its figurative tail between its legs. The historian Herodotus says the plague was caused by mice. By another account, the Assyrian general received word that the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was under attack and the army was desperately needed at home. Whatever account is correct (perhaps they both were), what we know for sure is that the “impossible” happened. The army left. Judah was saved. And Hezekiah would one day be an ancestor of the Messiah.
Some say that the definition of faith is “believing despite the evidence, then watching the evidence change.” The stakes are just as high today as we face threats to our world’s survival, whether they come through environmental or geopolitical fronts. The question this story asks us is, “Who are we listening to, and how are we listening?”
The promise this story contains is that even when there seems to be a “way where there is no way,” the Spirit’s wisdom comes from dimensions that are many levels higher than our own. The Spirit always sees possibilities that we cannot. We are invited to listen to where the Spirit is leading us and to listen consistently enough so that when the Spirit asks us to take a giant “leap of faith,” it will not seem like such a giant step at all, but the next small step made in the path of faithfulness.