"I remember another experience I used to have in Atlanta. I went to high school on the other side of town--to the Booker T. Washington High School. I had to get the bus in what was known as the Fourth Ward and ride over to the West Side. In those days, rigid patterns of segregation existed on the buses, so that Negroes had to sit in the backs of buses. Whites were seated in the front, and often if whites didn't get on the buses, those seats were still reserved for whites only, so Negroes had to stand over empty seats. I would end up having to go to the back of that bus with my body, but every time I got on that bus I left my mind up on the front seat. And I said to myself, 'One of these days, I'm going to put my body up there where my mind is.'"
- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
* * *
By happy coincidence, just as we're crossing into a new year at the time of this writing, our journey through Isaiah 61, the "Messianic Playbook," turns a corner as well. In fact, whenever roads appear to intersect in time and eternity, God's people are called to "lift up [our] heads, awake out of sleep" (Luke 21:28, Rom. 13:11-12), for the breath of God may be blowing afresh. His desire is for us to "understand the times, and what [we] should do" (1 Chronicles 12:32). So, let's consider what God may be saying to us ... you and me, PERSONALLY ... at this juncture.
In review: Jesus' earthly ministry, which He launched on the first two verses of Isaiah 61, began with His broad redemptive plan for all of mankind. But it didn't stop there, as we've seen already. Verse 3 shifts the focus to a very special group, the "Blessed Mourners," the soil of whose hearts has been tenderized by tears on account of the ravages of sin they witness all around them, to the point that ... well, things begin to happen!
As the Gospel seed germinates gloriously within the mourner's heart, it first brings "comfort, beauty, joy, and praise" (which we've observed in the latest four devotional segments). But there's no stopping it now! Turn the corner, and behold! Verse 3 concludes with a monument to God's handiwork that cannot be missed: Where the seed fell, there now stands a "tree of righteousness" for all to see, an unmistakable work of God to the glory of His name. Hallelujah!
Hmmm ... OK, but just what does that mean? Poetic hyperbole?
Not at all. First, think of a TREE ... sprung from a SEED. Now, there's nothing as prophetic as a seed. Within its little body there are three crucial elements: life, character, and connection. Meaning, it's every bit as alive as the tree that will grow from it ("life"), and it knows precisely how to grow itself into that tree--every wrinkle of the bark, every branch crotch, every leaf node--is all pre-programmed into the tiny seed's DNA ("character").
And yet, as Jesus said in John 12:24, the seed must "die" before it can become a fruit-bearing tree. And that's where "connection" comes in. That little seed knows how to respond and interact with the moisture and temperature of the soil around it, by splitting open and launching itself forth as a new creation, connecting with air, water, and soil nutrients to produce what we call FRUIT. That is, a product beneficial to the world in which it exists.
Back to us, the "trees of righteousness." What sort of fruit would you expect from such a tree? Righteousness! Now, unfortunately, that's not a word we use much in our generation. To put it in modern vernacular, "righteousness" is really "justice," but on steroids -- enriched with moral and spiritual goodness, which transcend the judgment of human laws. So, when these trees start sprouting everywhere within our society, producing the fruit that it's in their nature to bring forth, the result is a rising tide of righteousness that floats the nation. ("Righteousness exalts a nation..." Proverbs 14:34)
Now, the opening paragraph mentioned something of "roads intersecting in time and eternity." That wasn't poetic hyperbole either. Seriously, America stands at a threshold today, wondering what lies beyond. We're launching into a new year bewildered and fearful. Just in the last two years, we've been blindsided by a pandemic that's still raging, witnessed near-unprecedented political warfare, rioting and crime, and many have lost their jobs or have a vague premonition of imminent financial ruin in the months ahead. Not to mention ticking time bombs such as Iran and North Korea, which could conceivably reappear on the world stage and trigger a nasty armed conflict at any time.
In the midst of all this, we observe a renewed yearning in America's soul for righteousness. From the platforms of "social justice warriors," civil rights activists, paramilitary clubs of all persuasions--right, left, or sideways--and from the halls of congress down to the local bar stool, the national awareness has shifted dramatically to the plight of marginalized groups within our society, to laws that are "unjust" (whether in reality or perception), to the issues of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and ... you name it. What our nation craves, without knowing it, is RIGHTEOUSNESS.
What about the Church? Our knee-jerk reaction, more often than not, is to condemn these voices for justice, to avoid unpleasant conversations or gatherings, to retreat into our little safe spaces hoping the conflagration passes over us quickly so we can go back to minding our own business undisturbed.
But this is a prophetic moment! Church, let us not miss the window. Think of it: a new year, a new climate in our nation, people yearning for righteousness and willing to take action (misguided though it may often be) to make our country a better place. Why, we haven't seen such a perfect storm since the '60s!
"Prophetic" ... a curious word, though it really shouldn't be mysterious or spooky to us believers. In fact, I Samuel 9:9 breaks it down for us: "(Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he spoke thus: 'Come, let us go to the seer'; for he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer.)" So, a prophetic person is simply one who has God-given insight into -- who SEES -- what God is doing. And, through the work of the Holy Spirit Who abides in us, we should all have a measure of "seeing," especially as it relates to our mission in this world.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 16 because they failed to "discern the signs of the times." In contrast, the Sons of Issachar (which we already alluded to) in David's day were commended because they "understood the times and what they should do." For my part, I want to be a Son of Issachar. That means "awakening out of sleep" and "lifting up my (ostrich) head" out of the sand to see what's going on and ... most importantly ... to "see what the Father is doing," as Jesus said, so that I may be a part of it.
Let’s consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we observe this month. (Another intersection of time and eternity.) Dr. King is the only man to have a U.S. holiday named in his honor who was not a U.S. president. At the age of 35, Dr. King was the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. He may also have been the man who traveled the longest road to that prize--cussed out, abused, and arrested 29 times in his fight for righteousness, this modern-day prophet never quit because, as he said in his famous speech two days before his assassination, "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop.... And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his flaws. Every human vessel does. But he was fit for the Master's use because he had those three crucial qualities that made him a seed of righteousness: LIFE, CHARACTER, and CONNECTION. We know that he was tapped into Jesus, the source of true LIFE, without Whom he could never have faced down the Goliaths of racial injustice and prevailed. But let's take a closer look at the other two qualities.
A seed of righteousness--which is to become a tree of righteousness--has its CHARACTER, its life plan, imprinted into its DNA. Now, whether we realize it or not, each of us was conceived in the heart of our Creator and imprinted with His life plan before the human conception event took place. We just need to find out what that plan is ... or, at least, the first bread crumb He is pleased to reveal, which will start us down the path to finding the next bread crumb, then the next, until we attain that destiny.
Jesus, for example, being God Himself, knew precisely what the plan was in full detail. Hence, we see Him at the age of twelve already "about His Father's business." Some believers may have a similar experience of realizing their life calling quite early on. Dr. King had such an experience, as we saw in the opening quote from his autobiography where he tells about riding the bus to high school. Not only did he have a deep passion for righteousness--in the area of racial justice, in this case--but he handled it in a prophetic way.
"I would end up having to go to the back of that bus with my body, but every time I got on that bus I left my mind up on the front seat. And I said to myself, 'One of these days, I'm going to put my body up there where my mind is.'"
In other words, when the young M.L. King boarded the school bus each day, he would envision his mind being planted on the very front seat of the bus. And he knew that one day the rest of him would follow ... which symbolized, from his adolescent perspective, the glorious achievement of racial justice for himself and his people. Wow! Now, he surely didn't have a clue of how he would ultimately get to sit in that front seat, but he did have a passion and a vision. Oh, and one more thing: CONNECTION.
As the angel Clarence's character said in "It's a Wonderful Life," "One man's life touches so many others..." Just as a seed must interact with the soil, nutrients, heat, and ultimately sunlight and air, to become a fruit-bearing tree, we trees of righteousness require CONNECTION. We will never bear fruit in a vacuum. Those connections may vary widely depending how God programmed us, but there must be connection nonetheless. For some of us, it's a church prayer group, social media outlets, or "networking" in our career. Dr. King not only learned to socialize and seek input from others at a young age (as his autobiography tells us), but he trained in public speaking during his high school years and planned to attend seminary.
"My call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something. On the contrary, it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. entered Crozer Seminary at the age of nineteen and graduated three years later. CONNECTION. Without it, we are lifeless and fruitless.
What is the most productive way we can kick off this new year? Lift up our heads, seek to understand the times and what we should do, and learn more about saints gone before us who have fallen into the ground, died, and emerged as towering trees of righteousness, serving the purposes of God in their generation.
In conclusion, let's review a few well-known, inspirational quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters."
"Communism will never be defeated by atomic bombs. Our greatest defense against Communism is to take offensive action on behalf of justice and righteousness. We must seek to remove conditions of poverty, injustice, and racial discrimination."
"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say."