Until it is Done

Until it is done

Isaiah 11

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

On Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, one can hike up or take the tram. Seeing as it was my birthday and I was getting on a plane the next day to return home after a summer — or should I say winter — in South Africa, I elected for the cable car tram.

They call it Table Mountain because it is flat. Like a Table. Sometimes it even comes with a table cloth, when the fog rolls in flat over the mountain and spills like water into the valley that is Cape Town.

Table Mountain

The Mountain it is a rock. Though flat from far away, it isn’t smooth. It is craggy with gouges like ones you might find on your kitchen table.

While the views of Cape Town below and the Atlantic Ocean beyond draw focus out, every step taken draws your eyes down, lest you trip and fall or smack your shins against stone.

My eyes that day are drawn down. I’m introspective, thinking about my time there, my study of resistance and reconciliation. My curiosity piqued by the plants growing in the cracks of the rock that make a mountain. It was a metaphor I suppose. How does the grass grow through the rocks? How could a country go through so much tragedy and yet come to a point of national healing?  Against all odds, to be sure. Such a beginning shoots up through rock and grit in tight spaces, bending to reach the light. It does not give up until it reaches the light. Grass beats rock.

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

You can see Table Mountain from everywhere in Cape Town. You get your bearings by it. It replaces the typical city skyline. Instead of tall buildings you see a long flat rock that cuts into the African sky. It’s the last visible vestige of the city as you travel out to sea. It’s the only object other than the ocean that connects the continent to Robben Island, the prison 4 miles from the shore. Robben Island a harsh and cold place, wind-whipped and vulnerable. It has always been a place apart.

It was there that Nelson Mandela, among others, was held captive. He was there and other places as a political prisoner for 27 years. Mandela fought against Apartheid, the brutal system of government that held that people should be separated according to their race. Against great odds and through many years Mandela not only gained his freedom but also the freedom of his country. All from behind the walls of a prison cell. Grass beats rock.

As he would later say about it, “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.

Isaiah, the prophet, had a vision of a tree cut down. God’s word came and spoke: stump. The tallest, strongest tree would be cut down. All the branches high in the sky would be brought low. Even the thickets, the brush on the ground, would be hacked away. Only a stump with its roots buried in the soil would remain. A metaphor of sorts. The family tree of Israel, God’s chosen, God’s beloved, would fall. Marched into exile. Cut off from their roots. The family tree became a stump.

Isaiah’s vision ushered in a time of deep despair, deep loss, and utter tragedy. It was a time of regret and fear when all hope was abandoned. The bible doesn’t gloss over it, it doesn’t whitewash it. It was brutal. History has seen it repeat. The trail of tears. The Holocaust. Apartheid. Syria. And on. And on.

And yet, within the vision was the sight of a small shoot coming up and out from the stump. Who would imagine something growing out of what was dead. Who could expect something to sprout from the stump of despair? Yet that is what he saw. Grass beats rock. Life comes from death. Impossible.

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

The people, they would return, though it wouldn’t be the same. Though they had been cut down, they were not out. A shoot came out of that stump of Jesse. The family tree did continue. From Jesse to King David to Jesus, with a few others in between and many more to follow.

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

And you know, this is what it looks like to be a person of God. It’s not that things always go well. It’s not to pretend that everything is perfect. To be a person of God means to live with hope in God’s promise in whatever landscape life lands you.

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

What stumps line your landscape? What has cut you down? We have sat together on a few stumps. We have sat alone on many more. It’s hard work, being a human being. One by one our branches fall, little by little the brush has been hacked away. We have lost children, grandchildren, spouses, parents. We have lost our pride and dignity along with our minds and marriages, our jobs and our joy. We have watched tragedies unfold in the world and in our own bodies. We sit at our kitchen tables head in hands, staring out the window, stumped, lost, cut off from our roots. What will come next?

It just always seems impossible, doesn’t it.

And yet precisely there, precisely here in the impossibility of it all, that is where God’s word comes to sit with us. A word that is incarnate, enfleshed, dwelling in the person of Jesus our Christ. He has walked our road of sorrow, he does sit with us on our stumps, and he was himself cut down on a tree for us.

Everything is not lost.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.

A new beginning can grow from the stump of our past and present. It’s never the same, we don’t pretend our loss away. Lutheran Preacher Barbara Lundblad says that “God’s word comes to us, but it does not ask us to dance. Isaiah’s vision is surprising, but it is small.” Life that springs from loss is “fragile yet tenacious and stubborn. It … grow[s] like a plant out of [rocky] ground.” It takes the long walk to freedom from behind the walls of a prison. “It … push[es] back the stone from the rock-hard tomb.“ [1]

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

In 1994 the lines were miles long at the polling places in South Africa. People who had lived their whole lives without a voice were heard. Nelson Mandela would be elected President. A new beginning was shooting out from the stump of the past. What’s more, President Mandela would share leadership with his prosector, President FW deKlerk. The two would later share a Nobel Peace Prize for the work of reconciliation through truth-telling. Justice was served not through more violence, an over-correction of past wrongs, but through honesty and forgiveness. The lion and the lamb laid down together. It wasn’t perfect, it didn’t erase the past, but it was a new beginning. South Africa isn’t heaven, but it offers us a vision of the world we await. A world where tragedy is not our only companion. A world where true opposites can come together. A world where history is remembered but not repeated.

Mr. Mandela has stepped into that world from this one. He died this week at the age of 95. He now belongs not to us, but to the ages, [2] and he belongs to the one who said he would be with us even to the end of the ages: Jesus.

It’s a world we do not live in yet, to be sure. We’re walking around smacking our shins into all the stumps. But maybe while we’re taking the wider view of what’s around us, trying to see what might be next, we can draw our eyes down, see where we are standing, mark it as holy ground, and there we can see a beginning shoot out and start up: small, slow, but sure.


[1] Barbara Lundblad via WorkingPreacher.org

[2] Barack Obama


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