Isaiah 5:1-7 – A Parable of the Vineyard

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?

Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.

 I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (New International Version)

God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel and Judah are the beloved. The Lord graciously chose them, gave them divine promises, and set his steadfast love upon them. God sang over them with affection and took care of them.

The Lord God put time, effort, and love into the relationship. God anticipated good things, looked forward to a bright future, and expected a flowering of justice and righteousness from the people.

It didn’t happen. The relationship went sour. Nothing but rotten grapes.

God builds. God gives. God sustains…. And God destructs. God takes away. God ends what he begins.

The Lord didn’t put all that work into the people to have them perpetuate injustice toward the poor and disadvantaged. God didn’t choose Israel so that they would then neglect God’s law by mistreating others and ignoring the right.

The bloodshed of the people was that they squeezed and bled the poor to death. The cries and anguished responses of the needy were ignored. There was no mercy. So, God was not about to idly stand by and let such rotten grapes abuse and ruin the good, the just, and the right.

The relationship between and God and God’s people was an ancient love song that went off key and struck a minor chord. The Lord has extreme love and patience… until he doesn’t. There’s no way the just and right God is going to put up with abusive, ignorant, and bad folks forever.

Jesus had this allegorical image of Isaiah in mind when he spoke in parables about the impossibility of good fruit coming from bad vines and trees, and the necessity of removing dead branches. (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-17)

If the grapes are bad, the vine is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, mean, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others and act hatefully with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words and actions, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words with loving deeds wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

The just and right person uses their hands and feet to build good things for others, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us. They willingly meet needs without bitterness or with a begrudging heart.

If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy.

If there is an issue with actions, it will not do to merely enforce a change in behavior. That’s because it’s a heart problem. And the heart desperately needs to acknowledge sin and repent from evil.

Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.

Oftentimes something needs to be destroyed for a building to be erected. There always needs to be a death before there can be a resurrection. New life cannot occur without forsaking an old life.

Believers in Jesus are mindful that our life of faith, hope, and love comes from a death. So, we journey with Jesus along the road of suffering, up Calvary, and are crucified with him so that we might rise with him.

This is the way.

It is the way of repentance, of genuine change, of new habits, of Christianity. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come. (Hebrews 13:13-14)

May justice, righteousness, and peace be yours in abundance through him who gave himself for us and for our salvation.

Merciful Father, we pray that violence will be overcome by the power of love; that opposition and division give way to reconciliation; and that the desire for power and control be transformed into the desire for forgiveness, justice, and peace.

May peace be in our hearts so that they are open to the action of your divine grace.

May all humanity – especially the poor, the needy, the least among us, and the lost – feel the warmth of your steadfast love and the love of your people toward them.

May the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control be our breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and may your divine abundance of mercy and justice be scattered throughout our city, our nation, and our world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of your Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Isaiah 24:1-13 – Dehumanization Pollutes the Earth

The Lord is going to turn the earth into a desolate wasteland.
He will mar the face of the earth and scatter the people living on it.
The same will happen to people and priests,
male slaves and masters,
female slaves and masters,
buyers and sellers,
lenders and borrowers,
debtors and creditors.
The earth will be completely laid waste and stripped
because the Lord has spoken.

The earth dries up and withers.
The world wastes away and withers.
The great leaders of the earth waste away.

The earth is polluted by those who live on it
because they’ve disobeyed the Lord’s teachings,
violated his laws,
and rejected the everlasting promise.
That is why a curse devours the earth,
and its people are punished for their guilt.
That is why those who live on the earth are burned up,
and only a few people are left.

New wine dries up, and grapevines waste away.
All happy people groan.
Joyful tambourine music stops.
Noisy celebrations cease.
Joyful harp music stops.
People no longer drink wine when they sing.
Liquor tastes bad to its drinkers.
The ruined city lies desolate.
The entrance to every house is barred shut.
People in the streets call for wine.
All joy passes away,
and the earth’s happiness is banished.
The city is left in ruins.
Its gate is battered to pieces.

That is the way it will be on earth among the nations.
They will be like an olive tree which has been shaken
or like what’s left after the grape harvest. (God’s Word Translation)

A lot of people shy away from biblical passages, like today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. Too negative, not enough positivity.

Like it, or not, Isaiah 24, along with many other texts of a similar vein, exist in Holy Scripture. And I insist we must pay attention to such texts of doom and gloom. For if we only choose to deal with the encouraging and inspirational texts of the Bible, we will have a severely truncated faith which will not stand in the hard times.

The voice I offer, however, isn’t a beat-you-up tone. I seek to have a pastoral voice that upholds the best of biblical ethics and human dignity. 

Because every person (and I do mean every person) on planet earth is created in the image and likeness of God, each individual human being is a person of worth and deserves respect and kindness.

People do and say terrible things every day. Because of that reality, it doesn’t mean God’s image has left or taken a vacation, or that someone deserves a pejorative label which stigmatizes and ostracizes them from the human family. 

For the Christian, the supreme ethic of life is love. We hold to the Great Commandment: Love God and love neighbor. All other commands of Holy Scripture hang on the commands to love, upheld by Jesus himself.

Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40, GNT)

It is because of the presence of God and Love that difficult biblical texts occur in Scripture. When people, in God’s image, defile that image through oppressing fellow image-bearers and turning from commands to live ethically and lovingly in the world, God has something to say about it. And we get texts like today’s from the prophet Isaiah.

Therefore, we must all ask ourselves if we are loving others in this world as intended by our Creator and Redeemer. 

We routinely hear, through social media posts, political pundits, religious prognosticators, and daily interactions around the water cooler, opinions laced with profound hate, disrespect, and misunderstanding.

Whenever disasters occur – whether yet another act of gun violence, a natural calamity, or economic ruin – there are a host of stories which surround them all. Some of those stories are heartwarming tales of people rushing in to bring comfort, solace, and support. And there are far too many stories of abject fear, ignorance, and calloused behavior directed at others, even victims, with selfish and misguided tools of wrath.

There is such a constellation of issues and problems to unpack and deal with in this world that I do not nor cannot even begin to try to do such a task. I only want to bring a small bit of light to the shadows of the human heart which inevitably tries to dehumanize others who do not agree with his/her opinion and group-think.

For example, there is no lack of people who persist in dehumanizing LGBTQ individuals and gay communities.  One man told me recently, in a matter-of-fact manner, that the Orlando, Florida shooting from 2016 was most likely a judgment from God upon homosexuals because of our government’s straying from godliness. 

Those in LGBTQ circles are quite familiar with this kind of speech. To label it correctly: It is hate speech – dehumanizing speech – the kind of attitude and talk which pollutes the world and raises the hackles of a holy and loving God. 

When people of any particular kind of group, whether gay or straight, Democrat or Republican, Christian or non-Christian, are verbally (and actually) mowed-down like animals, it is because they are being looked at as nothing but animals, or monsters, or anything but a human being.

The apple does not fall far from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

We must come to grips with the fact that every person killed on this planet is a destruction of God’s image. And we are not the judges of whether any loss of life is God’s judgment, or not. To make any sort of claim to knowing this is, at best, extreme hubris, and, at worst, germinating the seeds of a future holocaust of killing. 

Whenever any one person or group places a superimposed label upon another person or subculture of people of being monstrous, hateful, and undeserving of justice, then that person or group must come to grips with their own poverty of spirit and embrace the real love which Jesus has demonstrated and offers. And, if they don’t, they ought not be surprised when their tree gets shaken by God, or even cut down and thrown into the fire.

No matter what side one falls on, there is no biblical precedent or place to dehumanize another person or group of people, period. 

Christians and churches, especially, need to stop acting and reacting to the parts of culture and society they don’t like and start living and loving like Jesus by building relationships with a broad spectrum of groups and individuals.

It falls to the faith communities of this land to initiate love and to live above hate speech. And the onus is on Christians to model a supremely loving ethic toward all people.

I admit that many Christians do not have a good track record on this. And I further admit that I have observed an eerie silence from far too many of them in the face of great human tragedy, as if nothing of particular consequence has happened. 

This post is a very small and meager attempt on my part to offer something of the loving Christ to others. For, the church is nothing at all, if it isn’t all about Jesus and his gospel of grace.

Gracious Father, lead us from death to life, from falsehood to truth, from despair to hope, from fear to trust. Let peace fill our hearts and our world. Let us dream together, pray together and work together, to build one world of peace and justice for all, through the One who made peace possible, Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reign as one God, now and forever. Amen.

Isaiah 9:18-10:4 – The Reality in Front of Us

Surely wickedness burns like a fire;
    it consumes briers and thorns,
it sets the forest thickets ablaze,
    so that it rolls upward in a column of smoke.
By the wrath of the Lord Almighty
    the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
    they will not spare one another.
On the right they will devour,
    but still be hungry;
on the left they will eat,
    but not be satisfied.
Each will feed on the flesh of their own offspring:
    Manasseh will feed on Ephraim, and Ephraim on Manasseh;
    together they will turn against Judah.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised.

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
    Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
    or fall among the slain.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised. (New International Version)

There are times when God has some very hard things to say.

The Lord does get angry. And that’s a good thing.

The Love/Anger Reality of God

God’s anger and wrath are a form of God’s love. A heartless unloving god is fickle and unconcerned for much of the evil which happens in the world. Conversely, a loving God is not okay with wicked persons having their way. A loving God’s anger is kindled against injustice. A loving God doesn’t long put up with people oppressing other people, and taking advantage of them.

So, this is what the Old Testament prophets are all about – communicating and calling people to change their ways because they are harming others. And when the harming and the hurting is done purposefully and callously, then the ire of a holy God is raised. The Lord will not contend with this sort of attitude and action.

The language of judgment, in today’s Old Testament prophetic lesson, is an invitation for us to take a very hard look at the reality which was responsible for such an angry response from God.

The Social/Economic Reality of Both the Prophet’s World and Today’s World

God expects justice, to have people helping one another thrive and flourish in this life, to be concerned for the common good of all persons, not just some. In Isaiah’s day, all that God saw was greed and selfishness, injustice and corruption. And God was not okay with it. The unjust systems and practices were a failure of the people to live up to the Lord’s expectations for righteous living.

Sadly, issues of justice and righteousness are still relevant in our world today. Throughout the earth, this very day, the powerless are being exploited; the rich get wealthier at the cost of the poor; greed, corruption, outsourcing, and unjust legal systems are the norm and not the exception.

Much of the world gloomily faces racism, poverty, gender injustice, violence, famine, health disparities and inequities. And so called “religious” folk are at the forefront of ensuring that these evils continue to persist. So, why would not a holy God become infuriated at such a situation!?

A 12th century German depiction of Isaiah the prophet

The Religious Reality of Isaiah’s Day and Our Day

The religious reality of Isaiah’s day is not so far off from our own today. People were, and are, engaging in forms of spiritual and/or religious activity while being completely devoid of justice. Folks attend religious gatherings and believe in God – and treat others unjustly. They talk of faith in the Lord, while trusting in wealth and assets.

It was, and is, a world where people bow before their own works and ingenuity, focusing their attention on money and power. It’s a world with no room for the God of the Bible and true divine justice.

Far too many “believers” espouse unethical leaders and turn a blind eye to morally bankrupt leadership. Far too many religious folk want what they want, with no regard for the needs of others.

The Divine Reality of God’s Pathos

We as people need to contend with a God who is a profoundly emotional Being.

God is moved and affected by what happens in the world. The Lord’s anger and judgment is aroused because of God’s love and compassion.

God both binds up the injuries of people, as well as inflicts wounds. This ought not be surprising. After all, we readily understand, through our extensive healthcare systems, that medical interventions and surgeries are needed, and that they hurt.

A God of justice is, of course, angered by ethical violations. The Lord is rightly upset that the world often falls so woefully short of instituting a just social, economic, and political order for all citizens to enjoy.

Everyone must deal with the God who is not a brain-on-a-stick but has a deep heart for people everywhere to experience truth, justice, righteousness, salvation, and love.

Conclusion

Yes, there is a coming reality in which a new world will emerge. For the Christian, this occurs when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Complete deliverance from sin, death, and hell shall be realized.

But we aren’t there yet. We still need to cope with the world as it is today, and deal with it’s failures, shortcomings, and sins.

There is currently a massive need to be attentive to the needy, to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and to be involved in reforming unjust systems in our cities, communities, and countries. Salvation is meant for the whole person, not just the spiritual part.

Therefore, we have a choice as to how we will approach the world.

Will we withdraw from it? Will we engage it, only to take advantage of others within it? Or will we participate with God in transforming it?

  • Will we hear the cries of the oppressed?
  • Will we live out God’s commitment to the poor, the weak, and the sick?
  • Will we work for economic and social equity?
  • Will we break the bonds of injustice?
  • Will we help people to reach their full potential?
  • Will we preach good news?
  • Will we suffer with those who suffer and show solidarity with the weak?
  • Will we be truly spiritual folk who invest in the concerns of humanity?
  • Will we take up our cross and follow the Lord in being suffering servants for a lost world in need of God and God’s justice?

The reality in front of us is one which demands confrontation, participation, and reformation. Will you do it?

Blessed and holy God and Father of all, it is your will that all people be gathered together as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and with the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good gifts that you give us, may we secure an equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, strife and war. May there be a dawning of a just society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – Good Friday

This stained-glass window was donated to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama by the people of Wales after the church was bombed in 1963.

The Lord says,

“My servant will succeed in his task;
    he will be highly honored.
Many people were shocked when they saw him;
    he was so disfigured that he hardly looked human.
But now many nations will marvel at him,
    and kings will be speechless with amazement.
They will see and understand
    something they had never known.”

The people reply,

“Who would have believed what we now report?
    Who could have seen the Lord’s hand in this?
It was the will of the Lord that his servant
    grow like a plant taking root in dry ground.
He had no dignity or beauty
    to make us take notice of him.
There was nothing attractive about him,
    nothing that would draw us to him.
We despised him and rejected him;
    he endured suffering and pain.
No one would even look at him—
    we ignored him as if he were nothing.

“But he endured the suffering that should have been ours,
    the pain that we should have borne.
All the while we thought that his suffering
    was punishment sent by God.
But because of our sins he was wounded,
    beaten because of the evil we did.
We are healed by the punishment he suffered,
    made whole by the blows he received.
All of us were like sheep that were lost,
    each of us going his own way.
But the Lord made the punishment fall on him,
    the punishment all of us deserved.

“He was treated harshly, but endured it humbly;
    he never said a word.
Like a lamb about to be slaughtered,
like a sheep about to be sheared,
    he never said a word.
He was arrested and sentenced and led off to die,
    and no one cared about his fate.
He was put to death for the sins of our people.
He was placed in a grave with those who are evil,
    he was buried with the rich,
even though he had never committed a crime
    or ever told a lie.”

The Lord says,

“It was my will that he should suffer;
    his death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness.
And so he will see his descendants;
    he will live a long life,
    and through him my purpose will succeed.
After a life of suffering, he will again have joy;
    he will know that he did not suffer in vain.
My devoted servant, with whom I am pleased,
    will bear the punishment of many
    and for his sake I will forgive them.
And so I will give him a place of honor,
    a place among the great and powerful.
He willingly gave his life
    and shared the fate of evil men.
He took the place of many sinners
    and prayed that they might be forgiven.” (Good News Translation)

We all suffer. 

Whether a chronic physical condition, emotional or moral distress, mental illness, or spiritual oppression, everyone falls prey to this world’s pain and heartache. 

The refugee, the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, the forgotten, the disadvantaged, the diseased, the distressed, and the displaced are just a few of the persons experiencing their own private pain, public humiliation, and an awful suffering.

Suffering that defies reason, the kind of pain which seems senseless, the type of hurt where nothing good appears to be going on at all, is all horribly troubling to the soul.

Perhaps it seems ironic, maybe even cruel, that Christians observe a day called “Good” Friday. Considering the adverse circumstances of so many people, to call today “good” appears awkward, as if Christ’s followers have their collective heads in the sand. 

Even for Christians, “Good Friday” may seem a bit oxymoronic for a day observing the torture and death of an innocent man. Some argue that Christ is no longer on the cross, and so, we need to give all our focus on the resurrected Jesus and the victory he achieved. No need for all this suffering stuff. 

Yet, the Resurrection only has meaning because of this very day, Good Friday. Without the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, there is no King Jesus. 

Holy Hill Stations of the Cross, Hubertus, Wisconsin

For Christians everywhere, this day is very good in the sense that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ means the redemption of the world. On this day we remember and commemorate the events that led up to the cross; unpack those events and interpret them with profound meaning and significance; and worship Jesus with heartfelt gratitude because of his redeeming work of the cross.

The bulk of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are given to the final week of Christ’s life, especially leading to the cross. Good Friday observances often take a somber form due to the brevity of Christ’s experience on the cross. 

Christians remember the last words of Christ and recognize the significant impact his death had on the immediate persons around him. Believers also contemplate the lasting results of that singular death as an atoning sacrifice; perfect love; reconciliation between God and humanity; victory over evil; and redeeming all creation.

Sadness, then, is far from the only emotion on this day. It is appropriate to feel wonder, gratitude, and deep satisfaction for deliverance from the power of sin. There is the recognition that something profound and meaningful has truly happened in the egregious suffering of Jesus. 

Thus, we not only remember the anguish of Christ, but what that horrible torment accomplished. In fact, the cross of Jesus is so significant that an eternity of considering its import and impact could never plumb the depths of its far-reaching effects.

With all that has been said, one would think that Good Friday is a hugely observed day on the Christian Calendar. Yet, for a chunk of churches and Christians, it’s not. The bottom line is that the cross is not popular.  Maybe it’s because neither Christian nor non-Christian wants to ponder something so incredibly violent, hateful, and bloody.

Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has adroitly put her finger on the issue:

“Religious people want visionary experiences and spiritual uplift; secular people want proofs, arguments, demonstrations, philosophy, and science.  The striking fact is that neither one of these groups wants to hear about the cross.” 

Fleming Rutledge

Indeed, as the Apostle Paul has said, the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

A personalized religion which leaves the cross out of the picture (too much blood and violence) might seem appealing. Yet it will only leave us bereft of the communion of saints both past and present. Consider the ancient witness of the Church:

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord… he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.”

Apostles’ Creed

“For our sake he [Christ] was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” –Nicene Creed

Christ suffered “in both body and soul – in such a way that when he sensed the horrible punishment required by our sins ‘his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.’ He cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And he endured all this for the forgiveness of our sins. 

Therefore, we rightly say with the Apostle Paul that we know nothing ‘except Jesus Christ, and him crucified;’ we ‘regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.’ We find all comforts in his wounds and have no need to seek or invent any other means than this one and only sacrifice, once made, which renders believers perfect forever.” –Belgic Confession, Article 21

And let us consider further the New Testament witness:

“Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured.” (Hebrews 13:12-13, NIV)

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whichthe world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, NRSV)

The extent of Good Friday goes far beyond just a day on the calendar; it is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity hinges. 

Because Christ suffered, our suffering has meaning.

Each situation of trauma; every case of disease; adversity and wholesale hard circumstances, all make sense, in the Christian tradition, when they are viewed in solidarity with Jesus Christ crucified.

So, today, let Christians everywhere contemplate the cross, observe the salvation accomplished through Christ’s death, and offer prayers and petitions for those who need deliverance from the power of evil. In short, let us worship God in Jesus Christ because of the suffering on the cross.

Along with all believers everywhere we pray:

Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Redeemer of the world, grant us your peace. Amen.