Saturday 1 September 2012

The Vineyard of the Beloved (Isaiah 5)

As we read through the verses of this week’s passage from Isaiah chapter 5, some of us might have said to ourselves, “Oh no, judgement... again? Why not a sermon on joy, instead? Week after week, I come to this church and all I hear about is God’s judgement; how God is so angry with our sin! How can I bring my friends to hear such a distressing talk? You are just going to make them feel miserable about themselves!”

If that is you, or if you are a new visitor with us today, let me just say that what we are doing here isn’t so strange. Christians gather each week not in order to praise one another for all the great things we have done. Quite the contrary. We acknowledge all the ways in which we have failed to live our lives for God. I’m talking about the Christians here, not the non-Christians. We, as Christian believers, are confessing to God all the ways in which we have ignored him and let him down - all ways in which we have sinned against God - and we dare to approach this holy, righteous God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Isn’t that what Communion is about? The bread and the cup symbolise the once-for-all substitutionary death of Jesus, who took our punishment of death on the cross. Friends, this isn’t therapy. It’s not simply a way to feel better about ourselves. Rather, the bible is calling us to Get Real: To get real with our sins because there is real forgiveness and there is real restoration at the cross. God takes away all that guilt. God puts your sin - yes, even the ones you are so ashamed of - God puts them all on Jesus, and then God clothes you with his righteousness. God covers you with his love.

Believe it or not, today’s passage is actually about God’s love. It is a passage that teaches us how difficult it is - not for us to love God - but for God to love us. I wonder if you’ve ever thought of that? Maybe you think that God ought to love everyone, that’s his job. Maybe you think God must love you; after all, you are so adorable. But isn’t it true that the people who love you most in your life - your mum, your dad, your spouse, your boyfriend or your girlfriend - are ones whom you have hurt the most in your life? The longer that they have loved you, the more occasions there have been when you’ve broken their hearts. Your loved ones are the people you’ve hurt most precisely because they are your loved ones.

It is no different with God. God looks at our lives and he doesn’t just go, “Aha! I saw that sin. Gotcha!” What this passage teaches us is that God looks upon our sin; God looks at the pride and the boastfulness of our sin; and he says, “Woe!” Six times in this passage, God responds to our sin by saying, “Woe!” The essential scene in any Hong Kong drama serial, is where the main character falls on his knees and cries out, “Tinnn ahhh!!” (Meaning: Why God! or Why Heaven!) It is a cry of frustration; a lament of deep sadness and grief. When God says, “Woe!” he isn’t saying, “All of you are going to be fried papadams!” rather, God is grieving over their sin. God is saying, “Why? Why have you done this?”

Verse 8: Woe to you who add house to house...
Verse 11: Woe to those who rise early... to run after their drinks...
Verse 18: Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit...
Verse 20: Woe to those who call evil good and good evil...
Verse 21: Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
Verse 22: Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine

Today’s passage invites us to do something quite extraordinary: The bible is inviting us to take God’s view and to share God’s heart. It is inviting us to love the way God loves; but as a consequence of doing so, to be hurt the way God is hurt - by those whom he loves. Isaiah Chapter 5 teaches us four lessons:

1. How God’s love is spurned
2. How God’s grace is taken for granted
3. How God’s word is challenged; and
4. How God’s judgement is much worse than we think

God’s love, God’s grace, God’ word and finally, God’s judgement. Let’s look at Isaiah Chapter 5.

How God’s love is spurned

Isaiah begins with a love song. He picks up his guitar and begins to sing.

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.

It is a song about a farmer who gets down on his hands and knees and digs up the stones, clears the ground and plants a garden. It is hard, back-breaking work - but the farmer spares no effort or expense. He builds a watchtower and winepress - these were huge structures, one for protection, the other, for production. What he was building was a vineyard; he was growing grapes to make wine. It would have taken at least two years before any sign of a harvest, but when the first vines began to mature, the end of verse 2 tells us, “it yielded only bad fruit.” Literally, stinky grapes.

The story doesn’t end there. Isaiah turns to his friends and asks, “What more could I have done?”

What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it only yield 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.
Isaiah 5:4

“Erm, OK,” some of us are thinking, “That’s a bit extreme - tearing the whole place up over a few sour grapes.” That wasn’t what Isaiah’s friends would have said though. To build a vineyard of this scale would have been like pouring your life savings into a business venture only to have it fail completely. But even that doesn’t capture the emotional anguish of Isaiah’s song. This farmer went the extra mile. His vineyard was a labour of love. When we read that the farmer tears down the walls, leaving the plants exposed to the elements and uncared for, some of us might go, “It’s just plants. What’s the big deal?” But try telling the third-year London Met student from China that his degree is just a piece of paper and that “It’s no big deal.” He will say to you, “You are talking about my life.” Or tell the employee who has just been made redundant, “It’s nothing personal.” And they say, “What of the years I’ve given to this company? How can you say, it’s nothing personal?”

But as you’ve probably already guessed, Isaiah’s song isn’t about money or investments or plants. It’s about people. You can understand, can’t you, what it feels like when a person lets you down; when another human being spurns your generosity and love?

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Isaiah 5:7

We get that Isaiah is talking about people. Some of us are even smart enough to note that God is addressing a specific group of people - the house of Israel and men of Judah - meaning, men and women who have grown up knowing God and worshipping God all their lives. But many of us miss the fruit. We don’t ask, “What is God really looking for in my life?” We don’t ask, “What is the fruit?” or I suspect, we misunderstand what fruitfulness means. It’s not being successful. It’s not trying your best. It’s not even being good and well-behaved.

What is God looking for? In a word, it’s justice. “And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness but heard cries of distress.” (The Hebrew word qavah means to “expectantly wait for”, not simply to look at. It is the same word used of the grapes back in verses 2 and 4) God was waiting for his people to grow in righteousness and justice, but what this teaches us - and this is vitally important - is that righteousness and justice are a response to God’s love. Why is this important? When Christians live according to God’s ways, it is never to earn his love, but as a response to his love.

Or put it another way, when you have been married for a while, and you know that your husband likes Big Macs, and you make a trip specially to get a Big Mac for him, do you know what you are doing? You are seeking the good of your “Beloved,” as corny as it sounds, that’s what you are doing. You just to please him. That is what the bible means by righteousness and justice. It is acting in such a way as to reflect God’s righteousness in order just to please God, to acknowledge the goodness of his love. (The Hebrew word tzedekah means acting rightly in relationship to another person)

Conversely, sin is a personal rejection of God’s love. The New Testament says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.” (Romans 1:21) One of the reasons why we find it hard to sing hymns praising God for who he is is because there is something in us that just doesn’t want to owe anyone anything. Not our parents. Not our teachers. Not even God. The same passage from Romans says that every person on the planet has a sense of God as creator and sustainer, “people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)

But Isaiah is saying something even more significant than that. He is speaking to those of us who have known God’s love personally and intimately. We’ve grown up hearing about him. He has intervened in our lives again and again. Even with all these personal testimonies of God’s goodness, our hearts still turn against God. We spurn his love. Isaiah Chapter 5 isn’t a condemnation of the pagan unbeliever. No, it’s for you who have grown up here in the Chinese Church all these years, but have never given any serious thought to what it means to know this God. Our familiarity with God has bred a contempt for him, such that when we do sin, it’s something personal between us and God. When we do sin, we are displaying our stinky grapes with pride.

How God’s grace is taken for granted

The second lesson we learn from this passage is how God’s grace is taken for granted. Here, Isaiah describes the peculiar condition of the man who is so hungry for success but ends up in solitude.

Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field
till no space is left and you live alone in the land.
Isaiah 5:8

Here is a man who is hungry, who is passionate, who is ambitious. Here is a man who concentrates all his efforts in life on feeding his own hunger and appetite yet the irony of the whole thing is this: he is never satisfied. He always needs more.

Woe to those who rise early in the morning
to run after their drinks,
who stay up at night
till they are inflamed with wine.
Isaiah 5:11

Here is a word of application to those beginning their first year at university: Just because you can does not mean you should. Just because you can stay up all night to party; just because you are old enough to drink yourself under the table; just because no one is going to tell you who you should or should not hook up with, does not mean that you should.

Just in case you think I’m picking on those who like to go clubbing on the weekends, let me just say that this applies just as much to the hardworking student. Remember that Isaiah also speaks the ambitious man: The man who adds field to field, house to house is not unlike the student who climbs from degree to degree in the effort of separating himself from the lower classes. As a businessman, you must drive a businessman’s car. As a professor, you must sit with other professors in the dining hall. As a Cambridge student, you might go to a church that has other Cambridge students (and certainly not Anglia Ruskin students). Now I’ve heard every excuse under the sun, including the ones that go, “But I’m trying to reach other undergrads/ businessman/ academics with the gospel.” Yet in the very churches/workplaces/dormitories/housing these individuals are in, they sit alone, by themselves, away from everyone else. The reason? They are simply passing through. The are biding their time till they can graduate onto the next even more exclusive level.

Does that describe you and your life situation? You are always seeking yet never satisfied. You are always clamouring for more yet you are never quite content with what you have. Friends, heed the warning of the prophet Isaiah: God’s judgement on such selfishness is the promise of emptiness. Your mansions will become museums, your businesses will be bankrupt (verses 9 and 10). The very things you have worked so hard for will become worthless. And that’s just for starters.

Isaiah wasn’t speaking figuratively. In fact, things get pretty specific from verse 13 onwards - especially in reference to the exile. Two hundred years later, Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem and transported all its officials and noblemen back to Babylon (it’s where we get the account of Daniel).

Therefore my people will go into exile
for lack of understanding;
those of high rank will die of hunger
and the common people will be parched with thirst.
Isaiah 5:13

Eventually, God promises his people in exile, that he would bring them home. But there is none of that here. Here in Isaiah Chapter 5, there is only judgement and it’s there for a reason.

But the LORD Almighty will be exalted by his justice,
and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness.
Isaiah 5:16

This is saying something very important about God’s judgement and it’s this: God has every right to judge. “The LORD Almighty will be exalted by his justice.” Do you know what this is saying? God will be praised for his judgement, not inspite of it. He will be exalted. Why? Because it is the right response, it is the appropriate response - it is the only justifiable response - from a holy and righteous God. If he is God, he must punish sin. If God is a holy God, he must punish sinful men and women.

Now notice the same pair of words - justice and righteousness - as we met earlier on in verse 7. Back there, God was looking for our justice; God was patiently seeking our righteousness. Here in verse 16, we see his. What is this passage saying? When we do not respond to God’s love with the fruit of righteousness and justice, God will respond to our sin with his righteousness and his justice.

How God’s word is challenged

Despite these sober words of warning, there are always those who will question God’s judgement. The way they do that is by challenging his word. “The plan of the Holy One of Israel, let it approach... so we may know it.” They were challenging God to put into action all that he has spoken in his word.

Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit,
and wickedness as with cart ropes,
to those who say, “Let God hurry;
let him hasten his work
so we may see it.
The plan of the Holy One of Israel
let it approach, let it come into view,
so we may know it.”
Isaiah 5:18-19

After all, for Isaiah’s friends, all they kept hearing were words, words and more words. Where was this judgement he spoke of? “Let me see it, then I’ll believe.”

Isaiah was an odd fellow by our modern standards. He didn’t go up to his friends and say, “God loves you and has a plan for your life.” Nope, he said, “God hates your sin and will one day punish you for your sin.” If Isaiah turned up in the Chinese Church today, none of us would want to sit next to him, much less, ask him to help out at Sunday School (though I wonder if the kids would love having him as their teacher!) Why? Well, because this guy is just too extreme! He is insensitive and plain disrespectful!

But more than anything, I suspect the one reason why we read these words of Isaiah and get all hot and bothered under the collar is because he keeps talking about one thing over and over again: judgement. And while I do understand how important it is to be clear and loving when talking about God’s judgement here in the church, and when evangelising our friends and family, I want to also caution us from denying God’s judgement altogether. Because, you see, that’s what Isaiah’s friends were doing. They began by denying God’s judgement. And before long, they were denying God’s word altogether.

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight.
Isaiah 5:20-21

For a document that was written 2800 years ago, Isaiah describes a way of looking at life that is dominant in today’s thinking: postmodernism. Here were individuals reacting to Isaiah’s claims of judgement by rejecting God’s word altogether as objective truth. Good becomes evil. Evil becomes good. Who is to say which is which? This is all the more surprising, if you remember that Isaiah was talking to God-fearing Jews. They knew God, they knew the bible, yet in their cleverness, they twisted God’s word to suit their own lives and to justify their sinful lifestyles.

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine
and champions at mixing drinks,
who acquit (or justify) the guilty for a bribe,
but deny justice to the innocent (or take righteousness from the righteous).
Isaiah 5:22-23

Their motives were far from intellectual. These friends of Isaiah didn’t stumble into some new form of thinking that challenged all previous presuppositions about the bible which then caused their faith to come crashing down into pieces, resulting in their abandoning God and becoming free-thinking atheists. No, the reason was simply sin. They wanted to justify a lifestyle that wouldn’t condemn them. They wanted to do what they wanted to do without feeling guilty or worrying about the consequences. The wanted to to be heroes at drinking wine, champions at mixing drinks - alcohol was their calling. More interestingly, these same individuals justify (masdiqe = make righteous) the guilty and take the righteousness (wesidqat) from the righteous (saddiqim).

We’re back to the theme of righteousness. Previously God looked for our righteousness but found only wickedness. Then God responded with his own righteousness, which meant judgement over our sin. But here, something peculiar happens. The men and women of Isaiah’s day heard the warnings of God’s word and decided to redefine their whole understanding of righteousness altogether. They weren’t content with being innocent. They wanted to be right in doing wrong. They made the guilty righteous and they denied justice to the innocent. More than denying God’s judgement, the people of Jerusalem were distorting God’s word. And the reason for this was not intellectual doubt, it never is. It is sin and the desire to be justified in our sinfulness.

Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw
and as dry grass sinks down in the flames,
so their roots will decay
and their flowers blow away like dust;
for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty
and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel.
Isaiah 5:24

The section ends with God raising his hand in judgement against his people with a terrifying picture of death on the streets of Jerusalem (verse 25). You would think that that would be awful enough, but no. The very next verse reads:

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
his hand is still upraised.
Isaiah 5:26

There something worse than death, this verse seems to be saying to us. There is something more fundamental to God’s judgement than the horrible end to our physical existence. Which brings us to our final section: How God’s judgement is worse than we think.

How God’s judgement is much worse than we think

He lifts up a banner for the distant nations,
he whistles for those at the ends of the earth.
Here they come,
swiftly and speedily!
Isaiah 5:26

What follows is a picture of relentless destruction without a trace of mercy at the hands of Jerusalem’s enemies. God calls the armies of the enemy nations to utterly decimate the city. “Not one of them grows tired or stumbles,” meaning, there is no possibility of delay. “Their arrows are sharp, all their bows are strung,” meaning these are soldiers and executioners, not peacemakers and politicians. “They growl as they seize their prey, and carry it off with no one to rescue.” These invading forces pounce upon they prey hell-bent on destruction, but here is the shocking revelation: they are merely doing God’s will. He whistles for them, and the nations answer his call. They carry out his execution.

There is something more fundamental to God’s final judgement than death and it is this: God removes all traces of his blessing and presence. We see this in the closing words to the prophecy which draw our attention to the state of the land.

And if one looks at the land,
there is only darkness and distress;
even the sun will be darkened by clouds.
Isaiah 5:30

What we see here is the reversal of creation and total removal of God’s blessing upon the land. Even light is replaced with darkness. What this is saying is: God would no longer have anything to do with this place. This land would be utterly forsaken.

Do you know that the New Testament writers, in describing the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, include the curious description of the sky turning dark. Except they didn’t just say that sky turned dark, or that the clouds covered the sunlight. No, what they say is this: “Darkness came over the land.” And do you know what were the immediate words of Jesus right after that description? Do you know what Mark, Matthew and Luke recorded Jesus as saying, immediately following the darkness?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Friends, Jesus Christ didn’t simply just die on the cross. Death wasn’t enough. Do you know the bible is saying happened to Jesus on the cross? God the Father forsook his son. He removed all traces of his presence, his blessing, his love from the One being he truly loved from all eternity.

That is what it took for God to forgive your sin and my sin. God poured out all of his anger and punishment on Jesus. All that happened to Jesus before was nothing compared to this; whether it was the rejection of the crowds, the mocking of the soldiers, even the nails driven through his hands and feet. There was something which Jesus knew - and I dare say, even feared - worse than abuse, humiliation and even death itself. It was being forsaken by God the Father, but that was precisely what happened on the cross.

The story is told of a group of prisoners gathering for a bible study. (Gives new meaning to the phrase “cell group.”) The question was asked: Who killed Jesus? Some said, “Pilate.” Others said, “The crowd. They killed Jesus.” One man, who had been silent throughout the discussion, kept his head bowed down. “I did,” he answered solemnly. “I killed Jesus.” But friends, looking back at what we learned today, the bible is saying that the real answer is not Pilate, it’s not the crowd, it’s not even our sin - for all the punishment we deserve for our sin. On the cross, God killed Jesus. God condemned his own Son to take the penalty of our death on our behalf.

Why? As a display of his own love for us.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8

What does this mean for us? We’ll review the four lessons we learned from this passage - but in reverse order, looking at God’s judgement, God’s word, God’s grace and finally God’s love.

Firstly, God’s judgement. We see it part in these horrible pictures of destruction in Isaiah’s prophecy. But there is a place where we see it even clearer - and that’s the cross. On the cross, Jesus Christ took the full wrath and punishment for sin - which included death, but was more than death. It was complete separation from God, the author of life.

Secondly, God’s word. Part of our aversion to the whole topic of judgement stems from our denial of God’s word. Something like this really shouldn’t surprise you, if you have been reading your bibles.

Thirdly, God’s grace; and the lesson is simply this: Don’t take it for granted. Paul writes to the Corinthians says, “We urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.” (2 Corinthians 6:1) Paul was talking to Christians who knew the gospel, who had heard the gospel again and again, and he said to them, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” Meaning, don’t waste time. Respond to God’s offer of forgiveness in Jesus. Today.

Finally, God’s love. And the reminder for us as Christians is: nothing can ever separate us from God’s love through Jesus Christ - not even death. He who did not spare his own Son - but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him give us all things. That is a wonderful promise, isn’t it? In Jesus, there is no more condemnation. And because of the cross of Jesus, there nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the fullness of God’s perfect love.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:35-39

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