Sunday 9 September 2012

For the love of God (Isaiah 5:1-7)

In honour of the all-men worship team leading us in prayer and praise today, I want to preach today’s sermon in such a way as to help us men come to grips with what it means to love God completely and unashamedly as men of God. As brothers in Christ.

When I sent out the details of today’s talk to the worship team yesterday afternoon, the bible reader wrote back saying, “Are you sure it’s just these seven verses? There doesn’t seem to be much to talk about...”  I was praising God in my heart when I got that message, because here is a guy who isn’t satisfied with snacking when it comes to God’s word. He wants a feast! This was my reply, “You’re quite right. I am hoping to use Isaiah’s song in those seven verses as a summary of the chapter.”

God has a lot to say to us here in Isaiah Chapter 5, but I think (and I pray that I’m right in saying this) that the song at the beginning of the chapter is more than just an introduction to the main content of the chapter. It is more than just the opening act. Isaiah’s song is itself a sermon and what follows after those seven verses is an explanation and expansion of that same sermon.

Think for a moment about the songs that we sing here at the Chinese Church. Paul has chosen good songs for us to sing today. In our opening song, we sang these words, “You the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son.” That’s from Isaiah Chapter 53, verse 10. We were singing the bible to one another. If I were to preach a good sermon today, maybe you’ll remember the main point of what I said or be able to recall one of the illustrations that I gave. But when you hear a good song, it sticks! It plays over and over in your head and you hear it all week - at home, on the way to work, when you’re doing the laundry. If you think about it, really, we have two sermons every Sunday here at the Chinese Church, not just one. You have this sermon that I’m preaching to you right now, but earlier on, we had another sermon - one which all of us were singing one another. Colossians Chapter 3, verse 16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom,” that’s what I’m doing now, but then Paul adds, “and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”

Isaiah does both. He preaches God’s word by singing a song to God’s people. It’s just seven verses long, but I have six big points for us to take home today from these seven short verses.

1. Loving God means knowing what God loves

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
Isaiah 5:1

You can’t love someone without knowing what it is that they love. A husband will want to know what his wife really wants for her birthday - which probably isn’t another i-gadget thingy.

Isaiah sings about his love for God but the whole song is about what God loves, did you notice that? He isn’t gushing about how much he loves God. Instead, every line of the song is about something that God loves, namely his vineyard. “I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard.”

Now some of us are very uncomfortable displaying our emotions in public, while some of us wish we had more choruses declaring our love for Jesus. Isaiah’s song teaches us that there is a deeper underlying issue to this than just our emotions. On the one hand, Isaiah is unashamed to call God his beloved - he does it twice in the first verse. On the other, Isaiah’s song isn’t about his love for God; it’s about God’s love for his people.

Isaiah loves God because Isaiah knows God. He knows what God loves. Do you? Perhaps the reason why you have so much trouble singing a song like, “Knowing Jesus, there is no better thing; You’re my all, you’re the best, You’re my joy, my righteousness,” and when you get to end and sing, “And I love you, Lord,” your voice just drops a few notches; is because you’ve missed the point of the song. You have to know Jesus first in order to love Jesus - isn’t that the whole premise of the song? Knowing you, Jesus?

Furthermore, notice that right in the beginning, Isaiah is singing for God. The phrase could equally be translated “to,” as in, “to God,” but both the NIV and ESV read “for God”, and I agree with that. Why is this important? Isaiah is singing for God - on his behalf - to please God. That is why he sings about something that is close to God’s heart. I think that this really applies to the songs we sing here in the Chinese Church. The kind of songs that God is pleased to hear us sing aren’t just the songs that go, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” but the songs which say to God that we love the things that he loves. We love his church. We love his ways. We love his Son Jesus Christ. We love his word. We love the cross.

2. God displays his personal, attentive love through his handiwork in creation

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 well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
Isaiah 5:2

Isaiah’s song is a mini-creation story of God as a gardener who gets down on his hands and knees and plants a vineyard. It is a labour of love. Isaiah tells us how the farmer digs up the stones and clears the ground. This was hard, back-breaking work which the farmer did single-handedly. Because he was planting grapes, it would have taken at least two years for the vines to mature and produce fruit, which is why the line which says, “Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,” would better be translated as “waited” for a crop of good grapes. But as we waited patiently for the vines to mature, he spent the two years building a watchtower and cutting out a winepress (which involved digging into the limestone rock in the hill - not an easy thing to do).

What is the point of this illustration? God’s love is visible. You can see it in his creation. He displays it in his work. It is even saying this: Authentic, personal love ought to be visible through a person’s initiative and effort.

Guys, you might have a hard time displaying your emotions, but you can still make your love visible - through your considerate and consistent work. The apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.” (1 Thessalonians 4:9) “I don’t need to tell you about how to love,” Paul says, “You already know this.” But then he turns around as says, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands.” He hasn’t changed the subject - he’s still talking about love - but what he is saying is, “Show your love through your work, but putting love before your work.”

Guys understand this. Paul even says to Christian men, “You know this.” And yet, we forget. We say to our wife and kids, “I’m working this job for you - to put food on the table, to put you through school, to pay the bills.” But time and time again, we put our jobs ahead of our wife and kids. We forget that we are meant to use our work to serve our loved ones and we end up using our loved ones to serve our work.

Isaiah says to us, “Look at God’s work. Just look at it. See how concerned he is for his vineyard. See how he gets his hands dirty. See how he lavishes his time and money on it.” Could you say the same about your work?

3. God’s love is not beyond our understanding

Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
Isaiah 5:3-4

Isaiah is reasoning with his friends. “Think about it.” Isaiah says, “Judge between me and my vineyard.” He was saying, “What do you think?”

We need to remember that this was not a high-level debate between scholars and thinkers. It was an open invitation to the people of Jerusalem. Isaiah’s song was about a farmer and I wonder if many of his hearer weren’t simply farmers themselves. Similarly, when Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he frequently used illustrations involving agriculture and fishing and occurrences from everyday life. For us, here in Cambridge, we need to remind ourselves that just because someone doesn’t have a Cambridge degree, or speaks a different language, or is much younger or older than us, does not mean that he or she does not have the means to understand God’s word and respond to the gospel. We should never be afraid to ask, “So, what do you think?”

But there’s another reason why Isaiah assumes that his hearer immediately understood what he was saying. He was appealing to their experience of being disappointed in love. They knew, and you all know, that this song wasn’t about a farmer and his vineyard. It was a parable about love that had been rejected. And here we see the genius of Isaiah, he is appealing to their hearts. “What would you do in the face of such disappointment, after lavishing so much care and attention of someone you love?” CS Lewis once wrote:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

What was CS Lewis saying? If you know love, you will certainly know the hurt of having your love spurned. “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” You know that. You’ve experienced that.

And Isaiah’s point is: God has, too. Do you see the genius of this song? It isn’t simply about how lovely God is, or how loving God is. It is a song about how God’s love has made him vulnerable. It is a song about how God’s heart has been broken.

4. God’s judgement should not surprise us

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 or cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it.
Isaiah 5:5-6

The first line of verse 5 signals a radical shift in tone. Isaiah says, “Now, listen here, alright, this is definitely what I’m going to do.” He is telling his audience, “Make no mistake about this: This is going to happen.” He wants his hearers to have no doubt about his intent, his plans, his motives, his course of action.

What God does is dismantles his creation. That’s pretty important because the farmer doesn’t throw a stick of dynamite into this field and blow the whole thing up. (Yes, I know they didn’t have dynamite back then, but you understand what I mean!)

What does the farmer do? He takes away the hedge - and that leads to destruction. He breaks down the wall - and this allows wild animals to come in and trample the plants. He stops watering and pruning the vines - and this leads to weeds growing in the fields. It is cause and effect. The farmer takes away all structures of his work, he removes all protection from the vineyard and this inevitably leads to its destruction.

Now, this is not to say that God will not personally pour our judgement. He will and I’ll talk about this a little while later. The point in these verses however is the reversal of creation. God is removing his protection and all signs of his presence from this world and even this is enough to lead to its destruction.

Isaiah is saying: God’s judgement should not surprise us. Notice how God keeps saying, “I will... I will… I will... I will.” There will come a day when God will pour out his judgement for sin and when that day comes it mustn’t surprise us, especially if we claim to know his word. Friends, when was the last time you read about judgement in the bible? When was the last time you discussed it in your bible studies? When was the last time it was preached from the pulpit.

If you look ahead to Chapter 5 verse 19, we meet foolish men who question God’s judgement by denying God’s word. “Let God hurry,” they say, “let him hasten his work so we may see it. Let it approach, let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come, so we may know it.” Now what kind of person would challenge God to hurry up and judge them for their sins? It’s not someone who hasn’t read their bibles. Friends, this is describing someone who knows the bible but ignores what it says and twists it to suit their needs. The following verses read, “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)

If we are faithful in preaching God’s word here in the Chinese Church, we ought not to be surprised by God’s judgement, and yet...

5. And yet, we are often surprised by God’s judgement on our sin

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

The hardest thing to get across is not, “God will judge the world because of sin.” You say that, and sometimes an overly keen listener will shout out, “Amen, preach it, brother!” No, the hardest thing to get across is this: “God will judge me for my sin.”

That’s the revelation of verse 7. “The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel.” It’s not world out there. It’s not the pagan nations who are bowing down to idols. The vineyard is us. It’s our church. It’s my brothers and sisters at Rock Fellowship. We have turned against God. We are the ones who have rejected his love.

But someone might say to me, “But those guys had blood on their hands. Doesn’t verse 7 say, ‘he looked for justice but saw bloodshed, for righteousness but heard cries of distress’? I mean, our church isn’t perfect, but we don’t have any robbers or murderers of convicted felons.”

It is true that verse 7 speaks of bloodshed and violence, but the song doesn’t actually end there. You see, the next sixteen verses from 8 to 23 are an expansion of sins of verse 7. What we have there are six “Woes” that God pronounces on Israel. Let me quickly list them out for us. As I do, ask yourself, is this something that applies to us today?

“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) This guy who adds house to house isn’t greedy - that’s not his problem. No, he wants to be alone. The reason he climbs the career ladder; the reason he studies for one degree and then another; the reason he hops from church to church - is not be more accomplished or successful. No, it’s so that he doesn’t have to answer to anyone. He “live(s) alone in the land.”

“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; also 5:22) Sounds like the typical undergraduate, but then again, the problem here is not simply drunkenness. The next verse talks about harps, lyres and banquets - meaning, food, music and partying. It is describing addiction. “Therefore the grave enlarges its appetite and opens its mouth without limit.” (Isaiah 5:14) They throw themselves into the pursuit of pleasure and yet the more they indulge themselves, the emptier it feels. They keep searching for that next high. It is a biblical analogy for idolatry, the worship of something that never truly satisfies.

“Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit.” (Isaiah 5:18, also 5:20 and 21) It is talking about the person who justifies his sinful actions by denying God’s word. He denies God’s judgement (“Let it approach... so we may know it,” Isaiah 5:19), he twists God’s word to suit his purposes (“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,” Isaiah 5:20), and he thinks he is clever enough to argue his way out of trouble (“Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight,” Isaiah 5:21).

What are these woes describing? Selfishness, addiction and pride. They are describing our sins, our offences before a holy God, are they not?

Even after seven years of living here in the UK, I still love reading the newspapers from back home in Malaysia. Every day, I log on to the website and catch up with the happenings back home. What is interesting is to read the international section of the news, which is about five pages long, covering the events of the entire world. The articles are entirely imported from foreign newspapers, so what the Malaysian newspapers have to do is pick and choose which ones they think are the most interesting; which ones their readers want to read. Inevitably, these will include the most sensational news and the most controversial news - wars, violence, gossip, embarrassing mishaps by famous people. I wondered: What if the newspaper had to publish just one page of news on my life every day? Would someone reading it go, “How could Calvin do that? Gasp, I never knew Calvin could be so sinful! Huh, Calvin really messed up there!” We read everyday about the mistakes and mishaps of others and we shake our heads. Rarely do we take a moment to consider how God sees all too clear the sin that is in our hearts. He sees our selfishness, our self-worship and our pride.

They are as serious before his eyes as bloodshed and violence, because friends, these are offences that we commit against him.

Therefore the LORD’s anger burns against his people;
his hand is raised and he strikes them down.
The mountains shake,
and the dead bodies are like refuse in the streets.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.
Isaiah 5:25

At the end of the six woes, Isaiah records God’s certain judgement upon his people. Here, unlike the farmer in the parable of the vineyard, God himself is the agent of destruction - his hand is raised; he strikes them down. Yet for all this, Isaiah say, God’s anger is not quenched. Now what is Isaiah saying? He is telling us that there is a punishment far worse than death for our sin. There is a judgement that is more fearful than physical death.

Which brings us to our final point.

6. Only those who see their sin, see their Saviour

The surprising thing about God’s final judgement is that it falls on the city - not just its sinful people, who have rebelled against God and are destroyed by his anger - but the city itself. From verses 26 onwards, God summons the enemy nations from distant lands to descend upon Jerusalem to completely destroy the land.

Think back to Isaiah’s song, doesn’t this sound familiar? The farmer removes the hedge, he tears down the wall and what happens? It is trampled. It is destroyed. It isn’t enough to simply rip the vines from the ground and throw them into the green recycling bin. No, every trace of the farmers blessing upon the land is removed and it is the same here. God’s final and most fearful judgement is seen in the destruction of the land when he removes every sign of his presence, of his blessing and of his love. All that is left is darkness.

And if one looks at the land,
he will see darkness and distress;
even the clouds will be darkened by the cloud.
Isaiah 5:30

Eight hundred years later, the New Testament records a single day when darkness fell upon the city in such a way that they didn’t simply say “the sky turned black” or “the sun was covered.” No, gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke all say this, “darkness came over all the land.” As that happened, the gospels go on to tell us that a lone voice was heard crying out to the heavens, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

What were the gospels telling us? Something far worse happened that day when Jesus Christ died on the cross. He didn’t merely suffer death at the hands of men. He was abandoned by God. Forsaken. God the Father, who from eternity past had loved his Son, now removed all signs of his presence, his blessing and his love from Jesus, his Beloved One, and God did this to demonstrate his love for you and me.

Looking at the cross means seeing how serious my sin is. It cost God the the death of his Son. But looking to the cross, I also see my Saviour. Jesus took my sin and gives me his righteousness and love.

And if we understand the purpose of Isaiah’s song, we see one more thing at the cross - we see the Beloved. Here is the one true treasure of God, Jesus is the One whom God loves, and the way to truly know God is to know Jesus and the way to truly praise God is to sing of the One his loves: our Lord Jesus Christ.

Your blood has washed away my sin
Jesus, thank You
The Father’s wrath completely satisfied
Jesus, thank You
Once Your enemy, now seated at Your table
Jesus, thank You

Lover of my soul
I want to live for You
(“Jesus, thank you,” by Sovereign Grace Music)

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