Sunday, November 9, 2014

Israel's Sour Grapes and the True Vine: A Sermon on Isaiah 5

Sermon on Isaiah 5 (specifically, Isaiah 5:1-8, 11-13, 15-16, 20-24); Jeremiah 2:21-22; Psalm 80:8-11, 14-19; and John 15:1-8.  Delivered 9 November 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The fourth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, and Isaiah 3-4.

The first four chapters of Isaiah introduce so many themes: To a wayward people, Isaiah points them to the true atonement, deeper than bulls and goats, which takes crimson sins and makes them whiter than wool. Isaiah calls us to repent of our hypocrisy, living and thinking one way on Sunday and another Monday through Saturday. In the darkest times, days of corruption and evil, Isaiah points us to the Branch of the LORD, to the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, to the mountain of the LORD's temple, to the word of gospel-peace going forth from the people founded securely upon Jesus Christ, the church's one foundation.

What we have here in Isaiah 5 is probably one of the first sermons of Isaiah's long prophetic ministry, maybe delivered before the death of King Uzziah, probably at the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three major feasts when the people of Judah would have made their pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Like many a poet and bard throughout history, I can see Isaiah walking the streets of the holy city, gazing out at the makeshift booths, offering to sing a love song, a song about a loved one's vineyard.

But that love song becomes a lawsuit. In Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard, he describes Israel as a vineyard specially chosen by its Owner. He did everything for the vineyard, everything a vine could ask for. Good soil? He planted it on a fertile hillside. Clear soil? He cleared it of stones. Good stock? Isaiah calls it “the choicest vines”. Protected? He built a wall, he built a watchtower, he built a winepress. And he looked for juicy grapes, the reason he planted the vineyard – but there were none (Isaiah 5:2-4).

We know Isaiah, we know his themes, we can see where he's going. But it probably took his first audience plenty by surprise! The vineyard owner is God. The vineyard is all of Israel (Isaiah 5:7). God did everything for Israel, more than they ever could have asked – he delivered them from Egypt, he planted them in the Promised Land, he cleared away the stony Canaanite peoples, he protected them from trouble. And all he wanted were good grapes, good fruit, the fruit of holy life. They weren't planted as an end in themselves, the final stop of God's rivers of blessing. No, they were planted with a purpose.

For all God did for them, you'd think he'd see those good grapes! But no – no, instead there are bad grapes, corrupt grapes. Literally, grapes worth nothing because they rot and they stink. Isaiah points out the contrast with a pair of puns: instead of mishpat, rightful judgment or justice, Israel gave God nothing but mispach, bloodshed; and instead of tsedaqah, righteousness, Israel gave God nothing but tseaqah, cries of distress. So there will be consequences. The wall of protection, gone; the nourishing blessings of heaven, withheld; the beasts, invited.

In his sevenfold woes, Isaiah paints a vivid portrait of Israel once again out of control. They have no respect for God; they're obsessed with leisure and partying; they're arrogant; they greedily grasp for more and more of God's land, stealing it away from the poor; and their degraded state leads to moral chaos, classifying good things as evil and evil things as good – a total subversion of right and wrong. An all-too-familiar picture today. Later, when the prophet Jeremiah picks up on the vineyard image, he stresses the inability of human effort to fix it: No matter what remedies they try, the vine stays stained, corrupt, filthy from the inside-out (Jeremiah 2:22). And so the nation was slated for devastation – Isaiah 5 ends with a call to the ungodly Gentile empires to come and do what they do best: be beastly.

Some time later, maybe decades, maybe centuries, someone wrote Psalm 80 to pick up where Isaiah left off. “How long, O LORD, God of hosts”, the psalmist asks, “will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?” (Psalm 80:4). Israel was one vine, plucked out of Egypt, planted in a cleared field, it filled the land, it towered over the cedars and the mountains – why does it go unprotected, why is it left to the boars and the bugs? The confused groan of God's people: Not yet fully grappling with their sin, yet desperate to be delivered – and hopeful. There's hope in a new shoot from the vineyard, a 'son of man' raised up at God's right hand; and only if God is with that man, can it be honestly said, “Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name” (Psalm 80:18).

Centuries went by, and the imperial beasts of Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome had their field day on that fertile hillside, ravenously ruling over God's oft-rebellious people. The vineyard of Israel didn't have a great track record. From a worldly point of view, it'd be hard to make a case for putting much stock in it. But now we come to John 15, where Jesus unfolds the new truth. He, the Son of Man, is the remedy for Isaiah 5 and the answer to Psalm 80. The Vineyard of Israel was full of sour grapes – but not him. He isn't a replacement, an alternative; he's the fulfillment. Jesus is the True Vine, just as his Father is and has always been the Divine Vinedresser (John 15:1). Jesus is the True Israelite, the One-Man Remnant, the Messiah, who was born of Israel to fulfill everything Israel was called and chosen to do and be.

Israel under the Old Covenant was so often a corrupt vine with stinking grapes – and they found the truth that no soap, no powder, no effort wrought by human hands, could ever make them clean. The stain of their guilt, all the bloodshed and distress, still remained before the Lord, only covered over and hidden from view by the blood of bulls and rams. No, they were no clean vine, and their branches were unclean – but Jesus, the True Vine, declares to his branches: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).

There, there we have it – what no ritual remedy could do, no works of the Law could do, was accomplished, finished, done while we were blinking, before we even took notice. “Already clean” – because the Voice of God, made manifest in Jesus Christ, declared it so. “Already clean” – because Jesus taught his people the New Law and wrote it on their hearts, not by quills on parchment but by the Spirit of God on human lives. “Already clean” – because “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy” (Ephesians 5:25-26). “Already clean” – when we drink in his word, when we turn to it again and again, when we learn his teachings and ways, when we inundate our souls with the spiritual flood of his purifying word, for “the words of the LORD are pure words, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times” (Psalm 12:6).

Jesus is the True Vine – and we are his branches, if we belong to him. Do we belong to him? How do we belong to him? By faith. We are united to Jesus through faith, for by trusting him, by clinging loyally and devotedly to him, we are grafted into him by the Spirit. Now, is this some easy-believism, a mere lip-service, a rote recitation of a creed uttered lazily on the lips but not really reflecting the mind and heart? No, no, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), but this is a living faith, a truly engaged and committed surrender to Jesus. In that faith, we cleave to him and open ourselves fully for his life to flow into us, to be lived in us – the Spirit, the nutrients of living witness, being nurtured by the Father through the Son into our lives, and expressed in great, big, juicy grapes of righteous mercy and holy love.

We can't bear those by ourselves – “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine” (John 15:4). If it doesn't proceed from faith, our vital connection with our Vine, then it's corrupted by the stinking stain of sour sin, for “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). No, the path of human initiative is a downward road – paved with good intentions though it may very well be. We must remain in the Vine, drawing all our life from the Vine. If we don't keep drawing our life from the Vine, partaking of his Holy Spirit through living relationship, then what? Then we wither; then we bear no fruit. “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6). Don't shoot the messenger – that's what the Vine says, and he would know. But if we are his branches, then we are already clean, already forgiven – forgiven, not because of our fruit, but in order to bear fruit!

So many religious traditions, so many natural human impulses, tell us that God will love and forgive us if only we can live up to his commandments, if only we can do the right rituals in the right way, if only we can say the right words and do the right things, if only we can be just a bit less sinful than the guy across the street. Such is legalism, such is moralism, such is works-righteousness. So many of our guilty instincts are wrapped up in this idea that, if a dead branch starts budding, that will qualify it to be added to the tree. That's a lie from the devil's own lips, filled with just enough half-truth to sidetrack us.

God doesn't love us 'if only we...', he doesn't forgive us 'if only we...' – God loves us and forgives us already, he cleanses us already, 'so that we...' Cleansing comes first, so that we can be part of the Vine; and only after we're the Vine's branches can the right fruit begin to grow. We don't obey to be redeemed, or even believe and obey to be redeemed; we believe to be redeemed to obey. Faith in the crucified-and-risen Christ meets the holiness of God's Spirit head on, and the explosive collision lights up the darkness with the fire of divine love.

That's the beauty of, “Already clean”. That's the beauty of, “Remain in me”. The beauty is, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). Israel under the Old Covenant didn't and couldn't – the soil was right, but the vines went wrong. Israel under the New Covenant is the holy church of God, the branches of a holy Vine, the true Israel: Jesus Christ and all his branches. Jesus is determined that his branches should bear fruit; it's an inevitable result of being his branches, being an earthly extension of his messianic life. That's what it means to be rightly called a Christian: to suffer pruning with him, so that we can share in his glorious fruit as we together with him glorify the Father (John 15:8; cf. Romans 8:17). He bears his fruit through us, once we're already in him by faith.

If we abide in him, if we cleave to him in faith, then we will bear fruit – if we let his life flow through us. We can try to block it, of course. We can refuse to be open. We can choke ourselves on our own stubborn stupidity, acting like we don't depend on him for everything. We can live as though the Christian walk were anything but Spirit-fueled. So often, that's just what we do, and we risk choking the spiritual life out of ourselves. Or, we can learn the blessed wisdom of just abiding – a disciplined openness to the Spirit of the Son, through which his life floods us and, although pruned for our own health, we bear abundant fruit to the glory of God.

When the frantic chaos of the world encroaches, we can clear time and space for God's gift of sabbath rest. When worldly voices vex and perplex, we can drown them out with the word of God, returning again and again to the scriptures. When the thorny troubles and cares threaten to choke the seedling of the kingdom, we can seek God's peace by anchoring our will in his through prayer and the other spiritual disciplines. When pride and self-sufficiency tempt us with their vision, we can humble ourselves and answer Christ's call: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Instead of bloodshed, cries of distress, greed, selfishness, pride – instead of any of these sour grapes, lo, behold, there are justice and righteousness, where we are chosen and appointed to be filled with the joy of the Lord and to love one another, just as the Father loves the Son and the Son loves his branches.

Beasts may ravage, but all their savagery can only be an instrument of God's pruning – and “if we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12). This True Vine of Israel, raised up from the dead, will never die, can never die – he lives and grows forever, and his eternal life flows through all his branches, the new Israel, the new way to be human. We, united with him, are planted for a purpose. Isaiah said, “I will sing to my beloved a song about his vineyard” (Isaiah 5:1) – how much more should we sing to all the world a song about the Father's True Vine, the Branch of the LORD, Jesus Christ, in whom we abide and bear much loving fruit to the Father's glory?

Lord, when this vine in Canaan grew,
Thou wast its strength and glory too!
Attack'd in vain by all its foes,
'Till the fair Branch of promise rose.

Fair Branch, ordain'd of old to shoot
From David's stock, from Jacob's root;
Himself a noble vine, and we
The lesser Branches of the Tree:

'Tis thy own Son; and he shall stand,
Girt with thy strength, at thy right hand;
Thy firstborn Son, ador'd and blessed
With pow'r and grace above the rest.

O! for his sake, attend our cry,
Shine on thy churches, lest they die;
Turn us to thee, thy love restore,
We shall be sav'd, and sigh no more.            (Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David [1791], 66).

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