Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Sermon Sketches: Isaiah 5 & 11 ~ A Taste of Hope

Note: I usually post an initial sketch on Monday or Tuesday of each week; then, I come back with a revised piece on Fridays. I hope my thoughts nourish your thoughts, that something here helps you think in the right direction for the congregation you serve. Cheers!

This week, the kind folk who prepare the Narrative Lectionary have given us two passages. The first, from Isaiah 5, gives us words of despair, disappointment, and coming destruction. The second, from Isaiah 11, gives us words of life, hope, and justice. Upon first reflection, I wondered which of the two I would decide to work with…I mean, after all, we can’t do both, right? Wrong. Let’s do both.

I’ve often told the congregations I serve that there is no ‘Good News’ unless there’s ‘bad news’ first. News is often made good or bad relative to what is going on or has gone before. To simply hear, “The stock market fell 35 points today,” may be bad or good news. If the market has been going up every day, a 35-point fall will be a bad thing. If the market has been falling by 100 points a day for the last three days, only falling by 35 points is a good thing! So, we may not recognize the good news if we aren’t aware of how bad things are or were. The two Isaiah passages help us see that things were bad...but there’s something good on the way!

As we have followed the story of the People of God, we have seen some recurring themes since the Garden: rebellion, disobedience, arrogance. God provides a Garden with just one rule, and the newly formed humans break that rule. God calls Abraham to found a new nation, and Abraham decides to do it his own way. The people are called out of slavery, out of Egypt, and asked to trust in God’s provision, and they grumble, complain, and take things into their own hands. And, so the story goes—God promises life, freedom, provision…and the people—in general—are selfish, arrogant, and oppressive.

In fact, as we look around us—at least here in North America—we see clearly that the injustice persists. Just reflect on our legal system and see who suffers most and who is let off easy. Just reflect on the disparity of wealth and the inequality of our healthcare system in America. The selfishness and arrogance continue—at all levels of our society. Just hop on Twitter. Venture with fear and trembling into a store on Black Friday. Or…glance in a mirror. We wish we could say, “Ah…those who are not Christians, who haven’t yet read the Bible…,” but even that is not the case. Some of our “Christian Leaders” are leading the charge of injustice and selfishness. And, perhaps the words of Isaiah this day are words the Church needs to hear, words that God is speaking to us:

I dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
I built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then I looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

I find it interesting that Jesus, too, tells a story about a vineyard. In Matthew 21:33-41, Jesus tells the story of a vineyard that is given to the care of others. The point is not the quality of the fruit but the arrogance and insolence of those who are caring for the vineyard. The focus moves away from the fruit to the caretakers…and Jesus calls those caretakers to task!

Isaiah, though, does look at the fruit, and through him, God complains against the people regarding their neglect of justice, righteousness.

“Righteousness”—one of those big ‘church words’ that we often have a sense of but couldn’t really define if we were put to the test. When I learned Spanish in my family’s international mission days, a lot of things became clearer for me in Scripture—those of you who know a second or third language know what I mean. In Spanish, the word for ‘righteousness’ is ‘justicia’ – yep, it’s another word for ‘justice.’ However, I’m also now convinced that the best way to understand ‘righteousness’ for those of us who are English-speakers is to get ‘eous’ (us!) out of the word: ‘rightness.’ Rightness: the right way of things, correctness, sense of ‘right.’ Re-read the passage and substitute ‘rightness’ for ‘righteousness’ and see if it doesn’t help a bit.

So, the people of God in Isaiah’s day (and perhaps the church today) have neglected rightness and justice. And God is disappointed. But all hope is not lost.

11 1A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

Hope! Someone comes who will change everything. Someone will come who will be empowered by the Lord to bring justice and rightness and goodness. The poor and the needy will finally find justice; the wicked will be brought down.

No passage initiates the Christmas season for me more than this passage. This hint at a coming change cracks open the door. It’s a taste of Advent before Advent. It’s peek at the Messiah before Jesus is born Messiah. And, it’s a vision of what we earnestly desire and hope for and crave…but has not yet come to be.

These readings call us in two directions. First, God has given us so much, provided a world to sustain and more…and we have squandered it. We’ve had every chance to produce ‘good fruit,’ and we’ve preferred bitter grapes. And, God is not pleased. Then, we hear words of hope—perhaps in this same garden a sprig, a shoot, a tender green branch grows that will change everything. Yes, there is hope—hope for the people of Israel centuries ago and hope for us today. We hold on to the hope. We wait for it. Isaiah is that same prophet who encourages us—

…But those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint. (Isa. 40:31)

May we—in the face of troubles, injustice, and un-rightness—hope in the Lord. Our strength will be renewed! We will soar like Eagles! What do you think? Sounds like good news to me. Amen.

Feel free to leave your own insights, questions, and words of encouragement below--perhaps they'll help us all as we strive to faithfully present this passage to our congregations. Blessings...

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