We’ve made quite a journey through the Bible this fall. We started with the Creation story and moved through the fathers of faith, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We met King David who was the second king of the united nation of Israel and his son Solomon who was the third and final king of the united kingdom. We read about Rehoboam and Jeroboam who were King Solomon’s sons who split the kingdom into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Last week, we heard the prophesy of Hosea who was a prophet to the northern kingdom through whom God promised grace to the people of Israel. Today, we read the words of the prophet Isaiah who was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah.
There are some things we should know about who a prophet was and what he did. A prophet was outside of the religious and political life of the Jewish people. There were priests who led the religious practice and devotion in the Temple. There were kings who governed the political, judicial and military life of Judah. The prophet was neither priest nor king. The prophet was independent of the influence of power that sought to control the king and priest. The prophet’s job was to call into question the practices of the priests and kings who may not have been what God expected of His leaders in the Temple or palace. Today, prophets are much different. Typically, prophets, like Martin Luther King, Jr., are part of the church who call into question the practices of both the people and the government.
Prophets are visionaries who predict the future. They don’t know exactly what God is going to do. They tell the people what they hear from God. They know who God is and see the landscape of the nation and world. They tell what they think God will do based on what they see coming, the direction the world is going, and who God is. They call the people to repent of their sin that is leading them in the wrong direction and gives them the prescription for new, right behavior that could change the course they’re on. A prophet’s words are inspired by God, but they don’t know what God will do if He changes His mind or the people change their ways. The prophet had a spiritual experience of vision that can’t be described or understood by one who does not have the gift of vision or prophesy.
In the time Isaiah was a prophet, Ahaz was king of Judah and the Assyrian army was marching toward Egypt. King Pekah in Israel was pressuring King Ahaz of Judah to form an alliance to fight Assyria. The king of Israel was doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord and the king of Judah was doing what was good in the sight of the Lord. And, the priests had 3 covenants to hold the people to. First was the covenant with Abraham that said God will be the God of the people and the people will be God’s chosen people. Second was the covenant with Moses which said love the Lord and love your neighbor. Third was the conviction that the people of God were blessed to be a blessing to others and they were not to be like other nations. They were supposed to trust God and God alone.
The prophets often used metaphors for describing the relationship between God and the people. Hosea used the metaphors of an unfaithful spouse and rebellious child to describe Israel and God as a hurting spouse or worried parent. In the prophesy of chapter 5, Isaiah uses the metaphor a vineyard. God tells in these verses about all the care He has given in preparing and protecting the vineyard. God hoes, irrigates, prunes, protects from pests and harvests the vines. He builds a wine vat and presses the grapes. But, after all this care, the vines produce grapes that taste bitter and aren’t suitable for good wine. God will judge the nation of Israel for their transgressions and their punishment will be their defeat by Assyria.
Our Scripture readings for today then jump from chapter 5 to chapter 11, but I want to tell you a little about chapters 6 – 10. In them, the prophet Isaiah gives the people a chance to repent. Their greatest sin is fearing Assyria more than fearing the Lord. The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about fear of the Lord. It says: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. Fear of the Lord is humble and adds length to one’s life. Fear of the Lord defeats evil. God wants Judah and her king to make decisions out of fear of the Lord and trust in the Lord not out of fear of the enemy.
When we make decisions based on fear, we often don’t make wise decisions. I think we can think of this in terms of our nation’s response to terrorism. We can best liken Judah’s fear of Assyria to our fear of terrorists. We see terrorists killing innocent French, Mali and Russian people recently. We hear of reports of kidnappings and beheading of Christians. We see thousands fleeing their nation in fear.
And, we respond with fear. We want to go in and annihilate terrorists. We want to give everything we have to wipe them out, because we’re afraid of them coming to our soil and hurting our people. It is hard to know what to do, what is righteous and faithful in fear of the Lord. We only saw an end to past terrorists like Hitler when we engaged them in war with partner nations. But, we see the instability we created in the Middle East by constantly trying to arbitrarily draw boundaries around nations, overthrow dictators and control democracies for our best interest. It has been argued that we created Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS by our meddling.
We’re afraid to take in refugees because they could be terrorists. Yet, the story of Christ is the story of peasant refugees being welcomed as strangers in a strange land and hiding from a corrupt leader. The Old Testament calls people to welcome the stranger, to protect them and provide for them shelter and food. We feel like we can’t trust God because we haven’t seen God acting in protecting the world from terrorism.
We should look to verse 7 of chapter 5 for God’s condemnation of our fear. Verse 7 says: “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 the oppressed.”
This chapter is a love song. The chapter begins with “I will sing for the one I love.” It is a haunting song of giving up on your love, because they are not acting as you expect them to. There is a song that is about 2 years old by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera called “Say Something.” It is a love song from one who is giving up on his love. It may be a modern take on the love song Isaiah sings on behalf of God. The song “Say Something” goes like this:
Say something, I’m giving up on you…
Anywhere, I would’ve followed you
Say something, I’m giving up on you…
I’m sorry that I couldn’t get to you…
I will swallow my pride
You’re the one that I love
And I’m saying goodbye
Say something, I’m giving up on you.
In the history of music, there are lots of love songs about a love that didn’t work out. One lover sings about how they have been hurt by their lover. Isaiah sings this love song of chapter 5 like a lover hurt by a broken relationship. “There is no more righteous anger than a lover who’s been spurned.” (Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher Podcast.) The best love songs are the ones we can relate to, the songs that we say, “I know what he’s going through. I’ve felt that.” And, that’s what Isaiah hopes to achieve with his love song prophesy. Isaiah wants the people to draw on their feelings of being hurt in a relationship and the anger they felt.
God is giving up on Judah. He expected justice and righteous of His people, but He got bloodshed and oppression. The people have disappointed God and He doesn’t know what to do but leave them. But, can we hear the message to the lover who has been hurt? Can we hear that we are the one who caused the pain? It is easier to think of how we have been hurt than to think of how we have hurt others.
One response, if we hear the inverted message, might be Justin Bieber’s new song, “Sorry.” The song goes:
You know I try but I don’t do well with apologies…
I just need one more shot at forgiveness…
I know you know that I made those mistakes…
Maybe a couple a hundred times…
Let me redeem myself tonight
Cause I just need one more shot at second chances
Is it too late now to say sorry?
But the people never got to that response. They didn’t repent of their ways. They didn’t see the hurt they had caused and didn’t apologize. They didn’t ask for forgiveness. And, like Hosea told the people of Israel, God changed His mind anyway. Isaiah has a word of hope for the people of Judah. God has changed His mind and offers a word of hope. God won’t spare the whole nation of Judah, but God will spare a remnant of the righteous in the nation.
In chapter 11, Isaiah tells about that remnant as one who God’s Spirit of anointing will rest upon. This is a text often read during Advent as a way of understanding who Christ will be and how God will save through this Messiah. It seems appropriate to read this text, if not in Advent, just the week before Advent starts. Christ will come as the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, to save the remnant of the righteous.
Our hope, as we begin decorating our homes and sanctuary for Christmas, as we begin shopping for Christmas presents and attending Christmas parties, as we begin our Christmas cards and saying “Merry Christmas”, our hope is that there is a Savior who redeems the righteous and faithful, because that is who God is, a Redeemer who was born to set the oppressed free, who will bring justice and peace, who will…right the wrongs of the world…if only we respond to terrorism and refugees out of fear of the Lord…not fear of evil.
I don’t know that war is the wrong or right answer. I don’t know that bombs and drone strikes is or isn’t the response of righteous indignation. I know that any response made, if made in prayer, will be righteous and faithful. Perhaps this year, we ‘ll be able to sing, “Happy Xmas”:
A Very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear