Monday, September 26, 2016

A New Day

A New Day
Isaiah 58:1-12[1]
Most of us these days are looking for a change. We’re not happy with the way things are, and we want someone or something to come along and make things right. Or at least make them the way we’d like them to be. And we have all kinds of ideas about what that change should look like. If we just had the right job, or the right house, or the right person in our lives, then things would be the way we want them to be. But the hard and sometimes painful truth is that usually things are the way they are not in spite of what we’re doing, but because of what we’re doing. We’d much rather not have to face the fact that we have to be the change we’re looking for.
The people of Israel who were addressed by our lesson from Isaiah for today very likely had some of the same sentiments. They had been sent into exile in Babylon and everything about their former way of life had been destroyed.  Their dreams had been shattered, families had been torn apart, and even the Temple lay in ruins.  Then they saw the light of God’s deliverance and they were able to return to their homeland, only to find that it was still in ruins.  They had left one kind of exile for another! It was too painful for them to admit that they were the cause of what they were unhappy with. They’d much rather blame the Babylonians, or the Samaritans, or the foreigners among them. They were happy to scapegoat anyone rather than face the fact that the change they hoped for was delayed not in spite of what they were doing, but because of what they were doing.
That was the message of our lesson for today. Like the other prophets of his time, Isaiah paints a bleak picture of the spiritual condition of Israel.  They acted “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God” (Isa. 58:2). The people of Israel talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.  They busied themselves with the routines of their worship, and wondered why they didn’t see the changes they hoped for in their society.[2] And yet, the truth of the matter was that while the Jewish people were apparently extremely diligent about worshipping God, it did not make a difference in their lives.
Isaiah spelled this out in rather stinging indictment. Even in their worship they “served their own interest” rather than serving God (Isaiah 58:3). The way they lived their lives betrayed the fact that their profession of devotion to God was a hollow one (Isaiah 58:2). In fact, Isaiah could say that they had completely missed the purpose for their worship—to transform life (Isaiah 58:6-7).[3] Over and over again, the Bible insists that those who truly know God will truly love others by practicing justice and mercy toward the destitute and disenfranchised. If the people of God do not do so, the Bible challenges whether their devotion to him is truly authentic.
Unfortunately, the people of Israel were responsible for their own problems. The conditions of their lives that they hoped would change were so in spite of what they were doing, but because of what they were doing. They made a show of faith but failed to do what was right in the way they actually went about their lives.  The fact that they would withhold fair wages from their workers made it clear that their outward profession of faith did not relate to any inward spiritual reality. Isaiah didn’t let them off the hook with some theoretical ideas about how their lives should be lived.   He was quite specific:  they were to restore justice to the oppressed, they were to feed the hungry, they were to help those who were afflicted, and they were to provide clothing for the naked.[4]
But the picture Isaiah painted was not entirely bleak. He promised that when they repented of their ways, ways that oppressed the poor and denied justice to the weak, then and only then would they experience the change that they were hoping for.[5]  Then and only then would the light “break forth like the dawn,” and their healing will “spring up quickly” (Isa. 58:8).  Then and only then would the “gloom” that blanketed them turn to light (Isa. 58:10). Then and only then would they see the light of a new day dawning for them and for their people. Isaiah was so sure of this promise that he concluded his message with, “the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isa. 58:12).
One of the challenges with reading the prophets is that we don’t always know how things turned out. Did the people of Israel change their ways and find that new day dawning for them and their people? The prophets only delivered the message, they rarely reported the results. We have to look elsewhere to find the answer to that question. If we look at other historical sources to find out what happened to the Jewish people, I think we’d have to say that the results were definitely mixed. There were some—as is usually the case, a minority—who took the prophets words to heart and became the change they were looking for. But the majority of them rocked along, looking for scapegoats, professing their hollow faith, and asking God why he didn’t do anything about their difficulties.
We’re living in a time when a lot of people in our society are looking for change of some kind. Like the people of Israel, we have plenty of ideas about whom to blame for what we think is wrong. And we keep looking for someone to come along and fix what is broken. I’ve got some news for you: the problems in our society run deeper than any one person can change—I don’t care what color house they occupy. Only God can restore our society. But as the prophet Isaiah put it so bluntly, that will only happen when we recognize that things are the way they are because of what we’re doing. We will see the change we’re looking for only when we stop going our own way and start letting our profession of faith sink into our hearts so deeply that it motivates us to actually live out the justice and mercy of God. Then we as a people will see the dawn of a new day.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/21/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 204: ““The problem is not that the people are unreligious. … No, they are hyper correct in their religious observances and delighted to exhibit their piety, but in their very exercise of religion they miss the essential point, God’s order of compassionate justice.” Cf. also William Willimon, “When In Our Music God is Glorified,” a sermon preached 2/7/1999 at Duke Chapel: “What we believe about God is to be put into practice, embodied. As Isaiah tells us, it’s no good just to prattle on about God with our lips; it’s got to take over our lives.” Cf. also J. D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66 (Revised Edition), 845.
[3] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 205: “This passage locates God’s central concern in the exercise of justice and the practice of compassion. Without these, all the pious motions of religion are mere ‘as ifs.’” He says further, (ibid., 205-206) that the prophet presents “a rigorously moral understanding that places the one who would be true to God on the side of the same ones whom God reached out to help and empower, those suffering injustice at the hands of the authorities, those imprisoned for acts of conscience, those denied their fair share of the land’s produce, those denied housing and proper clothing, those turned away even by their own relatives.” The appeal is an impassioned one to the heart of the community. It is a plea to reclaim authentic humanity by replacing cold, calculating self-interest with acts of loving-kindness that restore genuine communal solidarity
[4] Cf. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 844: “All forms of bondage are distasteful to God, whether economic, political, or social. God’s people were and are intended to promote freedom.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 84: “If we want to be free ourselves, we must free others; if we want to arrive at peace, we must leave other people in peace. True spirituality cannot be a solitary, selfish experience of the self, for every self exists in the network of social and political relationships. … In Israel’s prophecy, the liberation of the oppressed was part of true fasting and belonged to the laws about the Sabbath.”
[5] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40–66” New Interpreter’s Bible VI:499, where he sums up the message of this passage well when he says, “Healing will come, the prophet promises, when the fruit of proper devotion is in evidence.”

Monday, September 05, 2016

Turn Around

Turn Around
Isa 5:1-7; Psalm 80[1]
There are times in our lives when “all’s right with the world and everything’s as it should be.” And then there are times when it seems like life is all wrong. Nothing makes sense, nothing fits, nothing works the way we thought it was supposed to. People of faith can respond to that kind of crisis in one of two ways. We may look to God devotedly, trusting that he will turn things around in his own way and in his own time. Or we may look at ourselves and wonder what we did wrong that we wound up in a place we never wanted to be. We may try to find our mistake so we can turn things around in our lives and make them better. Most of us probably respond to some extent in both ways.
I would say that in the light of Scripture both are right and both are wrong. It is good to recognize that everything in our lives is ultimately in God’s hands, and to trust him with the outcomes. But we can sometimes take that too far, falling into a kind of “magical thinking” that avoids responsibility for our actions. It is also good to acknowledge that we have “made our own beds” in some respects and to take ownership of the consequences of our choices and actions. But life is bigger than we can comprehend, and sometimes things just happen that we have no control over. It does no good to beat ourselves up for everything that is less than we had hoped.
I would say that our Scripture lessons for today encourage us to take an approach that balances the two. Both our lesson from Isaiah and from the Psalms speak of the people of Israel as God’s “vineyard.” In Isaiah, this analogy emphasizes that God was diligent and faithful in making sure that Israel had everything they needed to thrive. He picked a choice plot of land, he prepared the soil, he chose the best of vines, and he protected it with a hedge and a wall. By all rights, it was fair to expect that this vineyard would produce the best of fruit. But that’s not what happened. Instead of sweet, plump grapes, the vineyard produced hard, bitter grapes.
This analogy was meant to confront the people of Israel with the consequences of their own choices and actions. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, the LORD “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isa. 5:7). He had made every preparation to enable the people of Israel to follow his will and his ways, to establish his justice in their land so that all people could thrive together.[2] Instead, what happened was what always happens—the powerful took advantage of the weak, the rich oppressed the poor, and the high and mighty didn’t hesitate to use violence to get what they wanted. Instead of shouts of joy from a people who were blessed with God’s peace, there were cries of distress over the injustice and the oppression they suffered.
Because of this, Isaiah warns the people of Israel that God was going to judge them. In the terms of the vineyard analogy, he was going tear down the wall and the hedge protecting it and leave the vineyard at the mercy of any who happened to pass by. As I’ve said before, the point of judgment in the Bible is not for God to gloat over those who have gone astray. Rather, it is meant to bring them back to the right path. In this case, if the people of Israel wanted to turn things around, they were going to have to turn themselves around. Only then would they truly thrive.
But as I mentioned earlier, some of what happens to us in life is beyond our control. No amount of turning around on our part can change it. We may not like it, but life is bigger than we can manage, and sometimes things just happen. That’s where our lesson from the Psalms comes into play. It is a prayer that comes from the recognition that ultimately our lives are in God’s hands.[3] The only way some things are going to change is if God turns them around. And so the refrain of this Psalm is a prayer for God to do just that: “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Ps. 80:19).
I find it interesting that this Psalm also uses the analogy of a vineyard for the people of Israel.[4] But the point of the analogy is quite different. Here, the psalmist insists that the vineyard has thrived; it has filled the land in which it was planted. In light of that, he gives voice to the painful question, “why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” (Ps. 80:12). Unlike the prophet Isaiah, the psalmist has no answer to this question.[5] There is no rebuke or judgment here. The fate of the people remains a mystery. The only recourse is for them to turn to God and ask God to turn things around.[6] And the hopeful promise is “Then we will never turn back from you” (Ps. 80:18).
The paths that our lives take can make it difficult at times for us to believe that God’s “steadfast love endures forever.” We throw our whole hearts into living out our faith in the best way we can, and sometimes rather than a blessing, life brings us crushing blows. Part of what the Scriptures have to teach us about this is that sometimes this kind of crisis comes because of the choices we’ve made. If we want to turn things around, we have to turn ourselves around. But that’s only part of the lesson. The Scriptures also teach us that there are times when life’s twists and turns simply come, no matter how faithful we may be. Because life is bigger than we can ever understand, in those times we must realize that our lives are ultimately in God’s hands, and only he can turn things around for us.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/14/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39,” New Interpreters Bible VI:90 “In the biblical perspective, the foundation of all calls for human justice is the conviction that God is just. In Isa 5:1-7, the prophet contrasts the justice and generosity of the Lord with the unjust behavior of God’s people, and justice is understood in relationship to righteousness.” He defines “righteousness” (ibid., 89) as “that relationship with the Lord from which springs loyalty to the Lord’s expectations of justice.” Cf. similarly H. Wildberger,  Isaiah 1-12, 64, 185.
[3] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 262: The prayer of the psalm appeals “to the God who leads his people through the perils of history and saves them from its dangers.” Cf. also J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:999, where he says the language of the Psalm suggests that God is absent or inattentive. Nevertheless, the “designation of God as the one ‘enthroned upon the cherubim’ (see 1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps 99:1)” emphasizes God’s sovereignty. He continues, “Despite appearances to the contrary, the people still affirm that God reigns supreme.” Cf. further Artur Weiser, The Psalms, 548, where he says that this Psalm is based on the “faith which knows man’s whole existence to be in the hand of the mighty God.” Cf. at length, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.730-32.
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 263, where he observes, “Isaiah told this parable to express the disappointment of God. The psalm’s parable introduces the anguish and bewilderment of the people over the contrast and contradiction between what God began and what he now has done, leaving it exposed for strangers to gather the fruit of the vine and for wild animals to ravage the vine (vv. 12-13).”
[5] Contrast McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1000, where he says, “The poignant question in v. 12 receives no answer. Instead, the psalmist renews the petition, ‘Turn again’ or ‘Repent, O God of hosts’ (v. 14a). … Thus the renewed request in Ps 80:14 implies that the answer to the question in v. 12 is that God is punishing Israel for its sin.”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 264: “The psalm is a witness that the congregation must in the long last and in its extremity look away from its own repentance to a kind of repentance in God—his turning away from wrath and returning to grace.” Cf. also McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1001: “lest we be tempted to focus on our own efforts in these matters, Psalm 80 proclaims that our lives ultimately depend on God’s gracious willingness to repent.”