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.” 

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