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Friday, 14 July 2017

Isaiah 5:1-7: The Lord's Vineyard

Isaiah's picture of a vineyard is famous. It's another vivid, memorable, unavoidable image of Israel in all their failings ("This is what you are, compared to what you should be.") It's an image taken up by others,- Jesus for instance - so much so that he only had to say "A man planted a vineyard ..." and everybody immediately knew what he was going to talk about.

Everything was right about this vineyard. It had the perfect location, carefully prepared soil, the best vines chosen to be planted, a watchtower, a winepress, a protecting wall.

So God says to the people, "What more could I have done for you?" I gave you the best of everything. And yet, when I came to taste your fruit, it was disgusting!

Can you imagine what it looks like? Healthy plants, well cared for, abundant fruit hanging temptingly from every branch. But when you taste a grape, you gag and spit, because it is so sour.

God turns away in disgust from his people. He stops caring for them. Weeds take over, the wall is broken down. Even the rain stays away.

God's people had it all. And they gave nothing back. God came looking for justice, and saw bloodshed. He listened for righteousness, and heard a shriek of distress.

I'm taking a break now, for holiday purposes. See you in August.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Isaiah 4:2-6: The New Jerusalem

The rest of chapter 4 is a dramatic flip. After exposing the flaws of present day Jerusalem to dramatic, forensic, poetic scrutiny, Isaiah switches the focus abruptly to the future.

All that filth is going to be washed away. God isn't finished with Jerusalem. We're back to the vision of what the perfect Jerusalem could be: holy, beautiful, glorious.

Who's this branch? We'd better get used to this idea, it's going to crop up a lot. Let's pretend we don't know what it means for a minute. Perhaps you don't know - fine then!!

Picture an old, gnarly, broken-down tree.

Now imagine a new, young branch, growing out from it, near the root. New life and energy, bursting out from something that seemed nearly dead. Young, fresh, full of sap and vigour, encapsulating all the qualities that the old tree had in its far-off youth.

This righteous branch, this shoot from the stump, is a sign of new hope when all around looked tired and old and as good as dead.

The dream of what Israel could be - a chosen race so magnetically attractive that people would stream to the hill of Zion to meet the living God - this dream seems lost, and Isaiah is the first to tell us so.

But he also tells us that the there's life in the old tree yet. That God hasn't given up on his plans for Judah and Jerusalem.

One day, God's presence will be back. The pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that led them through the wilderness will again hover over Jerusalem, his love will overshadow them like a bridal canopy.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Isaiah 3:16-4:1: Warning to Jerusalem

The first Bible I bought for myself was a Good News Bible. Annie Valloton's line drawings made a great impact on me - illustrating and helping me remember the message of the text. I vividly recall the pictures she drew for Isaiah 3: a beautifully dressed woman, haughtily stepping along, like a model on a catwalk. Then, the same woman in the same pose, her nose in the air, but stripped naked of her finery.

Isaiah uses his word skills to achieve the same effect, listing every piece of adornment the proud woman is wearing, and stripping them all away.

Shame, shame, shame.

Yesterday, people were grabbing hold of a man with a cloak and saying "Be our leader!" Today, women are grabbing hold of any available man and saying "Marry me! Give me status!"

One of Isaiah's favourite phrases is "Daughter of Zion." He frequently pictures the nation as a woman, he describes her beauty and her pain, he dwells on her love and loss. The Daughter of Jerusalem is losing her beauty.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Isaiah 3:1-15: Judgement against Judah

Now it's getting personal.

Isaiah warns Judah that everything they rely on is going to be stripped away. Supply and support will be removed. Prop and pillar taken away. I love the poetry of Isaiah - my commentary tells me that those two words in Hebrew are the masculine and feminine forms of the same word. All aspects of what makes the nation strong are under threat.

In a beautifully vivid image, anyone who has even a cloak left to wear will be told, "You look like a leader - tell us what to do!" People are desperate, afraid, directionless, lost. Ruled by children. Lord of the Flies.

And then at the end of the passage, the scene shifts to the courtroom. God has taken the stand.He points his finger. He accuses. "YOU!"

You have ruined my vineyard. What do you mean by it? Crushing my people, and grinding the faces of the poor?

The name Grenfell Tower springs to mind - the shameful sight of that blackened wreck stands like an accusing finger, pointing out the sins of our society.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Isaiah 2:5-22: Judgement on the actual Jerusalem

So from the sublime, to the ridiculous. From the ideal to reality.

Isaiah says the land is full. Full of silver, gold, horses ... and idols. They may look like they're enjoying God's blessing, but actually they are full up with stuff that is dragging their attention away from God. All their wealth, their power, and their objects of worship are saying "Look at me! Look at me!"  and they have shifted their gaze from God.

But the day will come when God will cast down their proud looks. God will have his day, and it will be a day opposed to everything that thinks it is high and mighty. Great trees, mountains, towers, mighty fortified walls, you name it.

Isaiah calls them no-gods. All the things that people put their trust in. And there's plenty of them around today, everywhere you look.

Where's your trust? Where's mine?

Is it where it should be? Is it where it really matters?

Have a good weekend, I'll be back on Monday.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Isaiah 2:1-4: The ideal Jerusalem

Aha! The first prophecy! The first actual "this is firm to happen one day" thing that prophets are meant to do.

This was my first thought.

But I might be naive thinking like that. Because what Isaiah gives us is not so much a prediction of what one day will happen, as a description of what an ideal situation would be. He introduces it by saying that this is a vision that Isaiah saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. I think that might be significant. A Vision need not be a prediction. Vision is something, certainly in modern parlance, that we try to live up to.

Isaiah sees Mount Zion as a magnet, attracting people from all over the world to it's Beacon of truth and light. Here are people who are living life the way it is meant to be lived and it is intensely attractive. Isaiah sees Yahweh holding court in Zion. He is "judging", that is setting things right, between peoples.

People want to walk in this way - they can see how good it is.

This is why I think this is a picture that is idealised rather than something that will come about at some point in the future. When I read this I think to myself "it's not going to happen is it?" Oh it would be lovely if it did, but let's be real - it's never going to happen like that. And why not? Because this vision leaves about humanity's self centeredness. What's in it for me? Why should the rich and powerful empires round about suddenly follow the ways of an insignificant tribe? God may speak from Mount Zion, but who's listening? His light may shine forth, but who's looking?

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Isaiah 1:27-31: Tensions between threat and hope resolved

Picture a tree, a great and mighty tree. Offering shade from the sun and shelter from the rain. It's stood for generations, and surely will stand for years to come.

But let our x-ray eyes look underground, into the soil beneath, and see what's happening to its roots. They are finding no water. The source of life that sustains the tree has dried up.

The tree is as tall as ever, its branches as strong. But this year, this spring, it will put forth no new leaves. And when a fire comes, it will burn, because it has dried up.

Isaiah finishes his first chapter with a contrast. This is one picture - of something that looks healthy on the surface but is dying underneath. The other picture is of health restored, of forgiveness and peace. Which is it going to be?