Cracked Cisterns | Proper 17

Jeremiah 2:4-13

 4 Listen to the LORD’s word, people of Judah, all you families of the Israelite household. 5 This is what the LORD says: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that made them wander so far? They pursued what was worthless and became worthless. 6 They didn’t ask, “Where’s the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, in a land of deserts and ravines, in a land of drought and darkness, in a land of no return, where no one survives?” 7 I brought you into a land of plenty, to enjoy its gifts and goodness, but you ruined my land; you disgraced my heritage. 8 The priests didn’t ask, “Where’s the LORD?” Those responsible for the Instruction didn’t know me; the leaders rebelled against me; the prophets spoke in the name of Baal, going after what has no value. 9 That is why I will take you to court and charge even your descendants, declares the LORD. 10 Look to the west as far as the shores of Cyprus and to the east as far as the land of Kedar. Ask anyone there: Has anything this odd ever taken place? 11 Has a nation switched gods, though they aren’t really gods at all? Yet my people have exchanged their glory for what has no value. 12 Be stunned at such a thing, you heavens; shudder and quake, declares the LORD. 13 My people have committed two crimes: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water. And they have dug wells, broken wells that can’t hold water. (CEB)

Cracked Cisterns

In this text, Jeremiah raises his voice in order to call the people back to God; to draw them away from the false gods of the nations and their values. There is some striking imagery at play here, especially in the Hebrew text. These two terms for God’s people “House of Jacob” and “House of Israel” remind them of their being chosen by God. “House of Israel” is the term that was used to designate the tribes of Israel during the time of the judges and also during the kingships of Saul and David.

The families of the House of Israel have been summoned to court, and now they stand accused by God before the bar of justice. What we have here in this text is basically the opening statement of the plaintiff against the defendant for these court proceedings, and the accuser is The Lord.

Jeremiah begins the case by asking a rhetorical question: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after nothingness, and shared in nothingness?” Behind this question, there are two expressions. The first is the Hebrew basis for divorce from Deuteronomy 24:1, “because he has found in her some indecency.” (NRSV). But, of course, in Israelite society a wife could not divorce her husband in the way a husband was able to divorce his wife (Patriarchal culture isn’t exactly a beacon of equality): so in Jeremiah’s metaphor it is a truly shocking thing that the wife, Israel, should consider divorcing her husband, the Lord!

The second expression behind this question is the affirmation of the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:4, which, to excerpt a few phrases, addresses God as “The Rock, his work is sound…for all his ways are justice…a God of faithfulness and without wrong…just, and right is he.” (NRSV). There is, of course, no blemish in the Lord. There is no fault. There is no wrong on God’s part. God is absolutely and perfectly faithful.

But for some reason, Israel has chosen the Baals rather than the Lord. They have gone far from the Lord. One interesting part about that accusation on God’s part is that there are five instances in the Psalms where the worshipper begs the Lord not to distance God’s self from the worshipper. So what the worshipper asks the Lord not to do to them, Israel, as a whole, has done to the Lord. The people of Israel, who were given a special and unique relationship with the God of creation, have rejected both the relationship and the One who extended this gift to them in the first place.

God laments that the people did not call upon him. They didn’t call upon the One True God who rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt by bringing them through a wilderness land of deserts and pits where no person has ever lived. God carried them through a place where history and civilization have never touched, a land on the edge of existence because no one has ever lived there, a land hostile to life itself. It always has been and always will be absolutely desolate.

In the movie Laurence of Arabia there is a scene where Laurence leads a small army across the scorching desert and captures the impregnable fortress of Aqaba in a surprise attack from the rear. After the victory, Laurence decides the fastest way to get word to the British forces in Egypt is to cross the Sinai Peninsula. The Arabs who are with him tell him he’s nuts, that no one can cross the Sinai. Laurence says, “Moses did it.” His Arab friend replies, “Moses was a prophet!” But Laurence will not be dissuaded, and he sets off to cross the Sinai from Aqaba to Egypt. It’s an absolutely horrid journey, and one of his servant boys is killed by being sucked into a sand pit.

In the forty-year wilderness sojourn, the impossible happened! The God of history took Israel’s ancestors through realms untouched before. Where no one crosses, God led them across! The fact that God led a people through this inhospitable nightmare land, caring for their needs along the way, and bringing them out safely on the other side to a fruitful land full of good things, shows God’s tender and loving care for them. This period of time in the wilderness is still viewed by Jews as one of the most intimate of times between God and Israel.

But just as God’s love of Israel has an ancient history, so too has the people’s rejection of God. When the people entered the Promised Land, God accused them of defiling it and making God’s heritage an abomination. You see, when Israel entered the land, God didn’t give the land to Israel. In Jeremiah, God calls it “my land,” and this is consistent with Leviticus 25:23 which states, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (NRSV).

The Promised Land belongs to God. Yet, because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, the land became defiled. It is a term that is used in reference to various sins as well as pagan idolatry: basically everything offensive to the Lord. These sinful things defile the very ground upon which they are done. Thus, Israel has defiled God’s land and made it loathsome; an abomination. Even the priests and scribes of the Law failed to call upon God to the point that they no longer knew the Lord. The rulers transgressed against The Lord. The prophets prophesied in the name of Baal, who was not a god at all. The people went after things that do not profit, which can also be translated as “nothingness.”

This act is unheard of! So God is filing a lawsuit against the House of Israel. Witnesses are then summoned and are urged to search the lands west to east: from Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea to Kedar far to the east for precedents of this nature. Nations simply do not change their gods! Yet, this is exactly what Israel has done. They have exchanged their glory for something that has no profit or benefit. At this, God says, “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate!” (NRSV).

Then comes the indictment. God says the people have committed two crimes against him: First, they have forsaken God who is the fountain of living water; Second, the people have dug out wells – or cisterns – for themselves which are cracked and can hold no water. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a cistern, but the ones I’ve seen in Israel get stagnant and nasty very quickly. You have to continually line them with plaster to keep them from leaking. No one in their right mind would choose to drink from a cistern when a spring of running water is readily available. But that is the comparison God makes for what Israel has done.

They’ve chosen to drink from the foul, stinky, stagnant, nasty, make-you-gag, gross water down in the dregs of a leaky cistern rather than drink from the life-giving, thirst-quenching, soul-quickening water from the cool, bubbling, refreshingly running spring. A spring produces water in and of itself, while a cistern does not, and has to be filled and refilled. The people have rejected God—the fountain of living water—and tried to make it on their own by digging a cistern that doesn’t even work.

Who does that? Who makes that kind of choice? Well, sometimes we do. We all have our own cracked cisterns that we’ve dug for ourselves when we’re too busy chasing after our own selfish desires instead of following God’s will and keeping absolute faith with the God of creation. It’s easy to make this kind of trade in America where our culture so values rugged individualism and the American Dream of wealth and power. But sometimes chasing the American Dream means trading in the spring of living water for our own self-dug, cracked cistern. After all, Paul writes, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6:10, NRSV). So where have you dug your cracked cisterns?

In Revelation, the church is spoken of as the Bride of Christ. We are espoused to God. Husbands and wives both expect absolute loyalty and faithfulness from their spouses. And that is what God expects from his own people. There is no room for unfaithfulness on Israel’s part, nor is there room for such a thing in the Church. God demands loyalty and faithfulness just as Joy demands mine as her husband, and I demand hers as my wife.

But really, demand isn’t the best way of putting it. While we might say that God demands our loyalty, the reality of what happens in betrothal and marriage is a lot gentler than the somewhat forceful word “demand” allows. When I do premarital counseling I often ask the couple why they want to get married in the church. To date, I have never had a couple list out their demands and say they wanted to get married because they demand love, and faithfulness, and devotion from this person, “and they’ll just have to get used to it ’cause those are my demands and we’re getting married.”

What I often hear is how much this woman loves this man, and how much this man loves this woman, and they tell me how much they want to give themselves to this other person, this object of their love, for the rest of their lives. When two people are espoused, they give not only their loyalty and faithfulness to each other, but they give their whole selves to each other willingly.

God has given us—each of us—a pledge of loyalty and faithfulness in the sacrificial blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. God has offered to us God’s own self and withheld nothing. God loves us in a way and to a depth that we cannot even imagine. Ours is only to respond to God’s love and offer ourselves to God, not because God demands it, but because we willingly accept God’s love for us, and we desire to be loved by this God who created the heavens and the earth.

If any of us have managed to dig a cracked cistern for ourselves, it’s time to stop trying to patch it. It’s time to turn back to the spring of living water that refreshes, fills, and satisfies us to the deepest part of our being. God is calling us back. Are you going to return to the spring of living water, or are you going to keep trying to patch that cracked hole in the ground? God loves us enough to give us a choice in the matter.

For me, the words of Joshua come to mind after he led the people into the Promised Land and settled the people in their place, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15, NRSV).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Unbound | Proper 16

Luke 13:10-17

10 Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight. 12 When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.” 13 He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.

14 The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”

15 The Lord replied, “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? 16 Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing. (CEB)


As a parent, I fight this battle all the time. We have certain rules in our house. Some of those rules are designed for the good of individuals. Other rules are designed for the good of the household. We, parents, (usually) see our rules as meaningful; important; good; needful, even necessary. Our children, however, sometimes see them as annoying, unnecessary, stupid, and arbitrary. Parents see the value and purpose behind them. Children rarely see beyond the superficiality of dos and don’ts.

You will brush your teeth. If you don’t, your teeth will rot, I’ll have to pay for a cavity filling, and the rest of your family will suffer under the onslaught of your withering breath. Brush! And brush well! That means, brush for longer than two seconds!

You will change your underwear in the morning. I know you think I’m crazy to suggest such a thing, and I don’t care about your rationalization that you want to give Mommy less laundry to do, but you’re changing your underwear! It really is socially acceptable to wear clean clothes!

You will flush the toilet and wash your hands after you use the bathroom. I don’t care if you didn’t get urine on your fingers, you’re going to wash your hands! And seriously, flush the toilet! That’s gross! No one needs to see your business once the deposit has been made! And don’t tell me you care about water conservation. I’ve seen the way you bathe. You get more water on the outside of the tub than in. Either way, you’re not allowed to conserve water by leaving the toilet unflushed. Just flush the toilet!

You will do your homework before you play on the computer. Have a snack. Take a half-hour to relax, then get your homework done. I know homework is stupid. I agree. But you still have to do it.

Depending on how enforceable they are, rules come in a variety of names. Sometimes rules are called guidelines, which makes them sound more like suggestions to me. The United Methodist Church has a set of Social Principles which are not enforceable rules, but they are meant to teach and guide our theological reflection and our missional activity.

The City of Mount Vernon has rules, which we call ordinances, and you can get ticketed for infractions. Although, one thing I can’t figure out is the speed limit on 4th Street at the intersection of Main Street. If you’re traveling east on 4th Street, the speed limit is 20 mph, but if you’re traveling west on 4th Street, the speed limit is 30 mph. At the very least, it makes me pay attention to the speed limit signs.

I studied rules at the Federal level for my undergraduate degree. The legislature passes laws that become part of the United States Code. Then, Federal agencies write rules—called regulations—which become part of the Code of Federal Regulations. The Regulations tell us how to keep the Code.

That’s basically what happened in Judaism. God gave a whole lot of rules (613 of them) in the Written Torah: the first five books of the Bible. Later, Jewish rabbis—religious scholars who were experts in the Jewish Law—came up with regulations that people had to keep in order to obey the Law. The Pharisees expounded on this Oral Torah, as did later Jewish rabbis. The Oral Torah is contained in the Talmud.

These scholars were so serious about keeping the Law that they discussed questions such as, How far can someone walk on the Sabbath before it is considered work? Regarding the prohibition of working on the Sabbath, what activities can a person do or not do? So, if you go to Israel today, you’ll see these wires up on posts. They’re Sabbath Lines called eruv. Exodus 16:29 says, Look! The LORD has given you the Sabbath. Therefore, on the sixth day he gives you enough food for two days. Each of you should stay where you are and not leave your place on the seventh day” (CEB). But how boring would it be if you couldn’t leave your house? So they set up these lines to enclose whole communities. If you walk outside that line on the Sabbath, you’ve broken the Law to stay “in your place on the seventh day.”

Exercise is forbidden if the person is doing it for health or training. However, if they’re doing it for the sheer pleasure of the activity, it’s okay. So, sometimes it’s not what a person does, but the reason for doing it. An Orthodox Jew can’t open an umbrella on the Sabbath because it’s considered akin to erecting a tent, which is construction work. If you open an umbrella, you’re breaking the Law to do no work on the Sabbath.

Numbers 15 tells about a man who was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath, and Moses ordered him to be stoned because he was doing work on the Sabbath. (That’s another advantage of the eruv. You can carry certain things within the enclosure and it won’t be considered work. But only certain kinds of items).

So, the kind of activities that Jews are allowed to do on the Sabbath has been debated for thousands of years. What is the Sabbath for, and how does one properly honor it? The law given in Exodus 20:8-11 says, “Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. Do not do any work on it– not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (CEB).

Jesus, however, seems to interpret Sabbath-keeping more along the lines of Deuteronomy 5:12-15, which says, “Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the LORD your God commanded: Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. Don’t do any work on it– not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you– so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the LORD your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the LORD your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.” (CEB).

On the one hand, Exodus says the reason for keeping the Sabbath is because God rested, so we should rest, too. On the other hand, Deuteronomy says the reason for keeping the Sabbath is because God liberated the people from bondage. So, when Jesus sees this woman come into the synagogue, bent and crooked from a disease that bound her for 18 years, he has a choice. He can choose to focus on the letter of the law in Exodus and withhold healing from this woman because it would be considered work. Or, he can choose to focus on the spirit of the law in Deuteronomy and give this woman freedom from bondage, which is at the heart of honoring the Sabbath.

Jesus choose to free the woman from bondage. She doesn’t ask for healing. Jesus simply sees her and tells her she’s unbound. When he lays his hands on her, she stands up straight and praises God. She was free! She was no longer captive to a terrible disease! And her freedom came on the day that Jews celebrate because God set them free!

But the leader of the Synagogue had Exodus in mind. He witnessed Jesus doing work on the Sabbath, and he gets upset. Luke tells us the Synagogue leader was indignant and told the crowds, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.” (CEB). The problem for Jesus, of course, is that people are more important than rules.

Jews aren’t allowed to do work on the Sabbath, but even the Oral Law made exceptions, and that’s the thing Jesus uses to call out the leader of the Synagogue and those who agreed with him. “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” (CEB).

“Isn’t it necessary,” Jesus said. It is possible to get so tied up in what the rules say that we forget the purposes behind the rules. It’s easier to default to the rule than have to think about the reason for it. We can forget what is necessary. Jesus words and actions here show us that kindness toward a fellow human being is more necessary than keeping a strictly-minded, inflexible legality.

What’s more, this woman’s healing doesn’t depend on her faith, or the people’s faith, or her worthiness, or even her seeking it directly. Jesus sees her brokenness and simply heals because that is God’s character. As followers of Jesus Christ, it should be our character, too. Caring for others takes precedence over any other rule, law, or religious custom. In fact, caring for God’s people—caring for those in need—is the heart of Christian faith and practice.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

A Love Song

Isaiah 5:1-7

1 Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it, cleared away its stones, planted it with excellent vines, built a tower inside it, and dug out a wine vat in it. He expected it to grow good grapes – but it grew rotten grapes. 3 So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: 4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes? 5 Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard. I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. 6 I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to rain on it. 7 The vineyard of the LORD of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (CEB)

A Love Song

I probably know what you’re thinking. This doesn’t sound like much of a love song. In fact, if this is Isaiah’s version of a love song, I’m not sure I would want to hear him sing a diatribe song. How can something like this be a love song? It’s full of judgment and punishment. The message Isaiah speaks is one of the reasons some people don’t like the Old Testament as much as the New Testament. This sounds more like love that failed. Love that turned sour. Love that became something despised. And maybe it is. The thing is, when you look at this closely, the fact that it gets angry doesn’t mean it isn’t a love song from start to finish.

The story is in the form of a parable. If you remember from the parables of Jesus, the tricky thing about parables is they invite the hearers to judge the situation. But what often happens is the hearer finds themselves judged in the end. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? The legal expert to whom Jesus spoke the parable did not like the answer he was forced to give.

Parables have a way of drawing us in and making us think we’re either on the side of righteousness or that we’re a neutral party asked to impartially judge a situation. The latter is what happens here. It’s a courtroom situation, where the plaintiff brings his case against a defendant in the form of a song. Everything is going well until the last line of verse 2: “but it grew rotten grapes.” (CEB). After that, everything falls apart, and the plaintiff gets angry.

Why do I still contend that this is a love song? Up to that point, everything the gardener did for the vineyard was loving. First, the gardener chose a fertile hillside. Then, he prepared the soil by digging, loosening, and turning it over. He removed the stones and planted the soil with the best vines. He gave it every protection, including a hedge, a wall, and a watchtower. He carefully pruned his vines as they grew, trimming just the right places to give the vine a maximum yield. He hoed the soil to keep it loose. He prepared for the good fruit the vines would bear by digging out a wine vat. Great care was given to the vineyard in every possible way. It was all a labor of love.

In fact, the words used in the text strongly suggest love is behind it all. The words which we translate into English as “beloved” are often used in regard to God’s beloved, such as Israel itself. Then, the words we translate as “love song” could actually be translated as “loved-one’s song.” The word there, “loved-one” is used by the young woman in Song of Songs in reference to the man she loves. Another connection to Song of Songs is the word “vineyard,” which is used as a metaphor for the woman who is beloved by the man.

Everything was lovingly done. The vineyard was given every possible care, but the grapes were rotten, wild, bitter grapes. So the gardener presents his case to the listeners in Jerusalem and the people of Judea. “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes?” (CEB).

Anyone listening to the case would have said, “There was nothing else to be done! Of course it should have given you good grapes! We’re flummoxed by this, too! You did everything right!”

Can you imagine the experience of doing everything right in a matter, only to have your efforts fail in the end? It would be incredibly frustrating. It would make me angry. To pour so much of yourself into something only to have it quit on you, or to invest yourself into a person only to have them betray you, would drive anyone to anger. Love is a vulnerable thing.

C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors. In fact, one of the reasons I started writing my own fiction is due to a question I had after reading his Sci-Fi/Fantasy book, Perelandra. In Lewis’s book, The Four Loves, he said, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken… The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell” (Lewis, 121).

So the gardener, who acted with love, has had his heart broken. He lists the things he will do to the vineyard. By the way, it might help to understand that the original hearers listening to Isaiah present his case were probably thinking he was speaking about his wife and their marriage. With the talk about his beloved, his loved-one’s song, and the vineyard, they probably thought he was speaking metaphorically about his wife, to whom Isaiah gave so much care, but things weren’t turning out well.

So Isaiah announces his intentions: “I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” (CEB). It’s all about the removal of protection. The people probably thought, Ah. Divorce. Here it comes. He’s going to cast his wife out and remove his protection from her. After the case he presented, she deserves it. He did everything he could for her, but all she did was disappoint.

But what Isaiah does at this point, when the people are formulating judgments in their minds, is identify the defendant. “The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress.” (CEB).

The people found themselves judged, and we’re left wondering how the God of love could leave. How is that love? Don’t the Psalms sing of God’s steadfast love that endures forever? How can God do this?

The thing is, even the abandonment of the vineyard and the removal of protection can be seen as love at its most sorrowful moment. If the vineyard doesn’t want the gardener’s protection, then taking down the wall and hedge, promising to stop pruning and hoeing, allowing the beloved vineyard to return to its wild and uncultivated state, overgrown with thorns and thistles, is a kind of consent of the lover to the will of the beloved. Even though God knows it will end badly, God grants the people the independence from God that they clearly desire.

Yes, God pulls back. Yes, God is angry in this moment, but that doesn’t mean God’s love, itself, is withdrawn. In his book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly About Prayer, C.S. Lewis said, “Anger—no peevish fit of temper, but just, generous, scalding indignation—passes (not necessarily at once) into embracing, exultant, re-welcoming love. That is how friends and lovers are truly reconciled. Hot wrath, hot love. Such anger is the fluid love bleeds when you cut it” (Lewis, 126).

After all, the best part about fighting is making up. Everyone knows that, including C.S. Lewis. In his book, The Horse and His Boy, he wrote, “Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarreling and making up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently” (Lewis, 241).

Just because there is anger, it doesn’t mean love is withdrawn. Sometimes love means we let our beloved learn the hard way because it’s the only way they’ll truly learn. As strange at is might seem, the assurance of love can sometimes be part of the problem for people like Israel and people who follow Jesus.

The people of Israel and Judah knew about God’s love for them, just as we know about God’s love for us. Their experience of God was one who brought them up from slavery in the land of Egypt, who chose good land, who prepared the soil, who cleared the stones, dug holes, and planted hand-picked vines. Their experience was a loving God who provided them with everything they could possibly want—and even gave them things they demanded, but God didn’t want to give them. The people demanded a king, and God said, That’s a really bad idea. I’m your king. But they demanded over and again. So God gave them a king, saying, “They have rejected me as king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7).

Out of love for the people God had chosen, God gave them the desires of their hearts. God even sent Jesus, his own son, to redeem us and offer healing and forgiveness from sin. Most of us know, in many ways, the love of God. So it’s just as easy for us—as it was for the beloved people of Israel and Judah—to feel comfortable in that care. We can begin to think we’re immune to devastation because God loves us. God is for us, so who can be against us? What have we to fear? As one scholar put it, “In no time, we are lounging in the easiest of all the world’s religions, leaning back into the entitlements of grace and an arrogance of heritage” (P.S. Duke in Feasting On the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, 343).

We talk about God’s love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness as things that are freely offered. What we often forget is they are not free of expectations. Isaiah says it three times, in verses 2, 4, and 7: “expected,” “expected,” and “expected.” God expected certain specific returns for the labor of love he invested. A vineyard is for farming, and farmers expect a yield. God expects people to experience the goodness from God’s own hand and respond with similar goodness, generosity, love, sharing, peace, happiness, goodwill, invitation, and community.

The vineyard failed to produce the things God expected. God expected justice and righteousness. What God saw was utter devastation: bloodshed and screams. Indeed, the fact that justice and righteousness so often appear absent from our world is the true expression and proof of the devastation in which we live.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we all stand rightfully judged by Isaiah’s love song, and that’s never easy to hear, let alone accept. The good news is that a love song is still being sung over us. Later on, in Isaiah 27, God sings about a vineyard that is restored, which God guards and waters every moment of every day: a vineyard with such bountiful fruit that it fills the whole world with its produce. There is still room for repentance so that our community can produce the kind of fruit God wants to see growing on our vines. God still sings a love song over us, and God still hopes we’ll produce the fruit God expects: justice and righteousness lifted up together in a new community where bloodshed and cries are no more.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


P.S. – After preaching this sermon, I had a visitor tell me it was a good sermon. He noted that I’m “a young preacher.” (Full disclosure: I’m 40 years old with 17 years of pastoral experience in local churches, the last 13 of which have been full-time). He said, “All of you young preachers want to preach from the Old Testament. The Gospel! You need to preach from the Gospel. The Gospel.”

With respect, I disagree. I preach from the whole of the Scriptures (at least the more limited Protestant version of the corpus). I believe the Old and New Testaments deserve equal time. I do preach from the Gospels, and the prophets, and Paul’s letters, and the Pentateuch, and the Epistles, and the writings, and Acts, and the wisdom books, and Revelation, and the Psalms. What faithful pastor would not?

It seems there is a misconception somewhere. The word Gospel comes from Old English godspel, meaning good tidings / news / tale / story. My contention with the idea that I – or any preacher – should limit their preaching to, or give priority to, the four Gospels is the undeniable fact that the Old Testament also contains good news. In fact, the Old Testament books have such good news for us that I am compelled to share that gospel in my preaching.

It’s too bad this gentleman wasn’t here on July 31 to hear my sermon With Bands of Love. I explained a good bit of this idea there. I do not apologize for preaching everything from Genesis to Revelation. The advice is not something I can accept and still remain faithful to my call. #SorryNotSorry. If I only preached on my favorite stories – or yours… well, that would tell you more about us than about God. We find comfort in our preferences and favored Bible texts, but sometimes our preferences are not what we need to hear. Sometimes it is the very thing we do not want to hear that we most need.


The Vision of Isaiah

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

1 The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.

10 Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah! 11 What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the LORD. I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts? 13 Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me. New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly– I can’t stand wickedness with celebration! 14 I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing. 15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood. 16 Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; 17 learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow. If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool. 19 If you agree and obey, you will eat the best food of the land. 20 But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. The LORD has said this. (CEB)

The Vision of Isaiah

Several years ago, Joy and I went back to Findlay, Ohio for Homecoming at The University of Findlay. And we decided to hit some of our favorite places to eat in town. So we had sushi at Japan West, where Joy had worked as a waitress. We had chimichangas at Olers. And we ate breakfast at a place called Breakfast at Marie’s. What made that breakfast memorable was the couple sitting next to us. When the woman received her omelet, she complained to the waitress that there was too much cheese in it. And the waitress said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but you did order the Three Cheese Omelet.”

Joy and I cracked up laughing. When the waitress came to our table, we jokingly complained that there was too much ice in our ice-water, and too much egg in my egg benedict, and too much bread in our toast. I mean, it’s not like the woman ordered something that was mislabeled or incorrectly described. It was a Three Cheese Omelet. But she was genuinely surprised and annoyed at the cheese in her cheese omelet. It wasn’t what she expected. It wasn’t what she wanted.

There is a vein of thought about worship among many American Christians that runs deeply contrary to what worship actually is. One of my friends in seminary described the phenomenon as “Church hoppin’ and Holy Spirit shoppin’.” It’s the idea that we tend to look for places of worship like we might shop for a pair of jeans. We’ll try on all different shapes, sizes, cuts, and styles until we settle on our preference: what we like, what we think is comfortable.

And, to a point, I think that’s okay. But only to a point. There are congregations out there that are abusive and hurtful, and whose theology is questionably Christian. We want to find a place of worship where we feel at home, where we can be a part of the community, where we are encouraged to ask questions, and where we can grow in our faith.

The point at which it’s not okay is when we begin to look at worship as a consumable commodity. When our primary reason for attending worship is for what we can get out of it, we have lost the understanding of worship altogether. That is the moment when we make worship about us instead of about God.

What is worship? What is its definition? Is worship something God does for us, or something we do for God? Is worship something God offers to us, or something we offer to God? Is worship something we get from God, or something God gets from us. You see, every time I hear someone say, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” whether it’s the sermon, or the music, or Holy Communion, or the prayers, I know I’m listening to someone who believes the absolute fallacy that worship is about them. If a person didn’t get anything out of it, they might want to consider what they put into it. What did you give?

Worship is not mislabeled on the menu. When it says, Three Cheese Omelet, it means Three Cheese Omelet, and it’s going to have a lot of cheese. When we talk about worship, we mean worship. Worship is, by definition, an activity. It is something we do. It is something we give to another: the creator of the universe. It is something we, ourselves, offer. It is not about us. It is about God, who is the object of our worship.

Now, the beautiful thing about worshipping God is that we do receive grace from God when we give God our worship. That’s how relationships work. Relationships are about giving and receiving, receiving and giving. It’s not receive, receive, receive, receive. That’s called selfishness and self-centeredness.

Proper worship has little to do with feeling a certain way during a prayer, or singing with the right amount of gusto, or going through a specific set of motions. Worship is as simple as offering ourselves to God, no matter what we’re feeling, no matter how good or bad we’ve been in the past week. Worship is an offering of self to God. When we do that, that’s when we’ve worshiped. That’s when we receive grace.

Yet, Isaiah insists that worship extends into the ethics of our every day. Isaiah, and a few others among the prophets, downplays the importance of animal sacrifice. One of the misunderstandings Christians have of Jewish sacrificial practices is the idea of propitiation, that Jews sacrificed animals in order to appease God. Christians often think that God would not forgive unless there was sacrifice. But that isn’t the case. Sacrifices were offerings. In fact, animal sacrifices were called offerings. There were burnt offerings, sin offerings, peace offerings, guilt offerings (also called trespass or compensation offerings).

There were also free-will offerings, which were usually fruits of the harvest that were given in recognition of God’s goodness. That’s, essentially, the kind of offering we give when we put our money in the offering plate. We give a tithe because we recognize that God has been awesome to us. Everything we have is a gift from God.

Animal sacrifices were not made to satisfy an angry God. Honestly, that’s not a very positive view of a loving and patient God who is often described as a father, a mother, and a faithful spouse. The system of animal sacrifice was not designed to be propitiatory. God’s forgiveness can never be purchased by sacrifice. God’s forgiveness is not something one can buy. The New Testament goes through great pains to describe salvation in Jesus Christ as a free gift offered to all. Salvation is God’s action for us, on our behalf, not something we can buy or earn.

With the exception of burnt offerings, where the entire animal was burnt to a crisp, sacrificial animal offerings were meals that people ate with God. God got a portion, the priests got a portion, and the people making the sacrifice got a portion. Eating a meal with someone meant you were friends. It had to do with hospitality. It meant there was peace and goodwill between you and the person with whom you shared the meal. That same idea is tied to Holy Communion, which is a meal we share with each other and with God. We receive God into us in Communion.

The problem is, when you look at sacrifice as a propitiatory thing, it makes it very difficult for the poor to be forgiven of their sins because they can’t afford all these offerings. In fact, what Isaiah argues, here, is that animal sacrifice is less important that treating people well. Isaiah argues that God doesn’t give a lick about the animal sacrifices. What God really cares about is justice! Isaiah says, Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” (CEB).

More than anything, God wants justice.

Isaiah addresses the leaders and people as Sodom and Gomorrah. What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? It’s probably not what you think! If you’re thinking sexual immorality, that didn’t even appear as an idea until the Hellenistic times. In fact, Jude 1:7 is the only place sexual immorality is mentioned in regard to Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jude gets that from Ezekiel.

However, Ezekiel was using the example of sexual immorality as a metaphor for unfaithfulness, which is something the New Testament also does. When speaking of Jerusalem’s unfaithfulness to God, Ezekiel describes the sin of Sodom like this, “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.” (Ezek. 16:49-50, CEB).

The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was that those with means did not help the poor and needy! That is unfaithfulness to God. That is essentially what God defines as the test of our worship. For the Jews, it wasn’t the number of animal sacrifices offered, it was whether or not people gave and cared for the poor in the land. For those of us who follow Jesus Christ, true worship of God has everything to do with justice!

Worship is something we give to God, and what God demands—what God has demanded from ancient times until now—more than anything else is justice for the poor, justice for the oppressed, justice for widows, justice for orphans, justice for the homeless, justice for the abused, and justice for the rejected. When Jesus taught that, when we throw a banquet we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, he wasn’t kidding.

We try so hard to tame Jesus down. And we’ve become good at it. We dismiss, outright, the things he said that we simply don’t want to bother doing. Oh, that Jesus. He says all kinds of crazy things. We would prefer to think that some of this stuff was mislabeled on the menu, that it might say Three Cheese Omelet, but what we want is plain and palatable.

We don’t want to think that Jesus was giving us a serious command to invite poor and disadvantaged people into our homes for dinner (Luke 14:13). We don’t want to think he meant we should actually love our enemies and pray for people who harass us (Matthew 5:44). We don’t want to have to do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27, 35). And we aren’t too fond of the idea that we should give ten-percent of what we earn to God while also working for justice, peace, and faith (Matthew 23:23). It sounds too difficult.

The thing is, when we start doing it, we find that it’s not really difficult at all. I know we get some of this right on occasion. As a pastor, I know we do. But God wants more than our bare minimum. Our community of faith, working together, could do so much more. What Isaiah’s vision speaks of as true worship of God includes living our every day with these things in mind: “learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” (CEB).

The argument God makes with us at the end of the chapter suggests that God forgives our sins, not by purchasing forgiveness with animal sacrifice, not by earning it through doing the work of justice and mercy, but simply by receiving it as God’s gift to us when our lives come into line with God’s values. That’s what true worship looks like. A life that draws so close to God that we live according to God’s values. Worship is when we really and truly offer ourselves to God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!