Sermon – 18th August 2013

Notes from the sermon by Paul Magnall based on:

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80
John 15:1-17

Our first reading is from Isaiah 5:1-7. Here we have a story of God looking after his people like a gardener or farmer would look after his vineyard. He prepares the land, clears the rocks, makes sure there is a hedge to protect the plants from plundering beasts, plants the finest plants, and waits. The fruit grows and he waits in anticipation of a good harvest, but when he picks the fruit and tastes the fruit is sour, the grapes are horrible and bad! What has gone wrong? He can’t have done any more! Everything was done so that a good harvest would be produced.

So what will the owner do (I have a fruit tree in our garden that doesn’t do well and I have given it so many chances!) – abandon the vineyard to the elements – no more nurturing and caring?

Apparently there is a very clever pun in vs 7 – God looked for justice (mishpat) but only saw oppression (mispach). God looked for righteousness (tzedakah) and instead he heard an outcry of distress (tse’aqah).

What are the differences between these two words “mishpat” and “tzedakah”?

  • Mishpat is often identified with even-handed justice, fairness, playing by the book. MIshpat can be understood as the powerful principle that law should apply uniformly for all individuals; that the best way to uphold a standard of justice and fairness is to treat everyone the same. We find this in the instruction: “do not favour the poor in judgment or show partiality to the rich.” In this aspect of justice, a person’s personal circumstances or socio-economic status should not give them any special consideration. This is justice, as “equal justice under the law.”
  • Tzedekah is a different aspect of justice. Tzedekah creates a system for the fairer distribution of goods, services and opportunities. This is justice by means of the redistribution of wealth, justice tailored to the particular circumstance or a particular situation of an individual.

So God is looking for even-handedness, fairness in the way in which we deal with one another, and he is looking for us to redistribute wealth and opportunities. When the God of Isaiah looked at his people he saw neither – he saw oppression and he heard cries of distress.

What oppression and pain was Isaiah referring to?

If we read on into chapter 5 we get 6 woes as Isaiah rails against:

  • Those who add house to house (vs8), those who grab land and make people homeless / landless
  • Those who get drunk (vs11)
  • Those who are deceitful (vs18)
  • Those who call evil good and good evil, twisting the truth for their own ends (vs20)
  • Those who are wise in their own eyes considering themselves better than others (vs21)
  • Those who “acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent” (vs23)

These ways of behaving were some of the ways that lead to the injustices and oppression that provoked God’s anger.

Maybe I’m beginning to get old but on my journey through life I seem to be revisiting a lot of thoughts, ideas, places. I am being reminded of how I am so caught up in the web of the world. There is so much background noise, so many things trying to grab my attention and my money that I don’t see how entangled I am in a world system that fails to bring justice and righteousness, in fact, actively brings oppression and distress to people.

A group of us are currently studying Keith Hebden’s book “Seeking justice: the radical compassion of Jesus” and it has reminded me about how much violence and oppression there is in our society, how uneven-handed it is and how it is failing to bring about a fair distribution of the world’s resources. Both capitalism and socialism were originally designed as systems that would distribute wealth more fairly but both have been warped to empower and line the pockets of a few. And I am caught up, entangled in this system and often helping to perpetuate it. Woe is me! How do I get out of this?

Many years after Isaiah Jesus said to his listeners “I am the true vine and father is the gardener” What was Jesus saying?

  • One things was that we can only bear good fruit if we are grafted into him, in other words, if we obey God by loving one another.
  • He was also implying something incredibly radical – that he, Jesus, is the vine, he is the new Israel. This must have been like sacrilege to many Jews who would have understood from the Isaiah reading, from Psalm 80 and from other passages that the Jewish nation was the vine. So to his listeners Jesus was saying that you didn’t have to be a Jew, anyone could be part of the vine, part of the people of God. What was required to remain as part of the vine was to love one another. And if we are a branch of the vine, if we obey God by loving one another then we will bear good fruit. God will look for justice and find it, he will look for righteousness and find it because we actively love one another, because we are compassionate to one another, because we bring forth justice and righteousness.

I find this incredibly powerful. It takes me back to Micah 6:8 where the prophet asks “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?”

Our recent journey through Luke has reminded me of how Jesus turned things on their heads in order to bring justice and righteousness into people’s lives. He challenged the violence of the segregation of people into groups that oppressed each other – men and women, master and slave, rich and poor, have and have not, violator and victim. He continued in the prophetic role of Isaiah and Micah in denouncing violence and oppression and in requiring justice and righteousness.

But what I find most powerful is the reminder that the wine brings in our communion service. Wine, a product from the good fruit of the vine, reminds me that God has ultimately turned things upside down. All the injustices and oppression that Jesus stood against helped to take him to the cross, Jesus opposed them but never once succumbed to the temptation to use violence back. He refused to use the tools of violence and oppression. For a short time it looked as if violence and oppression were the victors. But they weren’t. Jesus’s resurrection showed that he had broken the spiral of violence and oppression. He showed that it is possible to live in a way that brings forth the good fruit of justice and righteousness in the way that Isaiah told us that God was looking for. As Walter Wink says:

“The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that there is a power at work in the world to transform defeat into divine victory.”

And so the gathering of this rainbow collection of Christians around this table to share in bread and wine, to share in the celebration of God’s gift of new life gives me hope that we can work towards God’s justice and righteousness in this world.

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