Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Messianic Banquet

Isaiah 25:1-9 :The Messianic Banquet

“I will extol you my God and king
And bless your name for ever and ever
Every day I will bless you
And praise your name for ever and ever
Great is the Lord and his greatness is unsearchable”

These words are from Psalm 145 and I quote them to show you how the first verse of our reading from Isaiah echos this hymn of praise and thanksgiving in shape and content. Just as in the psalm  God is unsearchable so in Isaiah we hear that his plans were formed of old, faithful and sure, stressing the limitless range and space of God’s power in history.  

To understand this passage we have to look at what has gone before.

On one level Isaiah has been writing about the clash of two world empires, the Egyptian and the Assyrian and the effects that this has had on Judah, Israel and Palestine. Caught in the paths of the warring parties, sometimes making unlucky alliances these smaller states were often crushed. Specifically in the preceding chapters(23 and 24) we have heard of the destruction of Tyre -

“Wail o ships of Tarshish for your fortress is destroyed
When they came from Cyprus they learned of it”

Which put me in mind of John Masefield’s famous poem which begins

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory
And apes and peacocks
Sandalwood and Cedarwood and sweet white wine”

No rowing home to sunny haven for the ships coming to Tyre in Isaiah’s day for it was completely destroyed and the sailors only discover the catastrophe when they arrive.

On another level isaiah is writing about the ever present war between good and evil so a little later in the chapter we read:
“The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder the earth is violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut ……..it will not rise again.”

So you might by now be wondering why after all this the new chapter begins with a hymn of praise. Are we to be pleased that the city is a heap of rubble, that it will never be rebuilt? And the answer is yes for we have reached the moment of the Messianic banquet - the royal banquet where God swallows up the cursed shroud of permanent death and brings ALL people to feast at his table.

I wonder if you like me were horrified by the footage of the Iraqi army rather joyously setting out for the city of Kirkuk - so recently liberated from so called ISIS by the combined forces - the Iraqis want to reclaim the oil rich lands from the Kurds, who only a month ago were fighting alongside them for freedom.  It was a moment to shout at the television set -  ‘enough - surely there has been enough fighting in this land, enough blood lost enough already! ‘

“Only God can stop this.” and this is what Isaiah is celebrating:

The idea of a feast for ALL nations to celebrate the destruction of God’s enemies and the beginning of a new era of peace and security is a very ancient one - found in North Canaanite and other Asiatic mythologies it would have been a familiar image. The prophet Amos describes a sumptuous banquet - the guests lie on beds of ivory eating lambs and calves, drink wine and sing songs and anoint themselves with oil. And so Isaiah prefiguring the well known passage in Revelation concurs:

“On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all people
a feast of rich food, a feast of well matured wines
Of rich food filled with marrow, of well matured wines strained clear.”

“He will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.

I am a fan of travelling by train for you can look out of the windows at the countryside flashing by and I was struck recently by a passage in D H lawrence’s Women in Love where swishing through Bedfordshire one of the characters looks at the land passing by in the evening saying to himself
“Well, if mankind is destroyed, if our race is destroyed like Sodom, and there is a beautiful evening with the luminous land and trees, I am satisfied. That which informs it all is there, and can never be lost.”  

It is a strange thing to contemplate the destruction of the earth as we know it, the destroying of mankind the shaming of the sun and the moon but there is that divine promise so eloquently found again in the last book of the Bible:

See, the home of God is among mortals,
He will dwell with them, they will be his peoples
And God himself will be with them
He will wipe every tear from their eyes
Death will be no more,
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

And this promise was made by God to the people of Israel, by Jesus to all people, by the Holy Spirit to all creation and most crucially to you and me.


Saturday, 7 October 2017

The vineyard, wild grapes and God's mercy

Isaiah 5:1-6

The Jewish plains, especially around the sea of Galilee were especially fertile and were known as JIZREEL, God’s own plantations. Whilst each farm had a tendency to produce everything it needed (much as say a croft in Fairisle might do)  - there would be a kitchen garden and three or four sheep for the family’s wool and even the poorest family would have vines so they could have grapes. There were also real vineyards worked in a big way with watch towers like those the shepherds built to keep a lookout for robbers both four footed and two. Figs and fruit trees might be planted in the enclosure so that the vines might climb them but also vines were allowed to grow at ground level simply running along the earth. Pruning was quite unknown - the vine was not pampered, it simply did extremely well in the fertile soil and climate of Palestine. The Biblical expression “under the  vine and the fig tree” meant the delight of doing nothing whatever!
This is the kind of agriculture that appeals to me.

Isaiah’s poetic words were easily recognized by his audience - my beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill, he had provided everything for it; dug the rich soil, cleared it of stones, planted the choicest vines, built a watchtower to protect it and prepared for the harvest by hewing out a wine vat. Here is a lucky man blessed and diligent expecting his reward. His love will surely be rewarded and repaid with clusters of plump and vintage grapes and fine wine to follow.

But this was not to be - wild grapes, which are bitter and offensive and of no use were all that came.

This parable which is a teaching parable is typical of many found in the Old Testament and of a type often used by Jesus himself. We are drawn into a situation which we can easily relate to and then asked to comment on it. “Judge between me and my vineyard!” - only to discover usually too late that that parable is about ourselves and our own behaviour. The wild grapes in this case were the people of Judah and Jerusalem. But let us recognise that this has been  a long conversation with God which began in the garden of Eden. God had provided everything - “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” All Adam and Eve needed to do was obey one rule, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge but they could not.

It is too an ongoing conversation with God. Here we are hard on the heels of our harvest festival confronted with the question - having celebrated all God’s gifts we are forced to ask ourselves why are there so many places on our fruitful earth with wild grapes? This week  in Las Vegas, recently in Myanmar, for years in Syria.

And you know, when things are bad for us individually, when things are unfair to us do we sometimes feel like tearing up the hedge, breaking down the walls, trampling upon them, hacking down the watch tower and just letting it all go to rot and become overgrown with briers and thorns? I know I do.

And though we can see that God might easily have done just that, it is not what has happened. God never gives up on mankind, yes he could have torn up the blueprint right then in the garden of Eden and started again but he did not - he sent his prophets like Isaiah to warn and instruct, he sent his son to teach and to be an example and when we, like those in our Gospel  reading, put Jesus to death even after that we have been  promised the Holy Spirit, the Comforter to be with us always.

Isaiah penned a great poem, it is a poem we should read often for the graphic way it presents us with the disappointment God may justly feel in his creation but especially for the way it shows how God did not react in human ways but continues to forgive and have endless, truly endless, mercy.