Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Pleasant Vineyard

In this week’s chapter Isaiah returns to an image that he used before, the image of a vineyard. You’ll remember back in chapter five Isaiah describes the people of God as a vineyard. Jesus came to His vineyard looking for good fruit, but all that He found was worthless fruit. He had expectations that were not met. In today’s chapter, Isaiah looks to the future and anticipates the day when the people of God will be a vineyard that produces the good fruit that Jesus has expected.

Listen as I read Isaiah 27.

The heart of the sermon is going to be about the fruit of the vineyard. But before we get there, there are a few things I’d like you to notice. First, I hope that it is clear to you that Jesus is committed to gaining a vineyard that produces good fruit. He was disappointed back in chapter five. ‘What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield good grapes, why did it yield worthless wild grapes?’ You may remember that words of punishment followed. ‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.’ But that was not the end of the story. Jesus will have His vineyard! He will get good fruit! As a result, we find Him here as the gardener, the keeper of the vineyard, who will do whatever is required to get good fruit. He says, ‘I, the LORD, am its keeper; every moment I water it. Lest anyone harm it, I keep it night and day…’ And this is something that fully engages Him. That’s why He says, ‘A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!’ He is so involved in cultivating His vineyard that He breaks out in singing and calls others to join Him. Jesus wants this vineyard and it shows. His emotions are engaged. And bear in mind whom He is singing about. He is singing about you. You are the vineyard. Jesus is committed to seeing you become fruitful. He labors over you to make sure that nothing will keep you from that goal. He rejoices – with song! – as He sees progress toward that goal in you. You are the vineyard that Jesus careful tends.

There is, however, opposition. Not everyone wants to see you make progress. And there are obstacles. The path to fruitfulness is not smooth. But thanks be to God, Jesus deals with these. First, the opposition. Satan hates the idea of a fruitful vineyard. Satan hates you. And so, from the beginning, he has been at work trying to derail God’s plan. He has had some success. Why do you think Israel failed back in chapter five? But Jesus will not be thwarted. He has set His heart on having a fruitful vineyard. And so, He will. Jesus knows about Satan, and He has dealt with Him. So, Paul writes, ‘He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame…’ This is just another way of talking about what Isaiah wrote in the first verse of our chapter. ‘In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.’ Satan is still alive, but only for a little while longer. Jesus has given him a fatal wound. And in the mean time, he cannot stop Jesus’ plan for a fruitful vineyard.

That’s the opposition. Then there are the obstacles. These do not come from without but rather from within. It’s your sin. And the problem of your sin is not just a little thing. Sin enslaves. But Jesus has taken care of that also. Paul also writes this, ‘We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.’ Jesus has freed you from your sin. You are no longer its slaves. You are now free to obey. And the evidence of this freedom included in our text. ‘… and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin: when he makes all the stones of the altars like chalkstones crushed to pieces, no Asherim or incense altars will remain standing.’ The Asherim were idols, false gods that the people of that day worshiped. The evidence that the people of God in Isaiah’s day were freed from their sin was that the idols that they once worshiped were being destroyed, crushed to pieces. Likewise, the evidence of your freedom from sin is the destruction of the idols of your hearts.

Jesus has dealt with the opposition and the obstacles. This is what the Cross was about. Jesus was determined to create a fruitful vineyard. He was so determined that He endured the Cross. Jesus will have His vineyard.

Now we’re ready for the key question of the sermon. What’s the fruit? What is it that Jesus yearns to see in you? What is it that Jesus craves to create in you? The Bible gives us many answers to this question. And that makes sense. The work of God in you, the fruit, has so many facets. You can’t capture it with one picture or in one quick sentence. Today, I will show you just one perspective on this work of God.

Listen to something Paul wrote. ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ Here, Paul takes something from God’s creative act in Genesis 1, ‘Let there be light’, and applies it to what He has done in our hearts. The fruit of the Gospel in our lives, the fruit that Jesus yearns to see in us, is this light of the knowledge of the glory of God. Please note that it is not merely knowledge but the light of this knowledge. Paul is not talking about some new information but an experience of blinding light that comes from that information.

Now, I’m going to guess that what I’ve just told you doesn’t seem like a big deal. And I’m also going to guess that the problem is another church word. ‘Glory’ is a great word, but its meaning and its power is almost lost on us. So, let me suggest a different word, something close to synonym. Paul is writing about the light of the knowledge of the beauty of God. The fruit that Jesus yearns to see in us is the experience of beauty, beauty that finds its original in God Himself.

While this is a more helpful word than ‘glory’, it still needs a little clarification. In our culture beauty is usually limited to the physical. That’s why we say, ‘Beauty is only skin deep.’ But true beauty goes beyond the body and resides in the person. Beauty is about what is attractive, what draws others in. So, there is the beauty of a colorful sunset, the beauty of the majestic Alps, the beauty of a powerful storm. This is part of the beauty of nature around us. In a similar way, there is beauty in other people. We are attracted to people who have certain qualities about them. Folklore is filled with stories about the honest workman, the sacrificing mother, the valiant prince. They have qualities that attract our attention. The qualities that they have are aspects of beauty, the beauty of the person. By the Gospel, God has caused the light of the knowledge of His beauty shine in our hearts. This beauty is something that touches us deeply, something that we experience, something that we enjoy. It is also something that we reflect back to God as well as to the world.

So, David writes this: ‘One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord …’ Elsewhere David calls to the people of God with these words, ‘Give to the Lord the glory due to his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.’ And then Paul describes the work of Jesus for His bride with words that also evoke thoughts of beauty, ‘so that He might present the church to himself in splendor…’ The Gospel is about beauty, the beauty of God experienced, enjoyed and reflected by the people of God. That’s the fruit.

This is really good news because, more than anything, you want to be beautiful. Most of you don’t say it that way. A more familiar way of saying it is that you want to be liked. But what is that but the desire to be attractive. You want others to see qualities in you that will draw them closer to you. You want to be beautiful. And so does everybody else. Again, in our world this is all too often limited to the physical. So, in some subcultures, females are supposed to be shapely and males are supposed to be muscular. But that is such a shallow sense of beauty. Real beauty is something that is deeper than that because, first and foremost, beauty describes God.

Now, there’s a problem. You all want to be beautiful, but you all know that you aren’t. That’s the most profound problem that you grapple with. There is this ugliness. It destroys any sense of beauty. It’s like a raw scar across your face. Most people don’t have a word for it. In fact, most people are not fully conscious of this problem, though they feel it. The ugliness is, of course, sin. And whether they use that word or not, people know, ‘There’s something about me that others don’t like, or they wouldn’t like if they could see it. There is something about me that is not beautiful.’ And this something is not that your teeth are crooked or that you’re flat chested or that your ears look funny. Beauty goes deeper than that. There is a scar on your soul. And it makes you feel ugly.

Enter the Gospel. Remember Paul’s words. God has acted. ‘He has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God – the beauty of God – in the face of Jesus Christ.’ So, Jesus confronts us. There He is, standing before us. And immediately we see God’s glory in His face, and we are drawn toward Him, in awe at what we see. Beauty. No scars, no ugliness, pure beauty. And we are amazed. How many times in the Gospels do we read about the people being amazed at Jesus? They saw His beauty. We have seen His beauty. But then Jesus tells us something totally unexpected. He tells us that the beauty of God that we see in Him can be ours. It will be ours. He promises to make us like Him in all His beauty. And it’s back to the Garden. We will be renewed people who possess the unblemished image of God, the beauty of God.

That’s the fruit. We are granted the privilege of experiencing the beauty of God deep within our souls, of enjoying it profoundly and reflecting it back again. That’s the fruit. This is what Jesus yearns to cultivate in you. This is what the Cross was about. This is why Jesus confronted Satan. This is why He broke the power of sin in you. He wants you to be beautiful with the beauty of God Himself.

There is much going on here. I am just beginning to explore the implications of what I have told you. It is my hope, though, that what I have explained to you would be encouraging to you. Consider this. The work of transforming you into someone beautiful has already begun. It began at your new birth. Jesus is, right now, in the process of removing the scars. And remember that Jesus is determined. One of these days you will wake up with no scars, no ugliness, not even just plainness, but rather beauty, glorious beauty. Sadly, we are so used to ugly that beauty is almost beyond our imagination. But it won’t be that way forever. Jesus is determined.

This also gives you a goal, a target. What are you aiming at with your life? Isn’t it to be beautiful? Isn’t that what you really want? And that is what Jesus is about, driving out the ugliness of sin and transforming you so that you might experience and enjoy the beauty of God. That’s what repentance and faith are about. They are means to the goal of becoming beautiful. Is anything else worth living for?

And understand how this works. At the heart of growing into beauty is first seeing God’s beauty revealed in Jesus, seeing the qualities of His life that make Him so attractive. So, the Spirit shows you His surprising wisdom, His profound sense of justice, His persistent love, and more. And you are awed by what you see, and as a result drawn even more toward this glorious God. And as the light gets brighter in your soul, you see where you are not yet beautiful. Ugliness is revealed. Sin is exposed. But then it is dealt with by repentance and faith. And beauty grows. And as that happens, the beauty of God is reflected from your life, others notice this beauty, and they attracted to it. Jesus uses your experience God’s beauty to draw others into the same experience.

There is more, of course. I’ve presented this in terms of you as individuals. But a vineyard is a group of individual vines. So, we, together, as a church, enjoy something of the beauty of God as Trinity. The beauty of the relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are also experienced and enjoyed and reflected out by the Church. But more on that will have to wait.

I would encourage you to ponder your life from this perspective. Consider the Gospel in terms of Jesus’ yearning to see you become beautiful. Try to imagine what that would look like in you. And then try to imagine it happening.

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