A sermon on Isaiah 63
preached at the Reformed Church of Port Ewen, New York
on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2020
Our passage this morning begins with a terrifying and troubling image. The prophet asks: “Who is this that comes from Edom, from Bozrah in garments stained crimson?” We are unsettled to discover it is the Lord who comes, the Lord who comes in garments stained with blood. His wrath and judgment vividly depicted as one who stamps out grapes in a wine press. It is one of the most evocative — and grisly — depictions in the Bible of God as a warrior (Robert Alter).
God comes from Edom, garments stained with blood. Edom was an ancient foe of Israel. Through Esau they shared blood. The conflict between brothers, Jacob and Esau, a foreshadowing of the conflict between Israel and Edom. Moses, leading Israel to the promised land of Canaan, had asked the king of Edom twice for permission to pass through their land, but was refused. Marriage between an Israelite and Edomite were forbidden. The children of such a “mixed” marriage were not to be allowed into the covenant people of God. King Saul and King David both made war with Edom, which eventually became a vassal state of Israel.
And as Psalm 137 tells us, Edom collaborated with the Babylonian invaders and plundered Israel. Because of this, Edom was singled out as a particular object of hatred.
But here, the ancient foe of Israel is conquered. Not by Israel. Not by a foreign power or nation or king. The enemy of Israel is conquered by God Himself.
I looked, but there was no helper;
I stared, but there was no one to sustain me;
so my own arm brought victory . . . (v. 5)
* * *
It is an unsettling depiction of God. We don’t often think of God, or at least I don’t, robed in garments splattered red with the lifeblood of our enemies. Yet John Calvin, the sixteenth century Reformer, tells us that we have to resist the temptation to turn away from this passage, or to soften it’s force. Calvin says that we need a God who comes as our protector and our avenger; we need a God who judges evil and wickedness; we need a God who comes to vindicate and liberate those who are weighed down by incredible evils and injustices.
As I sat with this text during this past week I thought about how uncomfortable this image of God made me, and how easy it was for me as a white American, and a male, who, all things aside, has a pretty comfortable life, to want to dismiss this image of God. But then I thought about those for whom life is not so easy, so comfortable. Those who experience real evils and wickednesses and injustices. Those who don’t have the luxury of pretending they don’t need a God whose right arm brings vindication.
Maybe you are here this morning having experienced real, terrible evils, for which the world has no answer. Maybe you are here this morning feeling oppressed by the enemy, the Satan, and held captive in sin. Maybe you are here this morning needing to hear this word from God: that God is your avenger who has come to vindicate you and set you free.
* * *
This vision, this hope of Israel that God would come as a mighty warrior to defeat their enemies, gives way in v. 7 to the act of remembrance. The prophet begins to recount the history of God’s saving and redeeming work, of God’s action in the life and history of his people. He recalls God’s favor, mercy, and sustaining love to Israel in each and every generation. The prophet doesn’t white-wash their history, but recalls honestly Israel’s sin and rebellion. God not only brings judgment upon Israel’s enemies, but the prophet remembers that God has even been like an enemy to His own people, judging them for their sin and evil.
The prophet remembers God’s faithfulness in raising Moses from the waters as a babe, only later to have Moses shepherd Israel through the waters himself as they fled Egypt. The prophet says like cattle grazing in the valley, God led Israel to a verdant place of abundant peace and rest.
Hope gave way to remembrance. God had always been Israel’s faithful protector and avenger. The vision and hope of God defeating Israel’s enemies that opens our passage is born out of who God has always revealed Himself to be for Israel: God had always been Israel’s warrior and deliverer.
We know who God is because God has revealed Himself to us. We know who God is by remembering what God has done. I think we often operate as if memory is neutral. We talk about memory like it’s just a thing. You have memory or you don’t. You have a good memory or a bad one. But memory, like all of life, is a gift. It is a gift given to us by God. And if it is a gift given by God, to remember is not a neutral act but it comes with the responsibility of us to cultivate this gift faithfully.
Memory, to remember, to tell the story of the history of our lives, of our families, of our communities, of the faith — it is never a neutral act. We are always editing, always omitting this or that, always deciding what stories and events to include or to leave out. [We see this when families remember the same story differently; debates about America’s history]. To remember honestly, to remember faithfully, is what is required of us.
God is inviting us this morning to remember as the prophet remembers. To remember faithfully is an act of obedience. God is inviting us this morning to look back on the story of God as revealed in Scripture and to look back on the story of our lives. Israel could have told the story in a different way. They could have said Moses was a great leader, with great negotiating skills, as he faced off with Pharoah. They could have said he was a courageous and skilled military leader who led their flight from Egypt. They could have told the story differently — that they were a great people, their warriors and military skill unmatched, and that is how they conquered the Promised Land. They could have blamed others for their sin. They could have told the story differently. But they told it, they remembered it, faithfully — their story was not of their own making. No. Instead, at every turn, they knew that their existence was created and sustained by the mercy, love, and faithfulness of God. Their history was infused, at every moment, in every event, by the steadfast mercy and abundant love of God.
This morning we are being asked: what do you remember? How do you remember? What stories do you tell your friends? Your children? What stories do you share around the campfire? How do you tell these stories?
Our memory, the act of remembrance, like all of life is a gift given to us by God. And as so many of us know, it is a gift that we cannot take for granted as we have watched our loved ones lose their ability to remember and lose their sense of self. The stories we tell, and how we tell them, tell us who we are. They help us make sense of our lives, the world, and our place in it. What does it mean for you to receive this gift from God? To steward it faithfully? It might mean you tell the same stories of your past, but you tell them differently. It might mean that you are being called to tell to those closest to you that one story you’ve always kept hidden and secret. It might mean that you are being called to be more honest about God’s work in your life. Maybe God is inviting you to examine your past anew and to see where God has shown up in your life — how has Jesus saved you? Where has the Holy Spirit been powerfully present to you and those around you?
To remember is a gift, and it comes with the responsibility to steward it faithfully, to give it back to God in obedience.
* * *
The vision and hope of God as their avenger gave way to the act of faithful remembrance of God’s saving action. And all of this gives way to the last third of our passage — to lament. Verse fifteen marks the beginning of a lament that stretches all the way to the end of chapter 64.
Look down from heaven and see,
from your holy and glorious habitation.
Where is your zeal and your might?
The yearning of your heart (deep feeling) and compassion?
They are withheld from me.
. . .
Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways
and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you . . . (vv. 15, 17)
I wonder if in hoping for God’s vindication and deliverance, in remembering God’s past saving action, the prophet then looked around and saw the present reality and how far it was from what they hoped for, what they had known. The reality of Israel in Isaiah 63 is not that God has come in glory and avenged Israel, defeating their enemies and restoring them to their former glory. No, if we remember, they have returned to Jerusalem from captivity, but they returned to a city in ruins. They returned to conflict with those who had never left. They returned to a stalled rebuilding project of the Temple. They returned to economic devastation while facing threats from without and within.
Their remembrance of God who had delivered them in the past, their hope for a God who would deliver them again, gives way to lament in the present, a longing for what is not yet true.
Maybe this morning you find yourself remembering who God has been for you in the past — your redeemer and savior. You find yourself hoping for Jesus to again deliver you. And yet, you look around you at the devastation sin and evil has wraught in your own life, or the devastation in the lives of those around you, or the devastation of a world gripped by war and evil and greed, gripped by fear in the midst of a pandemic, a nation gripped by evil and hatred — divided racially, politically, socio-economically. You look around you at a church that is shrinking, always seeming to be on retreat, devastated again and again by scandal. And you, too, are filled with lament, asking God: Where is your zeal and might? Where is your love and compassion for me? For us? We are your children and yet it seems as if you have abandoned us, as if we no longer yours.
Lament also is a faithful act of worship. Can we say these things to God? Can we really accuse God in this way? Can we ask God these questions? Yes. Yes, we can. Lament is an act of faith because to bring these questions before God means that we believe, we hope, we trust that God can answer them. It is an act of faith because we know we have nowhere else to go but to go before God. It is an act of faith because to stop asking them, to be filled with despair, would mean that we have lost faith, that we no longer trust God to be able to save us. Lament is a faithful act of worship, a turning again to God in the midst of our sorrow and sadness and pain. It saves us from bitterness, from resentment, from hatred, from despair. It keeps our hearts soft with longing for the God who loves us.
Israel had a vision and hope for who God would be for them, rooted in the past, rooted in their memory of who God has always been for them. And that gave way to lament in the present, for things were not as they ought to be. Their lament, their unfulfilled longing returned them to their starting place, to their only hope — in God and God’s saving action.
* * *
Can we, at the end, in our longing and our lament, return again to the beginning — to this terrible image of God, robed in garments splattered with blood?
This image of God pressing out the wine-press in His wrath is picked up in the Book of Revelation. And I think John Calvin is right. We need a God who judges evil, who doesn’t look the other way at human wickedness, but does something about it. We need a God who sets the world to rights.
But I also think that we have to ask ourselves: how has this judgment been accomplished? How has this avenger God made right the injustices and evils of the world?
The Church Father Tertullian in the second and third century saw Jesus when he read this passage. He wrote that in this passage the prophet “contemplates the Lord as if he were already on his way to his passion, clad in his fleshly nature; and as he was to suffer therein, he represents the bleeding condition of his flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red, as if reddened in the treading and crushing process of the winepress…” (Tertullian).
Around the tenth, eleventh century the church began to interpret this passage through paintings — some on the ceilings of monasteries and churches. The paintings would depict Christ in the wine-press. The Man of Sorrows, with the weight of the wine press bearing down upon him, a beam usually across his back — a symbol of the cross.
Jesus’s robes were indeed stained with blood, but not the blood of Israel’s enemies, not the blood of our enemies, but the with his very own blood. Instead of the being splattered with the blood of the nations, in receiving and taking upon himself the wrath of the nations, Jesus is splattered in his own blood.
We have all made ourselves as those of Edom, enemies of God in our sin, plundering the holiness of God, refusing to welcome God. And so we are all deserving of the fate of Edom. But to our surprise and delight, we, the enemies of God, are spared by Jesus taking upon himself our fate. He, crushed for iniquities, dies our death. Our blood should have been spilled, and yet it is the blood of Christ, poured out for the sins of the whole world by which we are spared.
What the Church saw in the eleventh century, what Tertullian saw in the third century, is what the Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, from the 17th century, saw when he wrote:
Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquour sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine. (George Herbert, The Agonie)
Friends, Christ is indeed our avenger. He is indeed the warrior of God who comes. But he comes armed with the fierce, holy love of God — the sacrificial love of the cross. And on the hard wood of the cross, his arms spread open in love, his body broken and bloodied and bruised, he conquers. Not with violence, but by swallowing up all violence, and sin, and evil and wickedness, and death. Christ conquers and reigns victorious, destroying our last enemy to be destroyed — death itself. And one day he will come again and we will reign victorious with him. He is our only hope.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Image above: Christ in the Winepress, Austria, ca. 1400–1410. ÖNB 3676, fol. 14r. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library), Vienna