Isaiah 5 is couched as a love song, beginning in tender joy (with verbal echoes of the Song of Songs!) – but it turns quickly to scathing critique, featuring wickedly harsh wordplay. God looked for mishpat (justice) but found only mispach (bloodletting); God sought zedekah (righteousness) but found only ze’akah (a yelp of pain). Memorable, haunting words that cannot have been well-received by the smug who first heard them.
Preparing to preach on this? Drive to a vineyard, get in a conversation with a laborer or two, or the vintner. Ask about frustrations. Get the feel of the place. Get the feel of what God felt. Or ask people around your parish or neighborhood of times they felt they had labored hard but earned nothing but exasperation in return. You’ll be getting close then to the heart of this text.
Hebrews 11:29-12:2 continues the roll call of Israel’s heroes of faith from last week. I love the “time will fail me” in v. 32 – kin to the scene in Sleepless in Seattle, when Jonah springs a phone call with radio therapist Dr. Marcia Fieldstone on his dad, Sam. She asks, “What was so special about your wife?” He responds, “Well, how long is your program?” The preacher can tantalize people by playing on this, and just rattling off names and brief summaries of the exploits of Bible heroes (including those saints who've lived past Bible times!).
How intriguing is Hebrews’s spin that “They grew powerful out of weakness” – a common biblical theme, and one re-popularized in our day by Jean Vanier, Brené Brown and others. Verse 38 reminds us of the Desert Fathers… Even all these great heroes didn’t get what God has prepared, which is better. Wow. If so, for us, we “put aside every impediment” – raising homiletical questions about what impediments people carry around like some heavy backpack.
The race running image: if you aren’t a runner, or even if you are, interview a few runners. Review the text and see what they say about running, discipline, the mental battle, injuries, cheerleading, whatever.
And the “cloud of witnesses” image is so powerful! I preached a few years back at our conference’s memorial service for clergy and their spouses who had died in the past year. I tried to think about tears – which are little droplets of water. What is a cloud, but little droplets of water all together? And that such little droplets are at their most colorful and beautiful – when? – at the end of the day, as the sun is setting. We have lost great ones, and we have tears – but those tears are gathered up into a cloud, and the refraction of light is stunning, lovely.
Finally, Luke 12:49-56 is a great text, although I won’t focus on it. The family division is tough to talk about, although we have someone like St. Francis of Assisi (who could be an addendum to the Hebrews 11 list!) winding up cut off from his father Pietro because of his following Christ (as depicted so powerfully in Giotto's fresco). Certainly Christian faith doesn’t make families chipper or hold them together. It might, but often does not. Idolatry of the family is one of the naggingly pernicious blockers to people following Jesus – again, growing out of our nasty tendency to think that the Christian life is about being nice, or my goodness, or as a prop to our prearranged, preferred lives. Serious adherence to Jesus inevitably breaks down human relationships.