The Thread of Pain

Let me sing for my beloved, A love song concerning His vineyard,

                        My beloved had a vineyard, On a very fertile hill,

            He dug it and cleared it of stones,

                    and planted it with the choicest of vines . . . . . .

            Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,

                        But it yielded only bad fruit.’

******

In this beautiful love-song the prophet Isaiah expresses God’s love for His beloved, His vineyard, the people of Israel. It sings of how God had sought to shower them with every blessing and to provide them with their every need. It is also however an expression of God’s anguish and pain that, despite His overflowing blessing and provision, the ‘Vineyard’ had failed to respond to His love by producing the ‘good fruit’ that He had created them for, rather it produced bad. (Isaiah 5:1-6)

It is a song that also indicates God’s ultimate reaction to His people. Chosen they were yes, but they had become hard of heart, and who over centuries increasingly did ‘what was right in their own eyes’, shrouded in a veneer of religiosity. Indeed, the song continues with a sobering warning of God’s response to stubborn fruitlessness.

‘I will break down its wall and it will be trampled,

            I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned or cultivated . . . ‘

We know of course that over the next hundred years or so this is exactly what did happen through the agency of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.     

Tragically the lesson was not learned. For we again see God’s anguished pain illustrated in Jesus tears as he wept over the Jews in Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44), who despite their religiosity, box-ticking Law observance, Temple-going and synagogue assemblies, had however lost sight of what God expected of them and had rejected Him. Jesus’ tears came also as he saw the disaster about to be visited on the city.

‘The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side . . . . They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.’

Again, that is exactly what happened at the hand of the Roman armies a few decades later.

Then once more we see the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Roman churches (Romans 9:2-5) expressing anguish (a reflection of God’s pain) at the Jews’ rejection of God’s one and only Son, Jesus as Messiah-

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race,  the people of Israel’.

These were the people upon whom God had showered special blessing and favour for-

‘Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.  Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, for ever praised!

Yet, despite these huge blessings once again they rejected all of them.

******

This ‘Thread of Pain’ that flows through the history of God’s people is repeatedly marked by a common set of characteristics.

First, there is a failure of leadership. The Priests, despite the nation’s disobedience, and    despite foreign armies massing outside the gates of Jerusalem, failed in their role as God’s watchmen (Ezekiel 3:16-21) to blow the trumpet of warning. Instead they stubbornly persisted with an attractive but deluded message of ‘Peace, peace, when there is no peace’ (Jeremiah 6:14).

Second, there is the mark of ‘Religiosity’. That is the performance of required rituals, whether in Temple, Synagogue or ‘Church’ building accompanied by a desiccated spirituality generally producing little or no ‘good fruit’. This the spiritual state of religious ‘form without power’ that Paul described (2 Timothy 3:5).

Third, there is ‘Syncretism’. That is the corruption of the true worship of God by allowing the ‘gods of the age’ to permeate and control the minds, lives and practices of those claiming to be God’s people.

Fourth, there is a conscious or subconscious complacent belief that ‘she’ll be right’ and things will carry on just the same as they always have done. ‘After all, we are God’s people aren’t we? So He will not allow anything negative to happen’.

Fifth, there is the mark of a rebellious fruitlessness contrary to God’s right and expectation, a situation clearly illustrated by Jesus in the ‘Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard’ (Matthew 21:33-46), a parable that references a number of the marks of the ‘Thread of Pain’.

Sixth, there is often a general comfortable Laodicean lukewarm-ness (Revelation 3:15-17). This in its most extreme form manifests in a questioning as to whether God is even around anymore. (Psalm 42:3b)

It might be a helpful, but also perhaps sobering, exercise for us to survey the current church landscape to see how many of these ‘Marks’ of the ‘Thread of Pain’ we can discern.

******

It is important to note however, as we trace the ‘Thread of Pain’ through the history of God’s people, that if we have eyes to see, we will discern another ‘Thread’. This the ‘Thread of New Shoots’ springing up along the pathway. These new shoots (arguably called by some ‘The Remnant’) are those whom God selects and pulls out from the throngs of ‘Pain-givers’ to continue, or to restart, His plan of salvation.

This second ‘Thread of New Shoots’ can be seen in the selection of Noah and his family; the 7000 whom God had kept from bowing the knee to Baal in the apostate nation in Elijah’s time (1 Kings 19:18); the Jews preserved as captives in Babylon following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem; the small number of converted Jews whom God formed into ‘First Church Jerusalem’ etc.

If we are able to discern these ‘marks’ of the ‘Thread of Pain’ present across the church landscape today then, as always, they are an indication of a loss of sight of why and for whom the people of God (now the church) actually exist.

The parallel thread however, reminds us that in such a situation God always raises up ‘New Shoots’ to continue and fulfil His ongoing plan of salvation and the establishment of His kingdom. Such being the case, another beneficial exercise will be for us to discern where He is causing new shoots to spring up and to ask how we might join and use our resources to facilitate them.

******

Let me sing for my beloved, A love song concerning His vineyard,

                        My beloved had a vineyard, On a very fertile hill,

            He dug it and cleared it of stones,

               and planted it with the choicest of vines . . . . . .

     Then he looked for a crop of good grapes’

He still is!

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