August 15, 2010 - Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
What’s your favorite broken heart song? If you’re young, it might be “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley or “Pictures of You” by The Cure. If you’re old and out of it like me, it could even be Kenny Rogers’ “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille,” “with four hungry children and a crop in the field,” and all. Or maybe “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” by Bill Withers or even Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile without You.” My wife would want me to mention “E lucevan le stelle” from the opera Tosca. I can’t leave out Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” or Johnny Cash’s “Cry, Cry, Cry.”
From the hit charts of 740 B.C., you can add Isaiah 5:1-7, which begins, “I will sing a song for my beloved, a song about his vineyard.” Here the prophet takes it upon himself to write a song about God’s broken heart and even to put lyrics in God’s mouth. God’s heartbreak and breakup with His people is imagined as the disappointed frustration of the caretaker of a vineyard.
The people of Israel as God’s vineyard is a common image in the Old Testament. You find it in Psalm 80, which we read today, and in Jeremiah and in Hosea. Yet Isaiah was first to paint God as saving and redeeming His people like a gardener planting and caring for a vineyard. Jesus picked up the same imagery and used it two or three different ways in His own teaching.
Isaiah’s song is a complete and explicit description of God working in His vineyard. It shows us the work that went into preparing and planting a vineyard in Palestine. Verse 1 says, “My beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.” God chose the rich and fertile land of Canaan in which to plant Israel. But as anyone who’s tried to plant anything here in the original clay and rock of the Willamette Valley knows, it’s not that simple.
Verse 2 tells us God “dug it up and cleared it of stones.” That would be especially necessary in Palestine. An Arabic story says that when God created the world He put all the rocks into two bags and entrusted them to two angels. As they flew over Palestine, one of the bags broke and spilled all its rocks there. So Palestine got half the rocks intended for the whole world. Any new planting involved back-breaking labor clearing the stones away. From our study of Joshua earlier this year we know God worked hard to clear that land of enemies, so that Israel could be planted and flourish there.
We’re also told that God “planted it with the choicest of vines.” The Hebrew word indicates the best of cultivated grape vines, with a deep red color. God chose the people of Israel out of all the nations of the earth and cultivated them through their long years in the wilderness.
Then verse 3 says the gardener built a watchtower in the vineyard. Any crop in ancient times needed protection against animals and human thieves. God watched over His people in Israel, constantly saving them from invaders, as we read in Judges and on down through Kings and Chronicles.
Finally, in anticipation of a good harvest, the vineyard keeper “cut out” a winepress. That is, he dug into the ground to house a great vat into which the rich red juice from the grapes could be wrung out of bags suspended above. We might allegorize that a number of ways, but we can see first the Tabernacle and then the Temple as the winepress into which Israel was to pour the harvest of their praise and worship to God.
But God was sorely disappointed. “Then he looked for a crop of good fruit, but it yielded only bad fruit.” On my blog this past week I talked about our planting of blueberry bushes when we moved into our house a couple years ago. Beth worked hard at preparing the ground, hauling out the clay and rocks and hauling in good, rich top soil full of nutrients. Yet the bushes disappointed us this year by bearing no fruit at all.
God’s disappointment was greater. Despite all His hard work with Israel, they “yielded only bad fruit.” Bad fruit is worse than no fruit. The words imply that while God planted choice, cultivated vines, the grapes He got were tough, little, sour fruit like would come from wild vines.
As I boy I picked grapes from vines around my grandmother’s house in Arizona while she still owned the family land. My grandfather had planted the vines and tended and watered them as they grew alongside a wall and fence in back of their house. Yet by the time I can remember, he had been gone several years. Before that he was weak with heart disease. The vines hadn’t been cared for in a long time. There were still some wonderful, big blue Concord grapes full of sweet juice and Grandma still made them into delicious jelly. But I also remembering picking and eating and spitting out plenty of small, hard, sour little grapes that were all some of those neglected vines produced anymore.
That’s how it was in God’s vineyard which was His people Israel. He cultivated and planted and nurtured vines He hoped would produce the finest wine of love and praise to Him. Instead He only got sour grapes. So in verse 3, God speaks for Himself saying, “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.” This is where it becomes not just a story, not just a sad song anymore. God is closing in on what He wants to say.
“What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” says the Lord in verse 4. God did everything He could for Israel, for Judah, for Jerusalem. He called them out of Egypt. He carried them across the wilderness. He planted them and drove out their enemies in Canaan. He kept leading them and warning them with judges and kings and priests and prophets, but now all He gets is bad fruit.
So verses 5 and 6 announce God’s judgment on His vineyard, a picture of utter destruction and desolation. “I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there.” The final and harshest word is, “ I will command the clouds not to rain on it.”
It’s a poetic description of what in fact happened to Judah in 587 B.C. The Babylonians came and broke down the wall of Jerusalem. They flattened Solomon’s beautiful Temple. They carried off and drove away the people and left the whole site empty and uncared for. God’s blessing was no longer showered on that land.
With verse 7, Isaiah squeezes the last drop of bitter juice from the song, from the image of the vineyard, by having God say directly, “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in.” Then we get a clear and direct statement of what the bad fruit is, “And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” It’s a brilliant double pun in Hebrew. God looked for justice, mišpāṭ, but found bloodshed, miś pāḥ; for righteousness, ṣĕdāqāh, but instead found a cry, ṣĕ‘āqāh. He looked for good fruit, but found bad fruit.
It’s that same old story we’ve been hearing in these prophets. God’s people were failing in their love for each other. He wanted justice, but their courts were favoring the rich and powerful. He wanted righteousness, but all He could hear was the cries of the poor and oppressed. So, now what does it all mean to us?
The voice of God speaks to us in Jesus. As we began the service we heard Him say in John 14:1, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” God’s vineyard is still His people. Today His vineyard is the Church. When the church fathers read this passage from Isaiah they immediately thought of the Church because verse 1 says, “I will sing for my beloved…” Who is “the beloved,” they thought, except the one God calls His own “beloved Son,” Jesus Christ? When they read Psalm 80 echo God’s lament over His vineyard, they read verse 16 (or 17), “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand and son of man you have made so strong for yourself.” Who else is God’s right hand Man but Jesus?
So this was a song about Israel, but now it’s a song about us, about the people planted by the love and sacrifice of Christ. It’s challenge and questions are now challenges and questions for us.
“What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” asks God. To be sure, what more could God have done for us than to become one of us, to be born as an infant, to live and teach among us, to suffer in terrible ways, and to die on the Cross? What more could He do than to dig out our sins with the nails in His hands and water our souls with the blood that ran down the tree of the Cross? And what more could He do than to rise again, refusing to let even death have the last word on us? What more could God do than He’s done for us, done for you? And, with all that, what fruit have we produced? Is it good fruit or bad?
Historically, we could point to the good fruit of our Lord’s Church. It’s the Church that saved civilization and brought it back to order when the Roman Empire crumbled. It’s the Church that taught people to care about the poor and the sick. It’s the vineyard of the Church in which seeds were planted that brought an end to slavery and recognition of the full personhood and equality of women. It’s the Church which produced the fruit of the idea that every human being is valuable and precious, regardless of race or social status.
Yet there are any number of people today who do not like the fruit of the Church. They look at Christians and taste only sour grapes. Ghandi is supposed to have said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.” That’s become a kind of rallying cry of “I like Jesus, but I don’t like the Church.” For whatever reasons, a growing number of people get a bite of Christian community, spit it out, and walk away.
It’s all over. On Wednesday USA Today ran an article talking about the fact that attendance at church youth groups has dropped dramatically in the last ten years. Kids and adults are participating less and less in church activities. What’s it about?
You probably know that Anne Rice, the popular author of a slew of vampire novels, became a Christian five years ago, returning to her Catholic faith after being an atheist for decades. We had her book, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, featured as a book of the month here at VCC. Now last month she announced that she has “quit Christianity.” But it doesn’t mean she’s giving up her faith in Jesus, just her faith in the Church. She says, “following Christ does not mean following His followers.” She’s fed up with the Church’s quarrels, hostility, and lack of love toward those who are different, sinful or poor. She still likes Jesus, but she doesn’t like the Church.
On one hand, Rice and all the others who want to follow Jesus without being part of the Church are expressing the individualistic spirit of the age. For the past four hundred years or so we’ve been reaping the harvest of emphasizing the individual over the commitments that bind us together as human beings in community. We’ve imagined that we can live by ourselves and for ourselves better than we can together in relationship with others. That spirit is wrong and needs to be challenged. In the end, it’s impossible to have a true, loving and lasting relationship with Jesus without being in loving relationship with His people.
But in the light of Isaiah 5 and the song of the vineyard, I’d like to save a critique of individualism for another time. Instead, let’s take this opportunity to ask ourselves what fruit we’ve been producing together as the Lord’s Church? What have we done or not done that has left so many disenchanted and even disgusted with the taste we leave in their mouths? What good fruit has God and the world come looking for in us, but not found?
Honestly, I don’t have any great answers. If I did, our own church might be bursting at the seams. So I’m struggling right along with you to hear what God is saying to us through Isaiah and in all His Word and to discern where and how we can produce the fruit that God desires and that tastes good to people who need the Lord.
I do know this. There is some fruit here among us that would never have budded, blossomed, grown and ripened if we had not been together as a church. It’s not time to just disband and all go home. The same evening that article on youth groups appeared in USA Today, Beth and I went to Camp Harlow to see two young women from Valley Covenant be celebrated along with dozens of other high school and college students from all sorts of churches. We honored them for giving up weeks of their summer to serve as counselors, to love and care for young children learning about Jesus at camp. That’s good fruit.
I know many of you have loved and cared for people among us you may not even know well. You’ve donated to our Love Offering fund or taken a meal to a young mother or written an encouraging note. That’s good fruit. I know Jim has urged us to open this sanctuary for homeless singles on the coldest nights of the year and Pete has helped us shelter needy families for two weeks every year. That’s good fruit. I know at least three of your homes will open and welcome anyone to join in Bible study and prayer and Christian community this fall. That’s good fruit.
So please, let’s not give up. Let’s be the fruitful vineyard for which our Lord gave up His life and then rose again to plant and tend. We still have lots of delicious fruit to grow for Him. We are still the vine on which grows the wine which heals the sorrows of the world and makes hearts glad in unhealthy and dark times.
Thursday night I got a call from someone I know here in town. Like so many, he identifies as a Christian, but he doesn’t go to church. He said, “Steve, my brother and I going out to the coast tomorrow to spread my mother’s ashes. Could you give me some prayers to say?” His mother died a few months ago. He’s been waiting to do this. I asked him what kind of prayers he meant. “Well, I’ve already got ‘Palms’ 23, so a couple others like that.” I realized he was asking me for some Scripture. So I gave him Psalm 121 and John 14 about Jesus going to prepare a place for us. Then I suggested I Thessalonians 4 about Jesus coming back to raise those who died in Him, and finished with I Peter 1:3-6 about the living hope we have in Jesus. Then I hung up and prayed for him and his brother and for their whole family that as they read those verses they would find the truth and the hope in them.
You see, we can still grow the fruit the world is hungry for. There need to be churches so that there will be people who know the Scriptures and who can offer the Bread fruit of Life when our friends and families and the world come asking for it. We can be a lush, green, verdant vineyard weighed down with the sweet grapes of the Gospel. We can be fruitful for each other and for those around us. We can be the Church.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj