November 15, 2015
“The Vineyard and Its Fruit”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5
5 Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
5 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.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
Several years ago my husband and I decided to plant a little orchard on the hill beside our house. We bought a variety of apple, plum, pear and cherry trees. The ground is rocky and we worked hard to dig generous holes for each, and we added good soil to each hole, and plenty of water for each tree.
We wrapped them in the winter time to keep the deer from stripping all the bark off of them, and we fertilized them at the appropriate times. . . I can count on one hand the number of pieces of fruit I’ve gotten to eat from the orchard, and I’ve lost track of the number of trees we have lost to deer, fungus, bugs, my children, and some kind of burrowing creature.
What a disappointment. It felt like a waste of love.
The narrative lectionary which we’ve been following this fall, serves us up this week a story in two acts.
The first part, on first read, feels cryptic. Who is singing the love song? Who is the beloved? And all this agricultural imagery, what does it all mean? Why does the language switch from third person to first person part way through?
I think it would help to look at the text as we walk through it, so you can find Isaiah chapter 5 on page 634 in your pew Bibles.
It begins, you’ll notice, with someone wanting to sing a song for their beloved, and perhaps a closer meaning would be to say dear friend, like the best man at a wedding and the beloved friend is the groom.
It is a poem which describes for us a scenario that we can easily grasp. A gardener or vine-dresser plants a vineyard with all the care in the world, doing everything with such love and devotion that he expects great things.
But with heart-breaking disappointment the gardener gets something absolutely worthless – bitter, vile, rancid wild grapes.
And that is where the poem ends – it is just two verses long, and it feels almost like a parable, doesn’t it? The parable of the unfruitful vineyard, spoken by Isaiah, to us, the people of God.
And we might say in response, “Oh that’s so terrible that the vineyard would have done that after all that the gardener did for it. The gardener expected such great things and the vineyard let him down – it did not live up to what it was created to be.”
Suddenly the voice changes. God speaks and says to us, now judge between me and my vineyard. We find out that God is the gardener, the vinedresser – this description of God is found throughout Isaiah.
Who is in the wrong? What more could God have done? Why did this happen? We are asked to stand in the place of judgement, and we find the vineyard to be wanting – the vineyard is in the wrong!
And God says, my paraphrase, “Oh yes the vineyard stands condemned. And I will take away all the protections I have given it – it will be destroyed – eaten by animals, trampled down by invaders, overtaken by weeds and brambles, dried up by drought.” That takes us through verse 6.
And we, the readers, say in response, “The vineyard deserves it.”
And then the punch in the gut.
Isaiah’s voice returns and points his finger at us, “It is you, people of God. You are the vineyard on whom God poured out everything. You are God’s garden, you are God’s pleasant planting.”
And the last 4 lines there is this fantastic wordplay in the Hebrew.
The sweet wine that God expects from us is justice (mišpāṭ), but instead, we produced bloodshed, or more accurately we have spilled blood (miśpāḥ).
God expects righteousness (ṣĕdāqâ) but has instead heard only a “cry” (ṣĕ’āqâ).
That “cry” is the exact same word used to describe how the Israelites cried out to God about the abuse and oppression at the hands of the Egyptian taskmasters.
Reading the first few chapters of Isaiah, it is easy to find the injustices that God has witnessed: God’s people do not defend the cause of the widow and orphan (1:23), they covet and store up wealth for themselves (1:29), they oppress the poor (3:14-15), they acquit the guilty and deprive the innocent of their rights (5:23).
And there ends the first act.
This is a juridical parable – meaning, by the story we are judged.
We stand condemned, and we condemned ourselves. The situation is dire, and we can only respond with confession: “we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved God with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” (Book of Common Prayer)
The garden is laid to waste, every tree cut down. And now all we see are stumps. There is no life here.
In the second act, our attention is drawn to a dead stump, where shockingly there is one small sign of life, a small, stubborn shoot grows towards the sun.
Like a flower growing in a sidewalk crack, it feels just like a miracle. When all seemed lost, God still, always, brings life.
Sometimes we decide too soon the places or situations that are too dead, too desperate, or too hardened for any life to return.
Preaching professor Barbara Lundblad tells the story of a man on her street she’s known for years. She writes, “We often met in the morning at the newsstand. Then, his wife died — forty-two years together changed to loneliness. I watched him walking, his head bowed, his shoulders drooping lower each day. His whole body seemed in mourning, cut off from everyone.
I grew accustomed to saying, “Good morning” without any response. Until a week ago. I saw him coming and before I could get any words out, he tipped his hat, “Good morning, Reverend. Going for your paper?”
He walked beside me, eager to talk. I could not know what brought the change that seemed so sudden. Perhaps, for him, it wasn’t sudden at all, but painfully slow.”
Like a flower in a sidewalk crack. Surely there was an explanation, yet he appeared to her to be a miracle.
Sometimes we sit down on that stump, doubting that anything can change in our lives. We have given up. We know drought, we know failure. We look around us but struggle to find hope. And then there is this sign of life, small but stubborn, that can transform even the wastelands of our lives.
We are fast approaching Advent and this is an Advent text. Come and sit with me a while on this stump, in this dead and hardened place, and watch and wait for signs of life. Watch and wait for this seemingly small miracle of a baby, God with us.
Isaiah 53 describes him:
“For he grew up before them like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53: 2)
The Hebrew word for “shoot” (11:1) can also mean “scepter” as in the scepter of a king.
The shoot of Jesse (Jesse was king David’s father) means that a king is coming – and this king will have God’s Spirit with him, and will be wise and just and will fear God – and he will bring the justice and the righteousness that the vineyard failed to bring: “with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (NIV).
His body will be bound, wrapped, encircled, by righteousness and faithfulness.
The funny thing about being Christian (and there are probably many things) is that we hope for what has already happened.
We know who this king is. He has already shown us the kingdom, and yet we still wait and work for that kingdom.
We work for justice – that which sets us right with one another.
We live into righteousness – that which sets us right with God.
The king has come, the king is here, and the king will bring everything to wholeness and completion, when peace and justice and grace are the final words.