Monday, November 18, 2019

Our Sin, God's Faithfulness: A Vineyard Love Song

Let me sing for my beloved
    my 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 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.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and people of Judah,
judge between me
    and my vineyard.
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?

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.
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.

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! 
--Isaiah 5:1-7 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was around 30 years old, I met a man. I’d been divorced at this point for about 2 years and life as a working single mom was busy and, often, pretty hard. So, the idea of dating was a bit beyond me. However, one day, work colleagues of mine invited me to go out dancing with them one evening. I was resistant at first, thinking of all of the chores I still had to do at home, plus the challenge of finding a babysitter for my young son. But, they kept working on me and, eventually, I agreed.

They had a favorite hangout spot. It was this combination restaurant and bar that was on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, one of the wealthier communities in Los Angeles, which was where they also lived. We agreed that I would meet them there that evening. 

About 30 minutes into the evening, as I was wondering why I’d ever agreed to come, a gentleman approached our table to greet my friends. He was quite a bit older than we were. But, he was known to my friends and was respected in the community. He was a well known hotel developer. Wealthy. Very smart. Best of all, he was a great dancer! Over the next few minutes, we began to engage in conversation. And, then, to dance together. 

Have you ever had that sense after having just met someone that you are unexpectedly being pulled into a relationship? There is a sense of underlying excitement and an electricity that happens, that’s hard to explain. It’s a type of infatuation that happens, when everything just clicks. And it feels like it's destiny. 

Well, that’s what happened that evening to both of us. Over the next few weeks, we were in this whirlwind period of romance. Then, one Saturday morning, I received a call from him, saying we needed to talk. He’d spent the morning eating breakfast with friends - friends who were his age - who had convinced him of the folly of our relationship. The “May-November” nature of our relationship, if you will. And so, in that phone call, he told me we could no longer see each other. And, he broke up with me.

Earlier in worship this morning, we shared the names of love songs with each other. What we didn’t share, though, were the names of “break-up songs.” At that moment in my life, when it felt as though my destiny - as though our destiny - had been destroyed by his friends, this was my “break-up song.” 

The first part of our reading this morning from Isaiah is nothing more than a break-up song. A love song about a love that has gone awry. A song of a farmer and his vineyard. A farmer who has taken the utmost care to prepare the land for a bountiful harvest of grapes for wine-making. Not just any grapes, but the best grapes, the most excellent grapes. He has planted this vineyard on a fertile hill. He has done everything to ensure the growth of his precious vines -  digging up the dirt, clearing the stones, planting the choicest vines. Then, placing a tower in the midst of the vineyard - a watchtower - so that he might watch for those unwanted animals that might come and destroy his newly-planted vines. Digging out a wine vat, also in the midst of the vineyard, to make this wine that will be the best wine, of the highest quality. 

This is a love song that begins with such a sense of expectation and anticipation. An infatuation, if you must. And, then, we get to this line of the song, in verse 4, which ends with this question - a lament really. From the farmer: “When I expected my vineyard to yield good grapes, why did it yield rotten grapes?”

The next step the farmer takes is logical. With vines that have produced such a poor harvest, he removes the fences surrounding his previous vineyard. Allowing the natural predators to come in and destroy it. He stops farming the vineyard, allowing the thorns and thistles to grow up. The farmer walks away from what was once his beloved vineyard. Broken-hearted. Singing nothing other than a break up song. And, then, near the end of the song, we realize that this is not a song about a farmer and a vineyard. But this is a song - a breakup song - about God and God’s people.

The book of Isaiah is written in two parts by the prophet Isaiah. Unlike Hosea last week, who was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel, Isaiah is located in the southern kingdom, in Jerusalem. Isaiah has been witness to the destruction of the northern kingdom and the exile of Judah’s northern kin. It is this destruction and exile of Israel in the north that is the subject of this first part of Isaiah. A lament. A break-up song between God and God’s people. A people from whom God expected the production of good fruit. The fruits of - as we read in verse 7 - fruits of justice and righteousness. And yet, instead, Israel has become a people who have produced bad fruit. Fruits of bloodshed and distress. The harvest is not simply poor or inadequate. The harvest is evil. 

Friends, we are like this harvest. Like Israel. Our world produces similar fruit. A harvest from which God expects justice and righteousness. Where salvation is not just the hope of us as individuals, but where salvation in God’s eyes is about the establishment of a just society. Where the common good is of utmost importance. Where justice and righteousness prevail. A world in which the rights of all, including the most marginalized, are respected. Isaiah’s musical metaphor is a stinging rebuke to Israel, and to us, of the world we have created. A world that produces bloodshed. And cries. Particularly, the cries of children. Hungry. Living in unsafe conditions. In fear of the next mass shooting. Or separated from their parents.

For ten full chapters in this first part of Isaiah, we hear the lament of God over this harvest. Heavy, sobering words from God to the people of Judah, intended to wake them from their similar stupor. We hear God’s sense of despair at their unfaithfulness. At our unfaithfulness.

But, then, suddenly. Unexpectedly. The song changes in chapter 11.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
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.
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;
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.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.
--Isaiah 11:1-9 (NRSV)

As the song begins, the vineyard is a stump. Nothing more than a stump that appears to be dead. But, this stump still has roots. And as we listen to the song, Isaiah lifts our eyes. This is a song of a new
vision. An acknowledgement that life is about to be different. An intrusion of good news - very good news to the people of Judah. That, out of this seemingly dead stump, will come a new shoot. And, then, a branch. A new king. Who wears on his mantle the spirit of wisdom and understanding. The spirit of counsel and might. The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. The very words used in each of our baptisms.

This new king will judge with righteousness and equity. With a single-minded devotion to the community and to justice - a devotion that will require the abandonment of his own ambition. A new king, through whose leadership, the order of peace will be reestablished. A whole peace. Shalom. Not simply a peace among humans, but a peace that encompasses all of creation. Harmony will be restored.

What a vision! What a love song this is! Where children are safe and where the most likely of enemies live beside each other in peace. Where no one and nothing will be hurt or destroyed. Because the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of God.

By placing this vision - this love song - into the midst of the very stark realities of Israel’s life, into the midst of the stark realities of our lives, Isaiah reminds us that occasionally we need to stop and allow ourselves the privilege of seeing life not how it is, but about how it can be. About how God desires it to be and promises that it will be. Not a breakup song. But, a love song. A love story. A story of hope. A vision of peace. A true destiny for you and I and all creation. A destiny of justice and righteousness. And peace. And love.

May we long for this love song! And may we learn to sing it with our God. Amen.

Preached November 17, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 23
Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-9; Mark 12:1-3; Psalm 107:38-43

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