“My Beloved Had a Vineyard”
“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; righteousness, but heard a cry!” – Isaiah 5:1-7
“[Jesus said] I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12:49-56
Well it’s that time of year! Time when those of us who have planted vegetable gardens are beginning to enjoy the rewards of our labors: tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, zucchini (one of my favorites) – food-wise this is my favorite time of the year.
For those of us who garden, we know the kind of work it takes to tend a garden. Granted, you could just toss some seeds in the dirt and let them do their thing, and you’d probably get some results… but not like you do when you weed, and fertilize, and keep the pests away.
Like most gardeners I work at keeping my garden in good shape. So you can understand my disappointment this week when I discovered my zucchini plants had been attacked by something. I’m not sure what, probably some kind of insect, and I did everything I know how to do to save those plants. I may have succeeded, only time will tell. But before I got to it, a few little up-and-coming zucchinis were turned into mush by these pests. Innocent young zucchinis, gone… as a gardener, I take this personally!
So it’s easy to understand where God is coming from in our reading from Isaiah. The prophet writes “let me sing a love song of my beloved and his vineyard.” We gardeners do love our gardens! In fact my neighbor and I were talking just the other day: both of us have experienced serious back pain this year, and both of us, in spite of our chiropractor’s recommendations, continue to work in our gardens. We compared our chiropractor’s comments (and I bet our chiropractors could compare a few notes on us as well!)
Anyway God is an even more loving and giving gardener than we are. Just look at creation! Look at the beauty in the world around us. Everywhere we look, something is growing. Trees… flowers… weeds… I’ve even seen grass poke its head up between cracks in the streets. God’s garden is everywhere!
So Isaiah says God planted a vineyard – God cleared the land, planted good quality vines, watched over it. And God’s plans were to make wine, for the workers in the garden and for everybody who lived there to enjoy.
But when God went to pick the grapes God found wild grapes! Have you ever tasted wild grapes? I have, and I will never do it again! They’re bitter, they don’t taste like grapes at all. In fact the Hebrew in Isaiah’s passage is even stronger: the translation is more like “stinking worthless things.”In other words, rotten grapes.
And God asks “why? What more could I have done for my vineyard?” Which is a rhetorical question of course: God has done everything right. Unlike human gardeners, God knows exactly the right thing to do, and exactly when to do it, and does it, all the time. So God says, “I’ll tear down the wall of the vineyard, I’ll stop working in it, I’ll let it become overgrown and dried up.”
And then Isaiah explains he is speaking in a parable. The vineyard of God is the house of Israel. God planted this nation, tended it, cared for it, grew it, fed it… and when God looked for good fruit in the lives of the people, God found stinking rotten fruit. God says: “I expected justice but saw bloodshed, I expected righteousness but heard a cry of distress.”
Isaiah says, “let me sing you a love song of my beloved and his vineyard.”
Not all love songs have a happy ending. Some love songs are sad songs, songs about loving someone who doesn’t love you back. That’s the kind of song God is singing. God’s heart is sad, and God is angry at the lack of justice and compassion in Israel.
It’s important to remember God is not saying ‘goodbye’ to the vineyard. God still loves Israel. God is still giving the people a chance to turn around. That’s the meaning of repentance, to turn around. You can almost hear God singing:
“…there is someone who’ll stand beside you
Turn around, look at Me
And there’s someone to love and guide you
Turn around, look at Me”
If the people turn away from their violent ways, and learn to live lives of goodness and justice, God will spare the vineyard. But if not… well, even then it would not be the end of the vineyard. God never gives up on God’s people. But it will bring a tragic turn in the nation’s history, one from which Israel will never fully recover. Which is eventually what happened.
It’s a sad song. But the song’s not over yet. The climax of the song – and the story – is found in the life of Jesus. So let’s turn now to his words in Luke’s gospel for today.
What we hear Jesus saying is not easy to hear. We like to think of Jesus as the man who played with children and healed the sick – and he is that man – but that’s not all Jesus is.
In our gospel reading for today we hear Jesus taking up the same song Isaiah was singing: the song of the beloved and his people, a song of longing and warning. Immediately before this passage Jesus was saying to the disciples, “Be ready! The coming of the kingdom of heaven is like a bridegroom coming in the night… be ready!”
And then he turns like Isaiah turns, and looks at the vineyard, and he says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Is Jesus going to burn the vineyard down? No. The Greek word for fire is ‘pur’ and it’s the word we get the English word purify from, and also purgatory. We Protestants don’t believe in purgatory as taught by the Catholic Church but in the old days the word purgatory basically meant a furnace where imperfections were burned out of a metal. Those of us who remember the steel mills can remember seeing the glow of the furnaces that burned imperfections out of iron ore. The floor of a furnace was a dangerous place to be, but the process was essential to producing metal that could be used in practical ways, that wouldn’t break under pressure.
And the same thing is true of God’s people. Jesus’ intention is to purify God’s people: not just heal our physical sicknesses but heal our souls and our spirits.
Jesus goes on to say “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is completed!”
He is speaking here of his death and resurrection. Baptism is itself a picture of dying and rising again. That’s why the early church – and some churches still today – baptize people by immersion, dunking the whole body in water and then lifting back out again. It’s a picture of death and resurrection. Jesus is predicting what will happen to him, but more than that, Jesus is saying why. It’s for our purification.
For those of us who hear God’s love song and find ourselves living in a vineyard that produces sour grapes… we know that God is expecting good fruit from us, and we’re… scared… of this purification process. We don’t like the idea of passing through fire! But we know God has every right to be disappointed and angry with us, and we know that change is needed, we know there’s room for improvement.
For those who don’t know that, Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace but division, even within one’s own household: parent against child and child against parent.” And Jesus goes on to say, “you look at the sky and you know what the weather will be; how can you look at me and not know how to interpret the times?
The scripture readings today bring heavy messages. They’re dark. They speak of justice and purification. It’s important to remember they are also a love song. And if the sadness touches our hearts, that’s a good thing. The song is meant to turn us to God, to turn us to the One who loves us, to say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I want to do better’ and to do so in faith that Jesus is the one who died for us and walked out of the grave alive so that we can be welcomed in the kingdom.
Last week I talked about the need to stay close to Jesus, to resist the temptation in our society to ‘see how much we can get away with and still be saved’. These scripture passages tell us why. All of creation is God’s love song. And we are the object of God’s love. God has given us so much: our world, our minds, our hearts, our abilities, our loved ones.
And we are part of God’s vineyard, thanks to Jesus. It’s not just Israel now like it was in Isaiah’s day; everyone can be part of the vineyard. The vineyard is God’s people everywhere – in America, Europe, Asia Africa, even Antarctica. The vineyard is made up of all the people God has called and all the people who have entered into a covenant with God – around the world and in every time in history.
And God expects good things of the vineyard. We, as part of that vineyard, need to bearing good fruit. We’ve talked a lot about fruitfulness this year, in our sermons and in our studies of John Wesley. So we need to be about bearing good fruit.
And when we fail, we know we can turn to Jesus who died on the cross for us, to make us pure, to take the pur-ifying fire on Himself so that we can be free. If Jesus died for sinners, and we are sinners, that’s good news because Jesus died for us. It’s only perfect people that Jesus didn’t die for.
So for today (in Isaiah) we have a love song: a song about a lover who gave all he had, and a beloved who in the past has been unfaithful, and who is still not quite faithful yet, but whose Saviour is faithful, and he will purify the vineyard and make it his own.
And in Luke we have a call: to interpret our times correctly in light of Jesus’ teaching, and respond appropriately guided by God’s Holy Spirit. We need to be praying about what that means for us, here and now.
And so we live between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, moving in the direction of being fruitful, moving in the direction of the Kingdom.
Remembering the One who loves us with all there is to give, let’s do our best to be a faithful vineyard, producing good fruit that can be made into good wine that will lift our spirits, be attractive to the world around us, and most of all to lift the heart and the Spirit of our Beloved who gave all for us.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/14/16