August 18, 2019
Isaiah 5.1-7 and Psalm 80.14-19
Rev Sandy Larson
What do you think is the hardest job ever? I think it’s the task of being God, no contest. Most of us think having a few children is a challenge. Try caring for more than 7.5 billion people, to say nothing of otters, ladybugs and starfish. What’s the next hardest job in the world? I’m convinced that it’s either being a parent or being a prophet of God.
Isaiah was God’s prophet during a tumultuous time for Israel. Isaiah faithfully served God even though what he had to say was NOT popular. What was happening in Israel in the 6th c BC has disconcerting parallels with what is happening today. Assyria wanted control of Israel, which is strategically located on the edge of the Mediterranean. Israel’s business class was becoming wealthy so demand for luxury items, wine and olive oil was increasing. Yet peasant farmers struggled to survive. Wealthy owners took over bankrupt small farms and converted them to vineyards and olive groves—which are far more lucrative than staple food crops. So poor people suffered even more due to food shortages. The rich deprived the poor and actually harmed themselves with their indulgences and selfishness.
God must have lamented such abuse of power —the way a good parent is pained when an offspring goes amuck. God loved them too much to let them get away with destructive lifestyles.
Isaiah’s job as God’s prophet was to get Israel’s powerful elite to stop their abuses. Isaiah could have preached fire and brimstone or yelled at them. Yesterday, I listened to a swim teacher trying to get a resistant little girl to follow instructions. The girl ignored the teacher’s commands. The girl continued to be fearful of the water and thrashed around making no progress.Sometimes we resist good guidance and act like the little girl in the swim pool, as if we do not want to do what’s good for us. Isaiah knew that chastising speeches rarely work. Nobody over the age of 1-1/2 wants to listen to “you should not…” lectures, even if we know that the “you shouldn’t” speech is offered with the best intentions and love.
We are also quite skilled at excuses for our faults or laziness: The grey haired lady in the comic strip tells a friend, “I’d plant flowers this year, but apparently indifference and ‘neglect are not useful gardening skills.”
Isaiah knew that the elite Israelites would not want to hear his message. They were partying as if their heavenly Father was away on an extended vacation. They would not want to stop their partying. They would much less want to hear that major consequences were on the way.But God did not leave them to their own destruction.
So, Isaiah gets creative.Since everybody loves a good story (better yet, a love story) Isaiah delivers a “song for my beloved.” Isaiah begins his tale on behalf of his dear friend, a vineyard owner. Isaiah does not mention that the vineyard owner is God. In Hebrew poetry ‘Vineyard’ commonly represents the beloved. Vineyard is often an analogy for the bride whom the groom will care for and benefit from her productivity. Isaiah’s listeners could identify with a song about a vineyard since many were vineyard owners or had close associates who worked in vineyards.
Isaiah quickly switches from love song to complaint. The vintner has been wronged. The vineyard is a metaphor for God’s people. On behalf of the distraught vineyard owner, Isaiah presents the case against the vineyard, as if in a court of law, asking the audience to act as judge. Isaiah makes his listeners judge their own case, in order to demonstrate that they are the cause of their own ruin.
The vineyard had yielded abundance and a good way of life. But if the vineyard is not maintained, it is useless. God expects faithfulness. Instead, they were negligent and self-indulgent. The natural consequence of non-productivity or selfishness is eventual ruin. Since Old Testament people thought in terms of whole communities rather than individuals, the entire community often shared in the punishment or consequence of faithlessness or misbehavior. Today, we are focus on the individual and often lose sight of community-wide consequences of wrongdoing.
Often, the Bible describes natural consequences as God’s punishment. Describing consequences as God’s punishment is a powerful way of conveying that such behavior will yield dire results.
Similar to God’s tough love, parents sometimes express the natural consequences of bad behavior in terms of immediate punishment. God won’t let terrible things keep growing. According to the vineyard song metaphor, God lets the vineyard be torn down so something better can grow.
God doesn’t want us to continue in fruitless ways, and will uproot that kind of growth so that something better can grow. …So something better can grow.
Isaiah sings of how God did everything possible to set up a thriving vineyard. The soil was fertile and cultivated; the stones were removed; only the finest quality vines were planted; a watchtower was built in the middle of the vineyard; and a wine vat was built in preparation for the harvesting and processing of the grapes. Listeners are touched by the nurturing care of the beloved vineyard owner.
Then Isaiah implies that God expects the best from people who tend the vineyard: “He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” The consequence of negligence and misuse of freedom is that the fine vineyard turns into a wasteland of sour, unusable wild grapes and probably intermingled with briers and thorns.
God expects people to be responsible for the resources we have and to look after the poor and oppressed. After all, those who were now blessed with wealth and good life—had they and their ancestors not cried out to the LORD when they were poor and oppressed as slaves in Egypt? God heard their cries and delivered them from their Egyptian slavery. Why now had they abused their freedom and become selfish and greedy?
Today, our planet suffers due to the selfishness and greed of a minority of the world’s population. It is important for those outside the Christian faith and for children to see us tending the gardens of the world and for us to invite them to be involved in tending the soil. Modeling of faithfulness is one of the main purposes of churches. As members of Christ the Vine, we are his branches. Churches are called to live into the gracious expectations God has for us,
to continue to cultivate God’s vision of a fruitful world where all can thrive.
May God’s gifts of grace mobilize us to tend to our resources and care for the lost, the least and the last among us and in every land. Amen.
Message for all Ages:
In The Fire Cat, Pickles has very large paws, but instead of using them for good, he uses them to bully and chase other cats. Mrs. Goodkind watches over Pickles, and says he could be a good cat, if given the right chance. Mrs. Goodkind gives Pickles away because he is too bad to live with her, but she finds him a home with fire fighters, who discover that his big paws are a big help to them, and he becomes a good cat! Pickles behaves badly and loses his home, but his loss becomes something better in its place.