"What More Can Be Done?”

a sermon based on Isaiah 5: 1-7

 

 

What Lynn Borke just read for us (Isaiah, Chapter 5, verses 20-24) sounds a bit threatening, didn’t it?  Three times the prophet says “woe!” 

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil… 

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes…

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine…   who acquit the

                  guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their right!

 

Isaiah gets pretty angry in Chapter 5.  He lets the ruling classes know that their time is about up!  “Their root,” he says, “is rotten, and their blossom will go up like dust; for they have rejected the Law of the Lord of hosts; they have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.”

 

         In the middle of this CoronaVirus pandemic, you probably don’t need to hear any more bad news, like Isaiah’s warning to the leading families of Judea. (Right?)  But with all that’s going on in this election year, the turmoil in the streets about racial justice and policing, the protest marches and removal of monuments… The prophet Isaiah’s critique of his society seems to me to be very relevant to today’s newsmakers.

 

         However, before I get into any of that in my sermon, I want you to know that Isaiah begins Chapter 5 with a love song!  (!) Yes, Chapter 5 begins with these words: “Let me sing for my beloved  my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.”  

 

Did you notice the three-fold iteration of love?  “My beloved… my love song… my beloved.”  Such an emphasis on love (three times “be-loved”!) is remarkable in a single verse of scripture. (!)  The relationship that Isaiah feels for Judah & Israel (his homeland) -- the People of God, the “Chosen” People, God’s “Covenant” Community -- and the love of the Holy One about whom he sings, should color this text with tenderness.

 

         I can image that Isaiah gained a listening audience when he said he was going to sing a “love” song. 

The prophet assumes the role of a folk singer with a ballad.  With the three-fold underscoring of “love” and “beloved” in the first verse, the people probably thought it was truly going to be a love song. 

 

But midway through, it becomes a lament, like someone singing the “blues.”  And after that… Isaiah offers an explanation and a denunciation!  I imagine the same way that the beloved Vineyard disappointed the Lord, Isaiah’s “love song” disappointed his listeners!

 

         Back in 1985, when I first preached on this text, I was downstate (in Dowagiac) and I had a large grape-growing farm family in my church.  They contracted their annual harvest to Welch’s Grape Juice, so we’ve probably had some of their fruit-juice in our communion services here in Alpena. 

 

I knew that a grape-growing family would  feel  deeply  the “relevance” of the metaphor that Isaiah used in Chapter 5: the Vineyard of the Lord.  So, I wanted to capture some of the love & tenderness that the prophet intended so as not to come across quite as “preachy” or “threat-ening” as the concluding text (that Lynn read for us) might otherwise be.

 

         Since Isaiah called it a “love song”,  I figured it needed to be put to music and sung. (!)  So, I wrote the “Vineyard Love Song” (which you’ll find reproduced on the reverse side of your worship bulletin).  The lyrics are taken directly from Isaiah, Chapter 5, verses 1-7.

 

         Chorus: Let me sing a love song about a vineyard fine. 

High on a fertile hillside, it’s all mine! 

Judge, what should I do, for now that the harvest’s through:

the hill has all run wild with sour vines!

 

         Verse 1)  That hill has the finest soil, rich black dirt to dig in.

                  Cleared of all its stones, used to build a wall.

                  Only the best of vines were planted on the inside.

                  So, I don’t see how the sour grapes got in.

                                    (repeat chorus)

 

         Verse 2)  Right in the middle square, I built a high watchtower.

                  Dug a solid vat for to press the wine.

                  Tended and trimmed the branches.  I didn’t take no chances!

                  But somewhere under summer’s sun, it all went bad!

                                     (repeat chorus)

 

         Verse 3)  O children of God, you great men of Judea:

                  Judge, I pray you: judge between the grapes and me.

                  What more was there to do than has been done for you?

                  So, why, instead of great fat grapes is your fruit so poor?

 

Second Chorus)  Let me sing a love song to the Vineyard of the Lord

                  For we’re His pleasant planting, with good in store.

                  He comes to harvest justice, but all He finds is war,

                  And instead of righteousness, He reaps a sword!

 

         Verse 4)  I tell you what I’ll do to you, my beloved Vineyard:

                  I’ll pull up your hedge and urge the sheep to graze.

                  Your tower and your wall, I will make them fall.

                  And I’ll use the broken stones to pave my way.

 

       Verse 5)  No more shall the ground be hoed; let thorns take you over.

                  Branches pruned no more, let the briars grow!

                  Well-water I have brought, and rain-fall I have caught,

                  Shall no more be wasted watering you!

 

         Final Chorus)  Let me sing a love song to the Vineyard of the Lord

                  For we’re His pleasant planting, with good in store.

                  He comes to harvest justice, but all He finds is war,

                  And instead of righteousness, He reaps a sword!  (P.A.L.© 1985)

 

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Two weeks ago, when I drafted today’s worship service, I gave a title to my sermon based on where I thought I would go with it.  I called it “Respect for Law: the Cornerstone of Citizenship”.  Please hold that thought until Sunday, the 26th.  Instead, I would call today’s sermon “What More Can Be Done?”, and it is based on Isaiah, Chapter 5.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

What Isaiah described in his love-song could be, perhaps, the first “farm foreclosure” in recorded history.  It is also probably one of the earliest examples of a “parable” – a metaphor in story-form used to teach.

 

After all the investment of assets -- time and effort -- to achieve a successful vineyard harvest…  If the fruit stops growing on the vine, despite all the farmer’s efforts – or, if the branches run wild, yielding wild grapes (or sour grapes, or rotten grapes) – the farmer has no other choice but to seek some other use for those resources: the farmland soil, the rocks, the water. 

The vineyard owner asks the people of Judea to judge the situation.  What more was there to do (on the Beloved Vineyard’s behalf) that the gardener had not already done?

 

“When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”

 

Let’s review quickly what all had been done to assure a flourishing crop: the vineyard had been well-placed, on a sunny slope with fertile soil.  The owner had worked the soil, hoeing it to turn the earth over, pulling the weeds and native grasses, removing the briars and thorn-bushes, and clearing it of rocks. 

 

The farmer used the field-stone rocks to build a wall to keep grazing herds out of the vineyard, and to build a watchtower -- a lookout for foraging animals (like a deer blind), or in order to be able to see from above where more water was needed.

 

Having chosen the very best site, Isaiah’s beloved friend had every right to expect that the vines (hand-selected choice vines) would produce only the best of grapes.

 

Ah, but wait… there’s more!  The owner “hewed out a wine vat” in it. 

 

In the mostly stony and largely desert ground of Palestine, the Owner not only prepared the ground by removing the stones, they actually dug into the hard ground (one translator says the Owner “hacked” into the bedrock and made a “trench” to collect the wine from the crushed grapes).

 

      In any case, what Isaiah is indicating is that this was laborious, difficult work. The Arabs have a proverb to the effect that when God created the world, an angel flew over it carrying a bag of stones under each arm.  As the angel flew over Palestine/Israel, one bag broke, so that half of all the stones in the world are in the Holy Land!  (J)  Anyone who has visited Israel or Palestine realizes what a labor of love it must have been for a farmer, first, to clear the land of all those fieldstones, and second, to dig a wine-press and “hew a vat” in the stony ground. 

 

This arduous task was in preparation for the eventual enjoyment of using the grapes for wine.  Isaiah’s Friend had prepared the Vineyard with the best, choice vines -- had spared no effort, spared no expense -- had done everything possible to accomplish the task of bringing forth good grapes. “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”

 

Up to this point, the stress has been upon the activity of the Owner.  We presume that the Owner is a metaphor for the God of Israel.  The Lord God had “chosen” Israel from among the nations “to be a blessing.”  

 

The original call of God to Abraham and Sarah was to “go from your country and your kin-folk, to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (Genesis 12:1-3) 

 

God had “chosen” and planted the people of Israel and Judah to produce righteousness & blessing.

 

This choice was a matter of God’s grace, not earned nor deserved by the people themselves.  In fact, when their hubris made them think that God had chosen them because they were “better” than others, Moses said this: “You are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be His people, His treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord has set his heart on you and chose you – for you were the fewest of all people!   It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors.”  (Deut. 7:6-8) 

 

Moses then tells them: “Know that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people!” (Deut. 9:6) “You have been rebellious against the Lord as long as He has known you!”  (Deut. 9:24)  “So, now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? …Only to respect the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the command-ments of the Lord your God for your own well-being.” (Deut. 10:12-13)  

 

So, if God is the Vineyard planter, and Israel/Judah is the Vine-yard, what God wants from them is “blessing” -- respect, obedience -- loving God, and serving one another wholeheartedly.  That’s the “fruit” God desires from the people. (!) 

 

The Prophet Amos said famously: “Let Justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  (Amos 5:24)  The prophet Micah was even more succinct: “What does the Lord require of you?  But to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

 

         In the Bible, God has clearly and consistently made God’s ways and desires known… through Moses and through the Prophets.  

 

No one can say that “they didn’t know” that God wants goodness, righteousness, justice, mercy, and love… extending God’s blessings to all people, whoever they are. They knew what God’s will intended for the world!  The Apostle Paul extended those blessings to the Galatian Christ-ians saying: “The fruit of the Spirit of God is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, & self-control.” (Gal. 5:22)

 

         According to Isaiah’s love-song, the Vineyard Owner has waited… calmly, hopefully, patiently, with nurturing activity… anticipating -- as He (or She) watched the vines grow and watched the branches branch out and watched the grapes begin to bud and the fruit to mature -- that they were going to yield a “bumper crop” of good grapes.  God is expecting that the people would be a blessing to all the world, and a joy to God’s own heart! 

 

What else -- what more -- was there to do?  The Lord God looked for an abundant vintage yield of grapes!  …  But for all God’s patience and all those pains… God got junk food! 

 

The sad result of the Owner’s labors were grapes that were un-usable.  They were bad; they were offensive.  They were rotten, wild grapes, of poor quality.  The Arabs call grapes that are unfit to be eaten: “wolf grapes” -- wild, violent, distasteful as a canine predator! 

 

After having been chosen… and nurtured… and blessed by God, Israel/Judah had shown itself to be worthless, violent, and fit only to be cast out!  That’s where Lynn Borke picked up the story:

     Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil… 

who put darkness for light… and bitter for sweet.

     Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes…

         Who think they are “shrewd” in their own sight.

     Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine…   who acquit the

                  guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their right!

         The Prophet quickly makes it clear that the beloved friend (about whom he sings) is God, the Lord of Israel & Judah. And Isaiah says that the people in Jerusalem – the great men of Judea – are God’s pleasant planting, with only good in store from God’s perspective. 

 

         Unfortunately, Israel and Judah had failed in their basic purpose: namely, to express justice and righteousness in their society, in their economy, in their relationships & actions.  They failed to do what we pray for every Sunday in worship: that God’s Kingdom come, and that God’s will be done “on earth, as it is in heaven.” 

 

If Israel and Judah failed to exhibit God’s ways (& God’s will) in Isaiah’s day (2800 years ago), what’s to keep the Church from similarly failing to demonstrate God’s ways (& God’s will) in our own day?

 

         Isaiah, speaking now on behalf of the Owner of the Vineyard, proceeds to set the case before his listeners, and he then asks them to pass judgment upon the situation.

 

         Yes, the guilty people of Judah are themselves called upon to pass judgment: “Inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.” 

 

I suppose Jerusalem is mentioned first because they were the Capitol City -- like Washington DC is for us, or like Lansing is for Michigan -- where the King and the Temple and the more elite urban families resided.  (!)  And the injustices about which Isaiah complains – wicked-ness, violence, and corruption -- were more concentrated among these “movers and shakers” who set the tone for their economy and society.  It would be like one of us speaking to Congress, or the President, or the nine people in black robes who decide cases for the United States.

 

         But the rest of the people of Judah were also addressed, whether they lived in the City or elsewhere, because they enabled & acquiesced in the patterns of injustice set by their civic leaders in matters of politics, economics, & religion. Let me say that again, because it is so relevant for America to hear today: the people enabled & acquiesced in the patterns of injustice set by their civic leaders in matters of politics, economics, & religion.   It’s no excuse to say “but everybody’s doing it!” or “that’s what our leaders expect of us.”   If we don’t speak up, we’ll get what we get. !

 

The Owner of the Vineyard has the right to ask the listeners, who claim to be the Lord’s Vineyard -- who claim to be acting in God’s name and on behalf of the people -- ask them to judge themselves!  This is a duty from which the Lord’s followers cannot escape: we are expected to judge ourselves by the standard set by God -- who has no other motive but the “well-being” of the world (the world that God loves) and God’s desire for the “flourishing” of all its inhabitants… bar none.

 

         What God asks, in this parable of the vineyard, is for us to make a decision, to pronounce a verdict on the rightness of the case as presented. 

 

When the residents of Jerusalem and the inhabitants of Judea pass judgment on the two questions posed by Isaiah -- (1) Has the Lord done for us all that could possibly be done to guarantee a successful outcome? and (2) Did the Vineyard (that is, our society & economy, our political & religious institutions) bring forth the “good fruit” that was expected, or have we “run wild” with wolf-grapes? -- they will be passing judgment and pronouncing a verdict upon themselves.

 

I have to ask it of us: Do we think that God has done all that should be necessary for the “well-being” of our world -- of these United States -- of our church, our families, our neighborhood, our economy? (If not, what more do we think could be done by God?)  Or, is it now in our hands?  Is the outcome something that we must take responsibility for? 

 

Is there something else that we’re waiting for GOD to do, before we begin actively, intentionally living God’s way -- before we begin “doing God’s will on earth” (as it is in heaven) -- pursuing God’s desire for us (?)

 

I believe that God has dealt with America in abundant ways -- abundant grace, abundant resources -- and we’ve been blessed with great teachers and leaders in our past, (last Sunday I spoke at length about George Washington and the men who stood with him).  We have wonderful families and strong social institutions all around us; we’ve seen excellent role models of selfless service and philanthropy in the past. What more was there to do than has been done already?

 

If there is anything more that is necessary before we can get on with it, Isaiah is open for suggestions from the floor. 

 

So far as I can tell, his question was received with stony silence.  Much like Jesus was met with silence when he asked the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law whether or not it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath.  You see, when people do not know what to say, it’s not always because they don’t know what the right answer may be; it’s more likely that they don’t want to expose their hypocrisy. (!)  They refuse to give testimony.

 

Silence, in many situations, is an admission of guilt.  Those people to whom this parable was addressed, said nothing at all… for there is nothing to say.  There’s nothing more that God could have done.

 

Which leads to the second question: So, why?  Why… instead of great, fat, grapes is the vineyard’s fruit so poor?  Why is it producing rotten stuff : violence and corruption, wild grapes, sour grapes, wolf-grapes? 

 

When God expects good results from us, why are things so bitter?  Why are we putting darkness in place of light (spreading ignorance and fake news instead of truth); why do we call what is evil “good” ?  (!)  God looks for a crop of justice, but sees people murdering each other!  Why?  God hopes to harvest kindness, but hears only the moans of victims, cries of the poor, the clash of swords, verbal venom and wrath!  (The divisive polarization of our current political crisis is toxic to the max!)

 

In the same way that God had done everything possible to cause “good grapes” to grow, likewise in dealing with the people of Jerusalem & Judea (as with us!) God has done everything possible to bless the people … so why are we so often hurtful and so hurt-filled?  Why are we so arrogantly self-centered on our own good and not the common good or our neighbor’s good?  Why are we stuck in such bad habits?

 

Is it that God is “limited” in His (or Her) ability to make things happen?  Has God done simply “the best She could” under the circumstances?  Poor God… unable to force His wishes to come true; unable to coerce us human-beings to do things Her way.  Is that it?

 

Despite all of God’s loving-care, the sad realization we find in Isaiah’s words is that God failed to convince and persuade appropriate choices among God’s own people for God’s intentions to succeed.

 

 

With eager expectation, God had waited and hoped that the nation -- which had received such blessings over so many generations -- would bring forth “righteousness” (tze’daqah) in its life, in its society, in its governing & its business.  Having been led by God and taught by God, the people are expected to exhibit good judgment and demonstrate law & order.  (Basic fair-play!)  But instead of manifesting practical (everyday) justice, the people engage in bloodshed!  They make war.  The wealthy crush the poor into the dust!  Lawyers & judges take bribes.  The innocent are deprived of their rights by the authorities in charge. (Shame!)

 

Tze’daqah indicates a condition of “right-ness” – right with God and right with your neighbors.  It is manifest (or revealed) as a person expresses oneself in doing those things which are “righteous” – up-building of the community, peace-making in society. 

 

Since the original intent of the vineyard had been waylaid by the vines and their “rotten produce,” the assets of land and labor, of soil and water and stones, will be “reallocated” for new purposes.  The Vineyard Owner decides to go into a different line of work, re-using and “re-cycling” the raw materials, in (what we might call) a “redistribution” of the wealth. (!) Since the people have apparently stood silently -- not saying a word in their defense -- Isaiah has to speak on behalf of God to indicate to his listeners what God’s intentions are. The vineyard, after all, belongs to the Lord, and God can do with it whatever God desires!

 

God says “I will let the hedge be devoured, and break down the wall of stone.”  In other words, the rocks will be used as pavers.  Cattle will be allowed to eat the hedge, and then graze among the vines.  Open and accessible to any passer-by, sheep and goats will trample the hillside.  They’ll eat the native grasses, briars & thorns, which will no longer be weeded out.  No more pruning, no more hoeing.  Wild weeds, like mustard, will grow.  Rainfall will have to suffice for watering.

 

The people of Israel and Judah, who had been objects of the Lord’s delight -- whose pleasure was found in tending them, engaging them & guiding them, instructing them & caring for them -- will be left on their own, just like all the other nations. 

 

In place of God’s provision of abundance & blessing, they will encounter thorn-bushes and briars, invasions by devourers, being trampled underfoot without a watchtower or a wall to protect them. 

Since they refused to show forth God’s glory, and they seemed to be incapable of holding to God’s will and God’s ways, those sour grapes & bitter fruits would no longer be associated with God’s name.

 

Friends, if you and I hope to be pleasing to the Lord, producing the “fruits of the Spirit” which are associated with God’s name, we ought to take Isaiah’s love song seriously.

 

If God is still looking for justice, and what we provide is war -- if our popular image of American Justice relies on coercive police powers, bigger & faster fire-power, ever more penitentiaries, and ever stiffer penalties -- watch out!  We may be producing the very bloodshed and outcry that Isaiah heard, rather than the righteousness and justice that God desires.

 

When God looks at us, let’s be sure we’re putting God’s abundant resources to the best possible use: growing more love, more joy, more peace; more patience,  kindness,  goodness;   more faith, gentleness, & self-control.  Let’s do what’s right for the flourishing of all people.  

 

I believe that the great Gardener and Vineyard-Owner God would truly delight in finding a patch of earth where the real fruits of the Spirit of God are flourishing.  One acre of good fruit production here in Alpena is much to be preferred to a whole hillside of grazing land pasture or even a mountain of rock gravel.  Let’s do it God’s way, okay?

                                                                                 Amen.

 

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