Isaiah 5:1-7 CEB
Let me sing for my loved one
a love song for his vineyard.
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug it,
cleared away its stones,
planted it with excellent vines,
built a tower inside it,
and dug out a wine vat in it.
He expected it to grow good grapes--
but it grew rotten grapes.
So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard:
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I haven’t done for it?
When I expected it to grow good grapes,
why did it grow rotten grapes?
Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard.
I’m removing its hedge,
so it will be destroyed.
I’m breaking down its walls,
so it will be trampled.
I’ll turn it into a ruin;
it won’t be pruned or hoed,
and thorns and thistles will grow up.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it.
The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!
Growing fruit is not as easy or simple oftentimes as growing vegetables. Fruit trees, bushes, and vines often take a lot of work and several years before the plant is ready to yield a harvest. Hearing from the prophet Isaiah this week, we encounter an image of God as one who plants and tends a vineyard. God has done all the hard work and now anticipates a good harvest to come from all this abundant care only to reap rotten grapes. Last week’s sermon spoke of how God seeks to abundantly give us the kingdom now, and this week, we hear of God’s lament when this abundance does not result in our abundant living. This week’s scripture invites us to consider whether we as a church produce good fruit or rotten and bitter grapes. It is a question of how we measure our health and success as a church. What determines if we are doing well or not? If we have in fact produced wild grapes, what can be done? God, this week, invites us to use a different measure of success, where repentance and humility lead to the kind of abundant harvests that will nourish our church and our world.
Cultivating grape vines is no easy task. Looking at some modern guides to vineyards, it takes up to three years of continual care to produce just the first harvest. All of this after you have found the suitable soil, cleared it, and prepared it to receive the small seedlings that will grow into vines producing grapes that can be turned into wine. Back in the ancient world, wine was important as a mainstay beverage, so vineyards were important. Here in Isaiah, we have a poetic oracle about a winegrower and his vineyard. This winegrower has done everything right, done it by the book to grow the best kind of grapes, only for them to have turned wild or rotten at the harvest. Wild grapes, unlike the ones used for wine, have large seeds, and little fruit flesh on them, and they are bitter to the taste. Our winegrower is so distraught, that he decides it would be better to tear it all down rather than continue.
At the end of the oracle, Isaiah reveals that this is a picture of God’s care for Israel and Judah, which has been repaid, not with abundance, but with ruin. Everything about the vineyard looked perfect! Indeed, this is not the only time we see misleading fruit plants in scripture, as in Mark’s gospel, Jesus approaches a fig tree that looks like it should be full of fruit, but instead “he found nothing except leaves” (Mark 11:13b CEB). The gospel links this to the temple, that even though the temple looks as though it should be full of the fruit of faith, instead Jesus finds it full of “those who selling and buying” (Mark 11:15 CEB). While Isaiah tied failed fruit to Judah and Israel, Jesus focused it on the temple, and in more modern times, John Wesley even based a sermon on these few verses in Isaiah where he linked it to the Methodist movement in his sermon “On God’s Vineyard.” Like God in Isaiah, Wesley expected from Christians a “general increase of faith and love, of righteousness and true holiness,” only to find that this vineyard produced “prejudice, evil surmising, censoriousness, judging, and condemning one another” (“On God’s Vineyard,” V.1-2). All of this means, that we can take these verses and use them to examine our own Christian Church today. Again, what fruit do we expect from our churches and what fruit do we find?
I ask this question in a day and age where some clamor to return to the church from decades ago as the answer, and they look to those few parts of Christianity that seem vital and strong for seeming guidance. Success is measured by the size of the buildings, the number of adherents, the quantity of their missions, the technology they have, and the popularity of their pastors. Though, didn’t the vineyard look good? God called the vines excellent, the hillside was fertile, and it had structures like a tower and a wine vat, but all of these did nothing to ensure healthy and wholesome grapes. Why do we get distracted by surface things as though they are the measure of deeper things? As always, God has told us what our measure should be, and it must be our fruit, not of size and success but of justice and righteousness.
For instance, in most U.S. churches, the 1950s marked the high water line in membership, as even both the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) have been losing churches and people steadily since the 1960s. With so many churches and believers, surely justice and righteousness, as well as faith and love, should have been abundant, instead, we find the seeds planted in the 50s for the unrest in the 60s. Segregation cut through the center of American society. The House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee carried out public witch hunts against suspected communists. Many women felt cut out of the very economy they helped maintain during the 1940s leading many to protest against these inequities. Instead of churches seeking justice, many sought to keep the status quo and went along with these injustices. Even today, the quantity of these large megachurches across the country has not led to the areas they occupy being more just or righteous. These churches are still rocked by scandals of sex abuse, embezzlement, and corruption.
All of these are vineyards, and good fruit still too often seems like it is in short supply. What do we do? How can we grow the good fruit that nourishes the body, mind, and souls not only of all of us here this morning but feeds this world with the kind of food that truly fills and sustains? I do not say all of this to dishearten us as I also have good news. If the church produced no good fruit, we would not still be here today, two thousand years later. To move forward, we must be willing to see where our good fruit is as well as recognize where we must repent and respond to the abundance God gives to grow the fruit that is needed to feed the world.
Tell me, for instance, why have people made this church their home? I mean, it isn’t the biggest. We don’t have the newest technologies. We don’t provide all the programs that other larger congregations can give. We have our problems. Well then, why are we here? Here is the good news because this is the easiest question to answer which has only been confirmed time and time again as I have talked to people. The difference here is the welcoming spirit of the folks in this church. I have heard time and time again that people went to other churches where the pastors and congregations did not seem to care whether they were there or not. Folks said that they then came in through these doors and felt seen and heard and welcomed. Often, the biggest problem in a town of our size is making people feel welcomed when most folks already think they know everyone else. It isn’t enough to know who they are, folks need to be made to feel like they matter. It is making them feel like you are seeing them for the first time even if you have lived around them for decades. I am pleased to say that this church has done that. It is one of our greatest strengths and what nourishes us.
Do you see? Our response matters in growing good fruit. Last week, we spoke of God’s abundance. God is not more abundant with us if we are doing well because it is in God’s nature to give and sow blessings whether we deserve them or not. Instead of looking to size and success and our strengths as signs of God’s favor, they are places where God has been abundant, and they invite - no, insist - on our response. In this small town, where it would be easy to assume that we do not have to do the work of welcoming and caring because we’re already familiar with everyone, Community Federated Church has done the extra work and it has brought invaluable people into the fold of our faith community. I can say for certain that every single person that has shared this common refrain of feeling welcomed has been a loss for those other vineyards and a gain for our own. What we do with God’s abundance matters, and in places where we have produced rotten fruit we in turn must repent. Wild grapes spring from those places where God hoped for misphat (justice in Hebrew), but he sees mispah (bloodshed), and where God expected tsedaqah (righteousness), he has heard tse’aqah (a cry of distress). We can grow new fruit, but we must first do the work of being willing to admit as a church, God’s own vineyard, where we have been bitter and unfruitful. It is through pruning that we can be fruitful again.
That is the ultimate hope of Isaiah, as while God destroys the vineyard in Isaiah 5, later through all the hardness of repentance and being a people coming to terms with the harm that has been done, Isaiah again shares a song about a renewed vineyard, a restored Israel. One that God waters at every moment, tending it, as eventually, its vines will “fill the whole world with produce” (Isaiah 27:6 CEB). It is the vine that has flourished because of correction and repentance rather than in spite of it. We heard Jesus tell us how God gives abundantly without partiality, but it is the kind of abundance that demands our response. If we only look abundant but have not produced abundance, we are a leafy fig tree or a fine looking vineyard only. Both look promising, but God cares for something deeper, as it is not our look but what can actually be harvested from our branches that matters. It is not our branding but our fruit that God seeks. God desires us to be vineyards full of the fruit of faith and love as well as justice and righteousness, as these are the healthy and wholesome grapes that will feed the world. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman