I am no farmer. I can’t even claim to be much more of a gardener other than having occasionally grown tomatoes next to my house growing up. And so when engaging with the readings this weekend that deal with planting and harvest and vineyards, I turned to Jeffrey Carter to learn more about the process from his experience. Carter writes that,
“Planting a garden begins long before a seed is placed in the ground. The gardener envisions the desired harvest and then selects the finest quality seeds. The soil is prepared and enriched so that the garden will return the highest yield. Space, sunlight, and water requirements are all considered when planning the placement of each vegetable and fruit. By the time the ground is tilled and the seeds planted, much hope has been invested in a garden that is yet to grow.
So the gardener waits, watches, and waters, looking for the first sign of growth. With sprouts come stems, then stalks, as leaves begin to spread—an indication of growth but no assurance of a harvest. This is the ongoing risk for a gardener: no assurance of a harvest. So if seeds fail to sprout, or plants grow wildly beyond their row, becoming entangled with other plants, or the fruit that hangs from the vine sours in taste and there is no harvest, the garden is plowed under and a garden for a new season is planned.
Who is at fault for the failed harvest—the gardener or the garden? In the life cycle of plants, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven … a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Eccl. 3:1, 2b). For gardeners, hope, revenue, and sustenance may be lost on a soured harvest, but there is always another time and season.”
Our first reading is from Isaiah, and within this reading, we receive words from both the prophet and from the Lord. The first two verses are sung by the prophet, and I say sung because Isaiah describes his words as a “love-song” concerning his beloved’s vineyard.
In beautiful imagery, Isaiah describes how his beloved labored to bring the vineyard into existence. On a very fertile hill, they dug and cleared, planted and built, hewed and expected. From what Isaiah sang, it seems as though everything was done that could have been done to engender a bountiful harvest that would produce good fruit.
But we know that was not the result. Rather than good grapes, the yield was wild grapes. And while Carol Kruse assured me in our bible study on Wednesday that wild grapes can still be used to make grape juice, they can’t be used to make wine like the vintner was intending. And in digging into this reading more, it seems like the translation “rotten grapes” is more appropriate than wild grapes, which then would make them worth even less than simple wild grapes.
But wild grapes were the product. The product of the labors of Isaiah’s beloved, who dug and cleared, planted and built, hewed and expected. And Isaiah’s beloved, who we learn is the Lord asks the very pointed question, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”
And that question shifts this reading from being a love song, to being a judgement that could have been found in a court of law. We are witness to the reading of a verdict given to a vineyard. The Lord who had dug and cleared, planted and built, hewed and expected was now going to remove and devour, break down and make waste, allow the plants to become overgrown and make the rain not to fall.
What a contrast? From our position, this seems to be a 180 degree turn from loving and caring to destruction.
At the end of the reading, much like in the parables Jesus shared, we learn that the vineyard of the Lord symbolically represents the House of Israel, and the people of Judah are “The lord’s pleasant planting.”
Both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were represented in this love-song. These kingdoms which made up the twelve tribes of Israel were all present in this story. They were all heirs of the covenants, the promises, God had made with God’s people.
All the Israelites were to maintain the covenants that God has established, which included treating others with honesty and equity while upholding justice. However, they allowed the political and economic powers to divide the people and to prey upon the poor.
So rather than the Justice that was expected by the Lord as a result of living in the established covenant, bloodshed was found in its place. Instead of righteousness that would be a fruit of right relationship, the cry of the oppressed was heard.
In our lives, the concept of a covenant is not often encountered. One of the few times we will come across this word is when talking about the “covenant of marriage.” Much more often there is talk of promises, or pledges, or agreements, but covenant has a much more “biblical” sound to it, and for very good reason. The covenants that the Israelite people entered into with God were not mere promises made to God, but were a mutual agreement with God that could lead to blessings or curses.
For the prophet Isaiah, and in other places in the Hebrew bible, this understanding of covenant was of central and critical importance. “The justice proclaimed by the prophets is predicated on the fact that God is just; in order to live a righteous life, we must be in a tangible relationship with what God intends. The penalty for injustice rests on the heads of those who are not in relationship with God and God’s purpose.”
The penalty is on those who break the covenant.
In the passage from Isaiah, the Lord recounts that the covenant which demanded justice and righteousness–was broken with bloodshed and the cry of the oppressed. Those who had entered into covenant relationship with God had neglected to remain committed to God’s desires for them.
And, if we were to continue reading on in Isaiah chapter 5, we would learn of God’s grievances against GOD’S OWN PEOPLE: that they had succumb to greed, excessive drunkenness, bribery and the perversion of justice.
So, dear people, what is, what could be, the good news for today in this word, this strong word, from Isaiah?
First, this word from the prophet affirms that God is a god of justice. The idea–the understanding–that God is just, can be hard to remember in the midst of all the pain and suffering that we are witness to in the world. Yet because of God’s just nature, we can be confident that the desire of God is for the flourishing of all creation. That is the promise God has made throughout all scripture, and we can trust that God will uphold that promise.
In the face of a global pandemic that has taken over a million lives, wildfires that are raging all over the west coast, and the rise of racism and white supremacy in our country–we can remember that our just God is present alongside us as we encounter the pain and suffering of the world.
Second, as the people of a just god, we have been empowered to work alongside god for the flourishing of all creation. We are called to join in the labors of readying the garden for good fruit.
With the global pandemic, we can love our isolated neighbor by reaching out to them and checking in on how they are doing, we can love strangers by wearing masks whenever we are out and about.
With wildfires and other environmental disasters becoming more frequent, we can care for god’s creation by advocating for policies that provide for the healing of all creation.
With racism and white supremacy on the rise, we can name that all people are made in the image of god and that prejudice and hate based on race is blasphemy.
Our call as followers of Christ is a call that is with us our whole lives long. But like the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, we must press on “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Finally, this word from Isaiah is good news, because despite the verdict being read–a verdict of destruction– just like the people in Tarshish that Jonah prophesied to, the Israelite can still repent. There was still time to turn around.
In our lives, with all the pain and suffering caused by the pandemic, climate change and racism we should be alarmed. All is not as it should be. BUT, as baptized followers of Christ, we can and must say that we renounce all those things that defy God. We know that is our baptismal call. This alarm is not a call to retreat within, but to move outward with the love of God in Christ.
As we each press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus, let us strive together to:
Dig & Clear
Plant & Build
Hew & Expect
For today, in this place, those good grapes are still the hope of God. That has not, and that will not change. Amen.