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!
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might, and come to save us!
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.
Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted.
They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Today we read two scriptures that tell the same story. The story of people who feel that God has abandoned them. The despair that the Psalmist feels is given a more concrete form in the parable put forward by Isaiah. God, the good gardener tending the prize crop of the garden, has seemingly abandoned that crop to be destroyed by pestilence. In Isaiah God is depicted as purposefully removing these protections, the lack of charity and justice from the Israelites has led to them being punished. Remember the language of Hosea from a few weeks ago, “I will treat you as you treat the least of these.” Here God is rendering judgment on Judah as Israel had previously suffered before.
This portion of Isaiah is dealing with the coming Babylonian scourge. The time in which all of Judah would be destroyed and subjugated under a new empire. Up until this point Israel had been a vassal of Assyria – but when it fell to Babylon, they were given a brief window where they had no master but themselves. Rather than using this time to set things right, to abolish the harmful taxation which they had been using to pay their Assyrian masters, they kept on as if it were business as usual. The wealth went to the wealthy, the poor were left to die in their fields.
The rich are who are being spoken to in the Isaiah text. As so many of the prophetic texts are written, the average person is not the object of wrath. The people of Israel who were in the fields and suffering under the oppressive regime of their kings were not who Isaiah was writing against. However, when the poor leadership of their kings opened them up to invasion, when they abandoned the teachings of God which would have given them a strong people and a strong community to repel foreign invaders and to have brokered peace before war was even thought of, the day to day person suffered. When the invading Babylonians rode in on their chariots they did not ask whether or not the peasants in the fields were good Jews, they killed without discrimination.
For this reason, the two texts talk to each other. The kings are told that they have lost all their rights to protection. The rich who withheld their wealth will have their wealth taken from them. The rulers who crushed the innocent under their boots were now going to be crushed. God mocks these people; Isaiah closes his admonition with something like a song. The Hebrew for, “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” builds on itself, so that those who heard it would have noticed how similar these words really are.
לְמִשְׁפָּט מִשְׂפָּח, לִצְדָקָה צְעָקָה
This rich would have heard Isaiah’s prophesying and this part would have stuck with them. Directly after this, the exact nature of their sins is laid out. They bought up all the land and pushed people out away from the protection of the cities. If you’ve been to a big city recently or have seen anything on gentrification then you know what this looks like. In Morgantown, a famous example was when the University conspired with the city council to buy an entire street and evict all the people who lived there. The buying up of land for buildings was matched by the purchase of farmlands. Now the farmers of the land were serfs, they owed all their money to their new landlords rather than keeping any for themselves.
The farmers, the peasants, the tradespeople who worked outside of the city are clearly the losers in this situation. The sins of their leaders were bringing them to starvation, but it also opened them up to die at the hands of the Babylonians. As usual, the little guy was losing.
The prayer of Psalm 80 is written from the perspective of those who were suffering at this time. There is some reason to believe this Psalm was written by an Israelite before the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom. It consists of an Israelite staring down the oncoming armies, looking to God, and saying, “What on earth are you doing!” The image we are given resembles the curse which Isaiah put on the ruling class.
The Israelite looks to God and says, “Why have you torn down the fence of your garden! Why did you tear down your watchtower! You have brought us this far and then you just abandon us!” The Psalm goes beyond just expressing distress though, it asks God to remember. “God, you looked into Egypt and saw us. You plucked us up because you thought we had value, you carried us into this land and made room for us. God, take care of us like you did then.”
The mystery which we of the modern church face in reading this cry is that we receive both these messages for our benefit. On one hand, we have a lot to repent of. We are the people who have produced unfitting fruits. We are the redeemed, the body of Christ to the world, and we fall short. We are not an obedient people, we have not heard the cries of the needy. God looks to us and says, “I should throw you out! What are you doing!”
However, God does not live as someone who looks down on us with anger. God does not hold grudges like we do. When God looks down on us, he sees what he saw in us from the first day. When God made humanity, we are told he looked at them and said they were, “very good.” The human beings, made in the image of God, were the pinnacle of creation. Our disobedience pushed us out of Eden, but God never stopped chasing after us. The question which God asks Adam and Eve when they hid from him, “Where are you?” is the same one we hear today. As a Jewish philosopher once put it, “All of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of [us].”
God looks at our fallen state and sees the creation he originally made. The sinfulness of the human soul can never overcome the goodness which God created within us. The image of God remains no matter what we do, but it is not what it could be. When we accept the calling of the Christian, when we confess our faith and are baptized, we begin our transformation. The washing of the water represents the cleansing of the soul, but also – by way of metaphor, the watering of a crop.
The sprouting vine which God saw and loved, that God pulled out of the ground and placed in safe soil, naturally becomes entangled in weeds over time. The little sins and evils of the world overtake it, threatening to destroy it. However, God never forgot how to tend gardens. God enters in as gardener, God tears the weeds from around us and gives us a chance to grow. The fertile ground of scripture is watered by our faith, and we have a chance to grow and produce fruit.
We can produce good fruit or bad fruit. The good fruit comes of a life lived in the grace of God. Peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, all other fruits of the Spirit are produced in the life that focuses on God – that stops running away and lets God catch up to them. The sour grapes we once produced do not need to be the only thing we make. God works wonders in us, clears away those impurities within us, and perfects us back into the image we were originally created in.
We talk a lot about what we must do as Christians, what it is to be transformed into the image of God. The list of expectations for the Christian life is long, and we should not hold ourselves to any standard but the high standard of Christ and his life. However, we have to remember the most central aspect of the Christian life – and that is just to have faith.
Have faith that God loves you. Have faith that God is not done with you. Have faith that God died for you. Have faith he got up again. The work will come, and we will accept it when it does. In between though, we get to bask in our identity a little. Christ tells us we should not think too highly of ourselves, but there is a difference between being secure and being braggadocious. Security says, “I am valued. I am loved. I have a purpose.” There is no sin in that kind of honesty. The life of the Christian is balancing two identities, that of the Sinner and the Saint. The sour grapes which we produce are mixed with the good fruits, our weed-choked soul is the vine that God loved enough to pluck up and tend to.
The story of the Bible, from beginning to end, is that God is seeking us out. For the Israelites this meant God turning from Sinai to Egypt and taking his people back. For us, the scope is broadened but the story is the same. God looked on the world and dove down into human form. God put on a face that we could see, hands that we could touch. God chased down his beloved, and God died for his beloved. God rose from death for us to follow them into life. But the path we follow begins only after God has found us, and oftentimes that means we have to take time to stop running. To stop, to rest, to Sabbath.
The commandment to take Sabbath is the same as the entreaty of the Psalmist, “Be still!” Literally, “Cease!” Stop doing anything but beholding God. Faith is relationship, it is responsibility, but more than anything it is living a life in the presence of God. An ancient father of the Church put it this way, “The Glory of God, is a living person, and the life of a person is in beholding God.” This is why our Psalm for the day contains the refrain, “let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Salvation is many things, but sometimes, brothers and sisters, it is simply finding the light of God in the world and sitting with it for a time. Let us enjoy our salvation, and let us enjoy the light.