Preacher: Phil Swain
Bible Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-5
When you look around the world at all the conflict, the divisions, the selfishness – do you feel a sense of hopelessness. The prophet Isaiah felt the same 600 years before Jesus – and used an analogy of a desolate and trampled vineyard to describe the danger of turning away from God. But just when it seems the darkness is winning, there is a green shoot of new life – a branch growing from the stump. This week we open ourselves us to this good news from Isaiah and ponder how it helps us as we head towards Advent.
We continue our three week journey through the Old Testament Prophets in the leadup to Advent. Last week we heard from Hosea – a prophet who lived in Northern Israel just before the exile who was pleading with the Hebrew people to return to God.
In our reading last week, we had an analogy of God being like a parent some beautiful pictures of God teaching us how to walk; who picks us up and hold us close to God’s cheek; and who will never give up loving us – no matter how frustrating or rebellious we might be.
I finished last week with the sad footnote that Hosea’s prophetic words didn’t work. The people did not turn back to God and within 10 years defeated by the Assyrians and taken into exile. BUT … I said … BUT God was working on a bigger picture in which one was coming who would bring peace and righteousness and be the full expression of God’s love.
This week we have moved to Isaiah – one of the major prophets in the Old Testament who was around the same time as Hosea. Where Hosea was from Northern Israel, Isaiah was from the South – but honestly, the message of Isaiah is not that different to Hosea. Isaiah was also pleading for the people to return to God, and also hinting at this bigger picture of what God is doing.
Isaiah, however, used a different analogy in our reading so lets just spend a few moments reflecting on vineyards and what God might be saying to us about our relationship with God (or God’s relationship with us).
Isaiah chapter 5 starts with a story about a person and their vineyard. In this analogy we hear about the love and effort that this person put into setting up this vineyard. They did the back breaking work of digging it up and clearing it of stones. Then they went out and selected the choicest vines to plant – the perfect vines to be most fruitful in this place, because they wanted to have the best tasting grapes to make the best wine.
The owner didn’t stop there. They built a wall and watchtower to protect this vineyard, to create a safe space for the vines to grow and flourish. And lastly, they build a winepress so that everything was done to make great wine … BUT it didn’t work. In this analogy, instead of good grapes it only yielded sour or bad or rotten grapes.
Verse 3 takes a turn. We now find ourselves in a courtroom setting – where the owner of the vineyard is asking the Hebrew people of the Southern tribes to be the judge … to make judgement either against the owner or the vineyard.
3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
In real life, the vineyard is an inanimate object therefore cannot be blamed, but this is an analogy. And Isiaah is setting this up so that the Hebrew people had to agree that yes, the owner did all they could … and it was the vineyard that is to blame for not producing good grapes.
So the owner, through Isaiah, goes on….
If the vineyard isn’t producing, then I will take away the protection – I will pull down the walls and remove the watchtower and then outside forces will come and trample the grapes. I will stop tending and pruning the vines and removing the thorns and weeds and the vineyard will soon become a wasteland.
Note that the owner is not destroying the vineyard – by say setting it on fire – but rather walking away and seeing if it can make it on its own. Remember that the Hebrew people at the time were asked to make judgement – was this fair? I am sure that they would have been nodding their heads in agreement. The vineyard stands condemned.
And then mic drop moment, Isaiah declares that the owner is the Lord Almighty and the vineyard is them – the people of God. They are the vines God delights in. God is looking to them for justice, for good grapes, and only finding rottenness. In their role as judge – but condemning the vineyard as the one at fault … they condemned themselves.
Just like Hosea, Isaiah is pleading the Southern tribes of the Hebrew people … hear the message of this analogy and return to God. Call upon the mercy and help that God is offering us so that we can be fruitful for God. But like last week, it’s another sad ending. Did Isaiah’s message work? Nope. They too were defeated and were taken into exile – just by the Babylonians rather than the Assyrians – and the promised land lies trampled and destroyed.
So where is the good news in this? What is the message that we can take away from Isaiah chapter 5? I think we can hold onto two things here.
Firstly – The Lord is a generous and gracious owner. God will do the backbreaking work to make sure that we have everything we need to spiritually grow. God will give us safe spaces in which to deepen our root system and be feed. God has put us in the right places to bloom and flourish. God delights in us … nut note that spiritual growth is also up to us. We have to avail ourselves of that help and tools and resources. The good news is that God has and is willing to be such as generous and gracious owner.
And secondly, Isaiah is hinting … zoom back and look at the bigger picture because there is some great news there. And this is where we get to Isaiah chapter 11. Normally being 6 chapters apart we would read these two Isaiah reading together, but the Narrative lectionary have put them together and I think that side by side they can bring some hope to this rather depressing analogy in chapter 5.
As just mentioned, we finish chapter 5 with this imagery of a vineyard left to its own – and without the protective walls or the tending and pruning has become a trampled wasteland. I am imagining the vines that were once luscious are not cut down and dead. But Isaiah 11:1 starts … A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
Or in other translations… The Message “A green Shoot will sprout from Jesse’s stump, from his roots a budding Branch”
The Voice translation “a tiny shoot, hopeful and promising, will sprout from Jesse’s stump; A branch will emerge from his roots to bear fruit.”
Yes the vineyard might have been wiped out and looking gone but look closely … there is new growth. There is life. All is not gone, God is doing something new. It might be small but a new shoot will grow into a branch – a fruitful branch.
What is Isaiah talking about? Yes, Isaiah is talking about the Hebrew people … that God is not giving up on them. Even in the exile when things do look like a wasteland for them, God is doing a new thing. There are green shoots all over the place. God is not giving up on us. God is not finish with us yet.
But Isaiah is also talking about the BIG picture. If you zoom back we can see that one of the ongoing narratives that we have explored for the past 3 months in our Old Testament journey is that of leadership – and the question of who is the one that we go to for guidance and help.
If we go back to week 1 we saw in the Genesis story that God put at the core of creation an ability for us to relate and connect with God. God offers to be there for friendship, help and guidance.
But in a pattern that would be repeated over and over throughout the Old Testament stories we have explores, the people would look elsewhere for that guidance and help – and often with not great outcomes. But God did not give up – offering the promise that he would be their God and they / we would be God’s people.
Through good times, struggles, slavery in Egypt, living in the promised land … God heard their cries, helped in times of need, blessed them with freedom and gave them commandments to guide them.
God showed that he was the one who they could depend on – and yet the people really wanted a king – not an abstract God king but a real physical king to help and guide them. And in our Old Testament Narrative journey we looked at King Saul and King David and other kings who were sometimes good but often led the Hebrew people away from God, and ending up dabbling in idols instead.
Hence the prophets words of the last two week – the call to turn back to God leadership, God’s guidance, God’s help … or we will end up like the trampled, cut down vineyard.
Are you getting this bigger picture of this Old Testament Narrative journey we have been on. God continually asks the Hebrew people (and us) … who are you going to follow? Who is your leader? Who is the one whom you go to for help, for guidance? And too often our choices mean that instead of being a vineyard producing delicious grapes, our choices led us to less than perfect fruit … or worse … a trampled, cut down vineyard.
BUT Isaiah 11:1 “a tiny shoot, hopeful and promising, will sprout from Jesse’s stump; A branch will emerge from his roots to bear fruit.”
Or in terms of leadership, the Good News translation of verse 1 makes it perfectly clear… The royal line of David is like a tree that has been cut down; but just as new branches sprout from a stump, so a new king will arise from among David’s descendants.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him — he will come with wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and devotion to the Lord. They will lead with righteousness and faithfulness and justice with a bias towards the needy and poor. They will come will re-establish or cement the tender unconditional loving nature of a God which we have been seeing through all the Old Testament readings we have had. And with Advent around the corner, we know that this one is Jesus.
This is the good news. The loving, gracious, wise leader that the people of God had longed for, had hoped for – is found in Jesus. We enter soon into a wonderfully exhilarating season that reminds us again that Jesus Emmanuel has come to us, is with us – and offers to be part of our lives – to shower us with love and to offer us help and guidance, now and always. That is mind-blowing good news.
As you sit here in church this morning (or watch later online), I am not sure where you are spiritually? Maybe you are the vineyard which is taking full advantage of all that the gardener is offering you and you are wonderfully fruitful. If that is you, praise God! Keep doing what you’re doing! But if you are more like feeling your vineyard is a bit trampled or desperately needs some tending to or pruning … or even if you are feeling like spiritually a cut down stump … can you see this morning the tiny green shoot – hopeful and promising – that is sprouting. Can you see that this shoot is linked into the promise of Jesus. God IS still at work, God IS doing a new thing that will grow into something fruitful. Let’s hold onto this as we look forward with hope to receiving Jesus anew this Advent. Amen