17.04.30: Sermon – Isaiah 5:1-7
Last year, New World had a promotion. Spend 20 bucks and instead of getting a plastic toy or an All Blacks collectors card, they’d give you a little pack including dehydrated dirt, a biodegradable planter cup and a few seeds.
As a daughter of an horticulturalist, I loved this idea. I set to work planning the seeds and making a drip tray and putting my little collection on the windowsill in the sunshine.
The only problem with this promotion was that the seeds were a surprise, you’d never know what seeds you were going to get, so inevitably you’d get lots of one kind of seed and very few of another. For some strange reason I got packet after teeny tiny packet of tomato seeds.
I don’t like tomatoes – not even cherry tomatoes, which I am told taste like lollies if only I’d try them. Regardless of my aversion to slimy, squishy, seedy love apples, I dutifully planted and carefully watered each seedling.
And do you know what happened? The little beggars grew!
I repotted them so that they’d have more space, and I staked them with kebab sticks so they wouldn’t fall over, and I even replanted them outside when the weather was warmer so they could increase and multiply and live abundantly. I gave them a support structure and special plant food.
When they started to grow taller and broader I decided I needed some gardening advice, so I asked Google how to prune the suckers.
As time went on, I’d go and check on them to see how they were doing. I’d get on my hands and knees and pull the weeds from around them and I planted basil nearby because apparently that helps with pest control.
I’d watch patiently and expectantly as the flowers turned into little green tomatoes, so perfect and so full of promise.
One day I was skiting to my dad about my horticultural prowess, and how I was growing these gorgeous cherry tomatoes, and he said offhandedly, ‘oh, you’re leaving it a bit late.’
That was it. The cooler weather came and my tomato vines began to sag and look sickly. The leaves changed from a vibrant green to an awful yellow and grey. I looked at my little crop of cherry tomatoes which had begun to ripen on the dying vines.
I said to myself:
What more could have been done for my tomato vines than I have done for them?
When I looked for good fruit why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my tomato vines:
I will rip each plant from the earth, leaving their roots exposed;
I will gather up the dead plants and burn them on the fire.
Never again will I plant tomatoes in this garden.
Actually, there was more I could have done for my vines. I could have asked a real person for advice and left gardener google out of it. I could have planted them earlier, and made sure the soil was rich in nutrients before planting them outside. But that is beside the point. The truth remains, I will never plant tomatoes in the garden again – mostly because I don’t like tomatoes and because you’re not meant to plant tomatoes in the same spot the next season and our vege garden is only very small, and because we only have a one year rental agreement on our house. But again, that is beside the point – never again will I plant tomato vines in this garden.
My failed attempt at being green fingered has helped me understand today’s passage from Isaiah 5 about a well tended, well cared for, vineyard which produced bad, diseased fruit.
Judgment for Injustice
This passage is known as the Song of the Vineyard. Imagine a bard performing in a public setting. What begins as a love song quickly becomes a lament. At the end of the song we are told that this is an allegory: the vineyard owner represents God, and the vineyard itself represents Israel. This song is a warning of coming judgement using a harvest theme and imagery common to the Israelites.
Just as the vineyard owner carefully chose the choicest of vines, so God, with care, chose the people of Israel. ‘Israel’s election was not only a privilege to be enjoyed but a responsibility to be performed.’
As God cared for and nurtured, pruned and protected the people of Israel, God was preparing for harvest – a bountiful society embodying justice and righteousness.
Just as the vineyard owner did everything within his power to produce an abundant crop of excellent quality, so God did everything within God’s power – without compromising God’s integrity – to create a community of people who could live together in peace and unity, a fine example for the surrounding nations, demonstrating God’s goodness and glory.
Despite all this, the people of Israel chose to rebel. Instead of striving for a just society, the Israelites created a corrupt system of oppression and iniquity. The first four chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy describe a nation prolific in rebellion, idolatry and injustice.
This song employs the clever use of word play. We are told that:
[God] looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat,
and the Hebrew word for bloodshed is mishpah.
God looked for mishpat, but saw only mishpah
Likewise, the Hebrew words of righteousness and cry sound very similar.
God looked for tsedaqah but heard tse-aqah
‘Instead of the goodness that God expected the people to enact and embody, there was violence that led the victims to cry out for help.’
The people of Israel were not living as God had trained them to.
Mishpat, justice, includes legal justice - the decrees or decisions of a legal system – and social justice – care for the poor, widows, orphans, the vulnerable and the oppressed.
Tsedaqah, righteousness, includes personal morality as well as the fulfilments of ones obligations towards others – to ‘do right’ by somebody.
Despite God’s best efforts, the people of Israel fail to bear the good fruit of righteousness and justice. Instead, they are abundantly oppressive; drawing blood and inducing cries for help from their victims.
As always, God hears the cry of the oppressed and God is not impressed.
The Israelites are responsible for their own actions, they have invited their own destruction, and they will be judged.
It is important that we do not see judgement as God’s need to punish or get even with the sinful people. Rather, the judgement they receive is a set of destructive consequences that have resulted from the peoples own choices. God’s judgement is intended to purify, purge, cleanse the people of all unrighteousness and injustice so that once again they may be a people of peace and integrity, to the glory and praise of God.
For the Israelites, God’s judgment would come as destruction. Just as the vineyard owner vowed to remove the protective walls and hedges from the vineyard so that it would be taken over, trampled and destroyed, so God would remove his protection and allow the Israelites to be conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians and taken into exile – far from their fertile land.
In the previous chapters there are a few glimmers of hope, and handful of promises about a remnant and a restoration of sorts, but here, in the Song of the Vineyard, there is no such hope.
One commentator says this:
The text ends with God’s commitment to destroy the vineyard. No promises for the future are given, no explicit hope in a new beginning is offered. God promises only an end. Israel’s only hope, at this point, is the fact that this vineyard is God’s pleasant planting. The vineyard belongs to God whose own history is inextricably linked to the history of the peculiar people called Israel, a history that contains powerful promises about God’s commitment to this people’s future.
Israel’s only hope is that God is faithful, just and good.
Israel will be judged. Israel will be destroyed. Israel will not be abandoned.
God will be with them throughout the course of their cleansing.
God will mediate the natural effects of the Israelites wickedness.
God will work in and through the actions of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires to bring the Israelites to their knees before their God.
God will be faithful and just and good.
The purpose of God’s judgment on Israel and the city of Jerusalem was to purify and cleanse, and prepare the ground for a new kingdom – a kingdom abundant in the fruit of justice and righteousness.
The promised kingdom is not the kingdom of Israel, but the Kingdom of God.
For generation after generation, the people of Israel waited and hoped for a Messiah King – the one who would redeem and restore Israel.
Long after the life of the prophet Isaiah, long after the exile, and the return and the diaspora, after a long, pregnant silence, the voice of another prophet called out, ‘prepare the way of the Lord!’ The Messiah is coming, the Messiah is here.
The Kingdom of God is inaugurated and established in the life and ministry of Jesus – Israel’s true king, Israel’s long awaited Messiah.
Jesus himself took on the judgement, not only of Israel, but of all humanity. In his body he carried our sin and our destruction, our injustice and our unrighteousness. His death is our purification, our cleansing, so that we too might dwell in God’s Kingdom, that we too might be rooted and established in God’s vineyard, bearing the fruit of justice and righteousness.
Our world needs this kind of good fruit. Like the Israelites, we too live in a world that is all too familiar with injustice, oppression and idolatry. When God see’s bloodshed and hears cries for help, God will respond.
Like the Israelites, we too are chosen, we too are elect. We have a privilege and a responsibility. God has chosen to cultivate us, and we are called to enact and embody justice and righteousness in our homes, our churches, our communities and our world.
Righteousness and justice are not merely abstract idea’s that we somehow have to capture and tame and domesticate. Righteousness and justice are practical and personal. Practical in that it is through our actions, our choices, the work of our hands, that we bear the fruit of justice and righteousness. Personal in that these are qualities and characteristics that we come face to face with in Jesus.
[a bit of adlibbing to conclude]
May we be people who act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.