Isaiah 5:1-7

Let the Vineyards be Fruitful, Lord

The Rev. Dr. James D Kegel

Grace to you and peace
from God the Father
and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Some of you know all about grapes. You grow different varieties and make wine; some of you work for wineries. Many of you are connoisseurs of fine wines. I wish I were. My second parish, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Baroda, Michigan, was in the middle of grape country. Right about now, the grape harvest would begin and many of the members of that congregation would be part of the harvest. The farmers had massive shakers that would go down the rows of the grapes and the fruit would fall off and then truckers would take the grapes, usually Concords, to the cooperative that made Welch’s grape juice. Some folks also grew varietals that were made into table wine. In fact the only Midwestern winery ever to serve wine in the White House––it was during the time of the Michigander president Gerald Ford––came from this little town of Baroda, Michigan.

My folks there knew, as many of you do too, all about pruning the vines, tying the grape vines during the winter and then harvesting the vines. At the front of the church, instead of a cross, there was a wood-carved vine with the theme from St. John’s Gospel: I am the vine, you are the branches; and the name of the congregation’s newsletter was “The Grapevine.” The growing of grapes was very important to the people of that parish.

The people of Israel also knew about grapes. One of the three harvest festivals was the autumn festival of booths, Sukkoth, which recalled the wilderness wandering of the Hebrew people and the grape harvest. It was at this festival, so scholars believe, that Isaiah the prophet rose to offer his prophecy, the Song of the Vineyard . This text is a classic of literature and is still sung as part of Christian liturgies. It is also a powerful word from God to the ancient Israelites and to us.

The Song of the Vineyard seems to begin as a love song. Think of a song sung by the best-man at a wedding feast. He is singing of his beloved, the groom, praising the bride whom he calls a vineyard. As the song goes on, it is clear that the farmer loves his vineyard; the groom loves his bride; the lover, the beloved.

Everything is done with great care and love. The farmer puts his vineyard on a high hill—even today it seems that the best vineyards are those on hillsides; around here on the sunny slopes in the rain shadow of the coast range. I guess the best grapes grow on well-drained, sunny hillsides. The farmer then cleared the soil of stones, hoed the weeds and even built a watchtower in the field, something from which to scare the birds away and make sure that the insects didn’t get into the crop. He built a wine press and then waited for the harvest. The expectation was for good grapes to produce good juice and fine wine. But then comes a discordant note to this song––the grapes are sour, the juice undrinkable. The prophet asks his hearers to judge between the farmer and his vineyard, between groom and bride, lover and beloved. Just who is at fault here? What has happened?

Isaiah’s time was not so different from our own. Things seemed to have been settled in Israel, the people were reasonably prosperous and at ease. What was not so obvious were the injustice and corruption, the violence and deceit lurking behind the seemingly peaceful facade? It is clear from the conclusion of the Song of the Vineyard what was really going on in Israel––instead of justice there was bloodshed; instead of righteousness, the cry for help. In the Hebrew language these words rhyme––justice and bloodshed; righteousness and the cry.

God is the farmer, groom, and lover. Only God can command the rain clouds not to rain. God has done all He could for the people of Israel. God saved them from slavery in Egypt. God brought them through the wilderness, fed them with manna and water from the rock, and brought them into the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. Remember, the prophet spoke these words at the festival which recalled these events. The people should have paid heed to what they were celebrating and acted as they should have as the people of God. The people had forgotten that the Lord was kind and merciful to them, so they should also be kind and merciful to others. The Lord had blessed them with peace and plenty so they could share with others from their bounty. The Lord had given them great blessings and they returned thanks to God by lives of wickedness, violence, injustice and oppression. And they would be punished.

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It is interesting to look carefully at the Song of the Vineyard. The theme seems to be the call to repentance but that never actually appears in the text. Rather there is only the contrast between what the farmer––God––had done and now what the farmer––God––would do. In the past, the farmer had done all he could to nourish and sustain, protect and prosper that vineyard. Yet it had not yielded good fruit but sour grapes. In the future the farmer would remove the hedge and fence from the field so that every wild animal and thief could just come in and take what they wanted. He would no longer prune or hoe, but let it become overgrown with thorns and briers. The vineyard would be laid waste. There was no need to care about wild, sour grapes.

God is not mocked. God will not let evil go unpunished. There are such things as grapes of wrath where God will trample out a vintage. God can loose the fateful lightning of God’s terrible swift sword. God will judge wickedness and evil. God hears the cries of innocent blood that is shed and pays heed to the poor and oppressed.

Throughout all the Scriptures there is nothing as plain as God’s friendship with the lowly. It is the meek who will inherit the earth; those who mourn who shall be comforted; the poor in Spirit who will gain the Kingdom of Heaven. Nothing could show God’s love better than the gift of Jesus, God’s Son. His coming is the triumph over sin and evil, death and the devil, for us and for all people. God’s work in Jesus shows the strength of God’s arm to scatter the proud in their conceit, to put down the mighty from their thrones, to exalt the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, to help, heal and save.

The problem then and now does not lie with God but with us. The Israelites should have responded to God’s grace and mercy with praise and thanks to God and lives of love to other people. The good grapes God expected would be mercy and love, stewardship of time and talents. Instead God saw the sour grapes of selfishness, corruption, wickedness. God’s will is done in heaven and on earth. The northern kingdom of Israel was defeated by Assyria and taken into bondage. The ten tribes were lost and never heard from again. Judah was defeated by Babylon and taken into exile. The land was despoiled, the temple destroyed, the mighty were brought low. What God spoke through the prophet Isaiah came to pass. God lifted His protecting hand and the land of Israel was laid waste.

Malcolm Muggeridge was a communist as a university student and visited the Soviet Union during the days of Stalin. This is what he wrote:

“In Russia I saw the dim outlines
of what we now know as the Gulag Archipelago:
a line of kulaks, farmers, with their hands tied behind them
being herded into cattle trucks at gunpoint . . .
like some macabre ballet.”

He watched other peasants kneeling in the snow, weeping and asking for bread and he made a vow to himself,

“Whatever else I may do or think in the future,
I must never pretend that I haven’t seen this.
Ideas will come and go,
but this is more than an idea.
It is peasants kneeling down in the snow and asking for bread.
Something that I have seen and understood.”

Muggeridge later rejected communism and became an evangelical Christian. Stalin’s evil empire could not stand forever. In our own day, God’s will continues to be done.

Judge between God and people? It was the question Isaiah asked of his hearers during that harvest festival in the eighth century B.C. It is our question today. God has done so much for us. Even in our darkest times, when we feel abandoned or alone, we have God’s promise that God is with us. God will never abandon or forsake us. God sent His Son, Jesus, to die for us. No sin or shortcoming, not even our doubts can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. God has done such great things for us. Now we just pray that we will bear good fruit in our lives.

Bless us, O Lord. Let your vineyards be fruitful, Lord. Amen.

––Copyright 2005, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.