Wild Grapes

August 14th, 2022 homily on Isaiah 5:1-7 by Pastor Galen

Isaiah 5 is entitled “The Song of the Vineyard,” and Isaiah describes it as a love song. It’s not a particularly happy or joyful love song – rather it’s more like a blues or country music ballad. And yet, if we look closely, I believe we’ll see an amazing picture of God’s faithfulness and of God’s never-failing love for us and for all God’s people. But first, a story from my own life…

Cozy Rowhome…

In 2004, when my wife and I got married, we moved into a small row house in Southwest Baltimore, in a little neighborhood called Mount Clare. Although the house was livable, it needed a fair amount of work. And so, in the months leading up to our wedding, we poured blood, sweat, and tears into the house to make the house into our home.

We stripped wallpaper and painted, tore out plaster ceilings and walls that were crumbling, installed carpeting in the bedrooms, chose new cabinets, fixtures, and flooring for the kitchen and bathroom. We exposed the wooden beams and brick walls in the kitchen and upstairs family room, giving the house a warm and cozy cabin-like atmosphere. And then, a year after we got married, we turned the tiniest bedroom into a nursery, as we prepared to welcome our first child into our family.

Although we only lived there for four years, those were formative years for our family, as Eboni and I learned how to love each other, how to care for a child, how to be a part of a community, and how to love and care for the place in which we lived.

In 2008, a new opportunity opened up for us, and so, after much prayer and discernment, we put our little house up for sale, hoping that whoever bought it would love it and care for it as much as we did. But after the house sat on the market for months on end with no reasonable offers, we began to feel a bit desperate, since we needed the money from the sale of our home for the down payment for our new house. And so when an offer came in that was just barely what we needed for the downpayment on the new property, we accepted the offer without asking a lot of questions, and we moved into our new home.

… to Nuisance Property

Unbeknownst to us, the person who bought our lovely little home was an investor who was essentially a slumlord. He crammed way too many people into that tiny row house, endangering the occupants and the neighbors. Eventually the house caught fire, and although it was eventually occupied once again, it seems that the owner did just the bare minimum to bring it back to a livable condition.

Needless to say, it was sad to see that our former house was not being cared for by the new owner in the loving and tender way that we had hoped. And it was even more disheartening for us to watch our once cozy little home become a “nuisance property.”

Many of you can probably relate. Maybe you poured your heart and soul into something that is no more. If not a house, maybe it was an old car you tinkered with. Maybe it was a company or an organization you worked for. Maybe it was a relationship you invested in, or someone you loved and cared for who left or turned their back on you.

Whatever it is that you’ve experienced, whatever heartbreak or heartache you’ve known in your life, the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5 highlights the reality that God too knows what it’s like to feel disappointment, heartache, and grief. God too knows the pain of rejection, of unrequited love as God poured love and affection into a people who turned their backs on God.

Wild Grapes

Here in Isaiah 5, the prophet Isaiah imagines God as the owner of a vineyard, who lovingly and tenderly dug the soil, and cleared it of stones, and planted the vineyard with the choicest of vines. The owner of the vineyard did everything they could to make it the best vineyard possible, expecting it to yield amazing grapes that would make the most delectable of wine, but instead the vineyard yielded wild grapes.

At the end of these seven verses, we learn that if the vineyard owner represents God, then the vineyard represents God’s people – in Isaiah’s time, the people of the nations of Israel and Judah. Isaiah says that God expected the people God loved and cared for to act with justice, but rather they acted with bloodshed. God expected
righteousness, but instead heard a cry.

As we’ve seen throughout our study of the Old Testament prophets this summer, the people of the nations of Israel and Judah were going through the motions, pretending to worship God. They were going to the temple and offering the sacrifices, but then they were turning around and committing egregious acts of violence and oppression. They were treating other people as though they were worthless. They were taking advantage of the poor and needy – the widows and orphans, and all of those on the margins of society – rather than looking out for them as they had been commanded to do.

Isaiah 5 goes on to describe the wealthy who kept building bigger and bigger houses, crowding out the poor and marginalized. Isaiah describes a people who had an abundance of money and wealth and possessions but who lived frivolous lives, wasting their time, and energy, and resources. He describes people who “call evil good and good evil…who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” They found ways to rationalize and disguise the atrocious things they were doing and pretending as though they were doing good. Isaiah describes politicians and judges who were wise in [their] own eyes” (Isaiah 5:20-2) but who would “acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their rights” (Isaiah 5:23). The very people who were tasked with looking out for the health and safety of the people were the ones who were to be most feared.

Isaiah’s description doesn’t sound all that different from our day and age, does it? People who call evil good, and good evil. People who spend their time and money frivolously, a society that neglects to care for those on the margins. Where the people in power accept bribes, and who render unjust judgments to benefit themselves and their cronies. A people who are so often focused on our own wants and desires.

Isaiah’s love song for the vineyard goes on to paint a stark image of what would happen if God were to withdraw God’s care and protection over the people. In the analogy, the vineyard owner removes the hedges protecting the wild grapes – allowing the wild animals to come in and devour the grapes. The owner removed the walls, allowing anyone to come through and trample the tender plants. In the end the vineyard becomes a wasteland, overgrown with briers and thorns.

Isaiah predicted that this is what would happen to the kingdom of Judah if they continued down the path they headed. God would withdraw God’s hand of protection over God’s people, and enemy nations would come and destroy them and take them away (see Isaiah 5:26). Not a very hopeful or uplifting image.

Love Song for a Vineyard

And so why does Isaiah call this a love song? How does this song at all demonstrate God’s deep care and concern for God’s people, if it ends in chaos and destruction?

1. We see evidence of God’s deep love and concern for God’s people in the way the vineyard owner meticulously cultivated the soil and planted the choicest of vines in the vineyard, just as my wife and I painted and picked out carpeting and appliances for our new house when we first got married.

The analogy points to the history of the Israelite people, as God rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and led them to a land that the Bible describes as “flowing with milk and honey.” God gave the people everything they needed as a society to flourish. On numerous occasions, God miraculously drove out enemy nations and drove back enemy armies. God intervened in countless battles, continually looking out for the people, so that they never should have had to worry about their own safety or protection.

Similarly, each of us, if we were to look back on our lives, would have to acknowledge that God has given us so much more than we deserve. It’s easy to point to the difficulties and challenges that we’ve faced in life, and say, “what about that? Why did that happen to me?” And yet we may never know this side of heaven all of the ways God has provided for us, all of the things that God has protected us from. We may never know all times God intervened to shelter us from harm, times that God extended mercy and grace to us when we didn’t even realize it. The fact that any of us are here today, the fact that we woke up this morning, is evidence of God’s grace and mercy in our lives.

2. We can also see evidence of God’s love in the deep emotion the vineyard owner felt when the vineyard yielded wild grapes.

Many people – even Christians – envision God as a dispassionate deity high up in the sky unconcerned with the fate of human beings. We might think that because of God’s knowledge of the future, that God wouldn’t experience sadness or disappointment like humans do. And yet here in Isaiah 5, and all throughout Scripture, we see God experience hurt and disappointment in real time. We see that God is indeed with us – not just close in proximity, but with us in time, experiencing our hurt and pain as we experience it, and even experiencing disappointment, loss, and grief when we turn away and go our own way.

So, we see evidence of God’s love in the vineyard owner’s meticulous attention to detail, and in the owner’s disappointment when the vineyard yielded wild grapes.

3. But we also see evidence of God’s love in the fact that God gave Isaiah this prophecy in the first place, to warn the people of what would happen if they continued down the path they were headed – for this too is an act of love.

You see, although Isaiah’s love song for the vineyard ends in chaos and destruction, it didn’t have to be that way. Often people think that the nature of prophecy in the Bible was to foretell what was going to happen, no matter what. People equate biblical prophets with fortune tellers, telling the people their fate, as if there was nothing they could do about it. But that could not be further from the truth! The biblical prophets were sent to warn people of what would happen if they didn’t repent. It was to wake them up, to get them to turn back to God, and thereby avoid the punishment they were due. We see this in the book of Jonah, where the people of Nineveh repented and were spared the destruction the prophet Jonah foretold.

In many ways, prophecies such as this song in Isaiah 5 were God’s way of staging an intervention. Through the prophets, God was trying to get the attention of the people, to get them to turn away from the path they were heading towards destruction, and to turn and follow God’s path, the path that leads to life. And in this intervention we see another evidence of God’s deep love and affection for God’s people.

Glimpses of God’s Love

Of course, the ultimate proof of God’s love for humanity, the ultimate intervention that God staged in human history was in sending God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, to show us the heart of our Father God. Jesus gave his life for us as proof of God’s love for the whole world – taking on the sin and pain of the world, and ultimately dying in our place, so that we can experience eternal life with God – not death or destruction. And that eternal life starts here and now.

That doesn’t mean we will never face pain or disappointment in this life, because we will. And yet, through it all, God will be right there with us, loving us, protecting us, walking right beside us. Experiencing the hurt and pain and disappointment that we experience right along with us, leading us and guiding us towards the path of truth, and of life.

So let us open ourselves up to God’s love this morning. In those areas of our lives where we may have gone astray, where we may have put our own needs and wants and desires before that of others, let us repent and turn back to God. Let us allow God to stage an intervention in our lives if need be, to wake us up to the truth of God in our lives. And above all, may we place our faith and trust in God above all else, knowing that God loves us, God will be right there with us, no matter what we experience in this life.

Amen.

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