Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. There’s quite a bit about vines and vineyards going on in our readings today—Isaiah 5, Psalm 80, and Matthew 21. These readings all relate in an intriguing way. But what’s interesting about Psalm 80 and Matthew 21 is that both readings seem to be drawing language and imagery from Isaiah 5’s Vineyard Song. What’s fascinating about this song in Isaiah 5 (which is really more of a parable) is all of the different layers of meaning going on here. This song is a bit like an onion—the more you dig into it, the more layers of meaning you discover. So, we’re going to dig into the Vineyard Song in Isaiah 5 this morning and begin to discover some of the layers of meaning in this song.
2. On the surface, this is simply a song about a vineyard. Let’s look at the imagery. The text begins: Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard (Isaiah 5:1a). Okay, so what follows is a song—a love song at that—about a vineyard. That seems a bit strange. Who sings love songs about plants? …Don’t raise your hand if you do—that’s just weird. I don’t want to know that… You know, though, I can think of a “love song concerning a vineyard,” And, believe it or not, it’s in the Bible. It’s in that dreaded book, the Song of Solomon—you know, that book you don’t ever want to read because it makes you blush with embarrassment when you do… That’s what this reminds me of. I’ll spare you looking up the references—you’re welcome! But suffice to say, if the Song of Solomon is any indication of what to expect here, there’s going to be a lot going on beneath the surface… Anyway, the song officially begins in the second half of verse 1: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill (Isaiah 5:1b). Okay, stop for a second. This already sounds like it’s going the direction of the Song of Solomon, but it’s also starting to sound like another story about someone who had a vineyard (or was it a garden?) on a very fertile hill… Let’s keep reading, and maybe something will come of that: He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines (Isaiah 5:2a). Okay, so let’s get this straight. This guy had a vineyard, an orchard of sorts, on a high place. He dug and tilled the ground. He cleared the ground of rocks, so the soil was primed and fertile. And then he planted the best fruit-bearing vines there. When previously in the Bible does someone have this kind of vineyard or orchard on a very fertile hill and then prep the ground to plant a garden or sorts with the best, choicest fruits? Oh yeah…pages 1 and 2 of the Bible. This is sounding an awful lot like God and the Garden of Eden. Don’t see it? Let me make two quick points that further back this up. First, in verse 7, Isaiah uses the poetic technique of a Chiasm to equate this “vineyard” with a more general “planting place”. Sounds an awful lot like the reader is supposed to pick up on other “planting” imagery throughout the Bible (like in Genesis 2:8 when God plants a garden in Eden). Second, Eden was a high place—a very fertile hill. How else do you explain the four rivers that all have their source in one place? Water runs downhill. But also, in Ezekiel 28:13 & 14, the Lord equates “Eden, the garden of God” with “the holy mountain of God.” Eden was a high place and the imagery of Isaiah 5 is supposed to evoke Eden imagery in the mind of the reader. Anyway, the song isn’t over yet: He built a watchtower in the midst of it (Isaiah 5:2b). In other words, he setup a place to live and care for the vineyard right in the middle of it. And [he] hewed out a wine vat in it (Isaiah 5:2c). In other words, he setup the vineyard to be a place where both food and drink are in abundance. This is going pretty well! And he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild (literally, stinky) grapes (Isaiah 5:2d). Oh…that’s not so good. But that shouldn’t surprise us because doesn’t that sound almost exactly like the Garden of Eden? Except in Genesis 3 it wasn’t the fruit that caused the problem, it was the humans who caused a problem by eating fruit… Isaiah continues: And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard? (Isaiah 5:3-4a). Uh…it doesn’t sound like there was anything else that could have been done for the vineyard, does it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild [stinky] grapes? (Isaiah 5:4b). Uh…I don’t know, but it sure doesn’t sound like it was this guy’s fault, does it? 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 briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it (Isaiah 5:5-6). Yikes! That seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Then again, it’s not my vineyard, if this guy wants to destroy what’s his and if he regrets what he has made on the earth and is grieved to his heart (Genesis 6:6) because of what’s happened here, then I suppose it’s his prerogative to bring his own flood of rage on his creation. But, we’re not quite done yet: For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry! (Isaiah 5:7). Oh. So, the vineyard is more than a vineyard. Isaiah finally tells us the point: God is the vineyard owner, and the vineyard represents people.
3. Now that we’ve done the hard work to get through the first layer of meaning, the next layer becomes pretty obvious. This whole thing has been about God and the people of Judah this whole time. They are the ones that God planted on a “very fertile hill”, Mount Zion, in the Promised Land. God did everything to provide for them, care for them, and transform them into a new kind of humanity who lives in righteousness and justice before God and others. But, the result was nothing more than wild, stinky grapes! They disrespected God, they oppressed the poor, and they mistreated those of lower social status, and the privileged people walked around like nothing was going on! This humanity was given a choice on a high place between right and wrong, good and evil, and they blew it! They failed to live rightly before God and their neighbor.
4. But as we start to get through this layer of meaning, maybe you’re starting to see the next layer of meaning. This isn’t just about God and the people of Judah; this is also about God and all people. Just like Judah had a choice on a high place between right and wrong, good and evil, so too does all of humanity, which is exemplified in Genesis 3 as Adam (literally “humanity” in Hebrew), both male and female, stood before two trees and chose evil rather than good, so too does all of humanity, you and I included, face this same choice every day. Yet, if you look around our society, you see that not only our society, but also we disrespect God. We have a hand, directly or indirectly, in oppressing the poor and mistreating those of lower social status. In our society, the privileged people walked around like nothing is going on! We too have been given a choice between right and wrong, good and evil, and we’ve blown it! We fail to live rightly before God and our neighbor.
5. But this layer of meaning also reveals another layer of meaning—one that we see very clearly in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:33-46. When sinful men and women were running rampant in the garden of God’s good earth, the vineyard owner sent his son. And he was beaten and killed by those sinful men. But what these people meant for evil, God used for good. See, Jesus went to a garden (Gethsemane) to suffer and ultimately die on a high hill so that we might be forgiven and restored to the new garden which God is building here on earth. Despite the many times that you and I sin against our God and fail to uphold justice in his world, Jesus death forgives your sins, and Jesus’ life gives you an inheritance in the new garden.
6. And so, my friends, the final layer of meaning that I want to show you is what all of this means for you and me. Jesus has forgiven us all of our sins. The wrath that this sinful vineyard deserved fell upon Jesus on the cross. And now, God has begun building a new vineyard, a new Garden of Eden—the Kingdom of God. He’s building it right here among us. And the best part is, by the power of his Holy Spirit within you, he has enlisted your help to cultivate and plant this new garden! When people asked Jesus when this new garden, the Kingdom of God, would come, he said: “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21). Because the Kingdom of God is among us, and because the Holy Spirit is within us so that we might participate in this new garden, you and I should strive live in righteousness and justice toward God and our neighbors around us as we participate in restoring God’s new garden to this earth.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.