August 14, 2016

The Vineyard of the Lord

Passage: Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80: 1-2, 8-19, Hebrews 11:49-56, Luke 12:49-56
Service Type:

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.

Bestselling author Dr. Michael Guillen has a great passion for scientific discovery; he taught at Harvard University and was the science editor for ABC news. In his 2016 book Amazing Truths: How Science And The Bible Agree he made the following observations.

One of the most astonishing discoveries astrophysicists have made in recent decades is that if gravity were just 0.000000000001 (one-trillionth of one) percent stronger, our universe would have reversed course long ago. It would have collapsed catastrophically, ending in a big crunch, the opposite of the big bang. Likewise, if gravity were just 0.000000000001 (one-trillionth of one) percent weaker, our universe would have flown apart so rapidly that planets, stars, galaxies—all the basic constituents of the universe—would never have had a chance to coalesce. We'd all be dust in the wind.

Sir Fred Hoyle, the late University of Cambridge astronomer and avowed atheist, after doing innumerable computations discovered that the odds of our being accidents of nature are comparable to the likelihood of a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling scrap metal into a fully functioning Boeing 747. Hoyle said, "One arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure or order must be the outcome of intelligent design."

No Christian is surprised to hear that “the heavens are telling the glory of God,” (Psalm 19:1) nor that God’s “eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:20) I am grateful for people like Dr Guillen who invite us to think about the intersection of faith and science. I do want to point out that these scientific discoveries that amaze us do not prove God—as if God lacked in proof somehow. God is not threatened by human scientific discovery.

Remember the logic (or order) inherent in the gospel. Christians learn first that God loves us because he has come among us in Jesus of Nazareth. After knowing him as Saviour the Apostles also learn that “All things came into being through him (Jesus), and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3) Israel’s experience teaches the same. They encounter God as the one who rescues them from slavery in Egypt remembering his covenant with their ancestors. The Hebrew bible is written after the rescue from Egypt. So, they learn of God’s steadfast love for them and then learn that this God who loves them is also the creator of the universe. I know that the book Genesis is first in the order of the books, but it was written after the experience of Israel’s emancipation.

This is to note that no amount of scientific of discovery will necessarily lead to the conclusion—there must be a God who loves me. We know that God loves us because of what he has done for us in Jesus; because Jesus is the manifest face of God we know of God‘s love. These scientific discovers underline the glory of that love. That God so fine-tuned the universe and us that we might know life; that this great intellect poured all this energy in so intricate a design so that we might be or have existence; these kinds of things bear witness of God’s love for the believer.

1. Come with me now to Isaiah’s song about a vineyard. “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” We may prefer the results of scientific equation to the pronouncements of poetry but Isaiah knows what he is doing. Science can’t explain love any more than it can explain God so Isaiah gets our attention with a love song. It is a song about God’s relationship with Israel. Listen again to the opening stanza.

My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes but it yielded wild grapes.

Isaiah’s song beautifully depicts the grace of God. Israel is likened to a vineyard for which God does everything to promote flourishing and yielding of beautiful fruit. This parable of the vineyard will be on Jesus lips when he said, “I am the vine, and my Father is the vine-grower; you are the branches.” (John 15:1, 5) Isaiah reminds Israel of the truth that every one of them confessed when they presented their offering at the festival of first fruits. The confession began this way, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” It went on with a brief recitation of the rescue from Egypt and then concludes with this, “and he (God) brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)

Every Israelite also knew the grace of God declared in the opening line of the commandments. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This rescue was God’s doing from start to finish. It wasn’t because they were deserving of some special attention. It was the steadfast love of God from first to last.

Could Isaiah’s song not also be sung about the creation of the world? The creation story unfolds day by day to its culmination when God said “Let us make humankind in our image.” Every provision was made for human life to flourish. “God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” When you consider the facts regarding the fine-tuning of what we call the force of gravity as just one of a myriad of intricacies that make for the wonder of human life, can we not also see that our human existence is by the grace of God from start to finish? Could we not sing Isaiah’s song this way, “My beloved created the earth, perfect in the universe for human life.”

2. The vine-grower expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. Here the song strikes a sour note. Literally. Everything was done for Israel so she might radiate the glory of God in the world. Everything was done so that the finest wine could be produced. The word translated “wild grapes” carries the connotation that they stink. They emitted a bad odor indicating disease. Any wine made from these grapes would be harmful. God made the world and everything in it for human flourishing. But it yielded wild grapes. We chose to go our own way claiming we knew better than God what makes for human life to thrive. What do our news media witness about how we are doing with this business of going our own way?

Just so we are clear on what God has in mind with this image of wild grapes we are told that God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed, righteousness, but heard a cry (of distress)!” The good, juicy grapes God wanted were justice and righteousness. Instead what God discovered was the exact opposite. Instead of justice he found bloodshed, instead of righteousness he heard the cries of the oppressed. There is a word-play here; in Hebrew the difference between “justice” and “bloodshed” and between the “righteousness” and “cries” is just one letter. These words are so similar to each other that you have to read carefully and look closely to see the difference.

The Hebrew word translated "cry" is particularly important and revealing. When God's people were being victimized by Pharaoh in Egypt, their response was to cry to God for help (Exodus 3:7). The confession that Israelite people made at their offering of first fruit (referenced above) repeats that under Egyptian oppression they cried to the Lord. This is the cry God hears among his people. In Israel the monarchy and the powerful had re-created the oppressive conditions of Pharaoh's Egypt. The injustice that God has rescued Israel from was now inflicted on others evoking cries for help.

I invite you to reflect for a moment on what God hears and sees. When we are told that God hears and sees we are not to think of God as merely an observer. God is active in all that God does. He hears the cry of the oppressed because God is engaged with the oppressed and is listening for it; his ear is tuned to hear it. He sees the bloodshed—the violence humanity perpetuates—because he is looking to our wellbeing. God hears and sees these things in his active opposition to all that diminishes the human flourishing God created us to enjoy.

The painful news that Isaiah must preach is that God will remove the hedge and wall that surrounds the vineyard because the current direction of bloodshed and oppression God opposes. In following the history of Israel and the establishment of the monarchy it was King David who established Israel’s domination of that part of the world. It lead to a kind of golden age for Israel under David’s son Solomon. Both of these kings were zealous for justice with regard for the poor and dispossessed. By Isaiah’s day all that was forgotten; the protection of God was taken as a sign that all was well; a given because they were God’s people. Corruption and injustice became a norm. Tradition tell us that Isaiah was martyred by Judah’s king Manasseh by having Isaiah sawn in two—a despicable act. Some believe that the author of Hebrews was referring to this event in speaking of some faith heroes who were “sawn in two.” (Hebrews 11:37)

It was the prophet Isaiah who makes clear that God’s intention for Israel was to be a light to the nations. (Isaiah 42:6) The monarchy was now corrupt and could not be rescued. Their mission would need to be fulfilled as people in exile. It was not long after Isaiah’s preaching that Jerusalem was captured and destroyed by the Babylonians and its people taken into exile. It teaches me that God is not disinterested in the rise and fall of kingdoms but ever moving towards his purposes for his people. Our task is to bear faithful witness to God’s love. Remember that God’s opposition to injustice is his love opposing all that destroys the life God gives.

3. On Tuesday, May 3, 2016 a plaintiff named David Shoshan appeared in a courtroom in Haifa, Israel and filed a legal request for a restraining order against none other than God himself. The plaintiff told the judge that over the past three years, God "had been very negative towards him," (though no specifics were recorded). Court documents made note that God did not make an appearance (at least not in the way we expect). Shoshan had tried numerous times to obtain a restraining order through the police so this time decided to go to court. The judge Ashan Canaan suggested that Shoshan should seek help from someone besides local law enforcement.

Now before we are too hard on Mr. Shoshan, it is instructive to admit that when we look at the mess humanity has made of life we wonder about God’s role in all of this and seeming disregard to let things get so out of control. Listen again to God’s question posed in Isaiah’s song; “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

I find this a very haunting question—What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? It is easy to advice God about how to run things but when I reflect on the life God has graciously given and the salvation rendered in Jesus Christ I know the answer. Nothing.

It seems to me that in this question God exposes the emptiness of all our answers to human ills. There has been no lack of creative solutions proposed in order to fix things; yet oppression and bloodshed continue to rear their ugly heads. Every time we suggest this or that action to make the world a better place is this not is tacit admission that we were made for better things—better things that yet elude us? And coming to this point is the beginning of hope; hope because God will not leave us in such place but will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God’s exposure of our helplessness is God coming as that very help.

We conclude with this note from the New Testament letter Hebrews; looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.