Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

A Vineyard Love Song

Message preached October 5, 2014
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-36

Order of Worship

(Listen to this sermon) (mp3)

            “You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs, / but I look around me and I see it isn’t so. / Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, / and what’s wrong with that? / I’d like to know, / ‘cause here I go again. ” So began a song composed by Paul McCartney. The words were written in response to his ex-partner in the Beatles, John Lennon, who complained that Paul wrote too many “silly love songs.”

            Well, one could say that the Bible is library full of love songs (not silly ones). In fact, a case could be made that it is one continuous love song, from start to finish - a song with verses too many to count, a melody which frequently changes and yet remains the same, a harmony that often sounds like discord but still holds together. Sometimes the lead singer is God, and everything else is backup. At other times, God’s people sing the main line. Often it’s like a duet. Back and forth the words flow, like a conversation which does not end.

            We just heard two parables which share a common image, that of a “vineyard,” one told by the prophet Isaiah, the other by Jesus. It might be difficult to conceive of either one as a “love song.” They are, instead, tales of rejection and heartache, anger and revenge. Come to think of it, I’ve heard plenty of country music love songs on the radio which speak those very sentiments.

            It’s Isaiah who calls his tale a love song. “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard.” (5:1) Bible scholars are not exactly united on the tone of that line. Is it sung as a bride might sing to her bridegroom, as one lover to another? Or are these the words of a best friend, who cares deeply for his companion? Based on the text as we’ve received it, the debate could go either way. How we approach it might be a bit like how we deal with another scripture in the Old Testament.

            Attributed to King Solomon, the lyrics of the “Song of Songs” can be read as an erotic poem about the love between a man and a woman. It probably should be, as a Biblical emphasis that God created our sexuality, and behold it was very good. However, this Song of Solomon can also be read on a different level, as a poem about the relationship between God and us, a bond of love that goes beyond skin deep. Many early Christian writers saw it this way and drew much spiritual food from what otherwise appears to be a romantic interlude.

            Where Solomon’s song speaks of what we might call the honeymoon stage of a relationship, a soft and fuzzy time, the Vineyard song of Isaiah (echoed by Jesus’ parable) tells of a darker side. And yet, according to the prophet, it is still a “love song.” In spite of all the silliness on the human side of this covenanted relationship, the  song of love still rings out. That’s something we should never forget! Through all the infidelity, all the rebellion, all the back talk, all the garbage thrown by God’s people toward the One who loved them first, the One who, in fact, gave them birth - the melody is still that of a love song. Even the words of judgement are framed in this context. When we forget this basic fact, we lose track of the God of the Bible.

            Let’s hear again, some of the verses of this song.  Isaiah spoke of God, whom he loved with a love that just wouldn’t let go of him, as preparing a fertile hill to be a place for planting grapes. God dug into the ground beforehand to make it ready, hauling away the stones. When finished, God planted his vines. Not just any vines, mind you, his “choicest” ones. This vineyard owner went so far as to put a barrier around it (a hedge, a wall [Is 5:5], a fence [Mt. 21:33]), perhaps to prevent grazing animals from trampling over or eating the plants before they had a chance to grow and mature.

            In the middle of the Vineyard a watchtower was built, to further provide protection from both animals and men who might seek to steal the fruit before harvest time. With an eye on the purpose of the vineyard, the One who owned the land dug out a place for the grapes to be placed after they were picked, a vat where the workers could stomp them to bring out their sweet juice.

            Both Isaiah’s and Jesus’ parables pretty much speak the same words up to this point. Here, however, the two love songs diverge. Even so, it is the same song. Furthermore, remember that in spite of what comes next, this ballad remains a “love song.” For Isaiah, God’s people are the grapes, they are the vineyard. But the harvest has been a very sour one. Some of you may recall, from last week, Ezekiel’s words about “sour grapes,” about how we shouldn’t blame the sour situations we may find ourselves in on everyone else. We each bear responsibility for our own actions.

            Isaiah asks, “what is God to do, then, with such a vineyard,” when season after season the harvest is so wild and sour? The judgment? God will take down the hedge, the wall that surrounds the vineyard and allow it to be trampled and eaten. God will refrain from pruning it so that it will grow as wild as it tastes, good for nothing. God will stop weeding and allow the undergrowth to eventually choke out the life of the vine.

            The judgment may be harsh, but it is pretty much just a matter of allowing the vineyard to grow just like it wants to, leaving it (that is, the people of God) to control its own destiny. When these words were first spoken, that future was just around the corner. Those who wanted to tear down and eat the vine of Israel were at the gate, and soon God’s people would be forced into exile by the waters of Babylon.

            Again, however, don’t forget that this is a love song! In verse 7 of chapter 5, we see the tear streaking down God’s face. “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel,” Isaiah sang for his beloved. “The people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting, his delightful garden; God expected justice, but only saw violence; God expected righteousness, but only heard cries of distress.” The song is enough to break your heart.

            The rest of the chapter runs through a litany of this sour harvest: how the rich had plundered the poor; how the people wanted only to ‘party’ their life away; how they mocked the One who formed them from nothing and who continued to love them in spite of everything they did; how they perverted the truth and preferred their own silly wisdom to God’s wisdom; how they let the guilty go free and violated the innocent, making laws that only lined their own pockets.... You’d almost swear Isaiah was talking about this generation and not his own. Does the song change all that much over the years?

            As Jesus sang the vineyard love song, the people of God were not the grapes, but the tenants; they were not the vineyard but the sharecroppers responsible for caring for the vines. At harvest time, the owner sent his representatives to collect the produce. One by one, they were disregarded, abused, killed. As we listen to the melody, we hear Jesus at this point placing himself into the song. He became the music, as he spoke of the landowner sending his very son to the vineyard, in spite of the fact that every previous representative had been killed. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened to the son, also - a foreshadowing of events to come?

            Jesus then asked, “what is the owner to do, then, with such tenants.” It was a rhetorical question, for he was speaking in the Temple to the chief priests and elders, who knew very well the vineyard song of Isaiah. At the time they were questioning what authority Jesus had to speak as he was. They knew, as they responded to his question, where all this was headed. They understood what he was implying, that they were themselves the tenants of God’s vineyard, and that the judgement they spoke was upon their own heads.

            As I have said, though, we mustn’t lose track of the fact that this is a love song. Yes, these parables told by Isaiah and Jesus involve rejection and heartache, anger and (even) revenge. Like every tale of judgement, they are not easy stories to hear - especially if we take it to heart. Oh, I suppose that we could just look on from the sidelines and not ask the tough questions of ourselves - questions like: How are we not bearing fruit? In what ways is the fruit of our life sour, not sweet? How are we taking care of the vineyard God has provided us - cultivating, harvesting, sharing? Do we have such a sense of ownership and control over “our” lives that we don’t allow God into that very land which belongs to him? This is God’s vineyard (point outside, to congregation, then to self)!

            If you’re like me, such questions bring forth words of judgement upon myself. That’s one of the purposes of a parable - to break open the hard shells with which we insulate ourselves from God’s kingdom. If we only hear the story as applying to somebody else, then we haven’t really heard it. When the questions sting, we have heard the Word. Remember, though, we need to keep our ears open, also, for the refrain that sings out through the judgement. After all, this is a love song. And it’s not a “silly” one, either. Do you hear that refrain?

(see the youtube of the next 2 paragraphs, with church folk reading)

            “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:22-23) “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” (Isa 54:10) “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Ps. 145:8) “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Ps. 136:1, 118:1)  Do you hear the song?

            “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:8‑9)   “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38‑39) “, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13)  Do you hear the song?

            This Vineyard love song is not only woven throughout the Bible, it echoes through every part of our lives. Do we hear it? ... Speaking of the fruit of the vine, on that night when he was betrayed, Jesus took a cup filled with new wine, and blessed it, and sang out loud and clear, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26:28) Tonight, my friends, we gather for Love Feast. Do you hear the song? Won’t you come along?

            Let’s sing for our beloved, concerning his vineyard, #530 “What wondrous love is this”   

©2014 (reused and revised from 1999) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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