I’m going out on a limb, but my guess is that many of the people here today have little hands-on experience with a garden. Why wait for cucumber seeds to fan out in all directions so that you have to bend over and pick through the vines every other day for an hour looking for cucumbers just the right size, then stand for hours at the stove stuffing, steaming, and boiling jar after jar, when you can just go to Pick N’ Save and buy a jar of pickles? Why crawl in the dirt and space bean seeds at correct intervals, then crawl back over the rows every week to pinch and pull every little weed, run up the water bill to moisten the plants, and spend more hours bent over with blood rushing past your ears picking beans, when you can go to the farmer’s market and buy them?
Yet, to understand the Bible truth God brings to us through the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading, we have to go into a garden. And here’s something even more unfamiliar. This garden is not full of beans, carrots, cucumbers, radishes and tomatoes. It’s a garden of grape vines, a vineyard. But the exploration will be a blessing for us because God wants us to produce fruits of faith in their lives, and I’ll tell you up front, the way to make fruits of faith happen in our lives is not by staring at the screen of a laptop or cell phone. It won’t happen if we sit under a tree, squeeze our eyes shut, and hold our breath. No! Fruits of faith will only flow from us when God, the great Gardner, goes to work on our hearts. That’s why we offer to God this plea: “I Want to Be a Fine Vine.”
The Lord Cultivates a gorgeous garden
Did you ever hear a song you liked, snap your fingers, hum along, sing the refrain, but never really catch all the words? That’s my problem. I either don’t catch the words or don’t remember them. So, I had to check the Internet to see if there ever was a song written about a vineyard. I found about forty of them, none that you would classify as a big-time popular song.
But the Bible has songs about a vineyard, like the psalm we just sang and right here in Isaiah chapter five! It isn’t the most well-known song in Scripturebut one of the loveliest. I don’t know the tune, so I can’t sing it for you, but the lyrics! Oh, the lyrics! They’re off the charts. It’s a little hard to reproduce in English the tenderness and sweetness of the original, but the Hebrew swells with the sounds of warmth and joy. “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.” Isaiah is singing about a vineyard owner who goes to extreme lengths to generate and cultivate a vineyard. His careful planning, tender care, and hard work are all designed to produce not some ordinary vineyard but a gorgeous garden. Just look! He picked the best spot for sunlight and moisture on a fertile hillside. He didn’t take a plow and pulverize the soil but dug it up carefully by hand, then got on his hands and knees to toss out the stones and rocks. He selected the choicest shoots for planting. He built a watchtower to keep thieves out. He cut a high-quality vat out of rock to catch the juice from the grapes when squished in the winepress. In other words, this vineyard owner did everything possible to create and cultivate this gorgeous garden because he wanted fine vines.
Of course, you know that this song isn’t about a real vineyard owner and a real garden. Isaiah tells us, “The vineyard of the LordAlmighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in.” In order to keep his promise and send the Savior into the world, God determined to create a very special vineyard, a nation. He set this vineyard on a fertile hillside, a specially chosen chunk of real estate at the crossroads of the ancient world with plenty of water, sunlight, and natural resources. He led them in battles, tossing out the heathen stones who had lived there. He planted choice vines like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, erected watchtowers like Samuel, David, and Solomon, and allowed them to experience the constant flow of the juice of his love into the vats of their souls. Read the historical record in Scripture, and recognize that you are not reading the story of a nation but the record of God’s sweet, saving love and tender compassion.
But the vineyard owner’s tender love isn’t limited to the people of Israel. His Son went to work and built an even bigger garden. It’s global and it’s gorgeous. It isn’t dug into dirt or tied to some real estate transaction. It is planted wherever the rich resources of his good news in Word and sacrament are at work on human souls. To prepare for this garden, the Lord God got on his knees and tossed the stones of sin from our lives. He surrounded us with the vines of Christian parents and Christian friends and built the watchtower of Christian teachers and pastors to keep Satan out. He allows us to experience the constant flow of the juice of his love as he pours it into the vats of our souls through worship and Bible study. Whether you have been a Christian all your life or only recently have come to know Jesus, your life and mine now are love songs, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins(1 John 4:10). Sing it! We are Christians simply because the vineyard owner wants you and wants me to be a fine vine. So, he cultivated a gorgeous garden of love and planted us in it.
The Lord Eliminates vile vines
I would imagine you have heard a few songs that didn’t end the way you expected. The song began as a gentle ballad, the tune floating through the air to your ears. Then all of a sudden, bang! The notes blasted out and assaulted your eardrums. “Ouch! Turn it down! I can’t stand that racket!”
Brace yourself! The volume of this song isn’t that loud, but the lyrics become grating. “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” God, the vineyard owner, did everything possible for the vineyard known as the ancient nation of Israel, but they produced only stinking, rotten grapes. Finally, he said, “That’s enough!” and allowed enemy armies to bring destruction. Because the vineyard owner wants fine vines, he eliminates vile vines. That’s scary and makes us wonder whether that could happen to us. Who’s to say that our white lies, hidden lusts, critical comments, jealous streaks, and smoldering grudges are any less stinky in the nostrils of God? Too often we climb in bed at night and realize that we have produced rotten grapes.
But here’s the wonder of the vineyard owner’s love. He designed a little patch in the old vineyard where a few fine vines like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, Joseph and Mary remained. From those vines sprang one precious vine, a vine which has served as the beginning of a whole new vineyard. That vine is Jesus Christ, and we, scraggly, unworthy branches that we are, have been grafted into him. Stay with your Lord Jesus, and you won’t be pruned when the vineyard owner eliminates vile vines because the Lord, the vineyard owner, wants fine vines.
The Lord Anticipates good grapes
Those grating words near the end of the song make us want to jump back to the beginning in which the vineyard owner went to such lengths in order to cultivate a gorgeous vineyard. What would you expect the next stanza of this love song to be? Well, what did the vineyard owner expect to see? He looked for a crop of good grapes. Fruit produced would not have caused God to love the ancient Israelites any more than he already did. Rather, his love caused fruits of faith to grow, at least for some of them. The fruits of their faith would demonstrate their appreciation for his love. Their devotion to him, regular worship of him, prayers to him, their striving to bring their lives in line with his will, and their care for each other would be good grapes, growing naturally from grateful hearts.
You might have cracked your eyes open this morning and thought, “Oh, phooey! I wanted to sleep in, but church starts in less than an hour!” Yet, by the time you got through the first hymn and heard Pastor announce, “I forgive you all your sins,” you were glad that you came. That’s a good grape. When you look at the blessings God has poured out to you in the form of a paycheck and do the math to figure a generous percentage for God, that’s a good grape. When you lean over to your little one before the meal and say, “Let’s fold our hands to pray,” that’s a good grape. When you and your fiancé make the commitment to abstain from physical intimacy until marriage, that’s a good grape. When your co-worker has a bad day and takes it out on you, and you just smile and say, “I understand you’ve had a rough day. Can I help in any way?” that’s a good grape. Dear people of God, it isn’t easy being fine vines when we look around, read the paper, watch TV, hear about corruption and killing, and it seems like we are planted in a sewer. But when we open our eyes of faith, we can see that even though the checking account is running low, even though our throat is scratchy from another nasty cold coming on, even though our friends are fickle, even though our past sins haunt us and past sins against us hurt, God’s love never runs low. His faithful love in forgiving our sins is never fickle. When we can see that we are planted in his gorgeous garden, gratefulness fills our hearts and good grapes grow in our lives. It’s natural because the vineyard owner wants you and wants me to be a fine vine, so he puts his love to work in our hearts and anticipates good grapes.
This whole song about a vineyard may have been a venture into the unknown, but you don’t have to be an expert gardener to understand that God wants you and wants me to be a fine vine, producing good grapes. That will happen only when we pay attention to our Lord Jesus, trust that what he has done for us is true, and then take to heart his words, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). Jesus planted us into the vineyard of God’s grace. Now go and produce good grapes. Amen.
Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (www.gracedowntown.org) on October 8, 2017