November 17th, 2019 “Sour Grapes” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-5
This morning the narrative lectionary has us reading from the prophet Isaiah. Similar to last week’s message from Hosea, Isaiah offers a word of judgement and then grace. Those that were here last week will remember that at this point in the history of Israel, the nation has split between the southern and the northern tribes. The southern kingdom is called Judah and the northern kingdom is called Israel. Hosea was a prophet for the northern kingdom, which was eventually destroyed by the Assyrians and the people were sent into exile. Isaiah is a prophet for the southern kingdom where Jerusalem is located.
Isaiah begins, “let me sing a love song about my lover’s vineyard”. This introduction does not translate well into our modern American culture. First of all, this really is a song that was sung, but as we discover later, it is being used as a musical device that points out a cultural truth. This is a political song, like Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” or maybe some of the tracks of the rap artist Kendrick Lamar. Another thing lost on us is the imagery of the vineyard as a metaphor for love. We don’t talk that way anymore, but if you read Song of Solomon you’ll find similar imagery there.
So, Isaiah sings a song about the lover’s vineyard. The beloved takes good care of this vineyard, clearing the land, planting the vines, and following all the directions. But when the time for the harvest comes, the grapes are rotten. They are wild and spoiled and no good for wine. They are sour grapes.
Isaiah asks the listener to decide what will happen now. What should the beloved do with this rotten vineyard? When you followed directions completely and the harvest is bad, what do you do? Those of us who spend time in the garden know that this is not an uncommon occurrence. From radishes that are too hot to eat, tomatoes that are too acidic to save, sunflowers with empty seeds, or that one time my zucchini and my pumpkins had some sort of strange inter-marriage I have certainly been in this position. When the garden is rotten, and you don’t know why, you tear it out and start over right? That is the answer that Isaiah is looking for. Sour grapes? Tear them out!
And that is exactly the answer that Isaiah gives. I will tear out this crop and tear down this vineyard. I will break down the walls and make it a waste. The crop is spoiled and the land is spoiled. Isaiah even declares that the owner of the vineyard will make sure no rain comes upon the land again, and we start to get an inkling of where this song is headed. This is no ordinary farmer; Isaiah’s beloved vineyard owner is the Lord.
In verse seven the listeners of Isaiah are condemned “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” This is a pretty serious condemnation of God’s people.
In the Hebrew poetry of this passage there is a play on words which highlights the difference between what God expected and what God got instead. Sort of a the grapes look like grapes and look like they would taste really good but they don’t. The passage reads that the Lord expected mispat justice, but instead got mispah bloodshed. See it’s just a minor variation. And again the Lord looked for sedaqa righteousness, but instead found se aqa a cry. We can see here how the poetry expands on the idea of things being off and wrong. God was looking for something good, and on the outside it might look good, but everything was off and spoiled instead, like sour grapes or an empty sunflower.
According to Isaiah, God decides to mow this vineyard down. Not only have the people produced sour grapes, they have actually committed evil. Remember from last week the Israelites, those released from bondage in Egypt, had been enslaving their neighbors to build their empire. And remember that those who committed to worshipping this jealous God have been instead worshipping the gods of neighboring countries, even to the point of building shrines and altars to these false gods within their own cities and neighborhoods.
God has had enough, and declares that this vineyard will be destroyed. All that will be left are the stumps of the grape vines, and that is where our reading jumps to Isaiah 11. We know this reading so well from our season of Advent when we prepare for the coming Messiah. A shoot shall arise from the stump of Jesse. New life shall grow where things have been cut down. And this new leader will finally lead Israel in the justice and righteousness that the Lord so desires. In Isaiah’s story of judgement this is the word of grace.
So where does this leave us for today? I have to admit that this narrative lectionary is a challenge for a preacher. These Old Testament prophets are difficult and we still have a long way to go until we get to the familiar territory of Jesus Christ. This is a treacherous path for any preacher to attempt to navigate. We don’t like to hear sermons about what we are doing wrong.
Last week, when we read Hosea, God was angry and ready to destroy the people, but then compassion won over and God relented. But as I mentioned earlier, we know that historically the people of the Northern Kingdom were destroyed and taken into captivity. So what do we do with that?
And what do we do with Isaiah here and his vineyard of sour grapes? God declares that this vineyard will be destroyed, and though the southern kingdom doesn’t suffer as much as the northern, they will suffer.
Let’s go back to the vineyard metaphor. If you really did have a field of sour grapes, if your whole crop of tomatoes were too acidic to eat, if your radishes are too hot for any man, then you tear out the crop. There is no mercy in gardening. It would not make sense to continue fertilizing and watering, and caring for a field of sour grapes. That’s not compassion; that’s crazy, that’s enabling. At some point, the farmer starts over. At some point, the people must suffer the consequences of their actions. Otherwise, no one ever learns.
Think of your own life and the people that you love. Sure there have been times when grace abounded, you were lucky, you scraped by, you didn’t get what you deserved. But usually, that doesn’t happen. Usually, life gets you in the end. Not all of the time, but most of the time, we experience the consequences of our own bad behavior. I’m not saying life is fair and I am not saying we deserve to suffer, I am just saying a truth you already know. What we do matters. How we live matters. It matters in our daily life here and in our spiritual life as well.
The word of hope from Isaiah is that even in our destruction, there is hope for new life. Even in the stump of what remains, there is growth and a future. Even when we think all is over and lost, behold God is doing a new thing in our midst. As Mike read from the next chapter of Isaiah, “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.” We would be fools to tell ourselves God isn’t angry with us. We would be fools to only embrace God’s comfort without facing our own sinfulness.
The people of modern America are just as sinful as the people of Israel and Judah were. Where God expected justice we have instead offered up bloodshed. Where God expected righteousness we have instead offered up the cries of our neighbors. We would be fools to not admit that we too are sour grapes. Our vineyard is as rotten as any.
Like the nations of Israel and Judah, our nation will suffer for our following after false gods. I think we can see that today in how we have become so utterly divided. We are tearing ourselves apart, and have gotten to a place where we can no longer speak to each other. We are wrecking the vineyard ourselves.
But even in the midst of this strife, even in the midst of this suffering, we have another example. In Jesus Christ, in the story of our faith, we have the one who shows us a better way. We have the one who demonstrates the justice and righteousness God is looking for, we have the one who is the living embodiment of the Lord’s wisdom, and we have the grace of a resurrected Lord.
Christians have always told this story of suffering and hardship that leads to new life and new growth. Be it the shoot from the stump of Jesse, or the Risen Lord who conquers death and the tomb. Be it the church that grows from a fearful band of followers to the power of the Holy Spirit to lead the world in new ways. This cycle is our story. Death to life. Punishment to compassion. Mistakes to second chances. This is how we understand grace.
Its stewardship season and this is an opportunity for you to make a fresh commitment to God’s ways of justice and peace. This is a chance for you publicly to declare “I am not just living for myself, I am not worshipping the gods of culture, but I will share who I am and what I have with God’s greater mission.” I want to invite you to bring a pledge to worship next Sunday. Make a promise of sharing your financial resources with the work of God as it is lived out through the mission and ministry of this church. And I want to invite you to make a commitment of your time and energy. Make a promise to come to worship, sing in the choir, serve on a committee, and share who you are with the life of this congregation. Even if you don’t want to be part of this church, or make your offering here, you still can make a promise to share what you have with others and make a change in your life for the better.
Through God’s grace we have the chance, the opportunity, to change our lives and not be sour grapes. Join me and we will make a commitment to be the people we hope we can be, the vineyard that God has planted, in the year to come. Like a New Year’s resolution, next Sunday we promise to try harder to be better in the year to come. Stewardship is that simple. We respond to God’s faithfulness to us, with faithfulness of our own.
When we imagine a God who plants a vineyard we imagine a God who has hope. Hope for a good harvest of righteousness, justice, and peace. What would it mean for you today to live as if God is hoping in you, counting on you, investing in you, and trusting in you to produce good fruit? May we be inspired to be more than just sour grapes. Amen.