Texts: Isa. 5:1-7, Ps 80:1-2, 8-19
Love songs. I think that we all have our favorite love song. I’m guessing right now, many of you have tunes running through your heads of your favorite love song. That song has more meaning to it than just words. Memories of high school dances or trips with that special someone come to mind. When you hear the song on the radio, play that old record, or listen to that MP3, the scene or the person attached to that song comes flashing to your mind. For me, the song is George Strait’s “I Cross My Heart.” I sang it to Laura at a karaoke bar the evening following our wedding. Time has “improved” the actual scene, especially my voice. Now when I hear it on the radio, I picture dancing with Laura while I sing with a perfect country twang and other couples dance around us. These are the love songs that speak of love eternal, of people making it through the hard times with nothing but love, and beating the odds in finding that perfect someone.
Those are the usual kind of memories that come to mind when we think of love songs. But there is another kind of love song, the kind that deals with love not returned, of unexpected broken hearts, and the relationships that just didn’t work out. Again, I turn to George Strait. Whenever I’m having a bad day, I just listen to a couple of his broken heart songs and feel better. His song, “Today My World Slipped Way” is the quintessential broken hearted country song, with its lines of “we buried the plans that we made,” and “livin’ ain’t worth livin’ without you.” I know someone had to be in pretty bad shape to write that song. You have probably heard what you get when you play these kinds of country songs backwards. You get your spouse back, your dog comes home, your pickup truck starts, and it stops raining. That’s just how sad these songs are.
Our Psalm and our reading from Isaiah, both written in the 8th century BC, when Israel and Judah were falling apart from internal and external forces, are both those kind of broken hearted love songs. Isaiah even begins by calling his words a love-song about a vineyard and the gardener who owns it. This gardener has done everything right. The land was perfect for a vineyard, so he prepares the land lovingly, removing weeds and rocks. He plants the best grape seeds that will produce the finest wine. He even builds a watchtower to set a guard over the vineyard. And in anticipation of the wonderful harvest, he builds a wine vat. He did everything to help the plants grow so they would produce the sweetest of fruit for the enjoyment and fulfillment of all. But what came up were worthless, wild grapes.
In Texas and Louisiana where we lived, a wild grape called a mustang grape grows in the creek bottoms and fence rows. They are small and very sour with large seeds. But worst of all, for some people, touching the leaves was worse than poison ivy. Any contact caused burning welts that could last for weeks and months. That’s the kind of grape that I picture coming up in the vineyard. The gardener asks, “What more could I have done?” Nothing. He did everything right. He started out singing a love song which turns to a dirge of disaster. He has no choice but to abandon the vineyard. He will let it turn back into a wild field, the kind of field where wild grapes should be growing. The gardener will do nothing more.
And then we learn the identity of the gardener. It is God, the divine gardener. His love song has turned into a parable and we learn that the vineyard of the Lord is God’s people. They are the vineyard that has not produced. Because of His love and care, God expected certain things from his people. God expected justice and righteousness, but found only bloodshed and heard only the cries of the oppressed. God has given up, brokenhearted by his people.
The Psalm we read is a brokenhearted love song as well. But it is a twist. The previous song was sung by God. Now this song is by his people, the vineyard that God has given up. They were a people that had been blessed by the presence of the God who delivered them from Egypt. God had cleared the land so they would have a promised land. Their previous splendor spread from Lebanon to the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River. During the reigns of David and Solomon, they had power and influence in their corner of the world. They had a shining kingdom, but now the God who was so close and immanent is nowhere to be found. The God that had blessed them has seemed to have turned away, or worse, gone away. The song about God’s love for them has turned to a broken hearted lament. The builder of their vineyard, who had worked the land and planted them in it and blessed them beyond measure, appears to have abandoned them. Scholars think this Psalm was written at the beginning of the Assyrian conquest. They have been attacked, their cities burned and the people forced into exile. They have come together as a community to ask “Where is God? Where is the one who planted the vine with so much love?” The vine lies trampled, and the people lament their fate. The people have become brokenhearted by their God’s lack of protection for them. They lament the fact they are no longer what they used to be.
We also lament those times of God’s silence as a community of faith as the world has changed around us. For the Presbyterian Church in general, we often look back to the glory days of the ‘50’s when church membership was at an all time high. Now we worry about splits and aging congregations. What happened? Is it our fault? Did God turn his back on us? Where are you God? Even this past week, a group of us met to talk about the future of the Church Fellowship Night. The beginning of the discussion was about what was. The fellowship, the devotion times, the games, the leadership that once was is no longer there. What changed? What happened? Will things ever be like they were?
If we close our Bibles at the end of our reading of Isaiah and the community lament in the Psalm, there would be no good news. We would be left with a standoff, of a God brokenhearted by His people, waiting for them to repent, and His people, brokenhearted by God’s allowing them to become a defeated and trampled upon. But underlying the communal psalm is a sense of hope. One commentator translates their words in such a way to say, “We remember how you saved us in the past, Lord, and now we trust that you will do it again!” And God does do it again. Even though there is judgment, God still acts in love. But it isn’t in the way they expect. There is no restoration of the kingdom in they way they remembered. Those kind of glory days are gone. New days of God’s care for the vineyard will happen.
Later in Isaiah, God promises to bring someone up in the lineage of Jesse and David. But he won’t be a king in the sense they expect. He will not restore the glories of David’s kingdom. He will restore the relationship between God and God’s people. Jesus will become the vine on his people’s behalf. Now, because of Christ, when God sees his people, instead of seeing the wild grapes that they are, God will see a bountiful harvest of luscious grapes. And when the people look to God, they will see an imminent, caring, approachable God, like a vinedresser, who is lovingly taking care of his vines to grow, tenderly pruning and shaping the entire plant to produce a maximum harvest.
Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” God hasn’t left us. God has given himself to us in Christ to see us flourish. And it is Christ that directs the branches so that they may grow and produce. We have no idea what that may look like for us. God is not static, and neither are his people. We will change. The church will change. And God has given us everything we need to not just live into but flourish through the changes toward which Christ is directing us. Look around. You are all you need. God is directing us, all of us, down a path. What does it look like? I can’t tell you. We have to discern that path together with the Holy Spirit. But it will lead to a bountiful harvest.
God is still singing his love song to his vineyard, his people, the church, this church. And like any good love song, you can pick up the melody and hum it all day long. But learning the words takes a little longer. Every verse speaks to that same love, but the words are different, they change in new ways of expressing that love. And we don’t learn the words alone. Christ is teaching us the new words of God’s love everyday, so that we, too, can sing with God and each other.