Stumped in the Vineyard

Sermon by Laura, 11.17.19 Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-5

What’s your favorite broken-hearted break-up song,  Or just the first one that comes to mind? (take a few suggestions). 

When I crowd-sourced this question on Facebook, I was amazed to realize just how many textures and flavors of break-up songs and heartbreak pain artists have tried to express: from “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt, to “Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan; from “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor to “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers. There’s the I’m-leaving-you songs and the I’m-being-left songs. There’s the wistful goodbye, the angry goodbye, the power-anthem goodbye, and the humorous I-won’t admit-it-hurts goodbye. 

What they seem to have in common is that they all narrate a decisive moment. Each relationship began with high hopes of love or friendship, some form of the intimacy humans long for. But those hopes have not come to fruition. 

As the relationship ends, each song sings out whatever feelings need to be expressed so that the ground can be cleared. And each song leaves us wondering, what new life could possibly emerge in this landscape of loss? 

This question also lingers at the conclusion of Isaiah 5’s Love Song of the Vineyard, which is a strange sort of break-up song.  I agree with Beth Moore, who says that she hears it in “pure country.” She writes, 

“..a country-western song can start you out at a family picnic eating buttermilk fried chicken and watermelon on your great-grandmother’s quilt, with butterflies flitting about, and before it ends, your daddy’s gone to prison, your momma’s run off with the preacher, and your little brother’s blowing butterflies to dust with a BB gun.”[i]

That’s just the sort of turn the story takes in the Song of the Vineyard, which begins well enough. We hear all the detailed ways the prophet’s beloved friend has given meticulous care for the vineyard, clearing the land, digging out stones, planting the best vines, setting in place the tower and vat where the harvested grapes would be made into wine. But abruptly, the song twists, dashing any hopes for a fine vintage to be shared in communal joy. In spite of all the care lavished on it, the vineyard yields only “wild grapes;” a better translation of the Hebrew might be “rotten grapes.” 

Then we are confronted with a question: “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?” (Isaiah 5:3).

Can you hear the plaintive cry of this question?  What more could I have done? How many of us, suffering heartbreak in our lives, ask ourselves the same question? 

But this question not only voices heartbreak; it also draws its hearers into a trap,much like the prophet Nathan does after King David’s affair with Bathsheba. Nathan tells David the story of a rich man who abused his power to steal from a poor man. And when David rushes to judge, “The man who did this must die!” Nathan replies, “You are the man!” 

You are the vineyard!” sums up Isaiah’s message, trapping the people in their own judgment. Of course, they would say that a vineyard yielding rotten grapes should be given back to nature, its hedges and walls torn down so that wild beasts can roam and brambles take root. A diseased garden must be plowed under, and the land remain fallow for a time, until healthy new growth can take root. The destruction and fallow time are natural consequences of the vineyard’s failure to bear good fruit. 

But once their judgment is made, God’s people discover the bereft lover of the vineyard is God, and they themselves were God’s “pleasant planting.” But instead of the fine vintage of justice and righteousness, they have yielded the stinking spoils of violence and oppression, and the consequences of judgment are coming due.  

In a nutshell, this is the prophet Isaiah’s message throughout the first 39 chapters of the book. It is a message of judgment, naming Israel’s rebellion from right relationship with God, other people, and God’s land. This rebellion is most evident in the oppression of the poorest people, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. There will be consequences. 

This is an uncomfortable message. Judgment always is, whether it’s two lovers recognizing the end of a relationship and experiencing the fallout of breakup, or a whole nation, descending into chaos when their leaders have led them into acts of oppression and violence. 

So I’m tempted to jump quickly to Isaiah 11, where, after pronouncing judgment, the prophet offers hope, “comforting the afflicted” as well as “afflicting the comfortable.” 

But before we zip forward through the centuries to remember how God brings new life out of death, let’s stay present a few more moments in the aftermath of judgment, in the wasteland of brambles and stumps. For here we can learn an unexpected grace: The grace of the fallow lands, the conditions for new life encountered at rock bottom.

Now, I don’t use the word “grace” lightly here. When the catastrophe Isaiah predicted took place, and the empires of Assyria and Babylon conquered the land, thousands of people were killed, some were taken captive, and others were left in starvation and poverty. Some have called this catastrophe the first holocaust. The pain and suffering in Israel’s story are real and profound. 

And yet. And yet

The people who came after Isaiah recognized his words as true prophecy, as his words helped them find meaning in senseless destruction. Isaiah saw God’s judgment as a form of grace, righting the course of the people from the corruption which had rooted so deep in the landscape of their nation.  

Eugene Peterson writes that the prophets “…worked to get people to accept the worst as God’s judgment—not a religious catastrophe or a political disaster, but judgment. If what seems like the worst turns out to be God’s judgment, it can be embraced, not denied or avoided, for God is good and intends our salvation.”   

Judgment is how God sets things right, when the disease is diagnosed, the reality of rupture is seen with clear eyes, and decisive action to face the consequences can now be taken.

Now, in the popular imagination, I think we often picture God in judgment as a lofty being watching everything we do with a disapproving frown and his hand on the Smite Button. But let’s be clear: It is not Isaiah’s vision. It’s  more the image of Zeus than it is God in Jesus Christ.  

Let’s not forget, from start to finish, this is a love song! From start to finish, God desires our blessing and wholeness. That’s why God created us with free will, the means by which judgment comes for us as God allows the natural consequences of our freely willed choices to play out. 

That said, I must note that in Isaiah’s world and in ours, humanity’s collective choices create systems and cultures. And when together we create cultures of violence and oppression, the consequences may fall on the wicked, but all too often, the innocent and vulnerable suffer most. It breaks our hearts; I believe it breaks God’s heart most of all. 

What more could I have done? God asks in Isaiah’s song.  I hear in those words a tone which is kin to Jesus’ lament from the cross:“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His words are the cry of all innocent people who suffer the consequences of sin, even as they are the cry of the God who suffers our wrong with us and for us,  then and always. 

My friends, in our lives, we all experience the ground-scoured landscapes of heartbreak and loss. We all go through our seasons of dashed hopes and lost love. Whether it’s a divorce, a job loss, a devastating diagnosis, or the death of our dearest ones,  there will be times when it seems like our lives have become a landscape of chaos and despair. 

So, what are we to do in these fallow lands? 

We might take some direction from Twelve-Step recovery process, written down by people who knew a thing or two about “rock bottom.” The first step we take in the fallow lands is recognize and accept how unmanageable life has become. From there, we can remember that we are reliant on God’s care and provision for life itself; so only God can save us!  We make the decision to return ourselves into God’s hands, and with a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” we ask God to remove our shortcomings and restore us. 

Second, in the fallow lands, we look around and see who is there with us.  Just as good heartbreak song lessens our pain as it reassures us that we are not alone,   we take heart from those have gone before us, who have survived the fallow lands and met a new life on the other side. And we sing our own heartbreak songs, expressing the pain and clearing the ground, holding onto hope and holding out for the new future God is already bringing to life.

Isaiah picture this future in chapter 11, a tendril of hope to hold onto, a wisp of green amidst the charred stumps of devastation: Hear it now: (read Isaiah 11:1-5). 

We often hear this scripture during Advent, the tender hope of a righteous leader, a hope we believe God fulfills in Jesus the Christ. So I wonder, when did a painful upheaval in your life ultimately result in new and righteous fruit?

My family has a few stories, which they have given me permission to share:  

My mother tells how the seven difficult years in which she gave care to her father after his stroke bore the fruit of reconciliation and new friendship with the two sisters she’d got along with least in her childhood. They are now each other’s closest support. 

My sister Beth tells how our father’s death was the catalyst which finally motivated her to act on her dreams of teaching overseas, revealing to her how short life really is. 

And my sister Julie now tells how the injuries she suffered when her car was rear-ended by a semi cleared the ground this past summer to bear unexpected fruit. As her whole family slowed down to care for her, they experienced a time-out from their normally hectic lives in which intimate, quality time deepened their love for each other. 

You, too, have a story of how God brought a new shoot from a barren stump in your life. I challenge you to remember this story. Name the heartbreak even as you name its unexpected fruit. 

And let us, God’s people in the church, hold fast to hope even in the landscapes of heartbreak and despair. Let us listen, there, for God’s song of grace, still and always singing new life from the places of death, a love song, start to finish, which never ends. Amen.   

Benediction: The following poem comes from one of the darkest periods of recent history. It was written by anonymous prisoner at Ravensbruck, found beside the body of a dead child.

O Lord, remember not only the men and women

of good will, but also those of ill will. 

But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us;

Remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to

This suffering–our comradeship

Our loyalty, our humility, our courage, 

Our generosity, the greatness of heart 

Which has grown out of all this, and when

They come to judgment, let all the fruits

which we have borne be their forgiveness.


[i] Beth Moore, Chasing Vines, p. 62.

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