The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r060.htm
s060o02 3/10/93 Sunday 27
"Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard ..." Isaiah 5.1
In this one short statement the prophet says so many things, it is well worth unpacking them all. By the time I have finished, I'm not sure I have in fact succeeded.
The end of the song tells us that the vineyard "is the house of Israel and the people of Judah", and therefore the personage who has done all this work of establishment is God alone. Immediately we are given a graphic picture of the actions of God in the world. God digs, clears, plants, builds, even to hewing out a wine vat. There is not much here like the old Sunday School picture of God, the old man with the beard, sitting up in heaven, doing nothing except getting pins and needles in his right hand because Jesus is sitting on it. No, here is a picture of God active at the grass roots level of society, the person who gets things done.
Recently I began reading a book about the Holy Trinity, and one of the first statements made in this book is that Christianity has often been reduced to the faith expressed in a set of written propositions, doctrines and articles of belief, which have to be adhered to. This author's beginning point is that God is one who acts, and the words of scripture and the creeds only witness to that action. Those who propose a literal inerrancy of scripture are in danger of reducing God into someone who first and foremost says things - rather than acts.
The prophet says more than just God is one who acts: he proclaims that God is his beloved. At the various stages of his life, he, the prophet, had himself witness this loving kindness of God, towards him personally. The song immediately goes on to speak of God's love for "the house of Israel and the people of Judah", so Isaiah does not in the least think God's love is restricted to himself alone. God's love is firstly personal, intimate and warm; then that intimate and warm love spreads to corporate Israel and Judah. Even then it is meant to spread, through the witness of Israel, to the whole of humanity.
The prophet also makes a powerful statement about his own relationship to Israel and Judah. "Let me sing ... my love song concerning his vineyard". Isaiah reflects the same love for the vineyard as does God himself. Right at the beginning of his song comes this statement that the love song is mine. The song is not sung out of malice or for devious purpose. The love the prophet has for his own neighbours and authorities is complete and genuine.
How frequently do we preface our remarks with such a statement? How frequently do I preface my remarks with such a statement? I am reminded of the incident Jesus had with the rich young ruler who went away sad because he felt unable to do all that Jesus seemed to be asking of him. It is Mark, alone of the gospel writers, who noticed the look Jesus gave the man, commenting that Jesus "loved him" (Mark 10.21) Perhaps the man himself didn't see the way Jesus looked as Jesus tried to communicate that love to him. Or perhaps he did - perhaps it was Mark himself who was the rich young man. Perhaps it was precisely that look that made him come back later after initially leaving sad.
Recently I had an e-mail and in part it said: The word "hello" means: H = How are you? E = Everything all right? L =Like to hear from you. L = Love to see you soon. O = Oh and don't forget to write. So hello ...! This encourages us to take the initiative, to express our love for people to begin with. This is one of the reasons I now have the sharing of the peace right at the beginning of the service.
The prophet Isaiah does this, he shows he loves his country enough to compose a love song for it. It was not composed to win a National Anthem competition, for while one commentator states that it "is one of the poetic masterpieces of the Old Testament" (Otto Kaiser "Isaiah 1-12" p90) the following verses were not likely to make any of his fellow citizens hold him in great endearment. No, it was composed out of pure love, but love that was not soppy or blind. It was a love which looked directly at the nation, saw all of the blessings it had received, and yet how miserably it had failed to appreciate all that had been done for her, and how the people of the land continued to be motivated by self interest and greed.
But it is also a love song with a difference, but here I have to defer to those specialists in the field of poetry. The construction of the love-song is, apparently, not the normal lilting, joyous tones. This has the construction, right from the beginning, of a lament. As my previously quoted commentator puts it: "Only from the sound of the tragic, limping rhythm derived from the funeral dirge can he recognise that the song is not being sung here in jest, but in earnest."
Much of the song is devoted to the impending doom the Isaiah sees about to fall on God's chosen and beloved people. No exact dating of the actual composition of the book is possible. Isaiah's ministry stretched from about 770 to 715 BC, and this includes the fall of Israel and the scattering of the "lost" 10 tribes of Israel. So Isaiah's words can as easily be seen either as an insight into the effect of the political movements that were about to befall Israel, or an explanation of what had already happened. I am saying that the important thing is not whether this was a prediction for the future or not - in the prophet Isaiah's eyes the important thing is not that disaster will or has befallen the nation - but why it happened.
There can be no doubt whatsoever about Isaiah's opinion about that. For all God's loving building up of his people, the result has been sour grapes, bloodshed and a cry. "What more was there to do for my vineyard ..." laments God himself. Surely this is one of the basis of the "Reproaches" on Good Friday: "My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!"
These words surely bid us ever bear in mind all the things that God has done for us. It is worth while considering all the blessings God has given to us. We do well to ask ourselves: "What more could God do for us that he has not already done?" What more could God do for us personally than he has already done in the Cross and resurrection? What more could God do for us corporately than he has already done, in this country? What more could God do for us corporately than he has already done, in this community? I was chatting to someone a while back, who had recently returned from overseas. Their comment: we don't know how lucky we are here in South Australia!
And I would point out that all that God had done for Israel, and all that God has done for us, personally and as a community - is not so that everyone will acknowledge God or come to Church. God pours his blessing on humanity and what is asked in return - not worship of God but justice for other people - care for the orphan, the widow and the alien. God's anger is not because people do not acknowledge God or give enough in tithes, but because of the bloodshed and the resultant cry of others.
The story of the Cross of Jesus is not a "one-off" event, and everyone lived happily ever after - and we are now in paradise. The dynamics which motivated the people in the time of Isaiah were no different from the dynamics which motivated the people in the time of Jesus, and they are identical to the dynamics which motivate people still. God pours blessings on us and bids us share them with others. The human response is often to keep them to ourselves.
Is there any need for fear and anxiety about our relationship with God? None what so ever. Certainly we still have a task to perform - a love to proclaim - not towards God but towards others.
And our primary task is not to tell other people how much God loves them - so that they acknowledge God. Our primary task is to love people ourselves so that bloodshed and the resultant cry are experienced no more.
Isaiah reassures us that God loves the vineyard and God loves the prophet. The prophet's task is to love in deeds, not just words, God's vineyard - just as much as God does. The prophet's task is the Church's task. While we might have legitimate differences of opinion about the nuts and bolts of it, may we never deviate from the aim of being loving towards all.
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