St Barnabas 15th November 2009
His friends laughed when they heard of his plan. No-one had grown anything on that hillside for years. Yes, they agreed, the soil was good and it might just be about be possible to plant something there. At least if you ignored the fact there were huge rocks all over the place and the ground sloped at an impossible angle. But no-one in their right mind would really choose to farm there, would they? There were surely far better patches of ground elsewhere, plots that required far less work, far less cultivation than this steep and stony hillside.
The man heard all their arguments and he just smiled. The next day he started work on his hillside. For many months he prepared the ground, moving one large stone out of the way at a time. There was no doubt it was hard back-breaking work, and at times he had to be careful to keep his footing. But little by little the ground was cleared, and the soil prepared. And little by little from this impossible piece of land the outline of a vineyard began to emerge. Not that the man rushed at his work, or took undue risks to achieve his goal. He waited until the season was just right to plant his vines, and they just weren’t any old vines bought from the nearest market. No, these were the finest vines in the area guaranteed to produce only the very best wine. And with love and care he established them in the soil, and waited for them to grow.
Not that the man was idle as he looked for the first harvest. He knew that others might be envious of his wonderful vineyard, that they might want to steal his crops, or damage them. So he built a hedge and a wall around his vineyard, and in the middle he carefully, painstakingly built a watchtower so he could keep an eye on what was going on around him. And out of the rocks he carved a winepress so he could crush the grapes and gather his harvest of wonderful sweet wine that he could sell to others.
And as he watched and waited, so his friends would call up to him, “Is the harvest ready?” And he would smile and reply, “Not yet, my friends. Not yet”. And the friends would go away happy in the knowledge that in spite of their initial doubts one day soon this man would soon be sharing the fruits of his labour with them.
And that really should have been the end of the story. But for some unexplained reason the grapes failed to ripen. They stayed on the vine small, hard and sour, until they began to rot. It was not that the soil was bad. It was not that the vines came from the wrong stock. It was certainly not that the man had neglected his vineyard. It was just that when it came to the harvest there was only bad fruit, fruit that was fit only to be thrown away and trampled into the ground.
That’s why there isn’t a vineyard on the hill any more. If you go there today, you will find only brambles and thorns. It is a dry, desolate place, and the watchtower is a ruin. Some say the man is working elsewhere producing a harvest on a different farm. But his friends still remember him and often talk of his love and care and devotion to his vines. A person remarkable for his hard-work and dedication who didn’t get the crop he deserved.
I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard. Truly, there are few passages in the Old Testament which express more eloquently the relationship between God and His people than this reading we just heard from the book of Isaiah. It is a passage which gives us an unparalleled insight into the depths of God’s love for His children, and the experience of that love ignored, despised, rejected. And unlike many places in this prophecy which are hard to understand or difficult to apply, this is one that takes us even today right into the Father heart of God, and speaks directly to us on a profound, emotional level.
But before we look at what this passage might say to us, let’s do what we always need to when we look at Old Testament prophecy, which is to consider what it might have meant to its first hearers. And to that we need to ask ourselves: who were the people that Isaiah were addressing?
The short answer is that they were the people of Israel, or more specifically the people in the south of the country, of the tribe of Judah. Now we often take it for granted that is was this nation whom God chose and claimed for His own, but the more you look into their history, the more amazing it becomes that the Lord decided to settle upon them. After all, go back into the book of Exodus and you will find Israel as a nation starts out as a group of runaway slaves found wandering in the Arabian peninsula. They had no real wealth of their own. They weren’t one of the great trading superpowers of the day. They owned no land, and they had no king. Most of their time was spent going from one place to another to find enough water to drink and enough food to eat. They were a weak, disparate group of people – and yet in spite of the fact they had nothing going for them they had in God’s eyes, as Exodus 19:6 reports, the potential to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
And surely the history of Israel is nothing other than the illustration of the point Paul makes in 1 Corinthians that God loves to use the weak, the lowly, and the foolish things of this world. God, you see, does not view people as others see them. Just like the farmer who looks at a rough, stony hillside and sees a vineyard, so our God is one who so often sees possibilities where others see none. You do not have to be rich, to be wealthy, to be influential to be included in the plans and purposes of God. In fact the reverse is almost exactly the case. I suggest there is a lesson here for us in learning to see people as God sees them, and to ask him to show us the potential that otherwise, by using the standards of the world, we might all too easily miss.
Of course it was one thing to settle on this bunch of runaway slaves as a chosen people, it was another to turn them into a fully-functioning nation with a place and identity of their own. And so if you move on from the book of Exodus through to the books of Joshua and Judges and Samuel, you read how the people of Israel enter into the land of Canaan which they then conquer and divide into clearly defined tribal areas. But God did not simply plant them in a physical sense. He reminded them of the covenants he had made with their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He gave them the law at Mount Sinai. He raised up prophets who reminded the rulers and leaders of their obligations before the Lord.
Because that’s the way God always plants and establishes His people, through the giving of His word. Now in our gospel reading from John 15 we have those famous words about Jesus being the vine and us being the branches. It is a passage which is deservedly well-loved and which clearly reminds us of the need to remain – or as the older versions would have it – abide in Him, not just individually, but collectively and together, as a church, as the people of God. But what perhaps is sometimes missed is how exactly we are to remain in Him and He in us. Listen again to verse 7: If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. There’s that connection again, between belonging to the Lord, and responding to His word. The two go together. It’s not, as people sometimes say, there are word-based Christians on the one hand, and Spirit-filled Christians on the other. When we ask Jesus to remain in us, then He comes and lives in us by His Spirit. But what the Spirit does is write the word of God on our hearts, and directs and leads the desires of our hearts in accordance with the word God has given us. That’s why if we too want to be rooted and established in the Christian faith, we also need to be rooted and established in the word of God. It just such an important part of our daily walk with Him.
So the history of Israel is about God seeing the possibilities in a most unlikely group of people and planting them not only physically in a land, but also in a spiritual sense by his word. But of course it was no easy thing to remain a small, independent nation. Read through the books of Joshua through to Kings and you will see that time after time how Israel came under attack from foreign nations intent on absorbing them into their empires. But somehow Israel survived. Why? Because the Lord was with them all the way, just like the farmer in his watchtower watching over and protecting his vines. You see, the love of God is not simply a theoretical idea, or nice warm feeling we sometimes experience when we pray and worship. It is at its most practical level the way God draws alongside us and acts to watch over us, to keep safe, to ensure our enemies do not triumph over us. Time after time in these books we read of the people of God crying out for help, and time after time God responds, not because of their own goodness, but quite simply because He loves them. And so He protects them, delivers them and, in the words of the psalmist, sets their feet upon the rock. His actions all reflect the very essence of God which is to guard and care for His people.
And that really should have been the end of the story. But as this song from Isaiah tells us something went fundamentally wrong in the relationship between God and His people. And whose fault was that? Was it that the Lord couldn’t in the end save His chosen ones? Was it that His word was somehow inadequate to establish them in their relationship with Him? No, as Isaiah makes clear in verse 4, there really was nothing more than God could have done. But as the prophet goes on to say in verse 7: The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Because justice and righteousness are always the fruit that God looks for in His people. Not favouring the rich, or the people we happen to like. Not increasing wealth at the expense of others. Not considering ourselves better than others. Not twisting the truth for our ends, and calling what is evil good. All these and more are the woes that we find in the rest of this chapter and all of them provoke the Lord’s anger. For if we are the people chosen by God then our calling very simply is to reflect the character of God. Out in the workplace, when at a party (and you should read what Isaiah says about those who stay up late in verse 11), in the privacy of our own home. You see, the mistake the people of Israel made – and it’s one we still tend to make today – is that they confined the worship of the Lord to the temple. And yes, the temple was a noisy vibrant place with lots of busyness and any number of services. But the worship there offended the Lord, for the very simple reason it failed to have any impact at all on the everyday business of the worshippers. They had a part-time religion which most of the time stayed under wraps and they were blind to the fact it is impossible to be the part-time people of God.
I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard. I told you that this piece of Scripture went fairly straight to the heart, didn’t I? I have already touched at several points how it might apply to us, but I’d like to finish by asking four direct questions of us as the people of God in this time at this place.
First of all, do we see the possibilities that God gives us? I guess as a church we tend more to look at the stones, the very real practicalities and difficulties which indicate that this plan might not work, or this new way of doing things isn’t the right road to go down. I think one of the greatest challenges any church faces is to keep a vision fresh and alive, to allow God to show us what is possible, and to trust Him to provide for the realisation for that vision.
Secondly, how rooted and planted are we in the word of God? Not just on an individual level – although all of us should have some habit of reading the Bible regularly – but when we come together socially, in our meetings, in our conversations. After all, the problem with Israel wasn’t that they were didn’t know God’s word. It was that in practice they didn’t apply it to every part of their lives.
Thirdly, what story do we have of the way the Lord has protected and cared for us? As a church it is important we can see how the Lord has led us and directed us. Because knowing who we are, and how the Lord has led and guided us, gives us confidence to face the future and the courage to step out in faith, on the basis that Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever. We need to learn what the Bible understands by the term “remembering” – not simply looking back and thinking how good things were then, but realising the power of past events to shape and mould the present, and celebrating the continuing presence of God with us.
And fourthly, is there any sense at all in which we are simply the part-time people of God? Of course we all lead busy lives and most of the week we are not physically present with each other. But how strong are our networks of support, of care, of prayer? Not simply that we remember those who have particular needs, or respond to urgent requests – although both are important – but that we are aware of the situation others face on a daily level, the challenges and pressures of work, the challenges and pressures of having no work, the situations at home which are ongoing and can’t be easily resolved. How can we help each other to live out that life of justice and righteousness which the Lord requires?
Now I’m not going to give any answers to these questions. I think that they are ones we all need to consider carefully, prayerfully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the word of God. So as we close, let’s listen again to how Jesus uses the same image of the vine in John 15 and let’s reflect what it means for us to remain in Him and to bear fruit, fruit that will last.
Read John 15:5-8 again …