“The Sour Song of the Vineyard”Dr. Jeffrey “Chad” Fetzer Isaiah 5: 1-7 Year C – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – (Proper 15)
During the height of their popularity in 1981, the British rock band “The Police” released a single from their album “Ghost in the Machine” entitled “Invisible Sun.” In the song’s lyrics the lead singer Sting contemplated on how people living in cruel, war-torn and impoverished areas of the world found the will to go on living. The haunting beauty of the song made it immensely popular at the time.
But in the band’s home country of England, the BBC banned its play both on radio and television. It was banned because the music video for the song contained images taken from the conflict in English-controlled Northern Ireland. Entwined in the fabric of the song was the clear message that things in the kingdom weren’t right. Change needed to be made, which for some made the song too sour, too uncomfortable for listening.
None of us like listening to sour songs. Have you ever had an album (is that what we still call them) where you’ve loved all the songs . . . except for that one – that one song which, for whatever reason just didn’t “click” with you? Would you still listen to it? Back in the 80’s it was difficult to skip a song on an album. It took time, and only the most skilled masters could place the record-player needle at the exact spot where the next where the next song would begin. It was less of a hassle just to listen to every track. Not so any longer! Now it is a fast and easy process to skip the songs we don’t enjoy. In fact, if we don’t like a song, most likely we don’t download it at all.
That approach won’t work with the Bible, though often we wish it would. It is not healthy or authentic to simply skip the tracks of scripture where the message is difficult to hear – the message that tell us something is wrong – that judgment is coming. The song of Isaiah in chapter 5 is one of those tracks for us, one we would much rather skip than embrace. Nevertheless, it is the sour song that we must hear for our own health and authenticity, both as individual believers and as church.
“Come hear a song I will sing for a dear friend about his vineyard,” was the lure with which the prophet enticed his audience’s attention. Isaiah’s unassuming listeners must have been immediately intrigued. “Who is he talking about? Is this a love song?” they might have asked as the pulled closer to hear more. Like the sour candy of today, Isaiah introduced a deceptive sweetness to mask the sour message to follow.
And with the audience engaged Isaiah sang a three-verse song concerning a planter and his vineyard. The first verse we can call the verse of effort and anticipation. One cannot help but be impressed with just how much effort the planter has applied to ensure a successful harvest.
When I was young my grandparents took us on a tour of a vineyard in western Arkansas. Even then, as we walked down row after row of these staked, cleaned and ordered vines that stretched for acres and acres, I was struck by just how much work must have been involved in growing grapes.
Isaiah’s grape planter had done no less. He strained his back in the prep-work of digging and clearing. He must have devoted considerable time to learning the best varieties of grapes to plant. He protected the vineyard by installing hedges and a watchtower so that no one could pilfer or destroy what he had established. He even put in a wine press, in anticipation of a plentiful harvest. Surely, with all the effort the planter had invested, there was no way this endeavor will fail! The effort had vested the planter personally in the endeavor.
From effort and anticipation, Isaiah’s next verse suddenly spoke of surprising disappointment. When the grapes began to appear the planter ran to the vineyard to see the first fruits of his effort. The owner expected to discover big, juicy, mouth-watering grapes. But in an unexpected twist, the vines were full of “bad fruit”, wild grapes which were too small and too sour for winemaking – not fit for consumption.
From the farming side of my family I’ve heard stories of entire crops lost to drought, hail, flood, and pestilence. My parents once had a peach tree full of ripe fruit that on the night before picking was eaten clean by a group of raccoons! But I’ve never heard of crops lost by not producing what they were designed to produce.
Can you imagine the disappointment and bewilderment of the vine grower? This was the central premise of the entire song. What in the world happened? Isaiah asked his hearers the same question, “What did the planter do wrong? What more could he have done?” He could have achieved the same harvest with no effort! The people, just as perplexed, would have logically agreed that the grower was faultless in this incident and that the blame lay with the vines and their inability to produce what was meant to be produced.
With the disappointing results of the harvest still unexplained, Isaiah sang one final verse – a verse of decision and deconstruction. It is here where the scene intensifies. Since there seemed to be nothing further the planter could do to help these vines produce the good fruit that was intended, the planter made a sobering decision, a judgment to put no more effort into maintaining the vineyard.
Notice that the planter doesn’t destroy the vineyard, but everything protecting the vineyard from goats and cattle (and perhaps groups of voracious peach-eating raccoons) will be torn down. The scavengers will have free run of the property. Nothing will be pruned. Nothing will be planted. The vineyard will go back to the untamed land it once was. And in a final stroke of withdrawal, the grower will command no clouds to rain on the parcel – making it in the end appear not unlike my front yard during the drought of 2011, brown and dry.
And again, for Isaiah’s audience, this would all have seemed logical –the correct course of action. They would have agreed with the planter, “Except for that business of stopping the rains. For who could stop the rain except . . . .”
And it was at precisely that moment of agreement, where Isaiah sprung the trap and sang the final sour coda of his song. “God has an indictment against you! You are the vines in God’s vineyard! When God came to look for good fruit, to examine your lives for right relating (justice) and right living (righteousness) what did God find? Violence, Oppression, Pain and Suffering!”
And as the planter God had made the decision, to deconstruct the care and security of the nation as it had been. The pieces had already been put into motion. History would play out now for Judah in a way where God was more distant. Things would never be the same again.
It was a chilling message of judgment for God’s people of the time. But what are we to do with Isaiah’s sour song? Do we simply skip it – dismiss it as a message for a different people and a different time with no application to a people covered by grace? It would seem the song of bearing fruit receives plenty of play in the New Testament as well. Luke 13: 6-9 is an interesting little ditty about a fig tree in trouble because in three years it had produced no fruit? We can’t dismiss this judgment as someone else’s song.
So how should gospel people approach Isaiah’s sour song of the vineyard? Isaiah’s song is a reminder to us. It reminds us that God has expectations of those who claim to be followers. In our religious culture we have allowed a dangerous line of thinking to go unchallenged which holds that when we decide to follow Jesus we are finished – salvation is the ending.
While it is true that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation, God’s expectation is that we live life caring about the things God cares about. God expects that we will produce fruitful lives in line with God’s character and purpose. God anticipates that we will be blessings of grace and peace and love to the world and live in this world as God’s people. That is not God’s wistful hope for us, it is expectation.
Yet in that expectation there is encouragement. We are not left alone to fulfill this expectation ourselves. God puts effort into our lives. God is at work in you! Like the training facility of an elite athletic team God provides to us all that we need in order to produce the desired fruit. The greatest work God provides us in this regard is the presence of Jesus, God with us. In fellowship with Jesus, God provides us all we need to live out our fruitful calling. As Jesus said himself in John’s gospel, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15: 5)
But John’s gospel also reminds us, as did Isaiah’s song, that a time will come when we will be held accountable for what our lives produced. I do not believe that this accountability is linked to our salvation, which came from the work of Jesus and not ourselves. But I do believe there will be a place where our lives will be examined, whatever that entails. And at that time our lives will either show fruit in keeping with God’s purpose and calling or they will not.
Judgment will not go away just because as Christians we want to talk more about grace than we do about judgment, or because our post-modern mindset frowns upon the idea that others will be judged. That is what makes the song so serious. The hopeful side of this however is that there is still time.
In Luke 13 when the land owner wanted to cut down the fig tree, the gardener asked for more time to tend and care for the tree so that it might begin produce the desired figs. Time is a gift. None of us have the same amount of time but we all have time.
We have time to reject apathy and open our eyes to see where God is at work.
We have time to defy fear and courageously risk for the sake of the gospel.
We have time to denounce anger and violence and become the peacemakers God intended.
We have time to cease investing only in our own life in order to generously invest in the lives of others.
We have time to begin abiding in Christ.
If you ask any chef, they will tell you that the taste of “sour” is necessary to appreciate the full flavor of many foods we eat. Sour balances our tastes. We cannot decide to simply ignore sour – it is there regardless. And though we may wish to plug our ears or listen to something else, we dare not ignore the sour songs of the scripture.
We need those difficult, sour passages of scripture.
They call us to examine parts of life we would prefer to leave undisturbed.
They are warnings, and as we’ve seen in our violent storm season this year, warnings don’t exist to scare people.
They exist to provide people time to get ready for what’s next.
And ultimately, Isaiah’s sour song and others like it; keep us focused on the sweet fruit that can only come from fellowship with Jesus.
About the Writer:
Dr. Jeffrey “Chad” Fetzer is Pastor of New Haven Church in Lawton, Oklahoma. A native of Shawnee, OK, Chad is a graduate of Furman University (B.A.), Southwestern Baptist Seminary (M.Div.), and Brite Divinity School (D.Min). Chad and his wife, Tammy, are the parents of two sons, Josh and Jonathan. He enjoys Oklahoma State University athletics, playing on the “wii” with Jonathan, traveling, food, and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Scripture and Music:
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
For All the Saints
O God of Every Nation
Faith of Our Fathers
Am I a Soldier of the Cross
God of Grace and God of Glory
I Have Decided
How Firm A Foundation
Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory
God of Grace and God of Glory
Ain-a That Good News (William Dawson)
Zion s Walls (Aaron Copland)
Shine Jesus Shine
He Endured the Cross (Carl H. Graun)
God of Grace and God of glory (Langston)
I Have Decided to Follow Jesus
Zion s Walls
I Surrender All