When the Harvest Fails

Nov 17th  |  The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming |  Isaiah 11:1-5

I have been watching Ken Burns’ history of country music.  (Most of you have finished with that, but I am working through the recorded series.)  I’m not that much of a country fan, though if you give me some Waylon and Willie, a bit of Loretta and Johnny, I won’t ask you to change the channel.  But I have enjoyed this history of country music, in no small part, because Ken Burns is one of the best storytellers alive today.


Country music is brutally honest.  “Three chords and the truth,” was the old formula for country songwriters. The music was a combination of the Saturday night honky-tonkin’ and Sunday morning repentance.  The songs were brutally honest and held back little when it came to human emotions.  Whether it was Hank Williams singing, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” or Eddie Arnold singing, “You Don’t Know Me,” or Loretta Lynn’s, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind,” these songs were about love, but often how love was not reciprocated or honored. 


Isaiah could have been a country singer - or at least, a country song-writer.  He has a story to tell and - according to the prophecy that bears his name - he puts it in the form of a love song.  “Let me sing for my beloved, my love-song concerning his vineyard.”  I don’t know if Isaiah really sang these words before us this morning.  But the lyrics and the subject matter are worthy of a tear-jerking country song.


The song is about a vineyard.  Now, right away, we can figure out that the use of “vineyard” is a way of speaking about God’s people.  In our psalm for the morning, we heard it. 


You have brought a vine out of Egypt;

     you cast out the nations and planted it.

You prepared the ground for it;

     it took root and filled the land.

The mountains were covered by its shadow

     and the towering cedar trees by its boughs.

You stretched out its tendrils to the sea

     and its branches to the river.   (Psalm 80:8-12)


Isaiah is speaking to the people of the southern kingdom - the people of Israel - and there’s no way they could miss the meaning of his words when he says, “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” (Isaiah 5:1b)  This is a song about the relationship between God and Israel.


What has God done for the people?  God has planted the people on good ground.  God prepared the ground, clearing it of stones, built a watchtower in the midst of the vineyard, and hewed out a wine vat to press the grapes.  God provided for the vines, nourishing them with good food and plenty of water.  God tended the vines to produce the maximum harvest.


But when the harvest came, the grapes were bitter, useless, wild grapes.  The harvest was a complete failure.  There was nothing to do but count the loss.  Give it three chords and you’ve got the beginnings of a country love song.


But, the story goes on.  The Vintner is not finished.  “Here’s what I am going to do,” says the Vinekeeper:


I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;

I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.

I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,

and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;

I will also command the clouds

that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts

is the house of Israel…   (Isaiah 5:5-7a)


The love God has given has not been returned.  The affection God has shown has been thrown back in the Divine face.  There will be a parting of the ways.  As Jerry Reed sang, “She got the goldmine and I got the shaft.”


How did it go so wrong?  What broke God’s heart?  What dashed God’s hopes and expectations? 


We can’t hear it with the power of the original.  There is a wordplay in Hebrew that would have packed more of a punch than it does in English.  In Hebrew, God looked for justice - mishpat - but found only bloodshed - mispeh.  God looked for righteousness - tsedekah - and heard only a cry - tsa’aqah.  The absence of the essential nature of God’s love - justice and righteousness - indicates, not only a failed harvest, but an evil that cannot be allowed.  Wrong-doing and malice are not God’s way.  So, the love song echoes Ray Charles and so many others:


You give your hand to me and then you say goodbye

I watch you walk away and in my heart I cry

To never never know the one who loves you so

‘Cause you don't know me.


God is all too often a God of unrequited love.  The love God shows is all too often not the love that is returned.  God has been kind and faithful and given to the people abundantly.  God’s giving is too often answered with bloodshed and injustice.


God’s expectations never saw realization.  Changing the genre, for just a moment, there is a song in the musical, The Fantastics, in which two fathers are singing about the challenges of parenthood.  Some of the words are:


Plant a radish.  Get a radish.  Never any doubt.

That’s why I love vegetables;

You know what you’re about!


Plant a turnip.  Get a turnip.  Maybe you’ll get two.

That’s why I love vegetables;

You know that they’ll come through!


They’re dependable!  They’re befriendable!

They’re the best pal a parent’s ever known!

While with children, it’s bewilderin’.

You don’t know until the seed is nearly grown

Just what you’ve sown.


God planted quality vines and got wild grapes.  God sowed justice and righteousness and harvested unethicality and malevolence. 


When God looks at us, what kind of harvest does God see?  Are we a rich harvest that reflects God’s love and constancy?  Are we the sweet harvest of well-tended vines?  Are we a reflection of what God has planted?  Think about that, won’t you?  How do we return God’s love for us?


Now, if we stopped the reading there, it would be a little unsettling.  Stop the reading there and the final word is judgment, destruction, and an angry God.  But, that’s not where the story ends.


Jump ahead in Isaiah’s prophecy and a new image is offered.  Here we will need a little imagination that moves beyond the words of the prophecy.  Imagine this.


The Vintner is so disappointed in the failed harvest that he cuts down all the vines.  Where there once was a vineyard there is now a collection of stumps - nothing more than the stumps of the vines.  A hilltop of stumps where a vineyard used to be. 


Then along comes the spring.  The Vintner is out looking at his vineyard and notices that from the stumps there are growing new shoots.  Where once there was nothing but destruction, now there is a greening - a growing.  Branches are growing up from the roots in the ground.  Where there was nothing, there is new life!


          A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,

               and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

          The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,

               the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with justice for the meek of the earth… 

(Isaiah 11:1-5)


We know this passage because we read it during Advent.  We will hear it again in just a few weeks. 


We imagine this passage as about the promised Messiah.  But what if this passage is also about the vines of the vineyard?  What if this passage is about you and me and the way in which we live in God’s vineyard?  What if this passage is about how you and I bring forth righteousness and justice and return God’s love with our own love for God and neighbor?  What if we are the ones who are to have


…the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord?

What if you and I have been given a second chance to

not judge by what our eyes see,

or decide by what our ears hear;

but with righteousness judge the poor,

and do justice for the meek of the earth?


We cannot allow ourselves to become a failed harvest.  We cannot ignore God’s goodness and kindness.  We cannot allow God’s love to go unrequited and unanswered.


Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;

behold and tend this vine;

preserve what your right hand has planted.

For now and evermore.  Amen.