August 18 Sermon: Attitude Adjustment

Scholars call Isaiah 5:1–7 “The Song of the Vineyard,” but that begs the question, “Just what sort of song is it?” I appreciate the video interpretation we just saw, how the spare use of piano chords and plaintive plucking of a guitar string gives way to a more electronic and industrial sound, but given the themes of hard work, betrayal, revenge, and alcohol in the words, I’m thinking that “The Song of the Vineyard” was topping the country charts in eighth-century Judah. Yes it’s a vineyard he’s building rather than a still, and we’re talking wine rather than beer or bourbon, but that just means that the “The Song of the Vineyard,” was the “Old Town Road” of its day; the song has a foot in more than one genre, but one is definitely country.

Picture this: a young Isaiah in a watering hole on the road running down from Jerusalem. It’s late afternoon. The city’s quarrymen and construction workers are quenching their thirst; pilgrims to the temple are making one last pit stop before they arrive at the Holy City; merchants are resting their camels and mules before they head out to Arabia or Egypt or wherever. “Gonna sing a little song about a man I know and his lovely lady,” he said, tuning up his, well, not his guitar, his lyre, I suppose. Actually what he said was “Let me sing for my beloved/my love song concerning his vineyard,” but vines and vineyards were metaphors for the female sex in the Hebrew language. “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house,” said another Israelite singer-songwriter; we know that hit as Psalm 128.

Isaiah’s buddy is a hard-working jack of all trades. He dug out the stones that littered the hilltop, planted grape vines in the worked-over soil, and not just any vines, but a variety perfectly suited to the soil, the climate, and even the slope of the hill and how it caught the sun. He built a stone wall around the vineyard and anchored it with a watchtower on the corner, to protect the vineyard from both two-legged and four-legged predators, and he dug a wine vat for pressing out every last purple-colored drop the grapes would yield. He’s Brooks and Dunn’s Hard Workin’ Man, and it’s all for that little filly of his, the love of his life.

But since this is a country song, you know things are going to go wrong, and they do. Our man planted the industry standard in grape vine cultivars, but the wine he pressed out and bottled tasted like vinegar. This echoes the prophet Hosea’s dilemma which we encountered a few weeks ago. The vine (his lady) has run wild, and she hasn’t yielded what he planted. Hard workin’ man done in by a woman. The construction workers and caravan drivers and even the pious pilgrims looked over at Isaiah and gave him a world-weary nod.

Now there’s a pronoun change in verse three, and we can imagine a key change too. “Fellows, you be the judge between me and my lady. What more could I have done? Why’d my vineyard yield vinegar instead of the Bordeaux I planted?” And the customers in the honky-tonk chuckle because now they know he isn’t singing about “his friend;” he’s singing about himself. But they’re paying attention because since this is a country music song they know what’s coming next: revenge. “I tell you what I’m gonna do, boys. I’m gonna rip out the hedge, and take a sledgehammer to the wall, and I ain’t even gonna hoe the rows. The boars can run wild for all I care. That’ll learn her.”

Now I don’t know that it really makes sense to tear down the homestead because of some domestic discord, but I don’t know if Carrie Underwood was exactly in her right mind when she “dug (her) key into the side of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive… Took a Louisville slugger to both headlights,” but hey—“Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.” We go to church to figure out what we ought to do when we’ve been done wrong, but we listen to country music to give voice to what we’d like to do about betrayal.

Back in the honky-tonk on the Jerusalem highway the guys are on their feet clapping and hooting and hollering, but then Isaiah brings Happy Hour to a screeching halt, because, as it turns out, he ain’t singing about his buddy; he ain’t singing about his own broken heart; he ain’t even singing about some pitiful farmer’s failed crop. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Jerusalem are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” Oh. This isn’t Brooks and Dunn, or Carrie Underwood. Dixie Chicks, maybe? Maybe this isn’t even country. This is social criticism, and that sounds more like something you’d hear at Woodstock. (That’s a shout-out for you baby boomers feeling nostalgic this weekend).

Regardless of the genre, he’s got talent. You can appreciate his way with words more in the Hebrew than in any English translation. Isaiah sings “God expected mishpat (that’s Hebrew for justice), but saw mishpach (bloodshed), tzedekah (the Hebrew word for righteousness) but heard tzeakah (a cry). Something that comes close might be, “The Lord hoped for justice but got injustice; the Lord looked for equity but found iniquity.”

One biblical scholar has observed that Isaiah doesn’t bother defining the words “justice” and “righteousness” in his song. He must assume his audience knew what he was singing about. But do we? In the Old Testament, justice means punishing wrongdoing, but it also means giving each person their due in accordance with the truth. Righteousness means godly living, and it also meeting one’s obligations to others, “doing right by.” So when you read further along in Isaiah 5 you discover concerns that should be familiar to us now as we have made our way through the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah decries a culture of conspicuous consumption in Judah. He blasts what he sees as a feverish series of mergers and acquisitions that have driven the poor off their land. He laments the casual, even contemptuous way his countrymen have with the truth. This is the bitter fruit yielded up by that the vine God planted on Canaan’s hillsides. So God the frustrated vintner, God the jilted lover will withdraw God’s favor and protection from Judah and Jerusalem. The skies will withhold their rain, and the enemy will pour over the border. I know Isaiah’s song must sound like a broken record to you by now, but God keeps asking the prophets to play it again because doing justice and righteousness is the fundamental obligation for God’s covenant partners. The God who creates prosperity and provides security expects us to respond by doing right by our neighbors, by giving them what is due them as frail creatures of flesh and blood animated by God’s life-giving Spirit.

So in light of Isaiah’s crossover hit “The Song of the Vineyard,” I want to ask you to do two things this week. First, sit and reflect on your own relationship with God in light of Isaiah’s evocative imagery. Is there bitterness in you, some unforgiven sin or old resentment you’re holding onto? Is there something sour, something vinegary, in your soul that is tainting the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that God desires your soul to yield? Remember that God has already given you everything you need to bear good fruit. God feeds you with the Word and with the Sacraments; God has planted you in this community, where there are wise and faithful Christians who will pray for you and give you good advice if you ask for it. God has given you the gift of faith, which turns every evil we endure and every danger we face to our benefit at the last. Whatever is bitter and sour in your soul, ask God to help you let it go, and through prayer and worship, service and gratitude, put down deeper roots in God’s generous grace.

Second, then as now, God’s eyes and ears are full of the images of bloodshed and the cries of grief. El Paso, Dayton, and the deaths by ones and twos that lead off the evening news seven days a week. Like Judah of old, we live in a society that it both pious and violent. Out of the 102 countries with above average GDP, the United States is the only one that exhibits above average rates of daily prayer.[1] And yet our murder rate is seven times higher than other high income countries.[2] How is that possible? What do praying people owe their neighbors? Sit with that question, for it is an urgent question. The Almighty will not long suffer such a contradiction in beliefs and practices. The Good News is that, for us, the last verse of Isaiah’s song has yet to be written. Maybe the last verse will tell a tale of a people’s return to justice and righteousness, and God’s delight in a people planted to bear good fruit.

[1] Dalia Fahmy, “Americans are far more religious than adults in other wealthy nations,” Pew Research Center, July 31, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/31/americans-are-far-more-religious-than-adults-in-other-wealthy-nations/ (accessed August 17, 2019).

[2] E. Grinshteyn and D. Hemenway, “Violent Death Rates: The US Compared with Other High Income OECD Countries, 2010,” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26551975 (accessed August 17, 2019).

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