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A Case of Sour Grapes

Isaiah 5:1-7 (Ps 80)

Delivered by Rev. Elisabeth Jones


“Cynical and negative”

“Devoid of Gospel”

These are quotations from lectionary resources for this week’s reading.

Not particularly inspiring is it?

Still, given that I’d committed myself to preach the OT Prophet texts this month, I guess we’ll have to try and make something of this text.

One creative preacher (perhaps seeking to tone down the cynicism and the chill) has even offered his own (Midwestern Country-Western tearjerker) take on the Song of the Vineyard 

– a versification of it which fits to the tune of Home on the Range ! (No kidding!).

It is a song, at least it begins as a Song.

 – a love song, sung by a prophet about God – whom he knows, and loves deeply.

“I’ll sing of my Beloved One and the vineyard that he built.”

Sounds okay so far.

This transports me immediately to one of my favourite parts of the world,
the Rhine valley, with its hillsides covered with neat rows of lush vines,
and sweet juicy wine cheaper than bottled water.

Sing on, Prophet!

He sings of that obsessive care of someone who is passionate
about his work, settling for nothing less than the best –
the finest soil, the choicest, strongest vines,
fences to protect them from scavengers animal and human.

A watchtower, no less,
And a stone wine-press, carved deep into the hillside,
Built to last centuries.

The prophet takes a tiny breath, getting ready for the next verse.

The tune, the form, is hinting that like every good ballad,
there’s going to be some trouble, some crisis,
some heartbreak,
which after a few verses and a few repeats of the chorus,
will resolve with the Lover of the Vineyard gathering a vintage harvest….

Before the prophet can begin again,
a strident, anguished voice interrupts,
takes the tune to a whole new level of minor key and dissonance!

“Nobody knows the trouble I see!”

We listen, stunned as this new voice
wails, laments with no filters:
“I did everything I could! I spared NOTHING,
to make this vineyard beautiful, and fruitful.

But did I get the harvest I hoped for?

Were there choice syrah grapes bursting beneath their vines?

Oh no…. all I get is a few shriveled, rotting sour grapes!”

The next verse is worse.

This Vineyard owner is so distraught, overwrought,
that he knocks down the fences and walls,
lets the foxes and the ravens in,
the stakes rot and tumble the vines to the ground.

The weeds grow up and brambles choke the vines.
And then, mid-song,

He stops singing, and walks away!

The prophet is left with the band still playing,
waiting for the next verse.

Do we get the ‘happy ever after’ verse?

Oh no.

Instead we get.
”Erm, just to be clear.

That was God.
He’s really ticked off.
He really has gone.
That’s it.”

“Chilling” is an understatement.

Two weeks ago, we are peering gratefully through Hosea’s window into the heart of a God whose love is so Mother-fierce and strong that she will not give up on her wayward child, no matter what.

And now, Isaiah comes along with this so-called Song and smashes that window,
showing instead what looks for all the world like a capricious, moody, obsessive then dismissive Give-up-and-Go-home God

There is a strong temptation, lamentably rampant in the life of the Churches of the 21st century,  to avoid the ‘chilling’ texts of Scripture, those filled with violence, genocide, judgment, or those texts which portray God in a less than “Holy, Loving” light – like this one.

We have tended instead to stick only to those passages which speak of humans  as God’s beloved, chosen, blessed and saved, and to those passages which portray God as loving, trustworthy, capable of saving us in the worst of circumstances, and willing to overlook the worst of human misbehaviour.

But to do that would be to render Scripture useless.

This Bible has always been, and still can be a powerful resource
for those who seek to make sense of life in all its cruel fullness,
to make sense of God’s action – or absence  – in the face of failure, of chaos, of unfairness.

It can do this because, within the covers of this Book, are many different voices
all prepared in their own way to tackle head on these life-death, faith or despair questions.

They speak of life in the cracks, some take on the cruel reality of endings, some wrestle with the cruel twists of creation’s impact on human life, or human impact upon creation,
some sing of a fidelity of Presence in the most desperate of circumstances,
while yet others rage, lament and cry out for an absent God to show up, and save or at least to abide in the chaos.

If we let it, this Book is a mirror of the messiness of our own experience of living,
If we let it, we will not only follow this Book along paths of joy in God’s love,
we will also allow it to take us places where the questions are really hard,
where the truths are really inconvenient, because in these places to can be found food for our journey, and the seeds of our own salvation.

This Chilling Song is one such place.

Singing to a community of relative security, to the ‘haves’ of Judah,
Isaiah’s song was dismissed as fear-mongering, unnecessarily negative.

Inconveniently judgmental, to be ignored.

We stopped at  chapter 5:7, but the Song, and its sister songs continued for 39 more chapters, until Judah’s once safe vineyards were indeed laid waste by Assyria,
and its people -those tiny soured grapes- were carted off in chains to Babylon.

If Isaiah resisted the temptation to change the tune and sing what they wanted to hear, he resisted.

He resisted because the God he knew and loved so deeply, wept. 

He needed to let the people know God weeps.

If Isaiah resisted the temptation to ignore God’s anguish,
so should we, at least for a morning.

In the final verse of the prophet’s Song
he sang:
God hoped for grapes dripping with justice, and instead found them to be dripping with blood.

God hoped for a harvest of righteousness and instead heard a cry of outrage.

In the original song, the words for Justice and bloodshed are identical but for one tiny letter.

The same is true for the words ‘righteousness’ and ‘cry of outrage’.

If you read them too quickly in the Hebrew, you can miss the distinction.

A Song of lament is a strange time to employ word puns, but I think there is a profound point here. 

“Justice” and “Righteousness” are words we hear and use often. We believe we know what they mean. We have built up systems which foster forms of justice, and systems which manage and monitor they way we live together as a human society.  But what we mean and what God means by these terms are so close and yet so far apart.

One letter changes and there’s a whole world of difference between them.

“Justice” to God means the protection of the poor, homeless and weak, a joyful sharing of the rich abundance of God’s providence for all, with all.

God’s anguish arises because God sees in the way we run our societies, a “system of justice” which punishes poverty, protects the strong, and shelters the wealth of the few at the expense – the bloodshed – of the many.

Tzedekah – Rightousness to God means “living in right relationship with the Creator, creation and one another.”  Somehow, in this globalized world where we have thankfully created “United Nations” and nuclear arms limitation treaties,  we have also by our transnational structures, contributed to melting and calving ice-caps, deforestation, oil production pollution in land, air and sea, and persistent outbreaks of war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing and vast migrations of displaced people, child malnutrition of epidemic and fatal proportions. If we look at this through God’s eyes, we too would weep.

The prophet’s task is among other things, to show us ourselves and our world as God sees them.

Even when what God sees causes God anguish.

This Isaiah has done in this very ‘chilling’ Song.

This song didn’t win a Grammy.

It was, and still is, too hard to hear.

In too many places today it won’t even be read.

But if we don’t, listen, if we don’t hear, if we don’t see as God sees,
what then?

 I think we need to pray.
Looking into the face of anguish is too hard for us,
O God.
We want to turn away, find better
more hopeful things to ponder.
We want you to show us a happy ending.
Show us instead how to be a fruitful vine,
cut away our distorted self-protective justice,
our misspelled self-righteousness,
teach us how in our own lives we can
live justly, seek the well-being of our fellow creatures,
allow us weep with you when others are hurt,
so that we can also rejoice with you when there is healing.


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