The Vineyard Song: God’s Giving Becomes Our Giving

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16th Sunday after Pentecost
October 2, 2011
Isaiah 5:1-7
Matthew 21:33-46
Peder Stenslie

Our lessons today, particularly the Old Testament and Gospel lessons, are incredibly sad. They’re hard to read… and even harder to preach on.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells yet another parable about a vineyard. The parable starts out nicely, full of hopeful expectation; but then things go terribly wrong, ending with the tragic killing of the vineyard owner’s innocent son.

In telling this parable, Jesus draws directly from today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah… another terribly sad passage.

The prophet Isaiah’s vineyard song is a stunning piece of work that has long fascinated biblical scholars.

It was probably first proclaimed at some kind of festive celebration. Isaiah announced a love song about a vineyard. This would have grabbed the attention of festival participants eager to hear a happy tale. He began with a detailed description of the building of a vineyard: Great love and care went into this magnificent vineyard. And great expectation and excitement followed: “He (waited eagerly for) it to yield grapes”

But then the prophet delivered a surprise. He didn’t tell about how love was fulfilled, but how expectation turned to disappointment when the vineyard “yielded wild grapes” instead. (The words in Hebrew mean, literally, “putrid berries.”)

As Isaiah’s song unfolds, it becomes clear that the vineyard is really the people of God and the master of the vineyard is God himself. The great tragedy is that the people of God have not become what they were meant to be. They have become oppressive, cold-hearted and corrupt.

In his song, Isaiah wonders… he asks the listeners for help with the sad question: “What more could have been done?” The self-evident answer is… nothing. The master poured his heart into the vineyard; yet the result was disappointment. The master could have done nothing more.

At its most basic, Isaiah’s vineyard song is a parable about God’s intentions and expectations. It makes us ask ourselves, “Why does God give the gifts he gives?” And, “What does he expect us to do with them.”

Isaiah reveals the answer to the first question in the opening lines: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” This is a love-song. God gives to us… because he loves us.

God creates us and gives us life in order that we might know love. And because he loves us, he gives us gifts intended to enrich our lives, strengthen our hearts, shape our thoughts and actions, and lead us into a future of health and well-being. God gives us gifts because he loves us.

What does God expect us to do with these gifts? Isaiah comes with that answer as well. He says:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
      is the house of Israel,
   and the people of Judah
      are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
      but saw bloodshed;
      but heard a cry!

God loves us… but not only us. We are one part of a broad and great love. God loves also our neighbor, our friends, our enemies… those who are strangers to us… people in distant lands that we don’t even know… future generations yet to be born. All the things he has made, God loves.

In giving gifts to us, it is God’s expectation that – through us – these gifts will strengthen and bless all of these same ones… our neighbor, our friends, our enemies… those who are strangers to us… people in distant lands that we don’t even know… future generations yet to be born. All the things he has made, God seeks to bless through the gifts he gives his people.

God’s giving to us, then, is not intended simply for us… to make us richer and more blessed. It is meant to transform us… the way we see, the way we think… the way we live, so that his giving continues through us to touch the lives of others.

One of the oldest passages of scripture states it clearly. “I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing…. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3) This was the promise that was given to Abraham when God called him to be his servant.

So what are the blessings of God in our lives? What has God given us?

There are, indeed, many gifts… many of them unique to our lives; but today I’d like to focus on three great ones we all share.

First, there is the gift of God’s love that is reflected in your flesh and blood. You are the creative work of God’s love. You have breath, you have thought, you have emotion. These are incredible things! What else, in all this world, compares to them? You have sight and hearing; you have limbs and fingers with which you can do amazing things. You have skin with which you can feel the warmth of the sun or a loved one’s touch. These are the wonders that make us alive and make us human. What an amazing gift to have life!!

God has given us these remarkable human qualities and he intends that, even under great hardship and difficulty, they will, by his grace, become what they were created to be. They will reflect his love.

There is also the precious gift of God’s word. Throughout the history of his creation God has made known to his creatures his great love for them. He has spoken of and shown his love and mercy for all, especially for those denied love and mercy in the world. He has promised us… and he has shown us… that there is, in all of creation, no power greater than his love for us.

God’s word carries great power. When one begins to understand… begins to know and feel how deeply they are loved by their creator, life begins to change. We begin to become new people.

It is important that we open our ears and our hearts to receive God’s word that teaches us about his love for us. Over and over again, we need to hear God say, “I love you.”

Finally, there is the gift of God’s spirit. The spirit is God’s mysterious power that goes to work in us, removing our hearts of stone and giving us new hearts that can respond to and follow God. The spirit of God works to free us to be compassionate, grateful, and kind. It helps us find joy in simple, good things. It strengthens us to bear hardships and troubles that threaten to overcome us.

Quite simply, the gift of God’s spirit enables us to become the kind of people God means us to be. That is a priceless gift.

It is in these great gifts of God’s love, God’s word and God’s spirit, that we see the master of the vineyard at work creating… transforming… and, with great hope and expectation, awaiting the fruit of his labors.

Heart River will focus this month on the theme of stewardship. But stewardship is a concept that simply expresses the whole purpose and spirit of the Christian life. Stewardship is the good fruit of the master’s vineyard.

It is about the giving of God that continues through us as his giving changes and shapes us. Our stewardship arises from God’s love which first creates us… then transforms and strengthens us for the life he calls us to.

As today’s lessons remind us, terrible sadness follows when God’s people can’t recognize those gifts or they forget why they were given. As a community of faith it is our task to constantly remind each other of the great gifts God gives us and what we are called to do with them.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah announced that he was going to sing a love song. And though it turned out to be something other than what his listeners expected, it is important to remember that it wa
s… and still is… a love song.

The love that created the vineyard did not die with the vineyard. Out of the ruin and pain of today’s lessons, new hope would arise. God’s love would again breathe life into his people. A little later in Isaiah we hear the well-known Advent promise:

“The people who walked in darkness
     have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
     on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

A little later in the Gospel of Matthew we hear that Jesus, after three days in the tomb, rose from the dead, bringing forth life and salvation to all the world. God’s love, not the failure of his people, has the final word.

May the love of the master of the vineyard take root in all of us. May the gifts he’s given us grow into good fruit, and may we become good and generous stewards of the blessings we’ve received. Amen.