Suggested Lectionary Texts
Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56
When we moved to the Piedmont area of Virginia, we were told that Virginia is blessed with great growing conditions for grapes. As I drive around the beautiful area in which we live, I view the stunning grape vines. Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls describes vineyards as aesthetically beautiful places. They have beautiful greenery, well-manicured lawns, and rows of grapevines. They are exquisite and breathtaking. The rolling hills are marvelous to see.
In biblical days, a vineyard was a prized possession. They were well taken care of. It actually took a great deal to take care of them. There was always the nurturing of the grapes or whatever fruit was featured. This tending to the vineyard was all orchestrated for one thing: grapes—fresh, whole, round, perfect grapes. Workers in the vineyard were meticulous and detailed in their care.
However, God speaks of grapes gone wild. There is no excuse for wild grapes. They’ve been watered, given good shade so as to not be parched by the sun. They’ve been given the best environment for growth. So, it’s not adding up. Why has God’s vineyard, a beautiful masterpiece, somehow led to the production of wild grapes? i.e. grapes that are not sufficient, healthy, or wholesome for their intended use.
Let’s look for a moment at how plants grow:
I have a great interest in looking at plants and some of the crazy places in which I find them growing. This past spring I did some hiking in Blowing Rock and Grandfather’s Mountain in NC. Invariably, I find plants growing in unusual places. I wonder how the plants could survive when my own efforts in raising the same plant in a more hospitable environment fail. In Matthew 13:1-9, we read the story of scattering the seeds. Some seeds fall on the rocks, some on the walkway, and some on fertile soil. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.
This would not be the last time God was disappointed by fruit. You may recall an interesting story in Mark 11:12-14 that Jesus, while on a journey walked up to a fig tree that looked like it was ready for the picking, but it was not. Jesus was seemingly angry, and even cursed the tree for false advertising. The tree was presenting an appearance that didn’t match its reality. This was a teaching moment to help his disciples understand the problem they had just witnessed when Jesus cleared the temple of the money changers and “robbers”. It is not just that behavior in the temple is wrong and in need of changes. Jesus was announcing prophetic judgment on the temple and its purpose. He knows that not only will temple practices not be corrected, but the temple is also going to be destroyed. Later they pass by the tree which has withered and Jesus explains this to the disciples:
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:1-2).
And the prophet Jeremiah-whom Jesus quotes as He cleanses the temple-has this to say about God’s coming judgment:
“I will take away their harvest,” declares the Lord. “There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them” (Jeremiah 8:13).
Jeremiah’s words were being played out on a real fig tree and on the nation of Israel as the kingdom of God was now being opened to every nation, and His Spirit poured out on everyone who would come to Him. Jews, Gentiles, the unclean, the diseased, the outcasts: any who were ready to hear and respond to the Word of God.
This too was a lesson. Sometimes the lessons we need to hear step on our toes and make us uncomfortable.
How does this relate to us today? Yes, we have beautiful vineyards dotting our landscape. But, we can’t get caught up in the symbol and forget to look into the deeper meaning as we read in Mark. Today’s lesson is not about grapes or figs. The grapes and figs are symbols to help us see the big picture. Today, our vineyards are buildings. Big churches in some cases. Sanctuaries with major lighting and technology packages and cafés and eateries to capture those who wish to be entertained: a movie and a meal. The visuals can be breathtaking, and clearly the buildings are well-cared for.
Many flock to the doors. The trees are full of leaves that by appearance seem to be ready for the harvest.
Yet, the world (as evidenced by the stories we hear) seems to still be struggling with issues. Sadly, the same issues that Jesus came to “fix” when he walked among us: oppression, illness, racism, discrimination, power-mongers, . . .
How can this be with so many vineyards in our midst? Jesus came to lift up the least among us! He didn’t hang out in the temples, but among the people in need. Could it be that too many of our “churches” are producing wild grapes?
The formula for getting all this corrected remains: repentance. The lack of repentance will prompt God to remove the workers in the vineyards, dismantle the vineyards, and let the people have their way. This, of course, means that there will be scorching heat, weather, and lack of nourishment that will cause great suffering and despair.
There is nothing wrong with great vineyards. It’s okay to have beautiful, lucious leaves. But that is only a little bit of what it means to be a people connected to their God. Without the fruit, does the beautiful plant matter? When I walk out to my garden, I want to see tomatoes growing and ripening in the sun, not a six-foot tall plant that spends all its energy producing leaves.
Is it too late? No! So how is God calling us to address grapes gone wild in our contexts? Let us return to Jesus! He did this in his opening homily in Nazareth after reading from this very book, Isaiah.
Once the scroll was rolled up, he began to announce that the day was at hand when God would finally get what God wanted for those who were oppressed, those who were outcasts: the least of these. God would be the one to complete it by lifting those who had been pushed down in the mud of life.
Sadly, this kind of sermon angers a church, steps on too many toes, and it initiated the plot by the Pharisees to kill Jesus. Nevertheless, this message launched his messianic meaning The Messiah’s ministry. Not within the temples, but among the people wherever they were. Likewise, Jesus comes to us. He doesn’t want to see “a tree full of beautiful leaves without fruit”. We are flawed and we must admit our shortcomings. Jesus is ready to forgive us and lift us up so that we can become the beings that God placed within us.
Remember how we started this morning: Close your eyes for a moment and visualize as you listen to the words so eloquently penned by Dr. Small. Vineyards are aesthetically beautiful places. They have beautiful greenery, well-manicured lawns, and rows of grapevines. They are exquisite and breathtaking. The rolling hills are marvelous to see.
Where are we? Do we hide behind a beautiful facade or are we out in the trenches presenting God’s Word to the lost and needy?
We are such fickle people, O Lord. It is easy for us to greedily accept your blessings in times of peace, and to cry for mercy in times of difficulty. We want you to pamper us. We want to be your special people. We don’t like the idea that you might indeed care for those whom we would reject. Such is our lot! We need once again to be reminded of the many ways in which we have chosen to be the “wild grapes” rather than the faithful vines. We have been given opportunities time and time again to serve you by helping others. Today we have gathered in worship to praise you and to offer our gifts. But it is our commitment and our lives of service that you would appreciate. Witness and service to you are not easy. They may require some sacrifice. We may face some misunderstanding and ridicule from others. But you call us to be faithful, to be steadfast. Help us, O Lord, to make the kinds of commitments which will bring healing and hope in this troubled world in which we live. In Jesus’ Name, we pray. AMEN.
Benediction: Plant us again in your vineyard, O Lord. Help us to grow in our witness and service to you by serving others. May your peace always be with us! AMEN.