(I preached this sermon yesterday, October 4, 2020. It is based on Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46)
Pick any story where there are bad guys and good guys. Think of movies you’ve seen. I want you to think about the bad guys and their methods. There’s emperor Palpatine or Darth Sidious in Star Wars. There’s Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter. There’s Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. Pick any mob movie you can think of or any movie that has a portrayal of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. They’re all the same, just different locations and names.
The bad guy runs an organization, or nation, or empire with plans to dominate and control. There are minions who go along with this, for God knows what reason. I guess they think they are going to get power because they are close to it. But it always goes the same way. They might realize that this was more than they bargained for and they try to leave – I guess they are stupid enough to think the bad guy is just going to let them waltz out unscathed. They end up dead. Always. Every time. It’s predictable. You can’t just walk out of evil systems. It’s like a black hole that sucks you in and destroys you.
The other thing that happens is that one of the people who were most loyal to the bad guy gets thrown under the bus because they are no longer useful.
It’s the same story, always. Whether we are talking about movies or real life. Because that’s what evil systems do. They don’t value people’s lives and well-being. They value the pursuit of power and control. They lust after taking what isn’t theirs and money. And nothing will get in the way of those who pursue these things. They will sacrifice everything and everyone in order to obtain them.
I don’t know about you, but I find that story really predictable and really tiring. And I’m frustrated beyond measure when I encounter the willful stubbornness and hardened hearts that insist on trying these paths yet again, or those that make excuses for these things – whether that willful stubbornness comes from someone else, or I’m made aware of it in myself. Why do we insist on going down paths that have always led to death and destruction? Why do we think it will be any different because someone different is trying it this time? Maybe we’re afraid to look in the mirror and examine how we think we benefit from these ways? Much better to ignore it, right?
Our passage from Isaiah speaks to this. The Gospel does too. Go back and read the Gospel – Jesus draws on the imagery of Isaiah 5 to make his point. And what is that point? That there’s nothing new under the sun. Evil and unjust systems don’t last. They collapse. They fall. There isn’t one that has ever succeeded ultimately. Scripture is essentially God asking this question – Why would you want to participate in such things when they always fall and fail? That’s literally insane. God’s way – Jesus’ way – is the only thing that is sane. And you have been invited to be a part of it.
Whether we are talking about Isaiah or the Gospels, the story is the same. Throw in a multitude of other passages of Scripture if you like. Look through human history. It’s the same story, over and over and over and over again.
Here’s the pattern from Scripture. God makes a covenant with humanity. And it’s good. Humanity thinks it knows better than God on how to run things and so humanity turns its back on God and God’s way and decides to go down a different path. Lo and behold there are consequences for that. We suffer the consequences and then realize that wasn’t the smartest thing in the world. Then we cry for help to God. And God sends someone to save us. A right relationship with God is restored, and we start the process all over again.
Prophets have been warning humanity for such a long time about this. The first reading is yet another example of this same pattern. Isaiah is one of the major prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. A prophet’s main role is to represent God to the people – to deliver the word of God to the people.
This portion of Isaiah is written around 740BC – right at the beginning of when the Assyrian Empire starts to attack the northern kingdom. The northern kingdom will eventually fall to Assyria in 722BC, when it’s capital, Samaria, is conquered. The prophet makes it quite clear – this is the consequence of Israel turning away from God.
We hear this very clearly in 1 Chronicles 5:25-26 – But they [being the northern Kingdom of Israel] transgressed against the God of their ancestors, and prostituted themselves to the gods of the peoples of the land, whom God had destroyed before them. So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of King Pul of Assyria, the spirit of King Tilgath-pilneser of Assyria, and he carried them away,”
There are consequences when we turn away from God. When we decide that our ways are better than God’s ways. This is true whether we are talking about us individually, or us in a larger communal sense. This is no different than trying to say that gravity is optional, or that you don’t have to take precautions when in the presence of a highly infectious disease. You can try it, but eventually it will catch up to you. It’s not because God is vengeful and has a fragile ego that we suffer the consequences. Do you really think God enjoys seeing or worse, causing people to suffer? No. Not at all. There’s no Scripture anywhere, in any part of the Bible that talks about God enjoying seeing people suffer. Not one.
Isaiah paints a picture of Israel being created as a vineyard. Think of the imagery here – it is actually quite powerful. A vineyard produces good fruit that can be turned into wonderful wine. Wine symbolizes something important.
Here’s a description of wine straight from a wine master – “Wine traditionally is the central symbol for transformation. Nature often holds up a mirror so we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, renewal, and transformation in our lives. Wine is a mirror held up to nature. The process of winemaking is that of transformation, a result of breaking wholes into parts and integrating parts into wholes, grapes into wine. The grape transforms itself simply by being broken by humans, because it transforms itself with nothing else. Wine as the result of a natural rather than industrial process – a transformation of fresh grapes into something extraordinary, whose distinctive character and quality come directly from a place, from the specific territory in which it is grown.”
It almost sounds biblical doesn’t it? It sounds like Jesus talking about the transformative nature of life, death, and resurrection. Match that description up with what you just heard in Isaiah. There’s a reason why Jesus and Isaiah use the imagery of a vineyard. Israel was intended to bear incredible fruit – to be extraordinary – an example to the surrounding nations to the point that they would be transformed by Israel because of God’s relationship with Israel. This is the way it’s supposed to be. Vineyards are supposed to produce exquisite wine. God intended and empowered Israel to produce good fruit that transforms everything around it. That’s not just true of Israel, but us too.
And yet Israel decided to go a different way.
Verse 7 says it all – God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! This is not the way it is supposed to be.
God expects justice and righteousness. And yet the world thinks it knows better, offering ways that run counter to God and God’s ways – like the ways of Lord Mammon or greed. How uncomfortable we get even acknowledging its presence and power in our lives. Lord Mammon shows up in economic systems like unfettered capitalism and controlling and dominating communism. Ways that look to the interest of the individual and those in power as the highest and most important value. And yet how many times have these ways been tried and the consequences are costly?
God expects justice and righteousness. And yet the world thinks it knows better, offering ways that run counter to God and God’s ways – like racism and white supremacy that causes bloodshed and ruined lives. Ways that survive through centuries and decades of slavery, and Jim Crow laws, and lynchings, and segregation, and into our current criminal justice system. Ways that we don’t even understand how they impact us. We’d rather make excuses or ignore it and claim that there are lone wolves doing these things because it is too painful to even consider how we might be benefiting from these systems. And yet how many times have these ways been tried and the consequences are deadly?
God expects justice and righteousness. And yet the world thinks it knows better, offering ways to exploit creation for profit and ignore the world’s responses to our greed. And yet how many times have these ways been tried and the consequences are destructive?
The list goes on and on.
Justice and righteousness are related at their core. Both have to do with being in a right relationship. Both with God, with others, and the rest of creation. These other ways rip those relationships apart and they rip us apart with them. They are not the way things are supposed to be.
So, what’s the Good News in this? In Isaiah we hear that God is the one who has a vineyard. God dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines. God built a watchtower in the midst of it. Got hewed out a wine vat in it. God set everything up so that God’s ways can be carried out. And God invites us all to participate in these ways. Because God loves things of beauty and enjoyment and thriving life and abundance. This is the way it is supposed to be.
Why would we want injustice to continue in any way that it shows up? Why would we want there to be a cry instead of righteousness? Why would we want bloodshed instead of justice? Why wouldn’t we want God to restore creation to the way it is supposed to be?
I don’t understand why so much energy is given to maintaining systems that literally hurt people – whether that is individuals or whole groups of people. I don’t understand arguments meant to maintain ways that obviously cause harm to people, that scapegoat people, that dehumanize people. I don’t understand all the money that is invested, the policies that are implemented, and the rhetoric that is designed to make us these ways seem normal and expected – like this is the way it has to be. It’s not.
Even when we think we benefit from these systems, we don’t. We suffer under them too, just in different ways. We are held in bondage to these ways just as much as the direct victims of them. We don’t really benefit from these systems at all. It’s a lie. We are no different than the sidekicks in those movies I mentioned at the beginning. When we are no longer useful, those systems will discard us because they don’t care about us – no matter how loyal we are to them.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s the good news. There is a better way – God’s way. God’s way is love. God has a way and a path forward. A way of transformation. A way of healing. A way of reconciliation. A way that leads to thriving life for everyone. A way that looks past divisions that we think are important. God is providing that way. God doesn’t want us to suffer the consequences of the paths that the world offers.
Is it more loving to let someone go down a road that leads to a cliff? Especially when you know the cliff is there? Would you do what you had to in order to stop someone from going down that path if you cared about them? If they insisted on going forward, what would you do? What lengths would you go to in order to prevent a loved one from walking off that cliff?
That is what God is doing throughout Scripture. That is what Jesus is doing throughout the Gospels.
Jesus calls to us – not wanting us to go off that cliff. And sometimes it can sound pretty harsh. I don’t know about you, but I can be really stubborn and thick in the skull. Sometimes I need that harsh word to catch my attention so I can know how much Jesus loves me and is willing to do anything to stop me from walking off that cliff. We don’t have to keep journeying down these paths. Jesus has a different way. A way of justice and righteousness. A way that produces amazing and exquisite choice wine.
Go back to those movies. The people listed aren’t the heroes. They are the bad guys. And we know it.
Patricia Lyons, in her book, “What is Evangelism?” sums it up this way:
“There are other stories. Stories that tell a different message. That take people on a different path. They are stories like the Jedi of Star Wars, or Frodo Baggins of the Lord of the Rings, or even Harry Potter with his friends Ron and Hermione. These stories aren’t about obtaining and using power. They are about moving their societies and communities in a different direction – one based on trust, community, truth, love, and a greater purpose – no matter the cost.”
This is the path Jesus invites us to be on. This is the path that Christianity takes us on. This is the path. And we are not alone – no matter how lonely it might feel. You are not alone. And I can’t emphasize enough how important that is. You are not alone – and that is Good News. Because you and I will fall. And there Jesus will be to pick us up and set us on the path again. Because you and I will start heading in the wrong direction. And Jesus will be there to turn us around and point us in the right direction. Because you and I will get distracted by something in the road. And Jesus will be there telling us to keep moving. And you and I will want to head down the road with the cliff because the sign on the side of the road pointing in that direction will be so very appealing. And Jesus will be there with his hands on his hips and yell – “Hey, that’s not the way.”
The path is our life. And we are heading to something amazing. A vineyard. A vineyard that is well cared for, has the best grapes ever seen by anyone, and produces amazing wine. It is pleasant and there is an abundance of it. God is standing at the end of the path extending God’s arms and hands, reaching for us and drawing us into a warm and loving embrace where we will take a seat in the vineyard, the loving community of God, with the hosts of heaven, the community of the saints, and our loved ones, and a toast will be offered and we will drink the most exquisite wine ever produced.
It won’t be the same old tired story playing out any longer. It is a new story. A better story. Thanks be to God. Amen.