God never gives up

A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on November 17, 2019

•Isiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5•

I didn’t have a chance to really ask either of my daughters if the reality of life matched their expectations when they entered the world. But as I reflect upon those moments I’m guessing the sounds they made when the nurses put them on a table and started poking and prodding weren’t the sounds one would choose to make when you are experiencing the joy of expectations fulfilled. And if that weren’t evidence enough, I can remember a number of evenings after we took them home when my daughters would share at deafening decibels, throughout the night, their disappointment in the way things were shaping up. They were hungry. They were wet. They were tired. And their parents weren’t anticipating their needs quickly enough.

Because we are all here today I imagine each of us have been in my daughters’ position. We have experienced the anguish of disappointed expectations and it didn’t stop when we outgrew our diapers. In fact some of the worst disappointments have come later in life when hopes and dreams have not found fulfillment: a failed pregnancy or a pregnancy that never came to fruition, the promised promotion that never materialized, the broken promise of someone you depended on, the beauty of relationship that turned into betrayal — we know how devastating disappointment can be. It can ruin us.

And it comes even when we have done everything right. That is when we followed the rules, made sure every detail was covered, dotted every “i,” crossed every “t” and still our efforts resulted in no return. We know disappointment. And therefore it is no stretch for us hear and understand our reading today and identify with the gardener of whom Isaiah speaks.

The gardener did everything right. He planted in fertile soil. The gardener removed the impediments. He put protections into place. The gardener’s work was intentional and exhaustive. He did what was needed so the garden could produce sweet grapes for the nourishment and enjoyment of many — yet what came were wild, hostile grapes that spoke nothing of the gardener’s effort. Rather than the deliciousness of a harvest, all the gardener tasted was bitterness of disappointment.

Upset and angry, the gardener turns to us, the audience, and addressing us more like a jury, asks, “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”[i] The obvious answer the gardener is looking for is: nothing. The gardener wants our validation — our verdict was that he did everything right and yet the vineyard failed.

The gardener follows up the first question with another. “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”[ii] It is a question with no answer and yet it doesn’t stop the gardener from asking. For that matter it doesn’t stop us either.

Sooner or later, everyone who faces disappointment comes to this question — the question of why. Why me? Why now? Why this? Circumstances without explanation, experiences that defy good intentions, situations that make no sense — they crush us. We ask why in search of reasons that do not exist and therefore the answers we so deeply crave never come. Both we and the gardener suffer the silence.

Having pled his case, the gardener makes a decision: he will do nothing more for this particular piece of land. The gardener will remove the protections, he will no longer weed and nurture the ground. The gardener will let the wild fruit live with all the other wildness around. And it sounds like a just decision.

It is what we might even counsel our loved ones to do. When nothing good is coming from your effort — let it all go. Give up. Move on. And this seems to be the resolution of the gardener. And we could leave it there except he says one last thing. “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”[iii] And with this last utterance the mysterious gardener has been revealed. For only the Creator of the universe can withhold the rain. This is no ordinary gardener — this isn’t someone like us out tending a patch of Earth — this is the divine gardener.

And with this revelation we are then led to another. For when we learn the gardener’s identity we learn this is no ordinary vineyard either. “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; righteousness, but heard a cry!”[iv] The whole thing is a parable. God’s people are the vineyard producing bitterly wild grapes, and God is tempted to throw in the towel.

Now it would be easier to read this as only a word about Israel in the time of Isaiah — as a prophecy of Jerusalem’s upcoming militaristic defeat. That would make this particular passage a bit more palatable. But Isaiah’s indictment feels as relevant to us as it was to them. “(God) expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”[v]

It is a harsh accusation. And although Isaiah offers no specific examples, we don’t need to look very far to find them for ourselves. Bloodshed where justice should be — cries of pain and sorrow in place of righteousness. God provides and yet the world is hungry; God nurtures and yet the world is pain; God imparts blessing and yet the world is in need. A vineyard created to produce sweet fruit for the nourishment of the world — nourishment the people of God were meant to share — has not been realized — and according to Isaiah, God may give up.

But how that can be? Don’t we sing in the Psalms of God’s steadfast love enduring forever? As Lutherans don’t we cover ourselves in that wonderful warm embrace of grace? Haven’t we listened to the refrain, “when we failed, when we turned away — God’s love and grace remained?”  Might God really give up? Is it possible to reach the point of no return? Might we really be there now?

If we live only within this particular passage in Isaiah there doesn’t seem to be much hope. Within this passage there is only disappointment — judgment — sadness. The picture of abandonment when a people refuse to acknowledge the care and nurture lavished upon them. According to Isaiah, at least at this point, God will let us have what we want — self-governance and the inevitable destruction and that comes with it. Isaiah ends this passage with no promise for the future given. God offering no explicit hope in a new beginning.

And while Isaiah might stop here — we cannot. We need something more. We need a word of hope. But to get to the Garden of Hope we are going to need to look elsewhere. And thankfully, our reading does just that as we jump several chapters later in Isaiah’s ongoing conversation with God’s people.

We move to another image, another parable — that of what’s left of a tree after the ax of judgment has fallen. We hear of a stump. We move seemingly to another place of death. A place marked by what once was. And at first glance it seems like a curious move. A destroyed garden — a dead tree. But this new image while offering the memories of a past also has the hint of a new beginning. Isaiah pictures something growing out of the stump — a new shoot is coming forth and therein grows our own hope. The intention of the Divine Gardener cannot be ultimately undone.

Our hope comes through a damaged plant and a gardener who has a knack and proclivity for bringing life from death. Our hope is in a single shoot that contradicts its surroundings. It is tenacious. It is susceptible to everything. It hangs in the balance and yet it is still life coming from death.

The paradise that once was a vineyard is gone. It has been trampled. It has been devoured. It has been overtaken by briers and thorns. The vineyard reminds us of our own brokenness.

If we are honest we can point to times and places where it is our own responsibility that the expectations which God has for us have been frustrated. If we are honest we can see the finger print of sin in the suffering. But the servant of God, Isaiah, both a prophet of judgment and of hope — tells us in the midst of a broken world… in the midst of the tragedy… in the midst of the suffering — God cultivates love and life by allowing God’s most vulnerable and powerful self to be deeply seen and known in the brokenness. God brings forth new life through the paradoxical vulnerability of a new seedling breaking forth in the very place where death once stood alone. The Word of God in the Song of Isaiah challenges us not to ignore the brokenness — And even our own complicity in it — but to see through it to our God who will not be undone, will not have the intention of creation be undone — For our God is the God of life.

Isaiah tells us God might be tempted to be finished with the experimental garden of this universe, but God never gives up.  And despite our  tendency to push God away — despite our  continued activity of rejecting God’s offer of love — Never the less God continues to come back offering a new way to bring forth life in us and even through us. Life that is full of the spirit. “The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”[vi] Thanks be to God.

Will you pray with me?

Gardening God, nurture within us an outpouring of the abundant spirit which you instilled in us through the water of life in baptism — a spirit which the world needs in fullest measure. Inspire us to respond and honor your nurturing effort within in our lives by offering trust, respect, kindness and affection with our neighbor. For we know this is the sweet fruit you have long been desiring to grow. Amen.

[i] Isaiah 5:4 (nrsv)

[ii] Isaiah 5:4b (nrsv)

[iii] Isaiah 5:6b (nrsv)

[iv] Isaiah 5:7 (nrsv)

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Isaiah 11:2 (nrsv)


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