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Isaiah 5:1-23: God’s Vineyard (Part 2)

Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning, we’re in chapter 5.

We’re in a series through the book of Isaiah, which is a book not a lot of people are familiar with, largely because we, as Christians in our time and place, don’t tend to give this book a lot of weight, but that’s a shame. And I would challenge you, if you’ve never read the book of Isaiah, to keep up with us, and read through it as we preach through it, because Isaiah is a beautiful book about humanity’s sin, God’s redemption, and the coming of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Part of the reason people don’t spend a lot of time in Isaiah is because, again, Isaiah points out humanity’s sin—our sin—and we don’t like to think of ourselves as sinful, which makes sense. A lot of us have had the word sin pointed at us like a gun, used to intimidate us in hatred or make us ashamed, excluded, even oppressed. We’ve been led to think God hates us if we aren’t perfect, if we even step one foot out of line—but that’s not what the Bible teaches, in the Old Testament or in the New.

We talked about this the past few weeks, as we’ve started this series: sin is a word that means distance, it’s the distance between the way we as people were meant to be and the way we are now; the way the world was meant to be, and the way it is now. I’ll sometimes also use the word brokenness. You should know, I believe every person is sinful, meaning that every person, myself very much included, is very far from the original purpose with which God created us. There are things we’ve done that have put us further from the people we were created to be, made us less like ourselves, and there are things others have done, sins against us, which were not according to God’s purpose for our lives.

Then there’s the brokenness of the rest of creation that weighs on us—broken societies and systems, wars and violence, disasters. All of it adds to that distance between our world as it is now and the world as God created it to be. If we’re honest, the distance isn’t small, it’s enormous, impassable, like the distance between us and God. But don’t worry—God doesn’t ask us to cross that divide, to climb some ladder of good works and sacrifice to get up to him. He’s come down to us.

We have to see what’s wrong, and be honest about it, in order to understand the greatness of what God is doing to make each of us, and creation with us, right again. Like with any worthwhile relationship, you have to reason together about what the problem actually is before you can work together to solve it.

When Isaiah talks about our sins—or in what we’re about to read, pronounces woes to certain people—and when I use the word sin in my sermons, I want to be clear: I’m not trying to intimidate you, hate you, or make you ashamed. Neither is Isaiah. In fact, it’s the opposite. Throughout this text Isaiah is going to call the people of Judah “my people,” meaning he’s one of them, he’s one of them, he’s on their side, even if they are on the wrong side. And I want to assure you—you’re my people. I’m on your side, even if we’re on the wrong side and I have to call you out, I’m only doing it because you’re my people, and I love you.

Anne-Elise told me a story this week of a child she was caring for in her nanny and teaching days. I’ll call him Phil, and just from the fake name, you should know that this is not a story about little Phil doing something awesome.

In Anne-Elise’s words, Phil was so ill-behaved it was as though he believed the adults in his life did not, in fact, exist. His worldview did not include authority, which is a common worldview for toddlers—Kallee knows—and many adults, I’m afraid. The only problem with Phil’s worldview is that many adults in reality did exist in his life, so his constantly ignoring them resulted in constant reminders coming from the adults in his life about why the rules had been created in the first place, that they were for his own safety and thriving. Woes and warnings about what would happen if he continued to ignore them.

Phil of course, being convinced that the adults doing the reminding did not, in fact, exist, so they could not, in fact, be speaking to him, was not able to hear or mind any of their instructions. So one day the class went out to the levees to play—the school was on oak street, in Carrollton, the levees are a large green space, and the rest of the children were having a great time. They rolled down the hills, they played ball in the green space at the bottom of the levee—they were free, and joyful in their freedom.

But not Phil. No, Phil had a decidedly bad afternoon. Phil used his freedom differently than the other children. You see, being in Louisiana and in the outdoors means you have to take bugs into account. The teachers of course knew this, but being that they did not, in fact, exist, they were not able to communicate this vital information to Phil. Even though the teachers gave several warnings to the children to avoid a certain area of the levee which was overrun with fire ants, Phil’s worldview kept him from heeding these warnings.

Which is how Anne-Elise learned what to do when a child is standing in an ant hill, and by the time you get to him the ants are completely covering his legs almost to the point where you can’t see his legs. So, you move the child out of the anthill, then pour your water over his legs and swipe down with your hand, then you take the shoes and socks off.

In parenting, we call that a natural consequence—it’s the natural result of disobeying a parent. You’re supposed to, as a parent, try to find natural consequences for every time a child does something that will eventually harm them, even if the consequences have to come from you. If AJ gets bossy with me while we’re playing, I tell him, I don’t want to play with you anymore. It’s better coming from me than from one of his friends, because I know how to revive our relationship. I do and say these things because I care about him.

And I tell you that story to assure you—I’m on your side, and so is Isaiah. If I sound like I’m sermonizing, that’s only because I’m preaching a sermon. And if Isaiah or I pronounces woes, it’s only because I don’t want you to wind up standing in an ant hill.

Read with me, Isaiah 5:1-23. […] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God, thank you for being a God who is with us, who is on our side; Christ we praise you because you were able to revive the vineyard of the Lord; Holy Spirit, please graft us again to the true vine. Please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free.

You may have noticed this about me already in my preaching and teaching—I love metaphor and imagery. Here, in this text, Isaiah uses the same image we discussed last week, but even more fully fleshed out. He says the people of God are like a vineyard God planted to live in, to make wine, to rest from his labors and enjoy the good things he had made.

He puts in the effort to make it really nice—like Adam Shipp and their house—it’s a labor of love, and he’s willing to take the time on it. He builds a wall around it to keep the animals out, and plants a hedge as a windbrake to keep any of his vines being damaged. And then he takes choice vines and plants them.

You have to think about how farmers in this time, year after year, use their choicest plants, not to eat or drink, not to sell, but for seed. You don’t get to enjoy the best of your labor at first, but in the end. They do this year after year until all of their plants are yielding the very best crop—there are college degrees in France on how to do this. He’s done all of this, then finally, the harvest comes, and imagine when the grapes taste sour, as though they are exactly what you could find in the wild.

This is not what the planter intended—not even close. Isaiah’s asking, why do the people of God look just like the rest of humanity after all he has done to make us holy?

And in the passage, Isaiah continues this image and says, if your vines are corrupted, there’s really only one thing to do. Tear down the wall, let the animals come and eat the fruit until the corrupted vines are gone, let the ground lie fallow, and start over with the seed of whatever plant actually produced good fruit—the remnant that avoided corruption, a righteous branch in Isaiah’s words.

Any farmer reading this would see this as a matter of course. It’s the only option. I have an orange tree in my back yard that produces bad fruit every year, and I love looking at it and sitting under it, so I’ve tried to rehab it in hopes that it would produce good fruit, but it never does. I talked to my boss, who is an excellent gardener about it, and he said it’s an easy fix he knows exactly what to do. Cut the tree down and plant another one. Every year I wait to see if the tree will do differently than it has done, and so I’ve spent three years with sour oranges.

I want you to hear in the judgements of God, in these woes, Anne-Elise telling little Phil, don’t go to that part of the levee, Phil, there’s ants there. She’s not threatening him, she’s simply telling him what’s going to happen—explaining the natural consequences for his actions.

Isaiah is not threatening his people, and I am not threatening mine. I would never do anything to make you afraid, except with the kind of fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom and is really more about trust, knowing that the things he tells you to do and not do are for your own good, and if you don’t walk next to the Lord, you’re going to end up in places of pain and suffering. What little Phil needs to learn is that some fear of adults will keep him healthy and whole. As the apostle James writes, “Sin, when it is full-grown bears death.”

Which is similar to my first point from the text this morning, that the natural consequence of sin is death. The natural consequence of sin is death. God is the only source of life. If we go too far from him, we die, like wandering away from your only source of water into a desert.

Two other passages come to mind in light of this passage—one is Genesis one, and the garden where God first placed us. He labored then, too, and finally he placed us there; humanity. We were meant to be the ones amongst whom God would live and enjoy the fruits of his labor as we grew. In that account we see what creation and humanity were meant to be, what we by grace through faith in Christ will be again. And he tells us: don’t eat of the fruit of the tree, because you’ll die; the consequence is death. I know you don’t know what death is like, but I know, and I would spare you. We disobey him, and death enters the world. What follows is commonly called “the curse” but it’s really just God explaining what will happen next.

He says death will come to everyone now, and will touch everything, even the ground, and now you’ve created a distance between us, called sin, that separates you from me. That distance is farther than you can imagine, but don’t worry, I’ll leave heaven and cross it. You’re my people. I will be with you, on your side, even if your side is the wrong side.

All of these people Isaiah pronounces woes upon in our passage, these are Isaiah’s people. He cares about them: the people who do nothing to make right everything that’s broken, in v.7, the people who become wealthy with no regard for the desperate, v.8, people who drink all day, v.11, people who mock the things of God and don’t consider anything holy, v.19, people who do evil things in the name of religion, v.20, people who don’t really listen to good advice, v.21, people who build their reputations around things that don’t matter, v.22, or who are willing to allow injustice if it means they might have something to gain. These are Isaiah’s people. He’s trying to tell them the consequence of their actions. The natural consequence of these things is death. Don’t stand in the anthill, don’t even go to that part of the levee. You’ll get hurt.

And all of these people Isaiah lists are people who are still around today. These are all still things we engage in, and we need to hear Isaiah’s warning—be careful, child, death lies that way.

And if you’re asking yourself whether or not you’re one of the sinners he lists here, you’re missing his point. We are all the wild vines, whether Isaiah lists you here or not—trust me, he’s got more lists, stay tuned, it’s a long book. Don’t ask yourself if you’re part of the humanity which needs saving. No man is an island. You are part of humankind. You and I are the wild vines ready for devouring, but hearing that, we don’t need to despair. Because we can remember the first garden God planted, and what he did when we let death into our world in the first place. Whatever distance we placed between us and him, he promised to cross over. Wherever we went, he promised to go with us.

And here, too, in Isaiah, God promises that there is still one vine, one branch that’s healthy, one that’s right and bears good fruit. In 4:2, Isaiah writes, that in the day of the Lord “the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious,” and bear fruit for the people of God.

Jesus picks up this metaphor in his teaching many years later and tells the people of God “I am the vine.” I’m the righteous branch, the human who isn’t corrupted by death. “Already you are clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”

He says even the dead and wild branches can be grafted into his vine, and the life that’s in him will flow out to revive those branches, which brings me to my second point, which is really just an invitation this morning: abide in God. Abide in God.

Going back to where I started—I think part of the reason we don’t tend to teach from Isaiah, part of the reason we don’t like talking about sin, is because we fear if anyone ever did actually get to know us, if the Lord did judge us, he may find us guilty, because we ourselves, in a deep place in our souls, have regrets, things about ourselves which we find rejectionable. We fear there may not be a place in heaven or on earth where we can really abide.

That word abide is one of the more important ones in the scriptures. It describes the way God has always interacted with us. In the tabernacle and temple, God abides with his people. Through the exile, and return. In Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, God abides with us.

Again in my conversations with Anne-Elise about the passage today—we’ve been reading through Isaiah together, to keep up with the sermons—I asked her what she thought it meant to abide. She said, abiding is your sense of permanency. It’s where you come home to, where you feel like you can stay and put up your pictures on the walls. The word abide means those people who don’t leave you. I think she’s right.

One of our deepest longings as humans is to belong, to abide, and Christ invites his people: abide in me. He is the righteous branch Isaiah promises, the vine that isn’t corrupted, and God is restoring humanity starting with him and the fruit he bore in his life. That will be the seed God the gardener will use to restore the rest of the vineyard.

If you abide in him, you won’t have to taste death. You’ll be raised to new life, now and in the end.

But, as every good Father will with every child, he gives us woes and warnings, but also a choice. Abide in me, he says. Hang your pictures on the wall. Learn to bear fruit again and feed the people around you. Have faith that even if you pray and tell him of your sin, he still won’t leave you. He already knows you’re broken, because he’s already crossed that divide between heaven and earth to be with you.

Abide in him. Do the things he meant for you to do—bear good fruit, not fruit that looks like what you would find in the world. Abide in him, and he will abide in you.