November 17, 2019

“A Shoot From a Stump”

Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-5

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

November 17, 2019 (Pentecost +23)

 

The love story between God and God’s people in Israel and Judah that we have been reading from the Hebrew Scriptures continues in today's readings from Isaiah.  Last week’s reading was from Hosea, who was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom.  Today we are reading from Isaiah, who spoke God's word to the Kings of Judah in Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom.  These two prophets lived around the same time, 8th century BCE, and saw the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria.  Both Hosea and Isaiah spoke in poetry, using vivid metaphors to describe the people’s relationship with God.  Last week, the dominant metaphor in our Scripture reading was of parent and child; this week the metaphor comes from the world of agriculture.  

 

Isaiah 5 begins as a love song, describing the care with which a gardener plants and tends a vineyard:  "My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.  He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines.  He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well...." (v. 1-2)

 

While we may not have vineyards, many of us do have gardens or yards, which demand a lot of care and attention.  The ground needs to be prepared, and plants purchased.  Maybe you started some of the plants from seed, or you got cuttings from other plants or gardeners.  You planted the seedlings, watered them, and weeded.  And you waited for fruit or flowers or healthy foliage.  When you tend a garden with such care and a lot of effort, you expect results, right?  Something beautiful or delicious.

 

The beloved gardener didn't get the anticipated results.  "Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit" (v. 2).  What a disappointment!  We all know what it’s like to work hard on a project, but not get the expected results.  You carefully measured the ingredients and followed the recipe, but the cake didn’t rise like it should have, or it didn’t taste as good as you had hoped it would.  You put a lot of effort into your craft project, but it didn’t turn out anything like the pictures on Pinterest.  Your team practiced hard and learned all the plays, but there were too many missed shots and mistakes, and you lost the game.

 

God knows this kind of disappointment.  The text turns from a song about God to God speaking to the people:  “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.  What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?  When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” (vv. 3-4).

 

Exasperated, God seems to throw up God’s hands and give up.  With hands on hips God declares:  “Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard:  I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled, I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there.  I will command the clouds not to rain on it” (vv. 5-6).

 

After all the loving care and protection and provision given to the vineyard, the owner decides to abandon it.  Throw away the cake, set aside the craft project.  Practice your moves, change the plays, change the players.  In other words, move on.  There is nothing left to do, right?  We don’t blame the vineyard owner for giving up on the vineyard.

 

Then we hear the devastating news:   The prophet says in verse 7 that "The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.”  The prophet says to the people of Israel and Judah that they are the vineyard.  They are the “garden of his delight.”  They are the ones God has so lovingly and carefully nurtured, only to be disappointed with the result.

 

“And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress" (v. 7b).  There's a word play going on here in the Hebrew language.  Yawheh is looking for justice, mishpat, but sees mispeh, bloodshed.  The Lord looks for righteousness, tsedaqah, but hears tsa'aqah, cries of distress.  God planted and nurtured the people so that they would collectively lead lives of justice and righteousness.  But the long-awaited, carefully cultivated fruit tastes rotten.  There is no justice or righteousness, but instead bloodshed and cries of distress.

Margaret Odell, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4217

 

The Lord expects his people to live lives of justice and righteousness.  Isaiah 5:8-23 continues with the indictment against God’s people.  They expand their property and enrich themselves, lead drunken lives, and have no regard for the Lord.  They are arrogant, wise in their own eyes, and subvert justice.  They have little or no regard for the poor or oppressed.  Indeed, the fruit is rotten.  

 

These are difficult words to hear because they apply to us even today, don’t they?  We live in a society where many enrich themselves without regard for how their pursuits impact their neighbors or the earth.  The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer.  Many people all over the world are in desperate need.  Climate change is affecting nations that do not have the resources or opportunity to mitigate impacts.  Power struggles, protests and wars are breaking out all around the world.  It feels like the vineyard is producing only rotting fruit.

 

The divine gardener makes a painful decision.  Having done all that was possible to raise good grapes, he decides to destroy the protective hedge and wall and allow the vineyard to be trampled.  There will be no rain and the vineyard will become a wasteland.  Israel will no longer enjoy the protection of Yahweh against her enemies because the people refused to follow Yahweh's way of life.

 

When Isaiah spoke the words of our Scripture lesson to the people of Judah, things looked pretty bleak.  Assyria was intent on conquering the whole Middle East.  Their mode of conquest was to destroy the infrastructure of society and culture—not just extort compliance from weak kings.  Judah saw the northern kingdom of Israel ravaged by the Assyrians, and knew they were next in line.  Compounding the external threat of Assyria was the internal threat of fear and faithlessness among the people.  The consequence of the people’s disregard for God’s ways of justice and righteousness is that God’s provision and protection would be removed.  Their enemies would devastate them.

 

If there is anything we have learned this fall in our readings, it is that the Lord is gracious and faithful and steadfast. And even though the gardener took away all the walls of protection for the vineyard, even though the rain was stopped and the weeds were allowed to take over, that was not the end.  There was still more that the gardener, the Lord would do for the people of God.

 

In Isaiah 11 a shoot appears.  The stump looked dead, but it was not.  The slide on the screen is a picture I took when our family went to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park a year and a half ago.  We had taken a short hike and stopped to eat our lunch near this old, fallen tree.  Even though the tree looked dead and was disintegrating, new life was sprouting from it.

 

The vineyard was not completely dead.  It had not been utterly destroyed.  "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a Branch will bear fruit" (v. 1).  This is an image that is full of hope.  A small green shoot was coming up out of the side of the “dead” stump.  The vine would come back to life!

 

Jesse was the father of King David, who was Israel’s most beloved king who reigned during their glory days.  Those days were long gone, and the family tree of the monarchy had been cut down to a mere stump.  The people were discouraged and afraid.  But the prophet did not see only a dead tree stump.  He saw a stump that still had life in it.  God had made a promise to David that his family line would reign forever.  2 Samuel 7:16 says, “Your [David’s] house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”  The shoot out of the stump of Jesse was confirmation that this promise would be kept.

 

The shoot was a sign that, even though small and vulnerable, there was still life in Judah.  There was still a little bit of a relationship with God that could grow.  A leader from the house of David would indeed rise up, and his leadership would usher in a new day of peace.  According to the prophet, the key thing about this new leader is that he would have the Spirit of the Lord resting on him.  Back in October, we read the story of David coming to power and bringing the ark to Jerusalem.  Some of you made paper crowns, and I was told that you talked about the qualities that a good king had.  Even though David had his weaknesses and was by no means sinless, one of the things that made him stand out among the kings of Israel was his worship of the Lord.  He tried to keep the focus of his worship on Yahweh.  He tried to follow the ways of the Lord.  

 

This is the same quality that the “shoot” described by Isaiah would have.  This new leader would have the Spirit of the Lord resting on him.  The Spirit would fill him with wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  

 

Because this leader would be filled with the Spirit of the Lord, he would rule differently from other kings.  Isaiah said, “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide what he hears with his ears…” (v. 3b & 4a).  Eyes could be lifted up by pride and ears could be deceived by lying speech or could be sealed shut.  This leader would rule with righteousness and justice and would not be prone to the corruption or pride that had been the downfall of many human leaders.

 

This leader would also do the right thing for all people:  “…with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (v. 4).  He would take care of the poor and the needy, a priority not held by most earthly rulers.

 

The prophet describes how this ruler would accomplish his purposes:  “He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked” (v. 4b).  This may sound powerful, but if you look at this image closely, it is saying that this coming ruler would use words, not physical violence to defeat his enemies.  This king would exert his power differently than most other kings.

 

As a result of this Spirit-filled rule, a whole different way of relating would be established among those who inhabit the earth.  Isaiah 11:6-9 is a familiar description of these new relationships:  

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den, 

    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

 

Predators and prey would live together.  Snakes would no longer be a deadly threat to children.  Isn’t this a wonderful vision for creation, for our world?  Doesn’t this make you feel hopeful?  Isaiah was not all doom-and-gloom.

 

Judah saw this vision fulfilled in part through Kings Hezekiah and Josiah, who were faithful to the Lord.  (We will be reading about Josiah next week.)  But this vision of a righteous ruler was fulfilled more fully in Jesus.  When he was baptized, the Spirit descended on Jesus (Mark 1:10) and he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord.  His relationship with God was an integral part of his life.  He depended on his times of prayer and communion with God to guide his ministry.  He always spoke out for the poor and needy and reached out to those whom society ignored.  Jesus was the fulfillment of this vision of a shoot coming up from the stump of Jesse.

 

Because Jesus does not rule like other kings, we need to pay close attention as we follow him.  Instead of domination, he uses a self-sacrificing love to guide and direct people.  Instead of enslaving people, Jesus serves.  As Jesus spent more time with the lowly and outcast and poor, we should do the same, ministering to those in need.  If Jesus is indeed our king, we must love and serve others in the way he did and does.  We must follow his example.

 

At times, we have been the beloved vineyard that God has nurtured and cared for, but produced rotten fruit.  We may deserve to be abandoned, given up to the weeds.  But God never gives up on God’s children.  Where the Spirit of God is, there is always the possibility for resurrection, for new life.  We can look for the shoots of new life, we can yield to the work of the Spirit of God in our lives.

                   

There is still life in this tree, in the vine.  There is life in Christ.  In spite of the many times when we have not produced good fruit, there is still life in the promise that Yahweh made to his people and to us.  While it does not appear to be big, Jesus' reign is alive and at work among us.  And if we choose to recognize him as our Lord, our Savior, our Sovereign, he will cause us to bear the fruit of justice and righteousness that will be a blessing to the world.  Let’s allow God to cultivate justice and righteousness in us.  Amen.