When Earl and I lived in Northern Indiana after we bought our first house, each spring had a ritual. He would get the roto-tiller out and till the garden spaces we had. We would roughly plan out what would go where. Then we’d head out to Bortz Farm Store where we would get seeds of all sorts and get some of them started inside. Then a little later we would go and get the starter plants. On Memorial Day we would plant them along with the starts from seeds. Then we would water and feed and weed and watch and wait. We’d eagerly see the blossoms on the tomatoes and on the zucchini and the beans and peas and know that a crop was coming. We had a contest with our friends to see who got the first tomato -- almost always by the Fourth of July.
We’d water and feed and weed and watch and wait some more. Then it was time to pick the green beans for the first time and the zucchini for the umpteenth time. And at the end of the summer we would can and freeze the harvest from the garden. We were involved with our garden.
And I’m certain that over the years many of you have similar stories to tell. Maybe not vegetables, maybe flowers, or maybe herbs but something else that took the same degree of effort and care and waiting and expecting a good crop.
So we can understand how it was for the beloved one who had a vineyard in today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah. The vineyard was on a fertile hill -- can you almost see the black loamy earth? He cleared all of the stones away and he planted it with no ordinary vines -- rather, he planted it with the choicest of vines. He built a watchtower right in the middle of it where he could live while he tended to it. And he built a wine vat anticipating the wonderful grape harvest he would enjoy. He eagerly awaited the sweet fruit just as Earl and I waited for that first tomato. But, he wouldn’t have that harvest until 4 or 5 years after he planted.
For years he tended his vineyard. But his harvest was not what he expected -- all it yielded were wild grapes. Wild grapes are small, coarse, and sour; good for very little at all. How could this be? asks the vineyard keeper. “What more could I have done for my vineyard?”
And because of the lack of a harvest, the vineyard keeper says -- I will tell you what I am going to do. I am going to remove the hedge that I made, I am going to take down its wall, I will no longer garden it. It will become a wild vineyard. These are not the words of an angry and vengeful God. They are words of God whose very heart is broken by his people.
In the last verse of this Song in Isaiah, the prophet tells us some of what this means. We read that the vineyard -- the vines -- are the people of God. The House of Israel and the people of Judah -- the Kingdoms that had fallen away from God, turned their backs on God’s ways and the covenant relationship that God established with them. God wanted a harvest of justice and righteousness but instead saw bloodshed and heard deep wailing.
Thanks be to God that this is not the end of the story. My friends, as one commentator noted, the witness of Scripture is that after judgment there is always healing; after desolation there is always consolation; and after grief there is always hope.
So, let’s hear the rest of the story found in the parable that Jesus told in today’s Gospel. A man owned a vineyard in which a fig tree was planted. The owner came year after year looking for fruit on this tree, but there was none. Finally he said to the gardener, “Cut it down. It is wasting the soil.” The gardener said, “Wait, please one more year. Let me give extra care to it, let me fertilize it, and tend to it more vigorously. Then if it bears fruit, well and good. If it does not, then you will cut it down.”
What do we learn from these readings? These together are a perfect example of how in Scripture we as Lutheran Christians find both Law and Gospel. First, the Law – in both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings there is an expectation of fruitfulness, an expectation of justice and righteousness, an expectation that we as God’s people will live into the covenant relationship that God has created with us. Every Sunday we confess that Jesus the Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead – that is an expression of the Law. We often say that the Law is what God asks of us.
But, that is not all there is. We also read and understand Scripture as not only a statement of what God expects but also what God does for us – in other words, the Gospel, the Good News. What good news do we encounter in today’s readings?
First, we read of a vineyard owner who tills the soil, removes the stones, sets a hedge of protection around the vineyard and builds a watchtower in the midst of it. A vineyard owner who did literally everything possible for the vines. Then we read of a gardener who realizes that the fig tree hasn’t produced fruit for a good long while. The gardener asks the owner to wait, just one more year, while the gardener gives some extra attention and care to this tree. The owner agrees to wait. And then the gardener gets to work. The fig tree is not left alone to figure this all out. The gardener steps and takes extraordinary measures so that this tree will produce fruit. The good news is that we worship a God of second chances. The good news is that we too have a gardener who equips us and prepares us and tends to us so that we can bear fruit -- the fruits of justice and righteousness.
Thanks be to God.
(Photo taken at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem; copyright Pamela Smith, 2006.)