Location: Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, MN)
Scripture: Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5
I’m on the email list for one of the local breweries in my neighborhood, so I get regular updates on their activities. This week Burning Brothers described the near-infinite number of variables that combine to make each batch of beer unique. Temperature, style and quantity of hops, other additions, and the timing of each step all play a role in how each batch of beer turns out. As they say, “With all of these different factors, you can end up with something very different from what you were trying to create, yet still delicious, something that is right on the mark, or something that is completely undrinkable…. In those instances, the brewers grit their teeth, and send barrels of beer down the drain.” This description was all by way of explaining that their latest batch of IPA did not turn out. Instead, they said, the foul-smelling brew “has gone to the beer trolls that live in the trench drains. While they were very happy about it, the rest of us wept a little.” Having seen firsthand the weeks-long care and prayer that goes into a single pail of home-brewed beer, I have to believe that “wept a little” only scratches the surface of their deep disappointment.
Now put yourself in the place of a laboring God, as Isaiah does. God has worked carefully, diligently and meticulously on the world for millennia in order to make this blue marble the interstellar gem that it is. Think of every delight there is in the garden of the world. Brilliant sunsets, chirping birds, the smell of freshly-mown lawns, warm skin and lovemaking—God made them all, every one! It’s as though God the vintner carefully cleared a field of any stones, worked the fertile soil by hand, dug holes in warm earth and planted strong shoots, then set up a tower to watch over and protect the vineyard by day and night. God left no stone unturned in creating this beautiful world for humanity, for people made in God’s own image.
But what is the fruit of this global vineyard, of these precious vines? Bloodthirsty carnage in Paris. Another massacre in Mali. Barrel bombs and merciless civil war in Syria. Frantic refugees turned back by political paranoia. Black and brown bodies disproportionately locked up and gunned down. Carbon pollution choking the atmosphere and changing the climate forever. What was once unthinkable is now everyday. Where there should be abundant grapes and streams flowing with milk and honey, God only finds rotten, putrid fruit. The grapes in this vineyard stink to high heaven. Who could blame God for saying this batch needs to go down the drain?
Now I know that there are good stories mixed in with the tragedies, and I thank God when we find those. Normally that’s what I want to lift up and highlight for you as Good News. But it would be papering over a gaping wound if we always just look away from the ugly, festering realities in our headlines. Unless we name them for the deadly sins that they are, there’s no way we can take them to the cross and bury them in the tomb. If we don’t consider God’s offense when human beings violate the image of God in one another, we can never fully appreciate the depths of God’s faithfulness, which is the real Good News here.
So lets try and put ourselves in God’s place, when patient, long-suffering care ends in waste and betrayal. Imagine, suggests Jeffry W. Carter, “when a child reared in a loving home makes unwise choices and dashes the hopes and dreams of his or her parents; when regular and prudent investments fall prey to difficult economic times and retirement is placed on hold; when a longtime loyalty to one employer is met with an ill-timed layoff in the face of a plant closure.” In situations like this, do you feel the anger that is truly righteous when bad things happen to good people? So it is with God, whose beautiful vineyard has yielded bitter vinegar.
Have you ever wondered what our world would be like without God’s intervening care? If God starts to let the natural consequences of our misbehavior pile up on us? We’re starting to find out. With God’s protection removed, the beautiful gem of the earth is like the vineyard, devoured by those who come to inhabit it. Its verdant forests are trampled down, briars and thorns take their place, the clouds do not rain any longer, and earth’s soil is soaked with blood. We see with our own eyes what happens when humans forsake justice and righteousness in our relationships with one another, with God and with the earth.
But here’s where God is God and we are not. Because while we have a long history of cutting off in anger or walking away with icy abandon, God does not. Despite all the reasons to wipe out the vineyard, write off humanity and start over, God is faithful to God’s people. This means that at the very point where it seems most hopeless, when all the fruitless vines have been broken down and sawed off, when there’s nothing but dead, lifeless stumps all around, God does a new thing as only God can.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” Isaiah says, “and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Instead of walking away from the failed vineyard, God brings new life into it. This new shoot is impervious to the sin, blight and mildew of the old vine. The Promised One stands infused instead with the spirit of God—with wisdom and understanding, with counsel and might; with knowledge and reverence for God. This green shoot is the antithesis of the world’s injustice. Belts of righteousness and faithfulness encircle his waist. Its the best body armor one could hope for, on the one who arises as divine life in the midst of sinful death. Justice and mercy are the hallmarks of this new ruler, who will reign forever and ever.
Isaiah wouldn’t have understood about the one coming who we know as Christ, but his words prepare the way for our Messiah 700 years later. Christians looking back recognize that Isaiah’s shoot of the stump of Jesse is none other than Jesus, the savior of the world. Indeed, Jesus describes himself as part of the vineyard: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” (John 15:1) And every person who follows after Jesus gives witness to the fact that just when there was only a wasteland of crushed expectations, God in Jesus has nevertheless brought forth deliverance from despair. And in these years after Jesus’ own passion and victory, we the Church are the living Body of Christ, still at work in the world. He is the vine, and we are the branches now. The shoot that comes out of the stump of injustice and death gives everlasting glory to God. Isaiah saw it, Christ fulfilled it, and the Church continues it as the Body of Christ still today. Even when bloodshed and terror take the place of justice and righteousness, even when all that was supposed to be good goes bad, God is faithful to deliver. Even when God’s heart breaks at the betrayal of life, God doesn’t walk away. A green shoot comes up from the stump, and God works salvation anyway.
We see this time and again throughout all of Scripture. When the first human beings disobey God in the Garden of Eden, God gives them protection—God is faithful. When all the world is destroyed in a flood, God gave Noah the rainbow promise of deliverance—God is faithful. When Moses is a nobody from nowhere, God sends him back to Pharaoh to free a whole people—God is faithful. When Ruth loses her husband, her family and her people, God gives her a new home and makes her the great-grandmother of David—God is faithful. When God’s people are cast away in Babylonian exile, God sings to them there and brings them home again—God is faithful. When Daniel is in a den of lions, God turns them into vegetarians to save his life—God is faithful. When God’s own Child was nailed to a cross and died by human hands, God rolled the stone away and broke open the path to eternal life—God is faithful. When the worst beasts of human terror and sin are unleashed into the world, God judges and rescues out of love, wiping away tears from our eyes—God is faithful. This is the essential Good News at the heart of our faith. Sin and crucifixion are never the end—forgiveness and resurrection await—because God is faithful.
How then will we live in response to this faithful God? The only way I know is gratitude, which pours out in Christ-like actions for the world. Not because anyone earns it in this unfaithful vineyard (least of all ourselves), but because our thankfulness to a faithful God leads us to show grace and mercy.
Last spring during Lent our book group read Anne Lamott’s little book on three essential prayers, Help, Thanks, Wow. In the chapter on thanks, Lamott writes that “gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides.” She goes on to describe the gratitude that moves from acts of praise into words of service: “…God’s idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter. God must love to see us serving food at the soup kitchen…or hear us calling our meth-head cousin just to check in because no one else in the family speaks to him. He can be long-winded and a handful, but we used to put each other’s peas in the glasses of root beer at holiday dinners, so we have history together…. I really believe that God’s idea of a good time is also to see us sharing what we have worked so hard to have….”
We are drawn here today because we know the power of God’s faithfulness. We sing, speak and pray our praise to God in this assembly. We pledge our money, our time and our gifts so that God’s deliverance continues to be manifest in this place. And when we gather with loved ones at a Thanksgiving meal on Thursday, or the countless meals of our lives, our lives breathe gratitude. The story of God’s faithfulness calls us together each week, and sends us out again with renewed hope. Sin, terror and death will never be the last word. An everlasting shoot has come out from the stump of Jesse.
Let us pray: Ever-faithful God, you rescue even when humanity is at our worst. Work your resurrection power in us and all the world. Fill us with gratitude and send us out to show your grace. Amen.
 Jeffry W. Carter, “Isaiah 5:1-7—Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 124.
 Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 56-57.
 Lamott, 58.59.