Vicar's Sermon - August 14th 2016
The Good Friday service in church is one of the main services of the Church Year. As we are in Olympic mode at the moment I suppose it could best be described in terms of representing the ‘hard yards’ of the Pilgrim journey. I realise that not everyone is free to attend the Last Hour here in church but it’s a hard sell to persuade people to attend at the best of times: the Good Friday Liturgy is as dry as dust – purposely so. Long bible readings, long and hard prayers, and there is hardly any light relief in the form of hymns. The church is bare, having been stripped of all colour the night before at the Maundy Thursday eucharist. In recent years I have placed this great cross at the front of the nave. Central to the liturgy is a section called the ‘veneration of the cross’. Here in Barney I haven’t been brave enough to invite people forward to kiss the cross (as they do I some churches) but the cross stands before us and words of reproach are read to us.
The Reproaches consist of a number of reflections in which God speaks to us directly. The shape of each verse takes the same form. ‘I did this for you,’ says God, ‘I gave you this and this and this but you have rejected me, you have turned away from me’. Again and again the words of the liturgy hit home. ‘What more could I have done for you, what have I not done for you. Turn again my people and return to me’.
The song of the vineyard that forms our first reading is one of the earliest examples of this tradition of ‘reproach’. As you can see from the way the text is laid out in our reading this part of Isaiah’s prophecy is set out as a poem. Sometimes it is the prophet who is speaking, sometimes God. The first verse seems to be placed in the prophet’s voice, the middle of the reading has God speaking in the first person. Verse 7 reads as Isaiah’s clarification of the meaning of the prophecy. But the clarification is hardly needed, the meaning is clear. The psalm this morning, psalm 80, simply underlines the use of the imagery of the vineyard as a picture for the nation Israel. ‘The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting’.
Have you ever had the experience where you ask for a cup of tea (at home or in a café), take your first sip and find that you’ve picked up the wrong cup – it’s coffee instead and your taste buds struggle to make sense of what they are tasting. On holiday on the last night in our holiday cottage deep in the depths of France we ordered take away pizzas from the local café St Amand Magnazeix. I collected them all but when we got them home we realised that our French wasn’t as good as we thought: the jambon on the pizza was not the sliced ham we thought it would be but tiny lardons of bacon. The pizza was delicious but the feeling of disappointment at not getting what we expected cast a long shadow over the meal.
In the scripture God is portrayed as being confused about what went wrong with the life of the people of Israel. He lists the things he did for His people. His vineyard is on a very fertile hill, he digs it, he clears it of stones, he plants only choice vines, he protects it and watches over it from the watchtower and he lives in expectation of filling his wine vat with finest wine. – wine to be shared and drunk. Everything possible has been done. The vineyard owner has done everything right, he has gone over and beyond what might have been expected. He has invested time and energy into preparing his vineyard but then, instead of grapes it yields ‘wild grapes’. His expectations are shattered. How can this be? How has this happened?
In the New Testament there is a similar story, this time of a farmer who plants a field and looks toward a harvest of wheat or corn only to find weeds growing up in the field. But in that story we are told that ‘an enemy’ sows the weeds or tares in the field. Not so with the song of the vineyard. God is confounded as to why his vineyard has not produced in the way it should have done. In verses 3 and 4 he asks the people themselves to reflect on his situation ‘what more could I have done that I have not done in it?’ he asks them. He despairs. He is at His wits end to know what to do now but he then comes to a momentous decision – he will dismantle all his previous work, the vineyard will be left to be overgrown, it will become wasteland.
As far as this prophecy is concerned this is the end. This song has no more verses. God’s decision here is to draw a line under his relationship with the people of Israel. The long shared history that began with the covenant with Abram is to end. God and Israel have had their ups and downs – the faithlessness of the people has been a constant down the years - but they have worked through their difficulties but ‘it takes two to tango’ (as they say) and, with Israel ‘unwilling’ now it appears that God is set to walk away from the covenant.
We know, and Isaiah and the later prophets will realise, that there is still room for hope in the relationship between God and His people. But for today how do we hear this song of the vineyard? At one level it is, of course, about the particular relationship that God had (and continues to have) with His chosen people the Jews, but Christian tradition has long seen ‘the church’ as being the ‘new Israel’, how do we hear these words?
In amongst a message for us today there must surely be a recognition of God’s provision for us. Modern western culture has no space left for God and most of us modern western Christians have reduced His activity in the world to some ill-defined moral compass or spiritual experience buried deep within our hearts. Our predecessors in the faith worked with a bigger understanding of God and painted on a bigger canvass through something they called ‘providence’, an understanding of the world that didn’t just have a place for God within it but saw the whole of life taking place against the background of God’s continual, faithful presence. For all the difficulties we might have of identifying particular acts or actions with the sole work of God might we at least be brave enough to reclaim a recognition that God’s Spirit is at work sustaining the world in which we live? If we believe that His spirit is inspiring, renewing and recreating the world, nudging and encouraging it towards Christlikeness can we take the next step of voicing where we see Him at work? Can we not seek out His likeness in our community, in our friendships, in the social structures that support and nurture us and thank God for all His gifts openly, giving voice to a recognition of His work on our behalf, counting our blessings as individuals but also as His people? ‘What more could I have done for you that I have not done for you?’ God pours out His goodness upon us but we fail to recognise it.
And then, recognising God’s grace (for in the end that is what we are talking about, his unmerited goodness flowing towards us) this reading makes clear that we are expected to show some fruit, to offer some sign that God’s life is working through us. The song of the vineyard suggests that this should be a wholly natural outcome of our relationship with God but the surprise for us as Christians is in the form that this fruit takes. Again, modern western culture limits the place of faith to the interior life of the believer: the ‘fruit of faith’ tends to be described in terms of ‘a sense of peace’, of ‘forgiveness and acceptance’ – rightly so, these are to found in individuals as they rediscover who they are in the eyes of God. But the fruit that God looks for in this passage at least is to be found in the public sphere: ‘he expected justice, he looked for righteousness’. Once again in these summer months our bible readings are challenging us to be socially engaged: the whole point of God having a chosen people in the first place is for the blessing of the world. If we are not doing that we have lost our vocation and who knows, maybe there’s another hard song to be written?