I admire people who build things. I have never been very handy myself so it is always astounding to me that someone can have the vision, patience, and skill to build something from scratch. People who build things know their craft inside and out. They know when it is ready, when it fits into the mental picture they had before they started, and when something is out of place. I often find myself looking around our church buildings and scratching my head thinking, “Is that where that is supposed to go? Why did they build it that way? That seems out of place.” Other preachers can relate to this, but perhaps they can relate even more to the response of the people – “That is how it has always been.” It is often our perception as people who are new to a community that limits our understanding of what does and does not belong. We are figuring out the ins and outs of a community and will perhaps never know why things are the way they are. Why? Because we did not build it, so we do not often get to decide what is seen as out of place. Yet, we also know that our people’s perspective as insiders to a community limits them too. They are so used to things being “the way they have been” that perhaps what is out of place is now accepted as normal. I admire people who build things because I long for the comfort and control of not only knowing that something is “in order” but also to know how to fix what is not.
God is the builder, not of a building or even as the song speaks of in Isaiah, a vineyard, but of a whole creation, and more specifically a community called Israel. The prophet Isaiah is speaking to a people who accept the reality that God is their builder. He begins by reciting a hymn, almost a love song from Isaiah about God’s vineyard – the people God has built. This song speaks of a loving gardener who carefully plants the seeds, nurturing them in their due season. He removed the stones, the barriers to growth and planted choice vines. He built a watchtower, that he might protect and sustains the vineyard, limiting outside growth and intrusion from other seed, weed, or thief that might threaten the growth of the vineyard. The gardener even built a wine press, so confident he was in the success of the crop. He had plans for this vineyard! The analogy is clearly pointing to God as creator, not only of the whole world, but specifically of a people whom God freed and set limits in covenant with them, and gave them land and life. God is the builder and grower of this vineyard – we can perhaps envision Isaiah pointing to his audience – “That means you!” The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is Israel and Judah – He cared for them, built them up, established them. He had plans for them.
However, there is a problem. In the vineyard, wild grapes grew among those sown by the builder. Sour grapes grew among the sweet. What is Isaiah’s theological response to this crisis? First, it is not God’s fault. The people could very well have taken this statement against them and turned it back toward God, blaming God for the problem. Isaiah anticipates some push back to the diagnosis that “wild grapes” have grown among God’s people. Isaiah says, “Judge between me and my vineyard!” In other words, take a look at God’s work and the results and compare the two. God has done all that is necessary for the people of Israel to thrive and grow and fulfill God’s purposes. Yet something else has grown up. It was not from some outsider who forcefully planted the seeds. God was watchful! It was not because of God’s lack of preparation. God picked choice seed, and had high hopes and plans for the not-yet-grown fruit. God built the winepress already! God knew the ins and outs of the vineyard and loved it. God knew God’s people and loved them and did all that was necessary for them to be whole and holy. So, the blame falls on the people. It was because of their own choices (because of things happening within the vineyard, so to speak) that we see a wicked result. There is no fault in God here, but there is a problem with the people that needs to be addressed.
Second, Isaiah’s oracle decrees that God defines what is out of place. What exactly did God find growing that God did not plant? Of this, we do not have to wonder – injustice and bloodshed, unrighteousness and the cries of people. The people that God freed from injustice and unrighteousness in Egypt have themselves become the very thing they cried out to the Lord to free them from. The people of God have mistreated their neighbor and one another. Those who were once oppressed have become violent oppressors. We are not sure at the people’s response to this, but my guess would be that of shock. If you did a survey of the people of Israel back then asking, “What is out of place in your world,” I am not sure their answer would have come back with a resounding “Us!” Perhaps they would have pointed to foreign powers, certain failed worship observances, or even (as addressed above) to God. Yet, God points to the mistreatment of neighbor and the injustice amongst them as the “sour grapes” that don’t belong in the vineyard. I wonder if we were to think about what does or does not belong in our own communities, what we would point to. Lately, we seem to be pointing to the “other” – to a particular generation, political party, group, etc. Our perception as people inside the vineyard of the Church is clouded because we already have our own idea of what is in and out of place. But the truth is, we did not build the Church! God did! So, when God confronts us about what kind of actions do or do not belong in the church, we cannot argue. And as far as this passage testifies, it is especially the mistreatment of others, the exclusion of others, and the oppression of others that does not belong to the Church. Tolerance of such things and/or participation in such things is a corruption amongst God’s people, not because we say so but because God built us and knows best. God’s purposes have supremacy over ours!
Finally, we hear the uncomfortable but good news that God is the one who will make things right. Just as God built the vineyard, God can tear it down! God knows what needs to happen for there to be renewal. The unrighteousness and injustice amongst the people of God cannot stand. It does not belong. This might lead us to ask, “Is there hope for the vineyard?” While in this passage, God does not speak directly of the plan to rebuild, we know that God has hope for God’s people because of the way that God built them up. God built the vineyard with the winepress already there. God knows the potential of God’s people, but just as the people could not have established and created themselves, it is only God who can redeem them. How does a problem so interwoven into the people get fixed? It is uprooting and tearing down that is necessary for change to occur. This picture that Isaiah paints resembles God’s commission to the prophet Jeremiah: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant (Jer. 1:10).” In order for there to be a change for the vineyard, God will tear down the watchtower, the winepress and will have to uproot the ground so that the wild grapes will have no part in the rebuilding. It is only through a grand restructuring that God can bring new creation to such a broken vineyard. It is uncomfortable, and not easy. Yet, we take hope that the one who built the vineyard – the one who built creation, Israel, the Church, and is building the Kingdom – knows when things are out of place. What is more, God knows how to fix the problem. Indeed, God is not shy about pointing it out and demanding that we follow God toward the Kingdom vision God has for us. God has built us, established us, sustained us, and in Christ has done all that is necessary for us to be whole and holy. Even with the things that are out of place, God can repair and rebuild us. The God who created is the God who saves. God has plans for us!