Proper 22, Year A, St. Michael’s Church, Cookeville

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste…” (Is. 5:5-6).

This week’s news stories included one about wildfires in Northern California, burning through the wine country of the Napa Valley. (By the way, tuning into the news these days requires spiritual fortitude, so I hope I am not burdening you too much with this story.) The so-called Glass Fire grew overnight from less than a thousand acres to ten times that size, over two counties, burning buildings and fields that were overtaken by sudden catastrophe. As we all know, it’s just the latest in a series of events that have marked this incredibly trying year, including our own tornadoes in Middle Tennessee and here in Putnam County.

I mention the fires in Napa because they hold up a mirror of sorts to our first reading from the prophet Isaiah. Not only because it is a song about a vineyard, one that is overtaken by disaster, but also because the reading speaks to a catastrophe that takes place for a whole society. The prophets spoke about ancient Israel as a vineyard planted by God., and we see this reflected not only in our reading but in our psalm as well. “You have brought a vine out of Egypt; * you cast out the nations and planted it” (Ps. 80:8). Here, we understand that the vine that is transplanted from Egypt to the promised land is Israel itself. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,” as it says in our reading.

For the prophet Isaiah, the vineyard is planted by YHWH, but it fails to live up to expectations. God expected a good yield of grapes from the vineyard, but instead of the ones that were anticipated, inferior wild grapes sprang up, bringing a lousy vintage. Suddenly, God is bringing a complaint against his People for failure to perform. All the hard work of planting is reversed as YHWH tears down the hedge and breaks down the wall. Now no longer pruned or hoed, the vineyard becomes a ruin. It’s not the Glass Fire in Northern California, precisely; but it is devastating for the vineyard.

Isaiah’s prophecy reflects what actually happened to the People of Israel. Foreign invaders finished off the process of deterioration that began with faithless, feckless, and oppressive leadership. Disaster overtook the nation; the People went into exile; the walls of the city were laid waste. Isaiah’s prophecy served, not so much as a portent of doom, as a reminder of God’s providence. Everything that happened took place in keeping with God’s intention. God was still keeping faith with the People in spite of the catastrophe around them.

Hope springs forth even in the midst of the most spiritually trying times, in the midst of pandemic and everything else. We see it in our psalm, in the joyful shout, “Restore us, O God of hosts; * show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (Ps. 80:7). “The light of your countenance” is a euphemism for the presence of God: being within God’s range, within his field of vision, in sight of YHWH himself. “The Lord make his face to shine upon you” (Num. 6:25), from the Aaronic blessing, is no more nor less than the invocation of the powerful presence of God: YHWH ready to save.

We see the same hope in our Gospel reading, where our Lord Jesus Christ takes up the ancient description of Israel as God’s vineyard. As Jesus tells the story of the vineyard, it becomes a parable of the kingdom, of Jesus’ own death. He’s the son of the owner of the vineyard, which has fallen into the hands of wicked tenants. The owner sends his son to claim his own, but the tenants kill the son. Talk about faithless, feckless, and oppressive leadership! Here Jesus means the religious leaders of the People, who conspired to kill him.

Yet even here, hope breaks forth. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes” (Matt. 21:42). Here, in this verse from Psalm 118, quoted by Jesus, we have moved beyond the story of the vineyard. Now, in the remembered verse, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is foreshadowed. What was despised and discarded has actually become the hope of Israel, and of the entire world. God was still keeping faith with the People, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah in a way that no one in the Prophet’s day could have expected.

As always, the Good News of Jesus Christ reminds us that God is still keeping faith with us. We are folk who are contending with many challenges, but God is faithful. Hope springs forth in the most difficult times, in the times of challenge that overtake us. Perhaps this is truer then than it is at other times. Here and now, God is still God. He is ready to save, and he will restore us.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee