The following sermon was preached by Revd Dr Roger Paavola, President of the Mid-South District of the LCMS in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel on Wednesday, 2 March 2016. The text is Isaiah 5:1-7.
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ. It is a great honour to be with you—with my dear faculty friends, and seminarians of my Alma Mater. While I was here, one of my favourite road trips wasn’t too far from here. Go past the Welland Canal and take a side road along the gorge toward Niagara-on-the-Lake. You’ll see dozens of vineyards and wineries dotting the countryside. Their investments are gigantic; all with a guarded hope that the vines once planted, will produce an abundant crop, and a sweet delightful final product. Contrast those with a grape vine that grew next to my childhood home. It produced hundreds of grapes every year. But, because of acidic soil, the grapes were bitter, more like choke cherries than grapes.
Therein lies the difference the prophet Isaiah described. Read the Hebrew in its beautiful poetic form; he pictures the love God tendered on His vineyard. His relationship with His Vineyard is shown in the deep personal loving care. God, the Vineyard owner, says, “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; He built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine press in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes…” From our Christian perspective, we can unpack the symbolism of Isaiah’s poetry: The fertile hill is the horn of a mountain—an area that receives both an abundance of nourishing rain and warm sun. Isaiah’s poetry describes a choice hill, freed of confounding stones, worked painstakingly by hand, and planted with the choicest of vines.
Further, Martin Luther’s commentary identifies the choice vines as our forefathers of faith: Abraham, Isaac, David, and the faithful kings of Israel. Citing Romans 12, Luther posits that the winepress is the mortifying of the Old Adam—our human nature. He describes the watchtower as symbolic of God’s Word, His promise, and Mercy Seat … the things in faithful spiritual worship. By Luther’s description, we begin to see details of God’s planning: loving care, and meticulous tending … hard work … and how it applies to us today.
From all His efforts, God expected an abundance of the richest fruit. So, when Jesus spoke to the crowd in the Gospel lesson, the Pharisees, and high priests knew full-well that He was speaking of Isaiah’s condemning prophecy to them. They saw, but turned a blinded eye to the mirror of God’s Precepts. No cultivating, pruning, or fertilizing could solve the sour substance of their hearts or sweeten the bitter fruit of their idolatry … sour grapes
As this wonderful song of Isaiah began, their unfettered pride, was afforded sweet minstrel-like tones and harmless poetry. But quickly, Isaiah’s prophecy turns into a dirge of painful severity and horrible desolation. Seeing the pungent evidence of their veneration, God rhetorically asks, “Judge between Me and My vineyard. What more was there to do for My vineyard, that I have not done in it? BECAUSE … When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield stinking, wild, sour grapes?”
Christ pleads us to, “Look into your own heart!” Look at the evidence: In the past, Israel’s apostasy produced nothing but fruitless service … punctuated with evidence of its disregard of God’s loving care. But, this spiritual ineptitude repeated its sour results, once again, at the time of Christ. The resulting fruit in both cases did NOT produce what God desired. But, this isn’t literally about bad wine, or a bad fermentation. Isaiah’s prophecy makes it absolutely clear that their desolation is all about their stinking and sour relationship with God. Jesus echoes the theme of this prophecy, saying, “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit. The good person, out of the good treasure of his heart, produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” A wooden translation of Luke’s Greek illustrates the gravity of depravity: “But out of the ‘evil of evils’ brings forth an evil in abundance, out of his heart.” In other words, evil’s worst evil … boils over in over-flowing, sour, acrid abundance.
Therefore, Almighty God pronounced His righteous judgment: “So, 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; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” Make no mistake! The Maker of heaven and earth spoke! He’s pronounced that, not only was Israel’s spiritual kingdom going to break down, but her political kingdom will be utterly trampled and laid waste.
God’s righteous anger was kindled by the evidence: “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; For righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” The total disregard of God’s desire for sweet, satisfying results of HIS WORK in His chosen people was largely ignored by a careless clergy, and an idolatrous people. He warned that His mantel of grace could be removed. Good works, masquerading as righteousness, are the enemy of justification! The distinction of Law and Gospel is the work of God to save the world through Christ who became sin for us, that we may be justified and led in sanctification. But, where the pure Law of God is not truly preached, unrecognized sin cannot be reproved … No cure can be applied … And the Gospel’s grace cannot be offered. Shallow, meaningless worship speaks only on self-improvement or proving one’s worthiness by their good works, is perfunctory at best or destructive at worst.
The result is an uninformed clergy who throw their hands up in the air over the dwindling numbers, “We have to do something!” The situation is exacerbated by a gullible people who seek entertainment over devoted worship. They don’t want to view the Cross of Christ because it may remind them of their sin and a need for a Saviour. No … the vocabulary of grace requires acknowledgement of sin.
Isaiah’s prophetic disaster happened within a few years when Assyria laid siege on the land. Within a few generations later, Babylon swept into the Kingdom, enslaved able bodied men, destroyed the Temple, took the holy things of God, and crushed the City of Jerusalem – ye-ru-she-layim – the foundation of peace. And, yet, despite God’s desire for mercy, and despite Christ’s warnings centuries later, the Holy City was also destroyed – not one stone left atop another.
Is there something for us to learn from a prophet of almost 3000 years ago? Know this: Fruitfulness – genuine good works – sanctification … are not the result of human achievement. The “good fruit” in daily Christian living comes in the abiding love of God in Christ, and the movement of the Holy Spirit. We’re only fruitful because of the true Vine, Jesus Christ in our Baptisms. We cannot bear good fruit on our own, or even survive apart from Him. Jesus said, “This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be My disciples.”
Our feeble attempts to help God guide and preserve His Church have only accelerated the path toward desolation and despair. Today God asks, “What more could I have done for My Holy Christian Church?” She was established at the price of His Son’s perfect life and innocent blood. We’re freed from the condemnation of our sin. God guards and protects Her from heresy and protects Her in times of persecution. His Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, directs, and empowers Her people to live in His grace today, on to glory everlasting.
Is the visible Church God entrusted to our care, producing the fruit of the evidence of Godliness… or is it a precursors of desolation? How many times … in His eternal love and mercy… will God forgive His Church today if she wavers from the doctrines in His Word? What will it take for the visible Church on earth to strive to mirror the pure and holy Invisible Church founded on Christ.
We pray His mercy may restore us for the sake of Jesus Christ. Led in true Lenten reflection, God assures us of His undeserved grace, for the sake of Jesus Christ. And, yet, today, we celebrate another privilege—the incomprehensible gift of grace. Despite the acidic soil of Eden, destroyed by sin … and despite the crude tree of innocent suffering on Calvary’s rocky crest, the Tree of Life is our eternal hope in the sweetest Fruit from Christ’s pierced side, and from His body that bore the weight of the sins of all the world … in the divine mystery under and with bread and wine.
Whatever shortcomings we collectively—in the privilege and responsibility of the visible body of Christ—may produce, and the visible church’s some-times-complacency toward a fruitful Christian life … this Holy, Lenten Season reminds us, that God still offers forgiveness and strengthening of our faith. May we, this Lententide, live in the joy of knowing His mercies are new to us each day, and that by His Spirit, we are given the distinct privilege and expectations to bear the fruit in His design and for His purpose. Amen.