Isaiah’s Vineyard Song
A Sermon for Northminster Church
Preached by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
November 13, 2022
Isaiah 5:1-7 & 11:1-10
When Sam Cooke’s song “A Change Is Gonna Come” hit the radio in 1964, listeners didn’t get to hear the whole song. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s protest song, “Blowin’ in the Wind” Cooke longed “to explore something more serious in his music. This new sense of urgency... was manifested in one of “Change’s” most striking lines: “I go to the movies, and I go downtown/But somebody keeps telling me, don’t hang around.” But the potentially controversial line was deleted when “Change” debuted on the radio and the only way to hear the full song was to buy the long-playing album.
Despite the censorship, “A Change Is Gonna Come” became part of the social consciousness as the Civil Rights Movement continued without Cooke who was killed later that year. Eventually “Change” became “a metaphor for human uplift”...and in the 58 years since its release “has grown into an anthem of the civil rights movement, an epitaph for a great performer, and an iconic piece of music.”
Speaking truth to power, exposing injustice and corruption, calling for political and societal change - this is one of the many powers of music. And our modern music catalog is full of artists who use their music to comment on the world. Of course, the 1960s and 1970 were replete with music protesting the Vietnam War - Edwin Star’s 1970’s hit “War” and John Lennon’s indelible 1971 anthem “Imagine” come immediately to mind - but Jazz legend Billie Holiday took a risk even earlier. In 1939 she recorded the song “Strange Fruit.”
Originally a poem written by Abel Meerpool, “Strange Fruit” was written as a stinging indictment of lynching and the treatment of African Americans. The song is now considered one of the greatest in recorded history and includes these lyrics, “Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
U2’s 1983 song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” Public Enemy’s 1989 song “Fight the Power,” much of Bob Dylan’s repertoire, and even Macklemore’s 2012 song “Same Love” continue this truth-telling tradition. And all of these records have one thing in common; they’re more than just another love song. They’re comments on the world.
This first half of this morning’s Hebrew Bible passage from Isaiah 5 is commonly referred to as “Isaiah’s Vineyard Song” and it’s also a comment on the world. In addition, it’s pure poetry. Poetry gives God space to speak from a more theologically elevated position than normal human discourse is capable of. And poetry by its very nature makes memorization easier, though it’s difficult to believe people would have joined Isaiah in singing this song.
Writing in 8th century Jerusalem and roughly contemporary to Hosea, Isaiah’s voice is often raised in “vehement castigations of social and economic injustices in Judah.” But as with the prophet Nathan’s rebuke of King David, Isaiah’s message isn’t immediately clear as he begins with this language of the vineyard, a common motif for a lover because it’s reminiscent of language in Song of Songs. God is the lover “and the vineyard over which the lover labors is the people of Israel.”
Isaiah’s tone changes in verse 5, however,
“Now I am going to tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will remove its hedge, that it may be ravaged; I will break down its wall, that it may be trampled.”
It becomes apparent that God is speaking and rebuking the people. As Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel notes in his classic work The Prophets, God’s “care for the vineyard [has] been to no avail.” The people have turned away, they’re worship other gods, they have no use for the God who loves them so dearly. And yet, as Rabbi Heschel continues, “[God] feels hurt at the thought of abandoning the vineyard,” abandoning the people of Israel. God rejoiced in these people. She placed “so much hope and care [in them]...The vineyard was planted to yield righteousness and justice. Yet the only fruit it yielded was violence and outrage.”
And so, we hear God’s plan to remove divine nurturing and protection from the vineyard. From taking away the hedges to controlling the weather, God describes the end of every protection, the removal of all safeguards. Let’s be clear; this is a systematic up-rooting. Much like the thoroughness a gardener needs to get rid of Bermuda grass, it’s milky white roots capable of growing through all barriers, God is going to remove this vineyard, this people who’ve so broken Her heart.
If God wasn’t already disappointed, “the vintner’s expectation is brutally dashed in the poem’s final verse,” for it is a scathing conclusion to this prophet’s song. The wordplay can’t be fully conveyed in English, but the difference in meaning between a few like-sounding words in Hebrew makes the vineyard’s yield clear. The flipping of these words expresses “the perversion of values by the Judahites.”
Where God looked for justice (mishpat), there was bloodshed (mispeh) and instead of righteousness (tsedekah), there was outcry (tsa’aqah).
The closest English approximation is this: “He hoped for justice, and look, jaundice / for righteousness, and look, wretchedness.” As Dr. Margaret Odell summarizes this telling verse, “suffice it to say that the resulting harvest is not simply poor or inadequate, it is evil.”
Think for a moment about the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Performed an estimated 10 million times and appearing on over 11,000 albums, you likely know it was written by slave-trader, turned Anglican minister John Newton. What you might not know is that even after writing “Amazing Grace” in 1772, it took Newton 34 years to renounce his former profession.
In 1788 the pamphlet “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade” was published for a shilling. In it, Newton described the horrific conditions on slave ships and spoke of his shame at ever being involved in the trade saying in part, “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
That’s where this sermon stopped before I left for Montgomery this weekend for the Alliance of Baptists Fall Gathering. Our gathering focus was “Excavating our Roots,” the Alliance’s continued effort for racial justice and we had the privilege of visiting both The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I recommend them both to you, though not on the same day. More importantly for this sermon, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit I learned something I’d never known about “Amazing Grace” from the Alliance’s Co-Director Rev. Elijah Zehyoue. Elijah made sure to mention in his lecture that was in part about the Middle Passage that while Newton wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” the tune is unknown. Historians have suggested that perhaps it’s unknown because it was taken, as so much else was taken, by the human beings forced in the bowels of Newton’s slave ships.
I remind you of this story because like Isaiah’s Vineyard Song, “Amazing Grace” is a song inspired by darkness. They’re both poetry that would not have come to be if humans treated each and God with the same love and respect God gives us. At the core of each is violence.
But thanks be to God, “Amazing Grace” encapsulates a message of hope that’s also found in the second half of this morning’s reading from Isaiah 11. In these well-known words, hope springs from a stump or in the Hebrew “geza” which refers to both a tree that’s been cut down and a living tree. This living tree, this stump of Jesse, this leader upon whom the Spirit of the Lord shall rest will not only bring about a rightly ordered world but an idyllic world in which the poor will be treated fairly.
Violence will not be part of this world as can be seen with natural predators being able to lie down together. Differences will still exist, but the king will “always render accurate and fair judgments.” And while there will still be a conflict between nations, they will be settled non-violently. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a world?
My friends, the Good News this morning is that such a world is possible. I know another school shooting makes us doubt it. I know the state of our political system makes us doubt it. The realities of climate change should make us doubt our planet's safety. And on and on the list goes. Threats and challenges assault us from all sides and if we’re not careful, they are all we see. But as we prepare ourselves for another holiday season, as the chill in the air and the shortness of the days remind us it is winter, we should also remember the one who is to come. The one who fulfills Isaiah’s hopeful words.
Do we live in a world in which wolves can dwell with lambs and lions can lie down together? No, at least not for more than a couple of minutes. But there is one who’s coming to challenge our cynicism and capture our imaginations. To be the embodiment of hope and love in the world.
Our task, our responsibility, is to be a vineyard that produces good grapes. To make choices individually and collectively so that God’s justice for the trans and the immigrants is possible and alive now. To take steps as a congregation to speak-out and stand up for God’s righteous hospitality to Dreamers and unending love to the working poor and those affected by gun violence.
It’s not enough for us to live in anticipation of the time that is to come. We’re to be striving for this ideal world. We’re to be taking the love and care of the God who tends and protects us to everyone we meet. Our task my friends is to sing a new song. A song of hard work, of love and loyalty, and most of all, hope.