Sunday, August 19, 2007

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Galatians 5:16-26; Luke 20:9-19


You hear that line, you probably think of the nursery rhyme:

Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

A nice little verse to teach the children, right? But many traditional nursery rhymes started out as the sung version of political cartoons. This one is most likely about Queen Mary Tudor.

Mary was the elder daughter of Henry VIII, who split the Church of England off from Rome. By the time Mary became queen, her younger half-brother Edward VI had been working several years to make England thoroughly Protestant. But Mary was Roman Catholic to the core. Whatever it took, she was going to return England to the Pope and what she saw as the True Faith of the Roman Catholic Church.

But the majority of her subjects disagreed. To them, she was "quite contrary"-- she was trying to reunite them with Rome when they wanted the Reformation. And she was making of England a strange garden. Again there were silver bells: the restoration of the pomp and ceremony of Roman Catholic liturgy, especially to the bells that are rung when the priest is said to be turning the bread and wine into the physical body of our Lord Jesus Christ. There were cockle shells: Cockle shells were the souvenir badge of someone who’d made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain in order to gain forgiveness of his sins. Protestants did not believe in pilgrimages to earn forgiveness. Catholics did.

And Queen Mary planted the "pretty maids all in a row." Some say that refers to the graves of all the Protestant martyrs she caused to be executed. Others say it’s a grim reference to the torture device called the iron maiden. However it was, Bloody Mary sowed quite a crop in her day, and the result was bloodshed, confusion, strife, and economic disaster.

That’s what happens too often when we human beings start sowing our gardens in this world. But when God Almighty plants a garden, then all will be well, right? Any songs about His gardening work will be songs of joy, correct?

Or maybe not.

Children sang of Queen Mary and her disastrous garden in the streets of Tudor England, but long before that, the prophet Isaiah was singing a song of the Lord God and His tragic vineyard in the temple courts of ancient Jerusalem.

How did God’s vineyard grow? Not so well, actually.

The Lord has planted it in an ideal spot with the richest soil. He’s dug the ground and cleared it of stones-- no obstacles are going to hamper the roots of His vines! He’s chosen the best vines available and surrounded it with a hedge and a wall to keep the wild animals out. He's built a watchtower to keep a lookout for thieves, and a winepress that's waiting to receive the grapes at harvest time. The Lord God has followed all the best practices of viticulture-- but instead of sweet, juicy grapes, all He gets is stinky-sour little marbles.

As Isaiah sang his song of the Lord’s vineyard, his hearers would agree, yes, there was something very wrong with those vines. The owner of the vineyard was sorely cheated. Somebody really should pay. But by the end of the song, they’d have to realize that they were the rotten, fruitless vines. They and their countrymen were the cheats, the ones who would pay:

"The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the house of Israel
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight."

At least, they were supposed to be. But the Gentile nations could have pointed their fingers at Judah and sung,

O God of Israel, God of Israel,
How does your vineyard grow?
With oppression and strife and cheapness of life
And murderers all in a row.

But the Lord didn’t plant His vineyard that way! He’d lavished every advantage on Israel and Judah! I’ve read that the only difference between a wild sour grape vine and a cultivated sweet one is the work of cultivation. If a wild vine is cultivated, it doesn’t stay wild. And if a people are graced with the Law and favor of God, they shouldn’t stay godless and self-centered. But the Lord looked upon Judah, the garden of His delight. And where He expected the fruit of justice, He found murder and bloodshed. Not just the murder of the dark alley, not just the slaying of the helpless wife by the drunken husband, but so-called "legal" murder: judges sentencing the innocent to death: the rich cheating the poor out of their houses and lands and turning them out to starve and die. The Lord reached out His hand for the fruit of righteousness: right relationships, kindness and consideration between family members and neighbors, and true worship towards Himself, but pulled it back in horror when it touched nothing but the slugs of oppression, misery, and distress.

The Lord says through the mouth of His prophet, "What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?"

The answer, of course, is nothing. So what will God do?

He will give His people what they deserve for their sins. He will prune them through war and devastation, ruin and exile. He would no longer let them think that He does not demand justice, righteousness, and every fruit of virtue in His garden. He would no longer let them mistake His grace for indulgence and His mercy for approval of their crimes and sins.

About 700 years after Isaiah, another Prophet sits teaching in the temple courts in Jerusalem. It is Jesus of Nazareth, and He, too, sings of God the Beloved, and how His vineyard grows. This time, it seems there is fruit for the Lord to enjoy-- if only He can get what He is due.

For after the Lord purged and pruned His people in the Babylonian exile, He led them back home and planted them again in their own land. He set leaders over them, tenant farmers who were to cultivate the people and lead them in the ways of the Lord. They were to teach the people the Law and see that they bore fruit worthy of His name.

But a long time passed. And priests and scribes and teachers of the Law who were the tenants of the Lord’s vineyard forgot why they were there. They claimed allegiance to their Landlord and His Law, but they got more and more tied up with how they thought things should be. They began to look on God’s people as their own, to prune and cultivate and feed upon as they saw fit. They didn’t appreciate interference from outside, even from God Himself!

In this they were only following the bad example of religious and civil leaders from Isaiah’s time and before--and since. It’s what happens any time that the caretakers of God’s vineyard focus on doing their own will under the cover of God’s name instead of on doing God’s will in God’s name.

So when God the Landlord sent His servants the prophets to claim the fruit of godliness, righteousness, and justice, His tenants did them violence and sent them back with no grapes, only the strange red fruit of blood and wounds.

Jesus knew His hearers would be scandalized in the Owner’s behalf, just as Isaiah’s audience was. Jesus also knew they’d be ripe with fury when they realized His song was about them. At the climax of His parable, He describes a crime against God the Landlord that hadn’t been committed yet but would be soon-- the slaying of the Owner’s own Son who was sent to collect the fruit of the vineyard on His behalf. Did the teachers of the law realize that Jesus was talking about Himself? Whether or not, they seemed very eager to prove they were capable of the enormity He accused them of.

For their crimes, the doom of the tenants is the same as the doom of the bad vines in Isaiah’s song--death, destruction and loss.

That’s how it is. When God lavishes care on human beings, He expects and deserves worship and obedience in return. When God invests anyone with a sacred trust, He expects and deserves that that leader shall render up the fruit of it whenever God requires. God has a right to expect that His vineyard shall grow and bear fruit and be taken care of very, very well.

But we’ve seen that that very seldom happens. It’s not God’s fault. It’s not even a particular problem with the Jews. It’s how things are with humanity in general. The best of us given the best of advantages cannot come up to God’s righteous expectations. It’s the sinful nature and its natural selfishness. It’s the worm of original sin working away in our hearts.

Didn’t God realize that about us when He planted His vineyard? Of course He did. But both our Lord and His prophet Isaiah are speaking on our human level. We’re made in His image and we’re responsible for what we do and are before the Lord. In particular, God’s chosen people from Old Testament Israel to the 21st century church are responsible for bearing good fruit for God. Especially, we who claim the name of our Lord Jesus Christ are the vineyard of the Lord in these latter times. We are the garden of His delight. As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, we’re to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. God expects and deserves nothing less from us who have been redeemed by His grace.

If I were a preacher of a certain type, I’d start exhorting you under the pain of the fire of hell to work really, really hard to bear all that good fruit. I’d say you’d better hurry up and work on it, or you won’t inherit the kingdom of God, you’ll get the other place. But that’d be stupid. That’d be like--

Well, it’d be like the sweet pepper plants in my garden. I have four of them, but only three have set on any fruit. The fourth one has plenty of flowers, and a nubbin or two, but no peppers worth speaking of. Well, what if I were to go to the store and buy some green peppers and tied them to that plant with string? Wouldn’t work, would it? They’d just rot.

Or what say I go buy some artificial peppers at the craft store and hang them on the plant? Yeah, right. Try eating that in your salad!

It’s the same way if we try to bear the fruit of the Spirit by our external effort. It’d all be fake. It’d all be rot.

So what are we supposed to do? How can our gardens grow?

By remembering whose gardens they are. Remember: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are the fruit of the Spirit. They are the virtues and obedience that God Himself gives. They are the fruit we bear when He has given Himself to us in His Son and we are joined to Him. "Live by the Spirit," St. Paul writes, "and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." In other words, you will bear the fruit the Lord desires.

We have to get it the right way around. If you say, "If I do this I will live," your fruit will be false and rotten and you will die. But if your mind is, "I will live by the Spirit and so do this," that is peace and pleasure and fellowship with God.

The key to it all is Jesus’ words in John’s gospel, chapter 15. No human being, Jew or Gentile, could ever be the fruitful vine that the Lord requires. No human being, that is, except the God-Man, Jesus Christ. He is the true vine whose fruit is righteousness and justice. We bear fruit only when and if we are connected by faith with Him. And no human leader or vinedresser can truly take care of God’s garden the way God Himself does by His Holy Spirit.

What does this look like in everyday life? I’m learning it’s primarily a matter of faithfulness. It’s putting ourselves under the authority of Scripture and letting the Holy Spirit its Author interpret it to us, and not our own desires.

It’s a matter of union and connection: Union with God in Spirit-led prayer and connection with fellow-believers who can encourage us to keep in step with the Spirit, even when it seems hard.

And it’s a matter of attitude. It’s the Spirit reminding you that Jesus has already borne the perfect fruit of justice and righteousness and that He wants to bear it in you. It’s remembering that Jesus obeyed God perfectly in all He said, thought, and did, and trusting Him to work out His obedience in you. It’s feeding on the most precious fruit that ever hung on a vine or a tree, the fruit of the broken body of our Lord Jesus Christ, dead on the cross for our sins and raised glorious, whole, and shining for our life and exaltation.

Don’t believe it when people tell you that the bad fruit of the sinful nature can be sweetened up by prosperity, education, and good examples. If that were the case, ancient Israel would never needed a Messiah. If that were the case, modern America would have no need for a Saviour now.

But Israel needed Jesus the Christ and so do we. And He’s here, by His Holy Spirit, ready to give you life, ready to cause you to bear fruit, ready to make your garden grow: to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

No comments: