Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Trinity: Vineyards.  Preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 14 August 2022 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Isaiah Ch 5: v 1 – 7; Luke Ch 12: v 49 – 56)

The symbols for countries often feature plants and flowers which are regularly engraved on coins or bank notes so that we will easily think of a rose, leek, thistle, shamrock and daffodil for countries of our own nation. The coins of Israel were prevented from featuring the head of a ruler because of the ban on idolatry which is why the roman coins which pictured the emperor’s head were so despised. So it was that when the revolution against the occupation by Rome came between 66 and 74 AD the Jews issued their own coins. No one’s head was on them of course so they went instead to the plant which had such symbolic meaning for them – the vine with its grapes. The men who spied out the land when the children of Israel took over the land of Canaan reported bunches of grapes so heavy that they had to be slung on a pole and carried by 2 men. Wine was perceived as being a drink of celebration and was one of the hallmarks of the promised land along with milk and honey – a sign of plenty when no one would go hungry. For some, of course, alcohol is a problem and they have to tread the path of abstinence but for many people a glass of wine is enjoyable.

So when Isaiah wanted to give a message to the people he presented it through a parable about a vineyard. By the by we have an interesting description of the best conditions for establishing a vineyard – fertile land on a slope; trenches for the roots and clearance of stones. A watch tower and wine vat were also useful. No doubt the people were intrigued by Isaiah’s introduction to his story but were soon taken aback as he continued by speaking of the wretched yield from his vineyard which had been given every opportunity to do well.

The vineyard clearly stood for Israel and that symbolism was used by other prophets in the OT. Jesus makes use of it too and begins one of his parables in almost the same way as Isaiah to underline that he is referring to that prophet and his story. But it takes a different turn as servants are sent to collect the revenue and are treated with increasing severity by the tenants until the owner’s son arrives and is duly murdered. The Jewish leaders perceive that Jesus is aiming the parable at them for he is making the people look at Israel’s history – how the prophets had been persecuted and how events were leading towards the judicial killing of Jesus himself, the son of the owner of the vineyard who is, of course, God

It ties in with the understanding that Jesus seems to have had of the forces surrounding him and the way the future lay before him. As events took place no doubt Jesus reflected on the OT writings and saw a pattern in it all. He also began to see his part in that pattern and how it related to God’s will for him.

In the writings of the OT prophets over time we find a change. They began to include within the scheme of things a description of suffering that was unjustified. Originally, they saw the nation as a united body paying the price for disobedience. The people failed to keep the law therefore they were punished as God’s patience finally ran out.

But two developments about what was just and fair changed all that. Firstly, it began to be seen that it was wrong for someone’s descendants to pay the penalty for the misdeeds of an ancestor. If a person did what was wrong, he should pay the penalty not someone else. And secondly it was seen that the dreadful exile of the people by King Nebuchadnezzar did not distinguish between those who kept God’s law and those who broke it. All alike were punished. And so there grew up in Isaiah the picture of a suffering servant – that single person or group of innocent people who suffered on behalf of all. The prophet Zechariah whose words about the king entering Jerusalem in humility riding on a donkey are central to the Palm Sunday account – he writes of Israel’s king enduring suffering. Jesus accepted this future for himself. He saw it there in the reaction of those in authority; and it was there in the ideas the prophets came up with as they wrestled with what could be seen as knotty theological problems.

Tomorrow is a feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary though my diary tells me that it could be on the 8th September – anyway we anticipate it by singing a couple of hymns in her honour. She is warned right at the beginning by Simeon that she will be pierced to the heart and that the baby Jesus is destined to be a sign that will be rejected. She had to endure standing at the foot of the cross on which Jesus spent his final hours in agony. In the hours before the crucifixion Jesus is wracked with horror in the Garden of Gethsemane but at all times he trusted in God whatever happened because he knew that God was planning to use the suffering and death of Jesus to bring a new creative wonder to the world and its people.

Easter quite changes our perception but the days leading up to Easter are filled with a sense of the inevitability of disaster. It looked as those who plotted the death of Jesus would get their way, that the disciples would be scattered and their fledgling group come to nothing. It looked as though the devastation that Isaiah predicted for the vineyard of his parable would fall on Jesus and his followers.

We know that there was an entirely different outcome and that the bread and wine of the Last Supper were going to become an integral part of the worship of the Church as Christianity spread far and wide.  We have a temporary interruption in receiving the wine of communion though we know that receiving just the bread is sufficient and that the option of receiving the wine as well will be restored in due course.

The symbolism remains as we speak of the body and blood of Christ which will nourish us to eternal life. Often in our service we hear the words of blessing over the wine, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become for us the cup of salvation.