A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 8th October 2023
Our Old Testament reading and gospel and the psalm focus on the imagery of vines and a vineyard. It is particularly appropriate for this time of year. We are coming to the end of the grape harvest in the northern hemisphere – in big commercial enterprises and in little domestic settings. Maybe you have a vine in your garden? I have one elderly vine and at present I can hardly keep up with picking black grapes and turning them into grape juice and grape jam. It is also the time of the Jewish feast of Booths or Tabernacles, which this year lasted from Saturday 30th September to Friday just past, 6 October. This is one of the great Jewish Festivals which celebrates God’s gift of the grape harvest and his freeing the Israel from slavery. Originally people would have left their homes and lived in temporary shelters made of branches. Some still make small scale reminders of these in their homes and gardens during the festival and eat if not sleep inside them.
In the agricultural setting of the Old Testament and the gospels vines were one of the most important resources for farming people. They provided food and drink, harvests to share in celebration and to sell, and of course shade if planted by the house. They were an image of security, stability and fertility. You remember the verse in Psalm 128: “Your wife within your house shall be like a fruitful vine; your children round your table like fresh olive branches.” Because they were so important vineyards had to be carefully constructed, prepared and maintained; worked by trusted servants; and protected from wild animals.
It is little wonder that the imagery of the vine became so important in understanding God’s relationship with his chosen people.
The verses we heard from Ps. 80 show God as bringing his enslaved people out of Egypt like a vine which he then planted carefully so it filled the promised land. But now he has broken down its wall, so that passersby eat the grapes, and wild animals and insects destroy it. The psalmist laments the devastation and pleads with God to cherish his vine which he planted and made so strong for himself.
The early verses of Isaiah chapter 5 are a song about a man and his new vineyard where he prepared the soil, cleared it of stones and planted choice vines. He built a watch tower in the middle and made a wine vat. But it produced only wild grapes. The vineyard owner is of course God, and the prophet says he will destroy his vineyard because his people have produced not the good fruit he hoped for – but instead bloodshed and injustice. Its hedge and wall will be broken down, it will not be weeded or pruned, and it will be overgrown with briers and thorns: devastation where there should have been growth, fruitfulness and joy.
In our gospel reading the writer portrays Jesus specifically and intentionally drawing on the Isaiah passage to comment on his own times – and his own life and death. He tells the priests and elders a parable which they would have recognised instantly as echoing Isaiah – the planting of the vineyard and protecting its boundaries, digging a wine vat and building a watch tower. But in the parable the meaning is contemporary. The crunch comes at harvest time; the tenants refused to give the owner his harvest, maltreating the slaves he sent to collect it, and ultimately killing his son, the heir. Eventually the owner will destroy these tenants and lease the vineyard to others. As the writer noted grimly, the priests and learned leaders realised Jesus was speaking about them. It was little wonder that they wanted to arrest him. Not only was he being severely critical of them as religious leaders: he was in a sense claiming to speak with divine authority by associating himself with the prophet, Isaiah. By the time the gospel was written Christian hearers would have understood more clearly that Jesus had also been alluding to himself as the heir who was murdered by the wicked tenants. The gospel was also written in the context of a religious and political situation where Christians were beginning to emerge as separate from Jewish congregations; and so the picture of new tenants would have had particular resonance for them.
But what might this imagery of the vine and God as the vineyard owner mean to us? Paul provides a key, in his letter to Christians in Philippi. Writing out of an impeccable Jewish heritage – of birth, training and religious and moral zeal – he says that nothing of this is of any worth now compared with “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” His hope and his goal are astounding. He hopes “to gain Christ and be found in him”. He wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” He goes on to write that “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Using language about being found in Christ, being made his own, is, as Paul recognised, a far cry from the righteousness he had previously pursued, based on keeping the law, being a good, religious Jew. It is a divine gift which flows from faith in Christ and from becoming more Christ-like, more intimately involved in Christ’s life and death, through grace. He writes with such passion that it is as if words cannot express what he really wants to convey.
Being “found in Christ”, being made “Christ’s own”, is very close to the imagery of the vineyard owner and the vine. Where Paul struggled to find theological language to express his conviction, another of the gospel writers of course took to imagery and specifically used the image of Jesus as the true vine, and his Father as the divine husbandman, the planter and carer of the vines. The writer of the gospel of John places Jesus’ famous I Am saying – I am the True Vine – in the final discourses where Jesus is preparing his closest friends for what is to come, and when he urges them to remember that he will not leave them comfortless but will send to them the Holy Spirit, the advocate and comforter. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives there will come about that intimacy with Christ of which Paul wrote. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14: 23) Then comes the great image – of Jesus as the true vine, and God, the Father, as the vine-grower. Those who love Jesus and abide in him are the branches of the vine, and it is only by abiding in the vine, staying so closely attached to it that its life can flow into them, and that they as branches can bear fruit. Maybe many of us know these words so well that we do not grasp the immensity of the reality they describe, the greatness of our calling.
How we abide in Christ is material for another sermon, or for many sermons. For now it is perhaps enough to say that what we do Sunday by Sunday is an important part of this process of abiding, of opening our lives to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. We come to listen to the word of God, to receive his healing touch, and to be nourished at Christ’s table by his own life. This is the intimacy of friends, of those who love each other. Through this sacrament of Love we are “found” in Christ, our identity as “Christ’s own” is reaffirmed, and we are strengthened as branches of the True Vine.