Isaiah: Grapes of Wrath...Delicious Grapes of Wrath
What are you passionate about? What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning? What is it that thrills you, that excites you, that ignites passion within you?
When I was a kid, I would have answered “hockey”. I loved hockey. Adored it. And we had our own NHL franchise here in Atlanta for me to focus that passion on, the short-lived Atlanta Flames. As a family, we went to games all the time. My parents even had season tickets at one point. And when I wasn’t down at the Omni taking in a game in person, I was at home, poring over the annual media guides that were published each season, memorizing statistics with the obsessive passion of a first love, and listening to the radio play-by-play with Jiggs McDonald and Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geoffrion.
When the US Olympic team won the gold medal in 1980, people in Atlanta were surprised to find out that our national celebrity goalie, Jim Craig, was a draft pick of the Atlanta Flames. Not me – that was in the 1978 media guide. Fourth round, I believe…Seeing Jim Craig in an Atlanta Flames’ uniform was one of the highlights of my young life.
But within less than a year, there came a dark day in Atlanta sports history. It was announced that the Flames had been sold and would be moving to Calgary. No more Dan Bouchard, no more Brad Marsh, no more Willi Plett. Hockey was my first love; and hockey broke my heart.
What are you passionate about? What is that one thing that you would place above all else?
Is it God?
All summer we have been looking at the prophets of the Old Testament. We’ve spent time with Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, and now, Isaiah. What hockey was to me at age ten, God was to these mystics their whole life long. This passion was so deeply embedded within them, so central to who they were, that it was even evident in their names: Elijah, which means Yahweh is my God; Elisha, God saves; Amos, burden; Hosea, salvation; Isaiah, Yahweh saves.
And as we’ve waded through some of the tough stuff these prophets have to offer, we’ve recognized the passion of one who is heartbroken over what has come to be. God has called the people to faithfulness, and they have turned away. And in the prophets’ heartbreak, we see God’s own heartbreak, the people’s betrayal of God’s unending love.
In our Isaiah passage this morning, the prophet even plays with a familiar image of love from that time, the vineyard. “I will sing a song of my beloved,” it begins. “I have cared for my vineyard, tended it, watered it; but it did not yield grapes that I could use, but bitter grapes, useless grapes. I am heartbroken. What should I do?” The question is to the people of Israel, who know what the response to unrequited love ought to be: turn your back on it. Move on. Let it go. But to their shock, the love spoken of here is not between two people, but between God and God’s people. They have unknowingly judged themselves as those who have been loved but do not return that love.
The prophet reminds them of the covenant they have been given. They were promised land, and God delivered. They were promised protection, and God made good. All they had to do was to keep faithful to their end of the bargain. But they haven’t. There hasn’t been the justice God desired; instead, the people have delivered bloodshed. God planted seeds for righteousness; but what the land yielded was the cries of the oppressed. The covenant has been broken. And so the same will happen to the vineyard of God’s love: walls will be torn down; it will be overgrown with briers and thorns; it will see no water from the skies.
And as the book of Isaiah progresses, this judgment comes to fruition. The nation is besieged, and the people are taken into exile in Babylon. The victories of their land have been turned into bitter defeat; so dramatically so, in fact, that the prophet’s teaching turns from judgment to comfort, from anger to sorrow, from heartbreak to heart-healing. It is not long before God is promising the return of God’s promises to God’s people.
It’s my assumption that what lies at the heart of the broken promises here is simply this: a lack of passion for God. And if we’re honest, we’re not that different from the ancient Israelites, are we? When the going is good, we have little time for God, because, well, why would we? When the going is tough, we might turn to God for comfort, but when the tide turns in our favor, do we stick with God? Or alternately, when things aren’t going our way, we might blame God for the downturn in our affairs, and so we might turn our back on God altogether.
What would it look like to have a passion for God at the center of our lives?
It would have been tough to displace my boyhood love of hockey with a love of God. I was fortunate enough in those early years to see both Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky play, arguably the two greatest players who ever played the game. Gordie Howe was in his fifties, his records behind him; Gretzky was a mere 18 years old, his records yet to come.
I recently heard this story about Gretzky from Malcolm Gladwell, the author of several books, including The Tipping Point and Blink, among others. Gladwell is a sociologist and psychologist who writes in his book Outliers on the meaning of greatness. And he tells the story of Wayne Gretzky, among others, as a possible lesson on how greatness is achieved. Gretzky had a passion for hockey, even greater than mine. When he was two years old, his parents would put him in front of the TV to watch hockey games. And when the game was over, he would burst into tears, so heartbroken was he that the game had ended. Gretzky spent every spare moment playing hockey and, when he wasn’t playing, he was thinking about hockey. There’s one moment in Gretzky’s career that stands out to Gladwell. In one game, Gretzky had the puck behind the goal and managed to shoot it off the back of the goalie and into the net. It was a miraculous shot. No one had ever done anything like that before. And the thing wasn’t that Gretzky was the only player capable of such a shot, but that no one had obsessed over hockey to the point that they would even think such a shot was possible!
It’s primarily from anecdotal evidence of Gretzky and others that Gladwell arrives at his 10,000 hours theory, that greatness comes not as much from gifts that we receive by birth, but by an obsessive passion to spend as much time as possible nurturing those gifts. Gretzky must’ve played well over 10,000 hours of hockey perfecting his craft. The Beatles, who were really nothing to marvel at in Liverpool in 1960, spent two years in Hamburg playing six nights a week for hours on end, easily amassed 10,000 hours of playing time that transformed them into the performing phenomenon that took the world by storm in 1962. Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, Gladwell lifts up these and others as examples of those who may have had that God-given spark of brilliance, but nurtured that flame through hours and hours of honing a craft that eventually became world-famous.
I can’t help but wonder if there’s something similar in the passion these prophets brought to their lives for God. I wonder if they were so enraptured with God’s desire that they easily spent those 10,000 hours crafting a life of faithful obedience in a way that bordered on obsession. Maybe “obsession” isn’t the right word; we’re too aware of disorders like OCD and with TV shows like Monk to get excited at the thought of being “obsessed” with something. But could we ignite, or re-ignite, a passion for God in our lives so much that our faithfulness becomes self-evident?
Have you ever had that kind of passion? Have there been seasons in your life which were marked by daily prayer, or daily Bible study, or being part of a weekly group that dug together into the Scriptures or into the issues that face you, that face society, with the kind of love that bordered on hunger, that you would no more skip a day of prayer than you would a healthy breakfast?
Or do you know this kind of passion in a different way? There are other areas of life, some times distractions, which demand our attention: our jobs, the 40-hour work week a myth of the past; the 24 hour news channels with their relentless urgency, with news and stock tickers sprinting by at the bottom of the screen; the speed and draw of technology and its wondrous, life-changing gizmos. Each of these may have that same kind of pull on us, and maybe we can learn something from our passion for these things. But we also know that there is implicit danger when these loves become obsessions, and when these obsessions become addictions. They move beyond something that we enjoy to something we confuse with the air we breathe and the water we drink and the faith we share, by supplanting them with the confused notion that we cannot live without them. That’s not just addiction; it’s idolatry. We are addicted to, we idolize, the things that occupy God’s rightful place in our lives.
And in this, we are no different from the people to whom Isaiah writes. God adores us. God loves us. But there are, for each of us, times when this love goes unrequited, when God desires fruits of faithfulness but the fruit we bear borders on the useless. This is true for each of us, no matter how strong or weak we might think ourselves in matters of faith.
But in this paradox lies the good news we celebrate. God’s love doesn’t run out. That’s the promise we celebrate each and every week. Yes, God is fed up with God’s people; but God’s promises in Scripture come not only in the promises of land and deliverance, but in the very person of Jesus. We are held to a standard of faithfulness, yes, and it is one for which we ought to strive. But when we miss the mark, God is still there, in the open arms of Jesus, offering us the chance to try again and again and again and again.
Which all leads me to my invitation to each of us this morning. I invite each of us to consider that we might cultivate within us the discipline and the focus that could ultimately forge us into the people that God would have us be. I’m not naïve enough to suggest that we, too, should strive for the kind of greatness that would dream up and execute the Presbyterian equivalent of a behind-the-net-goal. But I do think there’s something to be said for nurturing the passion for the things of God that will transform our lives. And our lives, so transformed, will transform our community; and our communities, so transformed, will change the world.
Next week, we’ll begin a new sermon series; this series is a companion to a book we’ll begin reading together as a congregation beginning in September, called Unbinding Your Heart: A Study in Prayer and Faith-Sharing. We will be offering multiple chances to read this book together in small groups – on Sunday mornings, on Thursday evenings, throughout the week. You’ll hear more about that in the next few weeks. But what this opportunity offers us, I believe, is a chance to kindle within each of us, within our church, within our community, and within our world, a passion for the things of God, and a faithfulness that returns to God the love that we have received.
May it be so. Amen.