Ladies and Gentlemen, it is too hot for today’s lectionary readings. In the weather we’ve had the last few weeks, we should be reading about green pastures or cool streams. Jesus should be telling us something soothing and refreshing, the spiritual equivalent of lemonade. Today’s readings are more like steaming hot coffee: if you’re not careful, they’ll burn you.
In our reading from Isaiah, God is describing his people as a vineyard that he planted and tended, but who turned out to have wild grapes, rather than cultivated, edible ones. If you look closely, though, you’ll see this passage is not just about gardening. The first verse of the passage uses both the words “beloved” and “love song”. This gives us a clue that the following passage is passionate. After all, a love song’s lyrics never go, “Oh, I sort of liked you, but now it is over, and that’s okay, I guess.” Love songs are filled with passion and longing and heart break.
Occasionally, a love song will have a happy ending, but more often than not love songs are songs of mourning-mourning the end of a relationship, mourning betrayal, mourning unrequited love. Our love song from Isaiah this morning does exactly that. It is a song from God to Israel. God is heartbroken that Israel has betrayed him and become a society marked by bloodshed and injustice. Israel has broken God’s heart over and over again, and God has always come back for more. He is sad and angry and so he shares today’s song with the prophet Isaiah.
If you replace the word vineyard with the word sweetheart, parts of the song sound like modern love songs.
Judge between me
and my sweetheart.
What more was there to do for my sweetheart
that I have not done in it?
This is a common theme in love songs, right? “What more could I do baby? I’d do anything to get you back, darlin’. I’ve worked so hard, but still you don’t respect me. What more can I do? I buy you flowers, I make you dinner, but you just won’t stay around.” We all know that feeling of working and working at a relationship with little pay off.
At the end of the song, God gets good and angry and sings,
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my sweetheart.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.
This is the break up song! Have you all every seen the movie Better off Dead? It’s a John Hughes movie from the 80s about a boy who gets his heart broken when his girlfriend leaves him for a burly blonde prep school guy. In one scene, our hero is driving down the street, totally morose, listening the radio. He realizes he’s listening to a sad break up song, so he changes the channel, but every channel he turns to is just another tragic song about heart break. He finally rips his radio out and throws it into the street.
We don’t think about God being heart broken, or singing break up songs, but here we have one! We think about God as lofty and somehow above emotion, but the image of God as humanity’s lover abounds throughout the Old and New Testaments. Whenever Israel begins worshiping golden calves and that sort of nonsense, God gets flaming mad–the same kind of angry a husband would get at a straying wife. God was passionate about Israel and is passionate about us.
That passion does not cease when Jesus comes to earth.
We think of Jesus as sweet, maybe even a little passive, not unlike this Jesus action figure-he’s attractive, but essentially mild. But Jesus wasn’t mild. Jesus was passion personified.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is always aware that he is headed to Jerusalem, and that by heading to Jerusalem, he is heading to his death. He knows he has a limited time to communicate his messages to his followers, and he seems particularly stressed by that in our passage today. Jesus knows he is going to die soon and he passionately wants his listeners to hear the words he is saying to them.
The part of his discourse we overhear in today’s reading is full of the violent images of fire and division, but Jesus is not using destructive language for the sake of being destructive. Jesus is using this intent, violent language in order to convey his passion and the sober and serious reality of being a Christian.
Jesus says he has come to bring fire to the earth. What a terrifying image! We think of house fires, forest fires, the images of burning oil wells in Iraq. We think of fire as utterly destructive. Does Jesus want to destroy us? Fire can be destructive, but fire can also warm on a cold night, and bring light where there was only darkness. Even destructive fires, like a forest fire, can clear out dead brush and create a path for new life to flourish.
But in this passage, fire is the least of our problems!
Despite the Christian Coalition’s claims that Jesus was really concerned about white American middle class values, in this passage, Jesus rips the idea of the nuclear family apart. Why would he do this? Does he hate children and grandparents, family dinners and game nights?
Probably not, but Jesus does want to make it very clear that following him has consequences. Following Jesus is not like having a job; following Jesus is like being in a passionate relationship. And if you’re in a passionate relationship, for better or worse, you’re going to mow down your relatives if they are standing between you and your lover. Jesus wants all of our time and energy-not just the occasional prayer or Sunday morning church attendance. Jesus wants our entire heart and soul; our mind and body. Jesus realizes that not all of the families of his listeners are going to be thrilled if they become his followers. Their mothers and wives; fathers and husbands may freak out if all of a sudden they left their jobs, left their homes, in order to follow Jesus. Jesus wants his listeners to know there is a cost to following him, and that cost may be in the form of relationships.
We make a huge mistake if we think we can be part-time Christians, or be a Christian without radically changing the way we live. Being a Christian is a life altering, full bodied, relational experience. Being a Christian is like being married or being a son or daughter-it changes and defines who we are as we are in relationship. God pursues us with intensity, passion and jealousy. If we begin worshiping money, status, a job, or even our families, God will chase after us and try to win us back.
We are God’s beloved. God has created us and invested in us and he loves us deeply. We have the capacity to betray God. We have the capacity to break God’s heart. Thankfully for us, one thing God will not do is give up on us. We are his and he loves us.