There’s a farmer I often meet at services – he’s a regular member of one of our congregations. From time to time I ask him how things are going – have you ever done that, asked a farmer how the year has been? He has a tongue in cheek proverb: ‘You never meet a happy farmer’. It’s his way of saying that no matter how well the farm has done, there’s something that could have done better. If the weather is sunny and perfect for harvest then a farmer may be grateful for that, but you’ll find him complaining about the one crop that needs rain. It might have been a great year for grass, the livestock are thriving and wheat yields are high – but because there’s so much around the price per ton is low.
I have an inkling of what this like. My garden is full of cabbages. Green cabbages, red cabbages, Savoy cabbages, pointy cabbages, round cabbages the size of footballs. As you can imagine, the girls adore cabbages, they can’t get enough of them. Chantal says there’s a prize of a cabbage for the first person to say they enjoyed today’s sermon!
On the other hand the leeks have fallen victim to moth, maggots, molluscs and mould. I remember that when I come to Harvest: Harvest festival involves being grateful to God for what has been produced, thankful for what we enjoy, being humble in the face of what nature can do and remembering those who depend on the earth for a living, for whom an agricultural accident can be a calamity.
The prophet Isaiah obviously knew what it was like to pour your labour into an agricultural project and get no results. In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 5:1-7, he sings a song about a man who plants a vineyard and gives it everything it could possibly need. But it yields only small sour wild grapes.
What is he to do? In verses 3 and 4 Isaiah invite his hearers to judge. And in then in v.5 tells us his response. The landowner gives up on his vineyard. He breaks down its protective wall, allows it to grow wild. It will become rough ground, a place for hunting and for picking blackberries. That’s the only use for this failed vineyard.
But commanding the clouds not to rain, in v.6, goes even further, into angry rhetoric. It’s almost as if the landowner has put his heart and soul into the vineyard. Like one of those people who starts a new life abroad, all his savings and time have been pumped into this dream. And now he feels let down, disillusioned, angry and bitter. He’s beyond making the most of a bad job, he’s beyond cutting his losses. He’s just sick of the whole project and wants to chuck it in.
Imagine how the Israelites felt when they heard the punchline in v.7. ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel’. The very people whom Isaiah had invited to judge his little story now find themselves in the frame. They are the unproductive vineyard. God’s own people were like a vine he took care of, but they failed to produce.
Like the vineyard, that was not for lack of support and essentials. The Bible tells of how God rescued his people from Egypt, transplanted them into a rich and fertile land. He protected them from their enemies – like the watch tower in the parable. They had everything they could ever desire, yet they failed to produce. And God’s patience is running thin. Of course the point of Old Testament prophecy is to explain what God is doing – and also to bring people to repentance. All is not yet lost. They can change. Jonah shows us God is happier when his word is not fulfilled, because the hearers listened and changed their deeds.
It’s an unusual take on Harvest. Usually at Harvest we thank God for the produce of the land; we come to church and bring the fruits of the soil as a sign of thanksgiving to God. Harvest is usually about being grateful for the things the earth produces, for the harvest God gives us.
But the passage set for today reminds us: God has his Harvest too. God seeks a Harvest from us. God, whose character does not change, looks for a harvest from his people. The message of Isaiah was addressed to Israel, but it’s a message for people throughout the world and across the centuries: us too. The message is: From all people, and especially those who claim to follow him, God seeks a harvest. Out of his grace he has showered goodness upon us. We are forgiven, saved by his grace alone. Producing a harvest for him is not an attempt to put ourselves right with God, but a response to his love
But a harvest of what? The second part of v.7 shows us what God was looking for: ‘God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; he expected righteousness but heard a cry of distress’. Like the farmer looking for grapes, God looks for a fair and just society, but all he found in Israel was violence and sorrow. The verses after our reading give a bit more substance to it: v8 speaks of those who buy up more property and land, turfing the poor off their ancestral acres. V11 and 12 talk about conspicuous consumption and leaders who are more interested in satisfying themselves than governing wisely. We may think of equivalents today – the rich getting richer, increasing luxury while half the people in Africa live on less than a dollar a day.
God’s people were meant to demonstrate a perfect society to the world. God’s plan was that Israel would show what justice was like. They were intended to be a light to the world, revealing how good life could be under God’s law. Instead they became indistinguishable from the nations around.
When God looks at our society what does he see? When he looks for justice in Britain, does he find it? And what can we do to establish righteousness? Over the past few weeks, during the political party conferences, we’ve heard several different visions of how to bring about a better society. There are genuine debates about the facts and what works: for instance what is the best way to support people on low incomes – lower taxes or more benefits? What will ensure work pays?
I do not believe there is a Christian political party. On these complicated issues, true Christians can genuinely differ. I remember as a curate going to vote in the general election. The candidates’ names were up on the polling booth – along with the names and addresses of the people who had sponsored them. And in that tightly contested marginal, on both lists of sponsors, were members of our church.
I thought that was a wonderful witness. Not that there was a clear cut Christian answer – there wasn’t. But that Christians were involved, active, thinking and praying through the issues that matter.
Now some might say that this isn’t a Christian’s responsibility. That our work is sharing the message of the gospel; so getting involved in social action, working for justice somehow distracts from the church’s central call. Leave justice to the rest of society and let Christians focus on evangelism. And there was certainly a while several years ago when I felt like that – thinking that the church should focus solely on what it alone can do.
The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says. It’s not what Jesus’ taught. It’s not what we see the Early Church doing when they go around healing and providing for those in need. Nor does it make theological sense. For God created us all equal. Jesus died for us all, and because he loves us all, he calls us to love one another and treat each other fairly.
He has made us physical and spiritual beings, so we cannot care for the spiritual side of humanity without also being concerned for the physical, and vice versa. Non-Christians recognise that too –sharing our faith is almost always more successful when people realise that Christians care about them, when they can experience physical help or love which is explained and motivated by the Word.
This belief in a God of justice is why Harvest often includes a concern for the poor. The gifts that we give today are shared out among the needy through the Doorway project. The coffee that we drink after the service is usually Fairtrade – promoting a fair stable price, good working conditions and reinvestment of profits in local communities. We support charities like Tearfund, building wells in Uganda. And we collect for Christian Aid, campaigning for corporate transparency and against tax evasion, so that the world economic system can be rebalanced to be fair to the weak and poor.
These things matter to God. He hates it when his children are treated unfairly. He longs for justice and righteousness. He is a God of love and justice – and he calls us to be like him. Amen.