The Present Time
Pentecost X (O. T. 20); August 18, 2019
I think all the stories and songs that portray Jesus as a sweet, mild-mannered, quiet guy ignore this story. Well, they ignore a lot of stories, but this one is particularly tough. And it goes to the heart of a deep pain we have in the Church and in American society. When I was young, people used to talk about the “generation gap;” I don’t hear talk about that anymore. But it is every bit as profound as it was then, and the pain we feel is just as real.
Jesus’ words and the prophecy of Isaiah (5:1-7) both deserve some explanation. The two have this in common: they both announce that judgment is coming. When we go along our merry way, ignoring the large realities around us, then suddenly crisis overtakes us. Remember the Great Recession of 2008? Who could see that coming? Practically everyone who was paying attention. The Prophet Isaiah had a particular gift for paying attention to the realities of his day and warning his contemporaries of what was coming.
As many of you know, I am a fan of science fiction literature, television, and movies. One of the large streams of science fiction is of the “If this goes on” variety. The writer looks at a contemporary reality and asks, “If this continues as it is, what is a likely outcome?” It can be good or bad; in the 1960s, for example, many stories imagined a thriving colony on the Moon by now. If we had continued pushing into space as we were then, that is what would have been. Then I remember one story called “If This Goes On” that imagined the United States if a popular evangelical preacher is elected President and reshapes the country in his ideal, into an evangelical Protestant theocracy. Although it was published in 1940, it has often seemed relevant.
Anyway, the Prophet Isaiah was able to imagine “If this goes on” and warn his fellow citizens what to expect. The beautiful thing is the way he puts it: a love song from the vineyard owner to the vineyard. I love my vineyard, the Lord God sings; I planted it, watered it, put a protective hedge and wall around it. But it didn’t yield grapes that I could use for good wine! It grew wild. I hope you get what the Prophet’s talking about: God planted the people of Judah, protected them from enemies, made them prosperous, and gave them a good code to live by so they could have a just, blessed society. But they ran wild and pursued their own preferences instead. So what will the vineyard owner do? Remove the hedge and tear down the wall, so they are no longer protected. That’s Isaiah’s warning: if this goes on, our society will fall.
Remember: this is called a “love song.” God cares about the behavior of God’s people because God loves us. If God didn’t care about us, then God would be content for us to do whatever we want, to pursue our own preferences rather than God’s guidance.
Jesus also picks up the image of the vineyard and uses it to describe his church; you find that in the Gospel of John. The central question that the vineyard owner asks through the voice of Isaiah is, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” And I wonder sometimes why we have so much trouble sticking to our mission in Jesus’ Church. What more was there to do for us that God has not done? What more do we want from God? And if there is nothing more that God should do for us than God has done, why do we wander so far from the mission God has given us? Why do we end up as wild grapes, doing our own thing instead of God’s thing? What more could God do for us?
Jesus puts some imagination to his situation, too, and sounds a similar warning. But his is more personal: if you pay attention to my word and actually try to follow me, you may well make trouble at home. Indulge me in some autobiography. When I was in middle school, you could say I got religion in a big way. I made an emotional commitment to Jesus, got involved in a Bible study over and above our Sunday School, and even carried a Bible to school. And it wasn’t just me; there were quite a few of us kids in our Church who were involved in this Jesus movement. And we were a lot of trouble. I fought with my parents rather a lot about it, because they thought I should not be quite so demonstrative. And the other kids had trouble with their parents. When we would get a chance to lead worship, we would upset the older generations by what we said and by our music.
I identified with the son in Jesus’ story, because my dad and I were constantly at odds over this. My dad was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and he was loyal to his church and faithful in his worship, but my approach as a teenager was very different from his, so we were divided, just as Jesus has described here.
Now I am the older generation and am trying not to be a fuddy-duddy. I don’t want to be one of those older folks who complains about “kids these days” and is stubborn in the face of their enthusiasm. At the same time, I know the importance of maturity and not giving in to everything that people demand. When we were teens, we didn’t understand our parents’ hostility to our music and we didn’t understand their resistance to the social matters that were important to us: racial justice, an end to the war in Vietnam, and so forth. Now I want to ask my generation: what happened to us? We’re the children of the 1960s and 1970s; can we remember what we were and appreciate what our children and grandchildren are saying?
There are two extremes we older folks have to guard against: one is the assumption that younger people – whether teens or young adults – are simply impractical or “wet behind the ears” and we can just ignore what they say; the other is the assumption that we should automatically do whatever they want. Wisdom demands paying attention to the signs of the present time and making informed decisions for the future.
And so Jesus’ warning and his pointed question. Isaiah asks, “What more could the Lord God have done for you?” Jesus asks, “Why do you know how to interpret the weather but you can’t interpret the signs of the times?” Basically, when we’re happy with the way things are, then we’re inclined to ignore the signs of problems down the road.
And that is why we older types need to listen to the young when they call attention to the problems down the road. We are likely to be happy and content with the way things are – just like the people of Judah in Isaiah’s day – and don’t pay attention to the consequences of “If this goes on.” Are you and I paying attention to what the young are saying about the cost of education, or about our health care system, or about climate change? Obviously wisdom says that we don’t always give people what they want, but do we actually listen or do we just shut down? I hear people say, “Well, it will cost too much.” And then I want to see some numbers: How much will it cost? And what is the cost (financial, social, personal) if we don’t do it?
I remember proposing at a previous church that we study the cost of replacing our HVAC system; my suggestion was shut down immediately: “It will cost too much; we don’t have the money.” So they didn’t even look into how much it would cost. Well, sometime after I was gone, that church was faced with the need to replace the system, and they did it. And it didn’t cost nearly as much as people had feared, although it was more than it would have been if we had done it when I suggested. Pay for it now or pay for it later, whether you’re talking about the Church’s HVAC system, or our priorities for worship and mission, or a nation’s public policy.
I can think of several directions to go to finish this sermon on a positive note (after all, I’m a preacher of the Gospel, of “good news”), but here are two. First, remember that the Prophet Isaiah warned the people “If this goes on” because God loved them and wanted the best for them. God’s warnings to us are statements of love for us. Also, Isaiah wanted to give the people a chance to make some changes. Likewise, Jesus scolds the hypocrites who know whether to take an umbrella to work on a particular day but shut down when young people ask for action on climate change because he thinks we can indeed learn to interpret the present time. Just in the course of my lifetime, we have made changes that made a positive difference. We established Medicare. We abolished Jim Crow laws. We created emissions standards and water quality standards; remember when Lake Erie died? Remember when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire? Both are much better. We stopped the production of chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer. We banned DDT, which was wiping out songbirds.
Here is what I mean: we can repent. The Spirit of God works subtly and slowly, but works constantly for our good. But that requires us to learn to interpret the present time; a sign for us is the voice of the young. May God grant us grace to pay attention and to interpret the present time.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 “If This Goes On,” later reprinted in Revolt in 2100, by Robert Heinlein.