Today’s passage is a warning from God, found in the prophecy of Isaiah. In it, God likens his chosen people, the Hebrews, to a vineyard. God expected a great harvest of grapes but was disappointed. So, God speaks metaphorically of what will happen next. This vineyard, which could have been so filled with sweet grapes, will be abandoned. God, like a disappointed vineyard owner, will withdraw protection. The walls will fall down, nothing will be pruned, no weeds pulled up. Even the clouds will cease to rain upon it. It will be left to the elements to turn into a wasteland.
This prophecy was written at a time when the nation of Israel was surrounded by hostile empires. To the northeast, the Assyrians, who had already conquered northern Israel. To the east lay the dreaded Babylonian empire, in what is now Iraq. Empires are like sharks – they survive by constantly moving, looking for, and devouring prey. Putin wants Russia to be an empire again, so he needs to take over more territory, starting with Ukraine. China also has imperial ambitions. It took over Tibet and has now its sights set on Taiwan. Empires exist and persist through conquest; it is their nature. So, when God says that the vineyard of Israel will be left to the elements, he is saying that God is withdrawing protection from the hungry empires which surround Israel. The rest of Isaiah’s prophecy makes this very clear. The empires will attack, and God will not hold them back. Jerusalem will be reduced to a heap of ruins, the royal family will be taken hostage to Babylon, and the people will be kept out of Jerusalem for 70 years.
What did Israel do to offend God so greatly? We hear the beginning of God’s case in the last verse of today’s reading: the rich took too much land for themselves and left too little for anyone else. Single families own vast tracts of land, leaving no room for other farmers, or for the poor to survive on the land.
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. (Isaiah 5:8)
We hear that the air is filled with cries of distress, the land stained by bloodshed. A few lines later, God accuses Israel’s one percent of staying up late getting drunk, trading truth for lies, lining their pockets with bribes while the innocent suffer (Isaiah 5: 22-3.). The vineyard has been left to the elements because of the actions of the rich and powerful.
What’s interesting about this passage is that God does not say that their sins has earned them punishment from God. God does not send the armies. Nor are locusts or famines sent to punish Judah. God does not send misfortune; God simply withdraws protection and lets the neighbouring empire invade and do the rest.
In our time, in many parts of the world, it feels like protection has been withdrawn.
In Europe, a searing heat wave has caused record temperatures and droughts across the continent, sparking enormous wildfires in Spain and France.
Water is being rationed in France and Germany as rivers run dry. England registered its hottest day ever recorded, with a rash of fires in and around London. The Mayor of London warned against leaving empty glass bottles on the ground – sunlight shining through them could act as magnifying glasses and cause dry grass to catch fire. Massive floods have become more common, like the one that covered large areas of Kentucky recently. The weather is not acting the way it used to. It is convulsing, behaving unlike we have ever seen it before. And in its wake are burnt and abandoned homes, neighbourhoods torn apart by wind, water, or flames. The world feels increasingly out of control.
The scientific explanation for these events is straightforward. This is what climate change looks like. The climate is out of balance, becoming fiercer and more destructive. The cause is the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Methane and carbon dioxide from factories, vehicles, homes, and other sources are causing the warming of the planet, which has set off a complex set of chain reactions, which result in extreme weather. The exact details are hard to predict, but the general trend is clear: rising seas, flooded coastlines, droughts and floods, stronger hurricanes, and heat waves.
The scientists have been warning us about this for decades, and yet we have found it hard to make the sacrifices they have suggested. Part of the problem is that it all sounds so abstract, a tale of invisible molecules doing something complicated in the skies above our heads. The scientists admit that their predictions are full of guesses since weather is incredibly complex. That honest statement of the gaps in their knowledge has been big enough for fossil fuel companies and politicians to sow doubt and discord. Human-caused climate change has been denied as a hoax, or as bad science by conspiracy theorists, often funded by oil companies.
The other problem, even for people who are inclined to believe scientists, is that molecules are hard to get excited about. Human beings understand things best when we can put it in terms of social interactions. Small children give names and human personalities to their stuffed animals. We name ships. Scientists realized long ago that if you want people to evacuate their homes when a hurricane comes, it is good to give the hurricane a human-sounding name. Most of us remember the name of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina. We process information better when we can think of it in terms of people.
In a sign of the times, in Spain, meteorologists gave the latest heat wave a name, Zoe. They hope this will help people take it more seriously.
While scientists stress that nature is very different from human beings, and has its own agenda, the truth is, if we want to be more proactive in dealing with climate change, we need to put it in terms we can understand. Otherwise, we will keep on ignoring it, to everyone’s peril.
As spiritual people, we are familiar with this balancing act. The Bible tells us over and over again that God is too awesome and mysterious to be understood in human terms. One of the ten commandments says that no image should be made of God. We are warned against imagining God as having hands and feet, or any other human-like attributes. Yet, the Bible can’t resist speaking of God metaphorically as having human characteristics. The psalms speak of people sitting at the right hand of God (Psalm 110). In Isaiah, God says that the Earth is her footstool (Isaiah 66:1). And, in today’s reading, God invites us to imagine God as the owner of a vineyard where the crops are sour. God knows us well enough to use poetic, human metaphors to communicate to us. At its worst, this tendency can descend into baseless conspiracy theories, where a few billionaires are imagined to be putting computer chips into vaccines. At its best, it can be used as a way to communicate abstract impersonal forces to us, like heat waves and hurricanes.
We need a new language to speak of climate change because it is not going away. The droughts and flooding which are happening in Europe this summer could hit us next year. British Columbia is already feeling the effects. While we should do all we can to get our governments to live up to the Paris Accords, we need to also come to terms with the fact that whatever we do, the next few decades are going to be tough and difficult. We may be naming a lot of floods and heat waves in the years to come. In the United States, several cities have created heat officers to help co-ordinate policies to deal with heat waves. Scientists are warning that there will soon be places in the world where it is simply too hot for humans to live for months each year. It is likely that millions of people will become climate refugees, and many will want to come to a big, cold country called Canada.
No matter what happens now, life is going to be tougher than it was. Even with the Climate bill the Americans just passed, the droughts and wildfires we are seeing now are likely to be the norm rather than the exception in the decades ahead. Realistically, we will be asked to make major changes to our lifestyle as we weather these storms.
So how do we deal with this emotionally? Hollywood movies about disasters and apocalypses tell us that the only way forward is to gun up and defend ourselves and our loved ones. That’s the sort of selfish individualism that got us into this mess. It hardly seems likely to get us through the years ahead.
Christianity suggests another way. When Jesus walked the Earth, he told his disciples that they would face difficult times. The world would treat them badly for following Him. Yet, despite His awareness of that coming storm, Jesus taught his followers not to embrace bitterness. Instead, he said, love your enemies. Pray for them. Help them when you can. His parable about the Good Samaritan explicitly shows this. A Samaritan, a sworn enemy of the Jews, stops to help a Jewish man who has been left for dead on the side of the road. The Good Samaritan takes the man to the nearest inn and pays for any care the Jewish man may need. Christ encourages us to offer protection to each other, especially strangers.
In the decades that lie ahead of us, when we will feel unprotected from the elements, our faith suggests that the answer is not to hide, but to provide protection. Protection for each other, to strangers, to the millions of climate refugees who will want to enter this country. But as the reading from Isaiah suggests, we also need to provide protection for the land. It needs a chance to recover from our incursions. We have taken too much for ourselves. Development at all costs has gone too far. If today’s reading has wisdom for us, it is the warning that when we withdraw protection, we lose protection as well. The answer is to restore the ethic of protection to the land, and to each other. We must declare, like the good Samaritan, that we are willing to pay the bill, no matter how much it costs, to restore the health of the one who needs protection. By protecting each other, strangers, and the land, we will earn the right to be protected, in turn.
In practice, this means re-imagining what Canada will be in the future. We are used to seeing ourselves as a country with a small population, and not much influence. However, in the decades ahead, our status will shift. We are a country rich in water. Our latitude and land will make us a magnet for people all over the world. Some have predicted that by century’s end, our population could reach 100 million. The Americans will want our water, including the water in the Great Lakes. Canada can play a role in becoming a place of protection for the world’s displaced peoples. But we must also take great care to protect the land and water here, lest it run dry like the rivers in the Western United States, drained by cities and farming. We as a nation can act as the world’s Good Samaritan, but to offer that protection, we must protect the land as we grow in population. The world is coming, and we need to be ready to provide protection on terms that preserve our land and values - growth that includes input from the Indigenous people who protected this land before settlers arrived.
As we make our way through these dangerous times, let us remember that God will be with us, encouraging us to find a new way forward, based on love, compassion, and the offer of protection. Generosity must be our guiding principle now, not greed. Greed has had its day, yielding a harvest of sour grapes. Now is the time for us to practice another way. One where in offering help and protection, we may find ourselves being the one who needs, and receives, protection. And in that virtuous circle, we are inspired to share God’s love with others, knowing that even as we walk through the scorching valley of the shadow of death, God is with us, we are not alone.
 Isaiah’s prophecies are believed to have been written starting in 738 BCE. (Harper Collins Study Bible, p.912). The Assyrian Empire conquered Northern Israel in 722 BCE ( https://www.thetorah.com/article/assyrian-deportation-and-resettlement-the-story-of-samaria)  John Henley et al, “‘The new normal’: how Europe is being hit by a climate-driven drought crisis,” The Guardian, Mon 8 Aug 2022  Alexandra Topping, “Heatwave led to London firefighters’ busiest day since second world war, “The Guardian, Wed 20 Jul 2022  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/zoe-becomes-the-worlds-first-named-heat-wave-180980512/  https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/20/weather/deadly-heat-waves-chief-heat-officers-climate/index.html  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-hot-is-too-hot-for-the-human-body1/; B. Parkes et al., “Heat stress in Africa under high intensity climate change,” International Journal of Biometeorology (2022) 66:1531–1545; https://doi.org/10.1007/s00484-022-02295-1  https://www.centuryinitiative.ca/why-100m