In scripture, as in life, wine is a double-edged sword. Most commonly associated with blessing and abundance, there are also darker moments where it speaks of madness, wrath, and judgment. The prophets make particularly interesting use of wine and of its sister image, the vineyard. Isaiah today gives us a stark picture of a ravaged and rotting Israel, using the language of biblical love poetry to bring out the bitterness.
This is no ordinary garden project gone wrong; this is God’s beloved, which promised to yield much fruit. But worship has become a mockery, and therefore has fertility become decay, and abundance, desolation. Our psalm laments this situation, appealing to God: “have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted!” The irony is that the unfaithful one is Israel, not God, and yet once again they implore God to remember his covenant, to remember that they are his.
Spoiler alert, if you skip forward to chapter 27 you may find a rather more comforting vineyard song to answer this one. The bleak picture we’re left with isn’t the end of the story; God will indeed remember his promise. Why, you may ask, is this nearly 3000-year-old Near Eastern tale good news to us in London this Sunday morning? Because God’s covenant relationship with Israel is not just for the sake of Israel, but is the visible sign of God’s eternal covenant with all mankind, his faithful promise that he shall be our God, and we his people. The history of the whole world can be read in the history of this little nation, to whom God has said “you are mine”, and who in turn cries out, “I am yours!”
But wait, there’s more! Because the Christian Gospel distinguishes itself from all other accounts of God’s relationship to man by daring to claim that God himself has played both parts in this story, kept both sides of this covenant. For it is God in Jesus Christ who by his incarnation becomes Israel on behalf of Israel, man on behalf of man. In Jesus, the God who speaks through the prophet Isaiah becomes the stricken vine; the one who gives the nations the cup of wrath to drink now pours out his blood as wine for us to share. Paul tells us today about the sort of righteousness that comes only through faith in Christ, or through the faithfulness of Christ— depending on which scholar you ask! In fact the ambiguity itself can be helpful because as Christians, our faith in Christ is not just an abstract response to what we see him doing; rather, through the Spirit, we actually participate in Christ’s faithfulness–in his loving relationship with his Father. It is his risen life that we now live, his sonship that we share. Just as God has made our story his, now he brings us into the heart of his eternal story of love..
“To be found in him”—this is what Paul seeks, and this is what salvation means to all of us who believe in Jesus Christ. “I am the true vine”, says Jesus; “abide in me, as I abide in you”. In Christ, God’s loving purposes for Israel and for the world find their eternal meaning and their end. The story we hear today of God’s beloved vineyard is an echo of a much older story, older than the world itself; the story not of Israel’s righteousness but of God’s; not of man’s faithfulness, but of God’s; not of our love for God, but of God’s love for us. Christ is the true vine, in whom both sides of the story of God and Israel, God and mankind, are played out. In Christ God has said “you are mine”; in Christ man has replied, “I am yours!”.