Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
This is a difficult word, brothers and sisters. There’s no way around it. Today’s reading from Isaiah begins much the same way as last week’s reading from Hosea; it is a song of love, a song of tender care, a song of God’s patient and persistent providence for the chosen people. Isaiah paints a beautiful picture of that love in this allegory about the planting of a vineyard. The prophet recounts how the vineyard owner planted a protective hedge around the vines, installed a winepress to enjoy the fruits of the harvest, and even set up a military-style watchtower to defend it from those who would seek to harm it. Everything that was needed to make the harvest a success was done to perfection. Unfortunately, the vineyard fails to produce the desired crop. Many of you are all too familiar with the disappointment of a failed harvest. You know the agony that comes from preparing the ground, planting the seed, watching and tending and working the fields during the long growing season, and bringing in the crop at the end of the summer, only to see everything go sour. The devastation of seeing a year’s worth of planning and preparation and work go to waste is surely one of the most difficult things to deal with for someone who loves the land.
God was no less devastated at the failure of the people of Israel and Judah to achieve the harvest that God desired. All the preparation for that harvest had been done faithfully: the establishment of a covenant, the gift of instruction to help the people live will with one another, and the provision of leadership – however grudgingly it might have initially been given – to hold the people accountable to that covenant and law. At almost every turn, Israel and Judah fell victim to the most human of desires: the desire to become more than human, the desire to take the place of God, the desire to usurp power and authority and influence for one’s own benefit rather than using it for the good of the community. Where God expected justice to dwell among the people, violence and oppression took root. Where God expected to reap a harvest of righteousness, cries of distress and trouble rang out. In spite of all that God had done, the chosen people had failed to be the kind of people God had called them to be. As a result, Isaiah declared that they would soon lose the protection that had been so lovingly provided for them, and that armies from the north and east would sweep across the land and wreak havoc on God’s pleasant planting.
Yes, this is a difficult word, because it appears to fly in the face of God’s gracious and merciful character, a character that is revealed time and again throughout the Scriptures. In truth, however, that love song is just part of the picture. It is a devastating part, to be sure, but it is not the whole story. God’s grace is revealed once again when we turn from chapter five to chapter eleven, a movement from judgment to promise. Even before the predicted devastation of exile comes to pass, Isaiah declares that God will send a new kind of ruler to lead the people toward the kind of life that God intended for them. This new ruler would wear justice and righteousness like garments, and guide the people to pursue equity and fairness in their dealings with one another. He would banish evil from among the people, and spread abroad the spirit of the Lord, the spirit that brings wisdom and understanding, right counsel and strength, knowledge and reverence for the LORD.
As Christians, of course, we cannot read this description of the righteous ruler without thinking of Jesus, the son of David whose coming we will celebrate in just over five weeks. As we stand on the cusp of another new church year and the beginning of the season of Advent, we pause to remember that Christ came to be that righteous ruler for us and for the whole creation. His rule was not established to benefit himself, but to grant abundant life to those who would come to believe in him. He shows us by his life how to live well with one another and with God. He saves us from our love of self and our enslavement to sin by his obedient death. He frees us to live with love for others by his rising from death and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. In Christ, the devastation of the vineyard song is changed into the glorious song of new life and victory that has been passed down through the generations to the faithful, and because of Christ we have been planted as part of God’s chosen people in that holy vineyard, nourished by water and word in baptism, and filled with the sustenance we need by receiving the bread of life and cup of salvation.
Brothers and sisters, our reading today tells the story of rebellion and judgment, but it also calls us to give thanks for God’s grace and favor for the people that God has called and claimed. God grieves over human sin, and yet God also acts to restore humanity to relationship with one another and with the divine through the righteous rule of Christ our King. As we prepare to enter the season of longing for God’s rule to be extended over the whole creation without opposition, let us give thanks for the glimpses of that rule we receive as we live in union with God’s Son. Let us pray that we will continue to grow up into Christ, and that through Christ we will bring forth the harvest of righteousness and justice that God desires for us. Finally, let us pray that our lives will give glory and honor to the one who has created and redeemed us and who continues to sustain us under his lordship. Thanks be to God, and praise be to Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit! Amen!