Monday, October 6, 2008

Proper 22 of Series A (Matthew 21:33-46)

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon today is the parable of the tenants, from Matthew chapter 21. Dear friends in Christ, one of the really neat things about living here with you in the Finger Lakes region is all the vineyards. Next spring and summer, Bethany and I hope to take in the sights and tastes of this beautiful region. When you are relaxing with a glass of wine while overlooking Cayuga Lake, I’m sure that you can understand why God speaks of His kingdom or His creation as a vineyard. “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house that planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower.” God planted His people Israel in the Promised Land, and He provided for their every need. He protected them from their enemies and did everything that He could so that they would produce fruit. He did not just want fruit, but He wanted fruit of the best kind, fruit brought forth from their love of Him. But God did not want to be a puppet master pulling the strings of His people, instead He wanted His people to tend His vineyard, to be the keepers of the promise, a chosen people who would serve Him and bring His promises to fruition. God “leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.”

God had given His people so much- He had made them into a great nation under Egyptian bondage, then brought them out with His mighty hand and established them in the Promised Land. Not only that, but He entrusted His promises to their care. They were to serve Him, they were to bear fruit. But there was rumor of war and rebellion in the nation of Israel, and so God sent His servants to them. “And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.” This is the story of the entire Old Testament. Israel rebels, God sends His servants, the prophets, to preach a message of repentance, and those messengers of God are treated shamefully. Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Hosea, Nahum, and all the others were abandoned by their people, and many lost their lives for the sake of God and His message. The people of God, His chosen possession to whom the vineyard was given, refused to give to God the fruit He expected, and instead they rejected His chosen messengers. This cycle repeats over and over again, this tragic story of the people whom God loved so dearly rebelling against Him, until God finally had enough. “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” The very Son of God, Jesus Christ, was then sent to rebellious Israel, to preach the message of repentance, to call upon God’s chosen vinedressers to bring God the fruit they owed Him. But instead of bearing fruit, the Jews foolishly killed Christ through the Romans, who hung Him upon the cross. The very Son of God, God in the flesh, was killed by those whom God loved. What should happen to these rebellious tenants? As you sit in your pew, you probably can think of a long list of punishments that would be appropriate for a rebellious nation, you are eager to answer with the people in Jesus’ day: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

But like Nathan told David, this text points its finger squarely at us and says, ‘You are the man!’ We are just like the Israelites in our Christian life. We have been given the gifts of God through our Baptism, we have been given the promise of eternal life in His Holy Word, but we still try to serve ourselves. Christ does not direct His Church like the puppeteer, but instead He gives it to us to tend as a vineyard. And how do we care for this vineyard? By serving ourselves and our own interests. Our position in the Church becomes an opportunity for power, a chance to exercise authority over others. Instead of serving God through the Church, we can be tempted to use our positions for our own agenda and interests. We go our own way, often refusing to listen to those messengers which Christ has sent to us. Being selfish and self-centered is a fundamental human trait, and unfortunately it finds its way into the church as well. The tenants in our text, the people of Israel, served themselves, not the God who had given to them the vineyard. The Christian Church too often emulates them, mirroring their focus on themselves. But the worst part of our rebellion is our lack of fruit. Our faith frequently does not shine through our focus on self, we often do not bear any fruit at all. Christ is not evident in our words and actions, and therefore we bear little to no fruit. In doing this, we are doing no less than the tenants in our text. We are rejecting Christ and the Church that He established. Moreover, our sinful ambitions helped to crucify Him in the first place. It is our self-centeredness that drove the nails through His hands and feet, and for that, the Lord of the vineyard must respond.

And the Lord of the vineyard responds in judgment. “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” For our lack of fruit, for our focus on self, we deserve for the vineyard to be given to others. The Jews saw the vineyard ripped from their ungrateful hands and given to the Gentiles. We are in danger of seeing the vineyard taken from our hands and given to others who will bear fruit. We are already seeing this happen as the center of Christianity shifts south to South America and Africa. We see this in our own country as congregations close or wither away. What are we to do?

Quite simply, we pray for forgiveness, we beg for God’s grace, as many of the Jews in the days of the apostles’ did. And God does respond, He does show forth His love, but in the most unusual way. The beloved Son sent by the Lord of the vineyard to preach repentance, to call on Israel and you to give up self-centeredness and bear fruit, was killed by those tenants. Moreover, He was killed by us as our sins nailed Him to the tree. Mankind’s ultimate act of rebellion was placing Jesus Christ on the cross. But amazingly, that very act of rebellion by you, me, and all humanity, was the very means by which God brought about salvation. Christ had to die because He was the beloved Son of God, and God made Him the sacrifice for all of our sins. Our sins nailed Him to the cross, but there He paid the price for those sins, for that rebellion with His very own blood, taking the punishment that we deserved. God’s love for His creation was greater than our rejection of his servants, greater than every day that we do not produce the fruit that He expects. He dealt with our sin by sending His beloved Son to the cross, letting sinful men do what it says in our text: “They took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” Jesus was taken outside of the walls of Jerusalem, and there on a hill called Golgatha He saved you. Despite all that you have done in your life, despite every moment of self-centeredness, despite every power play in the Church, He died for you, and it is only on the cross that salvation comes to you. The tenants said in our text, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.” Those wicked men were more right than they knew. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all receive His inheritance, the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. An inheritance is only received upon death, and in the death of God’s own beloved Son, you receive all that He earned through that death.

And so the crucified and risen Lord sets out to build His Church. Like the vineyard of Israel, Christ uses sinful people as His tenants, but we do not build on our own foundation. “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’” God entrusted the building of His kingdom to Israel, and as the chief cornerstone He presented to them His very own Son. But those builders rejected this cornerstone, and so they sent Christ to His death. Ironically, it is only through His rejection that Christ could become the cornerstone. This was God’s plan all along, as our text says, “This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” In being rejected, Christ won salvation, and now it is offered freely to all of us who participated in nailing Him to the cross. Only those who sin need Christ, and He comes to those sinners in His Word and Sacraments. The Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are the means by which Christ builds His Church, because they are the means by which Christ comes to us, the means by which Christ conveys salvation. The Church is established for only one purpose- to save sinners. That is why we build on Christ and Him alone, and the gifts which He has given. It is here in the Church where this salvation comes to you and you are forgiven of all the sins that you have committed, especially your selfish power plays in the Church. Here Christ heals, here Christ binds our wounds, here Christ forgives, and He forgives you!

Because of all that Christ has done for us, we build upon Him, we serve Him and not ourselves. This is who we are because of our Baptism, because of the salvation given to us. We show forth the love of Christ to others, in the earnest hope and prayer that God will use our words and actions to bring others to Jesus. Paul is an excellent example for us to follow. Like us, he was a rebellious tenant who rejected Christ’s messengers and instead sought his own interests. He even had a hand in killing Christ’s messengers. But yet Paul says in our Epistle lesson for today: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ… For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Because of the love of God shown by Christ to you, may you have the same attitude as Paul, being willing to consider everything as a loss for the sake of Christ. May you, like Paul, bring this message to those around you, trusting that God will bless your words and example, Amen.

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