Monday, October 13, 2008

Pentecost 21 Sermon -- Matthew 21:33-46 (LSB Proper 22A)

October 5, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Jesus said: “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to Him: “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 season.”

In the readings for today, there are two things that can’t be missed: there’s a vineyard that has production and management problems and the owner is very upset about it. That is the message found in the Old Testament Reading, the Psalm of the Day, and the Gospel Reading. All three portions of Scripture bring this message of divine wrath and anger to the people of God.

Though such messages are quite unpleasant they must be sent and heard. No one enjoys receiving a nasty-gram from employers, creditors, or government officials. But it does have a purpose: to correct what is wrong and to change actions for the better. When such a message comes from the Lord God, it most definitely must be heard. For when the Lord God delivers His message of Law and condemnation, it is to correct beliefs and actions that are leading to eternally ill effects. The message He speaks is meant to change those actions and beliefs for an everlasting better.

The stories of the vineyards bring that message in terms that the people can understand. Through these stories, both Isaiah and Jesus use the example of a vineyard owner to speak about what the Lord God had done for His people. And what did the vineyard owner do? “He planted vines on a very fertile hill, dug and cleared it of stones, put a fence around it, and built a watchtower in the midst of it.” The owner even put tenant farmers in charge of the vineyard to tend to it. There was nothing else to do in order for the vineyard to be productive. As an allegory, the story shows how the Lord God brought His people out of Egypt, placed them in Canaan after removing their enemies, built them up into a full nation, gave them His protection, and even was present with them in the Temple.

But what does the vineyard produce? “Wild grapes.” And what do the tenant farmers do? “[They] took [the owner’s] servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” And when the owner’s son came to the vineyard, “they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” The characters in the allegory do exactly what the people of Israel did throughout their history. Though they were planted by God, the men of Israel produced “bloodshed and outcry.” When the Lord God sent prophets to remind the people of their identity and expected behavior, the leaders of Israel persecuted, tortured, and martyred them. Then the Lord God’s Son appears to provide salvation and forgiveness, and the former people of God crucify Him.

What’s wrong with this vineyard? That’s the question the Lord God asks: “Judge between Me and My vineyard. What more was there to do for My vineyard, that I have not done in it?” The planting was good. The soil was good. The protection and tending was good. So what went so horribly wrong? Whey does the owner say: “I will remove [the vineyard’s] hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down?” What moves the owner to “put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants”?

All this wrath is visited upon Israel and its leaders because of their unbelief and unfaithfulness. That’s what is wrong with the vineyard and its tenants. The people of Israel rejected the Lord God’s unfailing love. They forsook His covenant to chase after other gods. They abandoned their identity as they mixed with other nations. The Lord God’s words of promise were forgotten or rejected. And when prophets came to remind them of it, they were refused and repelled. The vine decided to become a thornbush and the tenants attempted to become owners. Israel had lost their place, lost what they once were.

In response to this unbelief and unfaithfulness and the sinful actions that stem from it, the Lord God brings His wrath. If the people of Israel don’t want to be His vineyard, the Lord God confirms their decision: the Temple is destroyed, their nation is conquered, they are no longer recipients of salvation. If the religious leaders don’t want to promote true worship of Him, the Lord God reacts: no more true worship will be found in Israel and His people are given new leaders. This is the temporal and eternal punishment that the Lord God brings, the actions of wrath visited upon those who do not believe and who reject His unfailing love seen in the atoning death of His Son.

Such actions should confront you and cause you to tremble, because the vineyard allegory is not just a retelling of Israel’s history. This is what happened to the people the Lord God delivered from Egypt, but it is also a warning to all who are in a covenant relationship with the Lord God. The allegory applies to you, because you are the Lord God’s vineyard. This is what Jesus tells you when He says: “I am the Vine and you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, it is he who bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

You have been made part of the Church, grafted into the Vine into a covenant relationship with the Lord God through Holy Baptism. St. Paul described the importance of that: “[I do not] have 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.” This was true of the Israelites in the past: their righteousness depended upon participating in the covenant the Lord God made with them. But what happened when they rejected it in their unbelief? The vineyard ran wild and the tenants didn’t turn over the harvest. And then the owner destroyed both the vineyard and the tenants.

That is the fate which those who abandon the covenant relationship with the Lord God endure. It will be so for you, if your unfaithfulness drives you away from the means of grace that the Lord God uses to provide forgiveness, life, and salvation, rejecting what the Lord God wants to give you. It will be so for you, if your unfaithfulness produces nothing but “wild grapes” or bad fruit. And it will be so for your leaders, if they abandon the teachings that the Lord God gave through the prophets and apostles and try to make themselves owners instead of tenants.

But such a fate can be avoided. Remember what the Lord God said about His vineyard: “What more was there to do for My vineyard, that I have not done in it?” Think on that question: “What more was there to do?” You can answer the Lord God’s question correctly: everything required was accomplished, everything necessary for my salvation has been done.

That is the beauty and comfort of the covenant relationship: it is really dependent upon what the Lord God has done. Christ has fulfilled its requirements by His sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. Atonement for all sins has been offered. That is the unfailing love of the Lord God. That is what you have been made a part of through your baptisms, as St. Paul confessed: “that you may know [Christ] 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 of the dead.”

The awful fate of the Israelites and the chief priests and Pharisees wasn’t because the Lord God didn’t do everything necessary for their salvation. Jesus atoned for their sins, too. But their unbelief kept them from receiving what the Lord God had for them. The same is true for you. Christ has done everything for you, His vine. Faithful participation in His covenant delivers it to you and delivers you from “a miserable death.”

That is what your Lord wants you to learn from these vineyard allegories. Though they speak of judgment and wrath, they also display a merciful graciousness. At the end of His statement, Jesus says: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from [the chief priests and Pharisees] and given to a people producing its fruits.” That statement speaks of you: you are “the people producing its fruits,” as you participate in the covenant promises. Salvation—a most blessed fate opposite of “a miserable death”—is yours as you have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, as you hear Christ’s words of forgiveness and believe them, as you receive His body and blood of the new covenant in the Eucharist, and as the Spirit works in you through these things to produce the fruits of righteousness.

This is what the psalmist knew, as we prayed today. Asaph knew about the covenant and the faithfulness of the Lord God to it. And in repentance, he writes: “Let Your hand be on the man of Your right hand, the son of man whom You have made strong for Yourself! Then we shall not turn back from You; give us life and we will call upon Your name! Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let Your face shine that we may be saved!”

That is the prayer that you, the Lord God’s vineyard, can offer. It is a prayer focused on Christ, “the man of [the Lord God’s] right hand,” and the covenant that He fulfills. Pray it, so that you may be kept faithful in the relationship that He has given to you. Then you shall call upon Him, be restored, and be saved according to His mercy. And you shall live, trusting and participating in the covenant made to you.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

No comments: