Sunday, March 13, 2016

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
Luke 20:9-20

But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned one with another, saying, This is the heir; let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.

Politicians have to put out their best face when they are running for office. After all, the election process is, in essence, a job interview. They want their resume to read well, to focus on the things that they believe will help them do a good job for the people who will be electing them. They tell crowds about their accomplishments, their background, and their experience. They also lay out their plan and hope that the voters will see that the voters will see that they have what it takes to get it done.

It seems that at least a few of the candidates have made a point of including their Christian faith on their resume. Now, I would certainly prefer a Christian to hold office because I believe the Christian world view is best not only for our nation but also for the world. A humble, faithful Christian will act with mercy and grace, be obedient to God's law and follow God's word. Unfortunately, "I am a Christian" has become a box to tick on the resume, but we do not see their faith in the way they live their lives. I'd rather have an honest atheist than a pretend Christian. I don't understand those who vote for someone who claims to be a Christian just because they claim to be a Christian even though their life does not appear to be Christ-like at all.

What does a Christian life look like? Well, first of all we aren't looking for a perfect person who is without sin, since all men are sinners in need of a Savior. The Christian is humble, recognizes their sin and seeks God's forgiveness. The Christian will fail on a daily basis, but knows they've failed and tries to be changed by God's Word. The Christian seeks God through prayer and His Word. It isn't enough to have a writer include a scripture quote in a speech if their lives do not reflect that scripture in the way they speak and walk and work in this world.

Paul knows that it isn't enough to have the good resume, after all, he had a good one. He had every qualification to be a leader for the Jews. He had confidence in his Jewish heritage, privilege and attainments. He was circumcised, came from a good family, he lived according to the ways of his people. He was a Pharisee, had the authority to persecute the Christians, and -- he claims -- he was faultlessly righteous according to the law.

Then he met Jesus. He met Jesus on the road to Damascus and learned that it didn't matter how good his resume looked if he did not believe in the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Paul had every reason to believe that he deserved to inherit the Kingdom, but he knew that it was all worthless. The only thing that matters is to know Jesus. The only thing that matters is to receive the Son.

If it were based on his flesh, Paul could have been confident of his salvation. Yet, he sets all that aside for the sake of Christ. He does not believe that he has already obtained it all; as a matter of fact Paul knew he was a sinner greater than all other sinners. Yet, he was striving for that which has already been promised and is assured by God's faithfulness. He encouraged the Philippians, and us today, to set aside all that has gone by and continue moving forward toward the promise. God has done something new. While the acts of God that have been done already are great, we can rest in the promise that the best is yet to come. We need not forget the past, but always look toward the future. We need not ignore the flesh, but always keep God in the proper place: as the center of our life.

This is what we want from a leader who claims to be Christian. We don't need a person who checks a box, quotes the scripture and does whatever he or she wants to do anyway. I want to vote for a person who walks the walk, not talks the talk. Sadly, there are always those who want to be part of the Kingdom but who aren't really willing to live humbly under the rule of God.

Now, before we act holier than thou, let us consider our own human nature. We can easily point to those politicians claiming one thing and living another, but are we that much different? Can we honestly say that we've never tried to take what we think is ours? Can we honestly claim to be righteous before God? Haven't we all rationalized some sin? Do we ever think that the end justifies the means? Have we told a lie for the right reasons? Have we taken something that wasn't mine to help someone, even though it is wrong to steal?

Did I kill the Son of God?

The Pharisees recognized themselves in Jesus' parable. Do we?

The story begins with a landowner preparing a vineyard. He bought the land, planted the vines, and built the wine press. He put everything into the vineyard and then called for people to lease the vineyard and work it for him. All he asked was for them to pay the rent. When it came time to collect, the landowner sent a servant to collect his share, but the tenants beat that servant. He sent a second and a third, but they did the same thing. Finally, the landowner sent his own son, who had the authority of the father, but the tenants did not respect him as the landowner thought they would. Instead, they decided to kill the heir so that they would inherit the vineyard. They rejected the son and thus rejected the father and somehow thought the father would give them everything they wanted.

This is a story about God's Kingdom. The scribes and the chief priests understood what Jesus was saying, and it upset them. They knew that He was talking about destroying those who had assumed they deserved the Kingdom of God, but who were not honoring the Master. They perceived that Jesus was speaking against them, saying that they were not serving God as God intended.

They were right. The servants sent by the landowner were the prophets who had been sent by God over and over again to call the people to faithful living in the covenant. They claimed to follow the letter of the law, but they did not live in a relationship with God. They pursued a righteousness based on their own good works and they rejected the Son who would make them right with God. And they did exactly what Jesus said they would do: they planned to kill the Son.

God set the foundation and planted the seeds for His Kingdom. The Israelites were given the responsibility to take care of the Kingdom, but Kingdom belongs to God. He didn't ask much in return, just faithful stewardship and respect. He asked that they believe in His Son. They refused to give God the respect He is due; they beat the prophets and they would kill the Son. God promised to give the Kingdom to others. Those others are the ones who recognize their sinfulness and turn to God for forgiveness, even if they are the ones whom the self-righteous think are undeserving. They are the ones who don't follow God because it looks good on a resume, but because they know they need Him and trust in His faithfulness.

Oh, we can point our fingers, but we are reminded during our Lenten journey that we can fall away so easily. As a matter of fact, it is important that we remember daily how easy it is to stand on our own righteousness. God's chosen people did it throughout their history. God provided them with a vineyard to tend, but they constantly turned away from Him to worship other gods. They believed that the Kingdom was theirs because they were the ones that God brought out of Egypt. They were inheritors of the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their forefathers were the ones that experienced the exodus. They deserved the Kingdom; they earned it. They were relying on the past, but God had something greater planned. They were relying on their heritage, but God was about to do something new. Paul was among those who did the same, until he met Jesus.

In the passage from Isaiah, God told the people to forget the things that have gone before. "See, I am doing a new thing." The God of Isaiah, the God of the Israelites, can do amazing things. He made a path through the Red Sea so that they could escape slavery and oppression. We were not slaves to Egyptians, but we are slaves to our flesh. We are oppressed by the expectations of this world and by the burdens of the Law. We rely on our past and our own good works. We are controlled by our own need for power, by our own self-interest.

But God has done a new thing; He sent His Son to make us free. Jesus Christ is the living water that He promises, water in the wilderness that we are given to drink. After the long wander in the wilderness of Lent, we are waiting anxiously for this new life that He has promised. We wait in hopeful expectation of what will happen, even as we look back to what has already taken place. Sometimes it is hard for us to see that the promise is real and that God is faithful. We look to our past and wonder, is the future really going to be better than what we already have?

Thankfully, the old is past and something new is coming. Jesus died on the cross because we are sinners in need of a Savior, but the story did not end there. The son of the vineyard owner might have died forever, but the Son of God did not. The vineyard owner might have destroyed the tenants who killed his son, but God raised His Son so that we can have new life in His Kingdom.

There is no Christian who has more right to boast than the Apostle Paul. Paul deserved to inherit the Kingdom. And yet even Paul knew that He did not deserve anything. We would all do well to live in the same humility, to remember that we would be nothing without the Landowner who gave us His vineyard to work. He deserves our respect, our obedience, our faith. He is worthy of our worship.

We are no different than those tenants, trying to take control of the Kingdom which belongs to God. The death of His Son is on our shoulders, as it was upon theirs. But God's mercy is never ending, and even such a great offense is not held against those who are humble enough to repent and trust in God. We who now believe are welcome into the Kingdom and we are forgiven, even when we fail. Whose vineyard is it? The vineyard does not belong to us, it belongs to God. He has made us stewards, and calls us to serve him with humility and joy.

The greatest trouble with those who claim to be Christian but for whom it is nothing but a checked box on a resume is that they worship a god of their own choosing. They make Him to be what they want, accept only those parts of the faith that suits them. They chase after a righteousness that fits their desires and ignore the demands of the one true God.

The psalmist writes, "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him." We rejoice with the harvest, just as they must have done, but there's more to this verse than praise and worship for God's provision.

This verse is thought to reflect the myth of Baal. One practice in their worship included mourning as they scattered the seed, as if they were scattering the Baal's body after death, but the sadness of that moment was overcome with the joy that came with the growth of new life and the harvest of the fruit. Though this was not the way God intended for His people to worship, it was embraced by His people, especially the common folk, because it was a practical way of understanding the mystery of nature.

They didn't stop worshipping the God who delivered them out of Egypt, but they added to their worship the god that suited them. Over and over again the people continued to fall into the patterns of the world around them, rejecting God for their own ideal. The prophets warned the people over and over again to reject the local gods, but when they did not, God turned His back. Over and over again they repented and turned back to God. He always heard their cry and saved them from the consequences of their unfaithfulness. They learned their lesson until the next generation who fell into the patterns of the world. It is still happening; we continue to fall into the patterns of the world around us, rejecting the God who has called us to work the vineyard, killing the Son to steal that which is not ours without God's grace.

Thankfully God does not allow us to wallow in the consequences of our unfaithfulness. We stand with the Pharisees, knowing that the story of the tenants is about us and that we, too, killed the Son. However, God did not end the story with His death; the death of Jesus brings forgiveness and resurrection for all those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

Like Paul, we have set aside what is behind and we too strive toward the promise, which is assured in Christ Jesus. We don't put forth our best face for those who are watching, but we put forth the face of Christ in all we do. We are new creations changed by His grace and transformed into people who don't just check a box on a resume, but who live a life of humble faith that shines the light of Jesus Christ to the world.

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