Sunday, March 17, 2013

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

“Behold, I will do a new thing; now shall it spring forth; shall ye not know it?”

When I read the Gospel passage, I can’t help but ask myself, “How does someone get there?” Luke writes, “But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’” How does anyone think that killing the son will make the landowner turn his property over to the tenants? It doesn’t make sense to me, and yet seems to make sense to these tenants. They think they have a right to the vineyard; they think that all they need to do is remove the obstacle that is keeping them from what they deserve.

I think the same thing when I hear stories about people doing extraordinarily horrific crimes. How does a mother get to the point that she truly believes that God is telling her to drown her children in a bathtub? How does a young man decide that the best way to solve his problems is to take guns into a school and shoot innocent children? How do residents in a city destroyed by a natural disaster think that it is right for them to break the windows of stores and take anything they want?

On this last example, I can almost understand hungry people breaking into a grocery store to steal food to eat, but what need has anyone of a 55” television? It is wrong to steal whether the item is worth a quarter or a million dollars, but it might be necessary when people are suffering in such extreme circumstances. It seems that sometimes the end does justify the means.

Looting often begins with someone who is trying to help in some way, but human nature always gets out of control. The first people might go in and take only a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter to feed their kids, but soon others follow who are bent on destruction. They aren’t trying to meet a need, but to satisfy a desire. It doesn’t matter; the grocery store owners are rich, right? They are probably safe on high ground, houses untouched by the flood or earthquake. They should suffer like the rest, right? An understandable desire to meet human need is easily turned into something ugly and false.

That’s certainly not what we see happening in today’s Gospel lesson. They were tenants who owed the landowner their rent. Now, they might think that it is only fair for them to keep the fruit of the vineyard. After all, they did all the work, right? They tended the vines, harvested the grapes and even produced the wine. They worked hard; don’t they deserve to keep the result of their hard work? Besides, the landowner is wealthy. Why does he need a few bottles of wine when he already has so much?

They didn’t begin with the assumption that they deserved the land. When the landowner sent a servant to collect the rent, they simply said no and sent the servant back with a few bruises. The second servant received the same welcome. They made an agreement and refused to fulfill their part of the bargain. Perhaps they thought they deserved to keep the entire harvest because they did all the work.

Or did they? That landowner bought the land and planted the vines; he had a financial stake from the beginning. Is it fair for the tenants to keep all the fruit just because he had more than they? Is it fair for the tenants to live on his land and benefit from his work, without giving him his due? Is it right for them to go against the agreement? The landowner was disappointed by the response of his tenants, but he gave them another chance. He sent several servants; each servant was beaten and sent back empty handed. How would you respond? Would you send your son?

While I might understand thinking that they deserved to keep the wine, I can’t understand how they thought that they deserve the whole vineyard. How does one go from tenant to owner at someone else’s cost? How does anyone justify killing the son? How can they possibly think that the landowner will respond to the murder of his son by giving the land to his murderers? They think the end justifies the means, and the only end that matters is the one that will benefit them.

We might think that this story speaks to some very real, current issues in our world today, but we need to be careful that we keep this in context. We need to be careful we don’t see ourselves as something better than those tenants. We make mistakes. We focus on our own self-interest. We think the end justifies the means. We think that we should own the vineyard.

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.

Now, before we act holier than thou, let us consider our own human nature. We can easily ask the question, “How do you get there?” when faced with a story like this, or when faced with very real stories that don’t make sense. I don’t expect to do anything extraordinarily horrific in my lifetime. But can I honestly say that I’ve never done anything wrong? Can I honestly claim to be righteous before God? Haven’t I rationalized some sin because I faced extraordinary circumstances? Do I ever think that the end justifies the means? Have I told a lie for the right reasons? Have I taken something that wasn’t mine to help someone, even though it is wrong to steal?

Did I kill the Son of God?

It is very easy to see sinfulness in others and to think that we can’t ‘go there.’ I can’t imagine ever killing the son of an owner who has entrusted me with his property, but what if after all my work the harvest was poor due to a drought? What if my house was destroyed in a natural disaster? Would I resort to theft so my family could eat? I hope not, but can I say for sure? I’m human and I will always be tempted to meet my needs even at the expense of someone else. I’m not as different from those tenants as I want to be.

Just as the landowner bought the land and planted the vineyard, 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. 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.

The scribes and chief priests saw the ‘others’ as being far from God; the gentiles, pagans, tax collectors were sinners. 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.

In the passage from Isaiah, God tells 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 is about to do a new thing; He is about to create a path through the sea of oppression so that we will be 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?

Wouldn’t it be easier for God to just give us what we want? We’ll just keep this vineyard, and He can go do new things someplace else. But whose vineyard is it? It is not ours, it is God’s. We are simply stewards, called to work the vines and give Him the glory. Yes, it is easier to be in control, but God has taken all the risks. He even sent His Son to teach us how to be His people. But we killed Him. We killed Him with our self-centeredness, our opinions, our insistence that we deserve to have it all, at His expense.

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. He reminds us in today’s letter that he has it all. He was “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; as touching zeal, persecuting the church; as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless.” Paul deserved to inherit the Kingdom. And yet even Paul knew that He did not deserve anything.

The letter to the Philippians was written as a thank you note for ministry support given to Paul by the church in Philippi. It was also written to encourage them to stand fast in what they knew to be true. They were facing persecution, perhaps from the Romans who lived in the town, but also from the Jews who were trying to convince the Gentile Christians that they needed to be circumcised to be true believers. Paul reminded them that they did not need to pursue a righteousness that comes from obedience to the Law; Christ made them righteous by His work on the cross. They couldn’t earn their place in the Kingdom; Jesus the Son gave them their place in it.

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.

Paul does not believe that he has already obtained it all; as a matter of fact Paul calls himself 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 encourages 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 from the past are great, we can rest in the promise that the best is yet to come.

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 us. 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.

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