Sunday, October 5, 2008

Twenty-first Sunday in Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, The same was made the head of the corner; This was from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes?

There is an email circulating about Psalm 118, which Jesus quotes in today’s Gospel lesson. It goes something like this. “Did you know that: Psalm 118 is the middle chapter of the entire Bible? Psalm 117, before Psalm 118 is the shortest chapter in the Bible? Psalm 119, after Psalm 118 is the longest chapter in the Bible? The Bible has 594 chapters before Psalm 118 and 594 chapters after Psalm 118? If you add up all the chapters except Psalm 118, you get a total of 1188 chapters. Psalm 118 verse 8 (1188) is the middle verse of the entire Bible? Should the central verse not have a fairly important message? ‘It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.’ - Psalm 118:8. Is this central verse not also the central theme of the entire Bible?”

A little research on the Internet finds that there are those who disagree with the numbers in this email and the conclusion. Ironically, this sequence requires trusting in a construct of man – the numbering of the verses and chapters in the Bible! The original books and letters were not numbered. The numbering is not the same in all editions of the scriptures. The Hebrew Bible is numbered much differently and certain Christian translations have changed the numbering. Though different from what we have today, early manuscripts even before the Council of Nicea had some divisions of text. Versification is made as a convenience to those who are reading and studying the scriptures. When several people are discussing the texts, it is nice to know exactly where it can be found in the midst of the entire book. When a teacher says turn to Psalm 118:8, it is easier for a group to find that place, especially if they have different Bibles with different page numbers.

However, the chapter and verse numbers are not really part of the scriptures which have been handed down to us from our forefathers. Is that verse the central theme of the entire Bible? Perhaps, and yet when thinking in terms of Law and Gospel preaching, this verse is wholly Law—it is about the flesh clinging to God, a work of faith. The Gospel, however, is about that which God has done for us. Perhaps we should make the numbers work out so that verse 27 can be the center of the Bible. It says, “The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us.” Now, that is the center of the Bible. That is Gospel.

Psalm 118 is a hymn of thanksgiving for deliverance, perhaps written by David to praise God for saving him from his many enemies. Jesus quoted from this Psalm just as the chief priests and elders were beginning to see Jesus as a real threat to their position and their power. In last week’s Gospel lesson, we heard the leaders of the temple ask Jesus about His own authority. They did not believe He had the authority to do or say the things He was doing and saying. Jesus was shaking up their world, and threatening their position. They needed to find a way to stop Him. He refused to give them the answer they sought and caused them to look at their own obedience to God.

Today’s story goes a little further. Jesus describes a landowner (God) who built a vineyard (Israel) and left the vineyard under the care of tenants (the chief priests and elders). When the landowner came to take possession of the fruit that was rightly his, the tenants killed the servants (the prophets of God). More servants were sent and killed. Then the landowner sent his son (Christ) because He thought the tenants would recognize his authority. They did not give the son the respect due and even killed him, hoping to gain possession of the inheritance.

The chief priests and elders didn’t recognize the authority of the prophets sent before Jesus and their self-centeredness and greed led to the same end of all God’s servants – death. Did the tenants (the chief priests and elders) really think that the landowner (God) would leave them to their scheming and violence?

Jesus said, “Didn’t you read that passage from the Psalms about the stone the builders rejected? It has become the head of the corner.” “Head of the corner” comes from the American Standard Version and can be translated in a number of different ways. It is the literal translation of the Hebrew word, but it is outside our modern understanding. What does “head of the corner” mean? Translators have used the words capstone, keystone and cornerstone. Though these words have similar meanings, they are representative of stones that have slightly different purposes.

A capstone, or coping, is a stone that is used to finish the top of the wall. It is not just decorative; it is also protection for the wall. It helps hold the wall together. Coping stones are larger, or longer, than the bricks and stones used to build the wall, and therefore gives strength to the top. Capstones are also used as lintels, on the top of a doorway. The capstone supports everything above the door and also the posts that create the opening. The entrances to ancient tombs were often created by standing two stones side by side and placing a capstone on top of the two standing stones. I saw one of these doorways in England. The only parts of the structure to survive were the standing stones and the capstone, still standing because it was all held up by the capstone.

Another type of stone used in building is a keystone. A keystone is used in building an arch. It is the central, uppermost stone in the arch, often shaped slightly differently than the other stones to give the arch a decorative touch. I like this translation of the word because of the statement that the builders rejected the stone. The keystone need not be the strongest, largest or prettiest stone. It offers no support to the arch, but instead locks it together. To build an arch, the builder creates a form that will later be removed. The stones are carefully placed along the form. Finally, the keystone is put into place. The arch would fall if the form was removed before that keystone is in place, but once it is there, the arch stands strong. The builders rejected the stone because it was not big or perfect enough to use in a strong and longstanding building. But it can be a keystone.

The third translation is cornerstone. There are two types of cornerstones. When the builders began laying the foundation of a building, they place one square stone in the corner of the building site, making sure that the sides are perfectly aligned with where the sides of the building was designed to be. All the other stones are then placed in relation to the cornerstone. These stones were often marked and in ancient societies were given spiritual and superstitious power. We no longer normally lay a stone in the foundation of our buildings, so the cornerstone has become a purely informational and decorative feature of buildings. Inscribed with dates and the names of those responsible for the building, the cornerstone stands as a testament to the work of those people.

Isn’t it interesting that no matter how you define the phrase “head of the corner” you can still see Christ in its imagery? Jesus is the capstone, not only a physical and tangible manifestation of the highpoint of our faith but also that which holds together the walls of His people. Without the capstone or coping, the buildings would fall. Without the capstone, the doorways would fail. Jesus is the keystone. He was not the most powerful man or one with earthly authority. He was in no position to rule. He was easily cast away by the leaders of the faith. The scriptures tell us He was abused, beaten and killed. Yet, the Church can not stand without Him. He locks us together. Jesus is also the cornerstone. He is both the stone laid in the foundation and the stone that testifies to the work of God. Without Him the church would be misaligned, the walls would be uneven and the building out of whack. Without Him we would still not recognize the God of grace from whom we have faith and hope and peace. Jesus is the “head of the corner” in every way, and this is truly marvelous in our eyes.

The chief priests and elders were blind, however, to what was right in front of them. They saw Jesus as a threat instead of the Savior they needed. They thought they were taking care of God’s vineyard but they were destroying it. They thought that God would bless them, but they rejected the blessing that He sent. They refused to see their own frailty, claiming righteousness on their own virtues rather than on the grace of God. They thought they were taking refuge in God, but they were really relying on their own strength and power and authority.

We see in the Old Testament lesson a picture of God as a vineyard owner. The vineyard keeper carefully planted the vines hoping to get an excellent crop to make fine wine for drinking. But in today’s passage we hear that the vineyard brought forth wild grapes. In this story, the vineyard represents the nation of Israel. They had turned away from God, despite all that He did for them. He delivered and provided for them. He made them whole and promised to be faithful.

We are like those wild grapes, growing up in the midst of the vineyard that the Lord has planted. We fail. We sin. We go our own way. Despite all that God has done for us, we want to be in control of the world in which we live. In doing so, we often make the wrong choices. This passage does not leave us much hope, as God swore to repay His wayward people with justice. Yet, this is not the end of the story. There is hope because the promises of God reach far beyond our failing. For every curse there is a promise and God is faithful.

Paul went his own way. Well, he went the way of men until he had an encounter with the living Lord Jesus. That encounter led him on a journey that took him to places he never expected. He learned what it meant to have faith, to believe God and to live as He called men to live. He learned what it meant to take refuge in God. His world had been turned upside down, but in that new world, he found peace.

Ananias was an early disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ who lived in Damascus. The Christian Church was just beginning its spread to the four corners of the earth; the followers were probably not yet even called Christians. They were Jews who believed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah for whom they had waited. They gathered together in homes, sharing fellowship and food, reading the letters of the apostles and the scriptures they knew so well, trying to understand all that was happening to their world, their faith and their lives.

Not all Jews believed the message of Jesus or that He was the Messiah for whom they were waiting. Some believed that the new Christians, a named originally given as an insult to those believed to have wandered from the true faith, were apostate and traitors. Some Jews were more zealous among the company of religious leaders and they believed that the new Christians deserved to die, that the new faith had to be stopped at all cost. One of those zealous members of the ruling party was Saul of Tarsus.

Ananias was a Jew. In Acts 22, we learn that he was “a devout observer of the law and was highly respected by all the Jews living” in Damascus. (Acts 22:12) He had heard about Saul of Tarsus, the zealot who was present at the stoning of Stephen and who was headed for Damascus on orders from the chief priests to rid the city of those who believe in Jesus. The Lord called to Ananias in a vision. God said, “Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus: for behold, he prayeth; and he hath seen a man named Ananias coming in, and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight.” Imagine how frightened Ananias must have been. Paul certainly had a reputation, one that made the Christians tremble with fear.

But God had something wonderful planned for Saul, who was named Paul after his conversion. He was no longer the zealous religious leader who was willing to kill to hold on to the power and authority of those in Jerusalem who were unwilling to follow this new way of life. He’d had a dramatic moment of clarity as the Lord Jesus Christ came to him on the road to Damascus. He left Jerusalem with the intent of doing more harm to the Christian Church, but arrived in Damascus a changed man. Ananias could not have known that. All he knew was that Saul was a Jew’s Jew, zealous for the faith of his fathers.

Paul soon had an entirely different reputation. As he began preaching the Gospel to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, the Jew’s Jews began to question his authority. Many men, like Ananias, continued to live devotedly in the faith of their heritage while also believing in the Gospel message brought and won by Jesus Christ. We don’t know where Ananias might have stood on the issue of Gentile believers, but men like him were disturbed by the way Paul was taking the blessings of this new faith to pagans and foreigners. There were those among the Jewish Christians who believed that the Gentile Christians must first become Jews, through conversion and circumcision. They were against Paul’s evangelism techniques and his expectations of the new non-Jew Christians.

Paul had a hard word for them. He called them dogs and mutilators of the flesh. He said they were evil. They were evil because they put their confidence in the flesh, rather than the Spirit. Paul learned on the road to Damascus that the flesh is not faithful, but God is. The conversion on that road was more than a change from Jew to Christian. Paul’s life was turned upside down as he learned that faith is about living in trust of God and His Work in and through Jesus Christ rather than having faith in the things that he could do to be saved. In this letter, Paul knows he is not perfect and that he has not yet reached perfection, but he refuses to turn back to the ways of his old life – which was commendable – to live in a faith of the flesh that fails. Instead, Paul continues forward, despite the assault from those Christians who still rely on the flesh for salvation.

Psalm 80 tells the story of Israel, the vine. God brought her out of Egypt and planted her in the garden of His choosing. She did not do well. In the Old Testament lesson we learn that He expected the grapes He planted to grow and prosper, but instead He got wild grapes. Israel’s actions brought bad times upon the land; she suffered the consequences of being disobedient to her Father, but He never left. He heard their cry and restored His relationship with them. They sought His face and He shined it upon them.

An infant can only see things about 8 to 14 inches from their eyes. While they might be able to distinguish light and dark farther away, they can not yet focus on items. They would not recognize a person who is standing across the room, unless they could ‘see’ that person with other senses like smell and hearing which are more highly developed at birth. Even at close distances they do not see detail; they look for contrasts and shapes. Infants particularly like staring into the eyes of the one who is holding them. They begin to recognize their mothers first, probably because so much time is spent together. That early interaction is important for the development of both the child and the relationship.

For a child, that line of vision is their whole world. To have ‘the mother’ gazing down upon them with love and joy and peace gives the child a sense of love and joy and peace. It is like a light shining down upon them. The same is true about God our Father, as our world is more comforting when we know that He is looking down upon us. When things go wrong, it is easy to believe that God has turned His back, that He has abandoned us, much like those infants whose mothers did not respond to their needs as they expected. As our world crumbles around us we cry out to God, seeking His light and His life in our world because we know that when He is near all will be well. Even if all is not well, at least we know that He is in control and will take care of us in our time of need.

The Jews relied on their own righteousness, finding peace in their own strength and ability to take refuge in their God. But they missed the real grace which was found in Jesus Christ. It is true that we should seek refuge in our God, but the center of our faith is not found in our ability to do so. We are constantly reminded that Jesus is the capstone, the keystone, the cornerstone, the ‘head of the corner.’ As we read the scriptures that seem so full of Law, we are reminded of that verse from the Psalm, “The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us.” Now, that is the center of the Bible. That is Gospel.

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