Monday, September 26, 2011

Matthew 21:33-46 New tenants of the Vineyard

Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Things that can be hard for us are easy for God.  Patience, for example.  It’s hard for a lot of people to wait for something good to happen.  We want results right away.  God is different.  The Heavenly Father knows how to wait.  This morning’s parable describes his patience.  He made a covenant – or agreement – with Abraham and Jacob and their descendants.  He loved the people of Israel and blessed them when they followed him and trusted him and obeyed his commands.  The Old Testament tells the story of many faithful people: Ruth and Boaz, King David most of the time, the prophets and a few of the kings of Judah.  Most of the people and their leaders, however, did as they pleased and served their own interests.  They oppressed the poor, they worshiped heathen gods, they offended the Heavenly Father.  But he was patient with them.  Instead of destroying them, he sent prophets to warn the majority who strayed and to encourage the ones who stuck with him.  He gave them plenty of time to turn to him and kept hoping they would take hold of his outstretched hand.  He didn’t want to believe that they were as wicked as they seemed.
            This morning’s parable illustrates the patience of God.  The owner of the vineyard kept sending his servants to collect the payment they owed him.  He didn’t give up hope.  He even sent his son, thinking that the tenants would surely respect him.  The Heavenly Father puts the best construction on actions and events.  He looks for a favorable outcome.  He trusts that his actions in the world will produce the results he wants, so he is patient.
            The parable reminds us as well that his patience is not infinite.  The tenants who kill the son end up paying a great price, for the son is ruler of everything – the cornerstone of the building – and the ones who reject him will be crushed to pieces.  The Heavenly Father provides, he nourishes.  In the words of Isaiah, he gives drink to his chosen people, the ones he formed for himself.  But he expects a return – the heartfelt devotion of his people, who proclaim his praises.  If they desert him, he will crush them.  A terrible fate in eternity is waiting for people who harden their hearts and refuse to turn to God when they have the chance.  This is a hard saying: tender minds don’t like to think about hellfire and damnation.  But the Heavenly Father who nourishes and provides and saves also has a secondary plan – eternal punishment for the hard and the cruel, flames of hell for the unjust and the faithless.  Jesus wants us to know about these things so that we have a full picture of heaven’s way of working.  Threats of hell never saved anyone, but God terrifies so that we’ll pay attention to him and he can make alive and console.  He wants us to know, besides that, that he is just and righteous.  He will punish blasphemers, the faithless, the unrepentant, those who are blood-thirsty and tyrannical, who oppress the helpless, while people who endure in faith, who persist in loyalty to God, however humble and unnoticed they may be, will receive a great reward.
            Jesus main mission, you see, is to comfort, to make alive.  He had planned a wonderful work of outreach for his Old Testament people to carry out under his guidance – to believe in the coming Savior themselves and to carry the good news of salvation t the gentile nations.  But the leaders of the day rejected God and his message.  They refused to take up the mission, but Jesus didn’t die in vain.  The Father found others to help him.  He turned the vineyard over to new tenants, who spread the Word about the hope of salvation in Christ.
            People in Mediterranean countries were in spiritual turmoil at that time.  Melancholy was widespread.  Millions had lost their trust in the old pagan religions and were hungry for a new faith, which the apostles and the disciples brought to them along the efficient roads of the Roman Empire.  Hearts awakened; spirits renewed; slumbering souls revived with the hope of new life that would last forever.  Folks who’d never heard of Abraham and Noah or King David now looked to Christ for salvation.  They head the gospel, learned what it meant for them, and held onto it.  The Lord had found new tenants for his vineyard who were willing to offer him the return of faith he wanted.
            To put it another way, the parable shows us that God defends his Word.  He takes the gospel away from people who distort it or abuse it for their own purposes and gives it to folks who will be grateful for it and will use it the way he wants.  He keeps the Bible’s message fresh and new, so that it’s as powerful today as in the time of the apostles.
            It’s important to keep in mind that God doesn’t work in obvious ways.  He brings down the proud and the great and lifts up the lowly, who will provide him with the kind of return he wants.  The parable helps us understand the Lord’s way of working and the kind of fruitfulness he creates in his vineyard and when the owner will return.
            The vineyard is the church which has existed for the comfort, guidance, and salvation of God’s people since Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise.  The church has had many ups and downs, but her Lord has kept her a place where weary men and women who regret their sins may find relief for troubled minds and restoration to life and favor.  The church brings us forgiveness in Christ’s blood, guidance for daily living, hope for the future, and the promise of happiness in eternity.  The church takes away our fear of death.  God’s vineyard is a place of hope and joy and love.
            The church is very simple.  It exists wherever God’s Word is preached in its purity and where the sacraments are offered according to his Word.  The church doesn’t need great buildings or a fine show.  In fact, these sometimes get in the way.  Jesus has placed his gospel here, and so St. Peter’s is as much the church as any place, and we offer our Lord the kind of return he is looking for.
            He isn’t looking for great and mighty works, but sorrow for sin, faith and trust in Jesus, the assurance that his mercy applies to us, and the good works that flow from faith in him.  Christian fruitfulness isn’t grand or imposing.  It sticks close to the earth; it doesn’t draw attention to itself.  We lead wonderfully fruitful lives simply by sticking with Jesus in gratitude for his friendship and doing the works of faith he sets out for us.
            No one’s life of faith is perfect.  We sometimes fail to repent; we let Jesus go; we give way to laziness; we can be ungrateful and selfish, like the tenant farmers in the parable.  But God has designed his vineyard specifically to increase the fruitfulness of imperfect people like ourselves, for the church is a hospital, where wounded people may find rest and confidence for the future.
            We remember, too that we aren’t here this morning because of our own actions, but because God has summoned us to St. Peter’s, so we trust that he’ll keep on pardoning us so that
awareness of our imperfections doesn’t break our spirits.  Jesus equips us with confidence that we’ll be fruitful.  How often have we felt that he’s lifted us up and carried us through some trial that we couldn’t have borne on our own.  Our gratitude is the return he’s looking for.  He commands us to trust that his blessings to us will continue, so we cling to him by the faith he gives us.
            Now, a few words about heaven’s timing.  The world is restless, always looking for something new, while God is patient, never in a hurry.  All good things come according to his plan.  He knows that the new tenants of his vineyard are waiting – for a certain blessing to reveal itself, for pilgrims to turn to the church, for Jesus’ second coming, so he gives us the patience to wait in hope, as we wait faithfully for his return in glory, when he will judge the wicked and call his beloved children to praise him in heaven.     
            God is doing a marvelous thing and he isn’t yet finished.  What may seem like delay to us is not delay to him.  Peter wrote that Jesus’ sense of time is different from ours.  A thousand years for him are the same as a day, and a day is a thousand years.  “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness,” Peter wrote, “but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that anyone should perish but that all should reach repentance.”  Our Lord postpones his second coming to give his Word a chance to spread.
            Meanwhile, in some ways, we’re like the tenants in the parable.  The world, the devil, and our flesh tempt us to stray.  How can we be sure we’ll behave better than they did?  The Lord who brings us here will keep us in his vineyard.  He protects his chosen tenants from harm.  We don’t worry.  He will guard our faith and maintain us in the kind of fruitfulness he wants.
            To sum up, then – the Lord’s Christian people are the new tenants of his vineyard.  He expects a special kind of fruitfulness from us: sorrow for our sins, reflecting minds, the humility to accept forgiveness, and the good works that flow from faith.  The Lord who brought us into his vineyard will keep us there, so we don’t chafe at what looks like heaven’s delay.  We’re patient.  We rejoice at what God has done for us and for the whole human race.  He knows our situation.  He hears our prayers.   He gives us hope that we’ll call on him as long as we live and that he’s waiting to receive us in the next life.  In Jesus’ Name.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.

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