Pentecost 17 – "The Ridiculous Love of God" – Matthew 21:33-46 – 10/5/14

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Preaching on parables about vineyards and vineyard management is much easier done from California or up state New York than from central Maine. California preachers will have loads of analogies and illustrations to use in their sermon this morning that their congregations will easily understand.

But we live in central Maine where vineyards are about as scarce as snow blowers in San Diego. And unfortunately for you, you have a pastor who knows nothing about vineyards except that it’s where grapes come from and grapes are what wine comes from and I like the red stuff better than the white stuff.

Whether we know much about vineyards or not, the thing that strikes us right off the bat is just how similar the Jesus’ parable is to Isaiah’s.

Isaiah describes a vineyard has been planted on a fertile hill. Rather than contracting it out, the owner himself has done the digging and cleared the ground. He worked the soil and planted choice vines, healthy, good stock, only the best. He built a wall around the vineyard for protection and a watchtower in the middle of it to keep an eye on everything.

He hollowed out a rock to hold the wine and age it. And then, after everything was in place, He reflected on all that he had done and concluded with great satisfaction and confidence, “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”

Sounds a little like the Creation account doesn’t it? Creating each little part and piece and setting each one in it’s proper place, “the Lord saw all that He had made and it was very good.” (Gen.2:1).

Which explains why he is so disappointed at the outcome. “When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes.” Literally it’s, ‘stinking things.’ ‘Disgusting things.’ Instead of good grapes He got ‘grapes of wrath.’

So what will he do? What would you expect him to do? What would you do if you were the owner of this vineyard? The owner answers, “now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.” He removes its hedge and knocks down its wall and lets it go to pot. He doesn’t waste another drop of water on it. In short, He cuts his losses, throws in the towel and walks away from it.

Isaiah carefully interprets his parable so that even central Mainers might be sure to get the point. “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.” This is not really about vineyards and grapes and wine at all. It’s about people. It’s about the people of God. It’s about you and me.

“And he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry.”

Justice is when people get what they deserve. Fair courts and fair judges issue fair verdicts. The guilty are convicted and make restitution for their crime. And the injured are restored to the condition that they were in before they were victimized. And the innocent are declared to be innocent and set free to live without fear.

“But when he looked for justice, behold bloodshed.”

Everything was being done for personal gain. Survival of the fittest. The strong get stronger and survive. The weak get weaker and are swallowed up in BLOODSHED.
Nothing but ‘wild grapes.’

Righteousness is about relationships. Just because justice is done and the guilty person is punished and makes restitution to the injured person, doesn’t mean that the relationship between the two is restored. In the entire process of “making things right,” the one may never have the courage or the desire to say to the other, “I’m sorry.” And if they do, the other may never have the courage or the desire to say, “I forgive you.”

Justice may have been done but the relationship isn’t what it used to be. And what if justice hasn’t been done? “Behold, an outcry!”

Nothing but “stinking things.”

And so it is not with joy and satisfaction, but with great disappointment and sadness that the Lord of Hosts shakes His head saying, “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”

Just wait till you see.

700 years after Isaiah told his parable of the vineyard, Jesus takes it up again and supplies the answer to the question that Isaiah left hanging.

“There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower… When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit…”

“He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry.”

But the way that Jesus tells the story, the INJUSTICE and the UNRIGHTEOUSNESS, the BLOODSHED and the OUTCRY is not between the tenants of the vineyard – but against the OWNER OF THE VINEYARD.

In fact, the way Jesus tells it, it sounds like the tenants, as divided and disagreeable as they may be with each other, are actually united as one against the owner.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews reports on their treatment like this, “Some were tortured… others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword… of whom the world was not worthy.” (Hebrews 11:35-37).

But as Jesus retells Isaiah’s parable, it’s not so much the actions of the tenants that strike us as outrageous or ridiculous. If anything, this is just what you’d expect from “wild grapes.” This is really nothing different that what we all do when the Lord sends His servants to get some return on the life that He has so fully and richly provided for us. We may not beat them or kill them. We’re far more sophisticated than that.

But we have our ways of making it clear that this is OUR VINEYARD and this is MY LIFE and for God to think that we owe Him anything, let alone our entire life, is absurd. If we can’t kick Him out, then we’ll pack up and move to other vineyards where the owner keeps His distance and never makes His ridiculous demands on our life. Where we can live comfortably in the status quo of injustice and broken relationships that we’ve gotten used to without someone always reminding us of what we’re missing.

No, it’s not the wicked tenants that amaze us or surprise us by their wickedness. It’s the owner of the vineyard that we don’t understand. His patience and perseverance with these “stinking things” strikes us as ridiculous and naïve to the point of absurdity. Over and over again He sends His servants and over and over again they are rejected, beaten or murdered by the wicked tenants. Hasn’t he ever heard the saying, “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me”? Or is it that He has just chosen not to live by it?

After repeated rejections, instead of cutting his losses and throwing in the towel, “finally He sent His Son, saying, ‘Surely they will respect Him.’”

As Jesus tells the story, “When the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took Him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”

And now the question comes from Jesus, just as it had from Isaiah. “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And those who were listening have become so caught up in the story that they respond, “he will bring those wretches to a wretched end.”

A long time ago, the prophet Nathan told a story about a family with one, precious lamb that a rich man unjustly took from them. And king David, filled with righteous indignation declared that that man should be executed for his injustice and unrighteousness. And Nathan said, “you are the man.”

David repented. He admitted his guilt, confessed his sin, and asked the Lord for forgiveness and mercy. And he received it.

What about the Chief Priests and Elders of the People? What about you?

If we really think that the Lord our God will simply cut His looses and abandon His people because we did not turn out the way that He had intended for us to be, then our God is too small. Then we have in mind a God in our own image.

The Lord our God is the One who makes all things new. He doesn’t abandon the unjust, He justifies them. He doesn’t give up on the unrighteous, He makes them righteous. When God wants fruit from His vineyard, He will not be disappointed. He will not leave empty-handed.

“For God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son” into the vineyard like a lamb to the wolves. . “This is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent His Son…” to take the taste of ‘sour grapes’ out of the Father’s mouth.

“Bring those wretches to a wretched end,” was their verdict. But the Father sends His Son to be the ‘wretch’ for all ‘wretches’, and His bloody death is enough to turn the Father’s heart from vengeance to pity.

The Father sends His Son to be crushed like a bunch of grapes in the winepress of His wrath with you and me. And out of that press comes the sweetest wine that has ever been pressed.

Calvary is the fertile hill upon which the true vineyard is planted. And the choicest of vines is Jesus Christ. And you are the fruit of the vine that the Son presents to His Father. Justified and righteous before God, you are the fruit of the vine that the master planted His vineyard to enjoy.

So no, the Father was not foolish or naïve in sending His Son into His vineyard. He knew just what He was doing. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the capstone.” The One whom the tenants rejected is the One who has fulfilled His Father’s deepest desires.

From grapes of wrath the Lord has produced a new vintage from His true vine. And what a sweet wine it is. Flowing from the fertile vineyard called Calvary, it reaches your lips to take and drink.

“This was the Lord’s doing.” This is all the Lord’s doing. It is none of our doing. It is in spite of all that we have done.

“What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” And all we can answer is, ‘nothing. He has done it all. And “it is marvelous in our eyes.”

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