Saturday, 19 November 2011

Matthew 21.33-46 [01/11/2001]

Matthew 21.33-46
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

33 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”? 

43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.


      This parable is one of the most important and profound of all the parables given by Jesus. It has divided the opinions of scholars for centuries over who or what is the vineyard, who are the tenants and who are the ‘nations’ who will be brought in to take over whatever the vineyard is from whoever the tenants were.  These are of course important questions, they arguably deal with the place of Israel in the eyes of God, possible anti-Semitism or rather anti-Judaism, but these questions often lead to the Gospel message of the passage being nearly completely ignored, drowned out in an academic battle by people thousands of years removed from the event – an event some people in a appalling attempt to be PC try to insist never even happened.  If you want to discuss the future of ‘Israel’, or anything else then come and speak to me later this week, but for now let us look at what the text says, what Jesus proclaims – the Good News of our salvation and a loving God.       

          Now it is crystal clear that Jesus in this parable is conjuring up in the minds of the religious people the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5 – infact the same Greek words and phrases are used.  Isaiah 5 describes God, the gardener of all living things, planting a vineyard and giving it all it would ever need, but it brings up thorns and sour grapes not good fruits, so God goes in and destroys the vineyard.  In verse 7 God proclaims that ‘Israel’ is the vineyard.  But the problem is that when we hear the word Israel our minds jump to a nation state less than a hundred years old in the Middle East.  In Isaiah’s time Israel usually meant the Northern Kingdom who had turned their backs on God and been destroyed, and what we would call Israel was known as Judah: you can easily see how misunderstandings begin!  So we have to ask, at the essence, what is Israel – as you may recall Israel is the name given to Jacob after he wrestles all night with God Himself, God revealed as a man – sound like anyone else who is God that you know? – and is thus given the name Israel for not letting go of God – Israel means ‘The one who strives with God.’  Israel is and always has been and always will be those who cling to God and never let go, Israel is the Church, the same Church that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, David  and Malachi were part of, the same Church Paul and Peter and Apollos were part of,the same Church Athanasius, Luther and Barth were part of – the kingdom of God, the people of God, the children of God justified and made so by faith and not works just as Abraham was: the same Church you are part of!  

So if the vineyard is the promise of God to be the Father of all who strive to know Him and never let go, if the vineyard is a relationship with God then who are the tenants?  Well in the time of Jesus God chose to make a relationship with Him come through obeying the Law He set down under Moses, it meant being part of a covenant pact that both sides promised to uphold.  At that time, preparing the way for Jesus to die and change it all, God limited Israel to those who were His people, who followed His Law and were thus promised that if they followed it they would bear fruit.  But the people, the religious leaders especially as they led the people, failed, they didn’t keep the Law at all, and if they thought they did they were liars and followed the Law in such a way that they made the whole thing pointless because they filled their hearts with pride.  And it is those people who knew God, but then rejected Him and all He had done for them that are the tenants. It was these people who killed the prophets, who made Elijah run for his life, who mocked Jeremiah and threw him in a pit to die, who murdered Zachariah and beheaded John the Baptist.

          The slaves God sent were the Prophets, the very people God placed His words in and sent to bring His people back to Him were the very ones His people killed.  So what was God to do?  Well imagine if you had built a house, or an office block, and filled it with top of the range fittings and furniture, even stocked all the cupboards full of food and put in some computers for people to work on.  And then you rented it out to some tenants, expecting rent to be paid in due course.  But when it comes to rent day, you find the cheque bounces, you find not money but a spiteful letter.  So you send your lawyer to the house with the legal agreement they signed promising in return for all you gave them that they would give you rent.  But when the lawyer knocks on the door, SMACK, he gets a punch in the face, blood runs down onto his nice expensive Italian suit (he was of course a professional dressed for the job, in ancient times prophets tended to wear rags, today if you look on TV at the so called modern day ‘prophets’ they all seem to wear expensive suits and horrible ties so lets stick with that image!), then they break his arm and kick him out sending him back to you.  When he gets back to you obviously you are going to be angry, but you wait a while and let things cool down hoping they will come to their senses.  And so you send another lawyer, this one even more expensive than the last.  He rocks up to the house, but almost before he can knock at the door they attack him, rough him up good and proper and then as he turns to head back to you they stab him in the spine and he dies there and then.  So in your kindness to them you send another – this one they kill using the very things you gave them in the house, the lamp stand, the TV, the coals off the fire. 

Now I don’t know about you, but if I were the landowner, the last thing I would ever, ever, ever do is send my one and only beloved Son to them.  It would be complete folly to do so.  And ironically this is the very thing that some academics claim proves this is not a real parable of Jesus because it is ridiculous that the land owner would send His son – well, that just makes them the tenants thrown out of the vineyard because as Paul says “the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to those being saved it is the power of God.”  The POWER of GOD.  I love that phrase, the POWER of God.  The power to do what?  The power to save everyone who ever lived from their sin and shame and suffering and nakedness.  God did send His Son, He sent Jesus, the very person telling this parable the very person who named Jacob Israel because he wouldn’t let go of Him, He sent Jesus and when He came they threw him outside of the house, and they insulted Him and mocked Him and scourged Him and beat Him and then they nailed Him hands and feet to a wooden cross and there He died saying aloud ‘Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’  It looks like the tenants have won.  Game over.

          So Jesus, the Son who in a few days would be crucified, asks the Religious folk what they would do – their answer is obvious, the Lord would send in the army and utterly massacre the whole lot of them and give the vineyard to people more worthy.  And to be honest, it is what I would do.  I can get and understand completely a God who after the killing of His Son would in wrath send down the Armies of Heaven and turn the planet into a bloodbath of vengeance.  The God who would send people to Hell for killing His Son, that I get.  ...  But God didn’t do that, God did something that just blows your mind, He had set up from before all ages the Lamb that was Slain to come and die for our sin and filth and rejection of God.  Jesus dying on the Cross was not plan B, or plan C, it was and always was plan A.  Because God is a God of love – and He gives it all that we might be saved and live with Him.

Then Jesus quotes a psalm to the religious leaders and proclaims that the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  Now the corner stone was the foundation stone up which everything rested, the most important one to get right, the one which had to be perfect – and as we know only Jesus could be the cornerstone because only He is perfect.  The cornerstone is the one on which everything else rests; it is the beginning and foundation of the whole house.    And listen to this verse again “The stone", that is Jesus, "which the builders", that is the people who crucified Him, "rejected has become the cornerstone, THIS WAS THE LORDS DOING, and it is amazing in our eyes.”  Jesus dying on the Cross was the Lord’s doing, not the Pharisees, not the peoples, not the Romans, it was the Lord’s doing, it was going to happen before God even made the heavens and the earth.  And yes, it is amazing in our sight, what could be more amazing than a God who comes and dies to save us!  What could be more amazing and beyond rational imagination than a God who doesn’t just send sinners to Hell but in His Son offers them a place in His Kingdom, a God who says: "if you accept Him and repent and let the forgiveness I offer cleanse you, then I will make you not only citizens of my kingdom but very my sons and heirs."

          Here is the thing, here is why this is so relevant to us: you killed the Son. I killed the Son.  The blood of Jesus is on our hands.  For every time we sin we nailed Him to the Cross, every time we sin we give the reason He had to die.  His blood is on our hands – and it is like Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare trying to wash the blood from her hands crying out as she scourges her skin ‘out damned spot out’ but nothing she does can remove it.  Nothing we do can wash away the blood of God from our hands.  Only God can do that, and that is why He died and rose again.  We have two choices, we can fall on Jesus and be broken, or we can wait and at the throne of judgement have Him come crashing down on us and grind us up like wheat into chaff and throw us into the fire.  Or, like I said, we can fall on Him now and be broken, we can offer to God the one thing He doesn’t despise – a broken and contrite heart – we can say to Him, Lord I have messed up please tidy up what I have done and unmess me.  We can accept it and say ‘King Jesus there is nothing I can do to make you love me more, I give you my life, all of it, I dismantle it all and start again with you as the cornerstone, I build my decisions, my choices, my actions, my hopes, my dreams, my desires, my loves, on you as the foundation, not on the sand where my life will at the end come crashing down but on the Rock of Ages my Redeemer who came and died for me.’

We can say ‘Not I but Christ’ and have Him rule our lives as we live constantly broken before the Cross that He might use us.  Or we can remain stiff necked and upright standing before the judgement seat of God.  If you want to inherit the Vineyard, all you have to do is recognise you are a sinner, recognise you can’t remove your sin, recognise Jesus is God crucified for you, and present your lives constantly in repentance before the Cross that you might be washed clean, ironically, in the Blood of the Lamb we killed, and rejoice in the amazing things He has done!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Luke 15.1-10 01/11/2011

Luke 15.1-10

15.1 All the tax-collectors and sinners were coming close to listen to Jesus.  2The Pharisees and the legal experts were grumbling. ‘This fellow receives sinners!’ they said. ‘He even eats with them!’
            3So Jesus told them this parable.  4’Supposing one of you has a hundred sheep,’ He said, ‘and you lose one of them.  What will you do?  Why, you’ll leave the ninety-nine out in the countryside, and you’ll go off looking for the lost one until you find it! 5And when you find it, you’ll be so happy – you’ll put it on your shoulders 6and come home, and you’ll call your friends and neighbours in. “Come and have a party!” you’ll say.  “Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!”
            7’Well, let me tell you: that’s how glad they will be in heaven over one sinner who repents – more than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need repentance.
            8’Or supposing a woman has ten drachmas and loses one of them.  What will she do?  Why she’ll light a lamp, and sweep the house, and hunt carefully until she finds it!  9And when she finds it she’ll call her friends and neighbours in.  “Come and have a party!” she’ll say.  “Celebrate with me!  I’ve found my lost coin!”
            10’Well, let me tell you: that’s how glad God’s angels feel when a single sinner repents.’

The topic of this talk is “The Kingdom of God is like a WITNESSING community.”  But to understand how to Witness we have to understand and be set on fire by the Man we testify about – King Jesus our God.  And that is why much of this time will be spent looking at the very real story seen in this parable that all of us are called to witness about to others.
This passage begins with sinners coming to Jesus and ends with sinners repenting.  It begins with people desperate to be found and ends with rejoicing in heaven over their coming home.  And this passage should speak to everyone who calls themselves a Christian.  I often find though that it is all too easy when dealing with parables not to truly grasp the fullness of the picture they paint. We read the parables in English, translated from the Greek, itself translating Jesus’ Aramaic.  We are removed from them by two thousand years, a million miles of culture, and what is generally a profoundly naïve post-modern world view.  Therefore, it is always, always, good to explore what Scripture tells us, what Jesus Himself reveals to us about His Kingdom, about Himself, and in relation to these, about ourselves.
I think it goes without saying that in the parable Jesus is the Shepherd – later in His ministry Jesus would even declare Himself to be the ‘Good Shepherd’ of His Father’s sheep.  That He portrays Himself as a Shepherd is no small thing – it is something poignant.  Looking at Christmas cards and pictures in children’s Bibles it is easy to get a rather romantic vision of Shepherds.  The reality was that they were social outcasts, at the bottom of the social ladder with only slaves, tax-collectors and sinners below them.  They lived year round outside without shelter. They lived largely alone with their sheep.  They would have been dirty, rugged, and always alert.   They were the opposite of the great Kings living in their palaces of gold and wearing purple robes, ruling over nations not sheep.  Yet when God chose to definitively reveal Himself in His Only Begotten Son, He revealed Himself as a Shepherd, a poor man with a passion for defending what is His, not as an Emperor ruling over countless slaves He doesn’t even know by name.
 Instead the Biblical God, the God we believe in is a God who knows, intimately, all we experience, all we feel and think, who knows each of us by name.  That is a Great God – that is my kind of God – a personal God who loves me, who loves each of you individually so much He would die for you – and the fact is that He did.   And this should not be taken for granted, we have to ask ourselves daily, is this truth of a personal God something which defines us, or has it become just a cold doctrine we profess belief in as we would profess belief in the existence of right angles?  Often the greatest enemy of the faith is apathy.
But if the Shepherd is Jesus, that leaves a rather disturbing association between us and sheep.  Now many people think that sheep are cute – well maybe as new born lambs – but when they are grown up and sheep, they are far from it.  Back home in Yorkshire I live next to a field full of sheep.  And trust me, living so close to sheep for so many years wipes away all picturesque illusions you might have about sheep.  Sheep for starters stink, they really do, sometimes you can smell them before you even see them – as you leave the house your eyebrows shoot up and you have to rush to the car to drive away as fast as you can!  Sheep are also just tedious, they are boring, I mean who seriously gets excited by sheep – besides of course the Welsh?  All they seem to do is eat, sleep and die.  Sheep don’t have awesome fangs, or cool talons, or amazing wings or special sonar night vision.  If they had a superpower it would be keeping warm – or overheating unless a Shepherd steps in to shear them. 

But if one thing were to epitomise sheep it would have to be stupidity.  Sheep are quite simply just thick and dull-witted, senseless and ignorant, self-obsessed idiots.  They cannot protect themselves except by bleating annoyingly, yet they insist time and time and time again on wandering away from their Shepherd, from their family and friends.  They get so easily distracted by this or that, by the newest shiny thing they see, by some pompous intellectual idea which in reality is just pointless, by the apple on the tree they were told not to eat.  But like I said, sheep are stupid, and they just cannot resist turning their backs on their loving Shepherd, walking away towards that fruit, towards death and sorrow and torment at the hands of something much bigger, darker, stronger and nastier than they are.
And here is the kicker – we, all of us here tonight, are stupid sheep.  It doesn’t matter if you are doing a PhD in speculative physics or a Masters in philosophy, it doesn’t matter if you are training for Christian ministry or hoping to be a lawyer – the simple and plain reality, seen lived out by all of us every single day, is that we are thick, we are idiots.  We are stupid.  And we naturally protest at this saying to ourselves ‘we are not stupid’ – but that just proves the point. We constantly, consciously, turn our backs on God our Shepherd, and we walk away from Him, and we get lost in a maze of sin and self-deception.  We know that He came and died for us, we know He loves us, we know He doesn’t want us to do the things we do, but still, against all true reason and logic, we sin.  And we invent all kinds of ridiculous ideas to try and justify ourselves – one of my old favourites, and shamefully I am often stupid enough still to use it, is that I am just “getting a better understanding of where people today are coming from” – NO! Just NO! Whether it is going into nightclubs and getting drunk, or watching pornography, or getting high, or participating in a séance, it is not getting a better understanding, it is not getting life experience, it is simply sin and we must name it and shame it as such.  
Whatever your personal vice may be that excuse is not justification it is stupidity.  For example, I know that trying to make excuses for my frustration - which overflows into biting and harsh words towards my loved ones - whatever the excuse may be, is not clever, it is stupid and pathetic– it doesn’t make sense now, and it will make even less sense before the Throne of King Jesus where all of us are destined to be judged.

Every time we sin, however small that sin might seem to be, we become lost in the wilderness, we cut ourselves off from full communion with God, we stifle the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and welcome in the spirit of the Flesh.  And the worst part is, that we are sheep, once we are lost, we are utterly and completely helpless.  We cannot see where to go, we are lost in the thickest darkness of a moonless night. We cannot move and run because we are caught and ensnared in the traps and devices of the Devil.  There is nothing we can do on our own terms, in our own power, through our own thinking and reasoning which can bring us even a millimetre, not even a single nanometre, closer to Jesus.  And because we are defenceless sheep it just becomes easier and easier and easier for the Evil One to commandeer our lives, it become so much easier to just carry on sinning, getting deeper and deeper into sin – deeper and deeper like a mouse swallowed by a snake slowly working its way down its body till nothing is left.

There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.  And the parable of the lost coin makes this even more apparent – if I drop a coin on the floor, there is absolutely NOTHING that coin can do on its own power to make its own way back into my wallet.  The coin isn’t just stupid it is inanimate.
But, and here is the Good News we all must take to heart – even if the coin can do nothing, someone can pick up that coin and place it back in my wallet.  A sheep cannot work its own way back to the fold, but all it needs to do is stop trying, stop struggling to get there by itself, and cry out from the bottom of its heart.  All it needs to do it repent of having wandered off – and immediately it is scooped up onto the shoulders of the loving Shepherd.   Because, Jesus is there right besides us all the time, waiting patiently for us to stop squirming and struggling and pridefully refusing to let Him pick us up.  And when we repent of our sin we are scooped up onto His shoulders and carried home. 
And all of this glorious hope to which we are called to witness is made possible because 2000 years ago Jesus scooped up upon His shoulders a wooden cross, and he walked, in agonising pain, to the top of Calvary, the mount of our salvation, and there he was pierced for our transgressions, there our SIN, was put to death, there it was ended, it was finished, there we are forgiven completely.  Jesus carries the Cross just as He carries the stupid lost sheep – in fact on Calvary Jesus the Good Shepherd becomes the Jesus Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Lamb of God takes on our stupidity, takes upon Himself every sin we commit, He becomes cursed for us that we might be saved.  

God didn’t sit on His thumbs up in heaven waiting for our deaths, but in mercy He came down and judged Himself in our place that we might have His perfect record when we appear before Him.   When we repent, we take up this record, and there is such joy in heaven – joy which human words could not describe.  When we repent we do not find Jesus sat upon a throne with a furrowed brow pointing a finger saying ‘I told you so’ or ‘You shouldn’t have done that’ but we see Jesus leaping from that throne and punching the air in joy and victory!  

God finds no joy in our boasting of good things but God rejoices in our repenting because that repentance allows Him to draw even closer to us – it allows Him to save us.  As the Pharisees said at the start of the reading – this fellow receives sinners – How right they were because God only receives people who recognise that they are sinners, because only then can He save them!  That saving Grace is the power and glory of God we bear witness to.
The parable of the lost sheep tells the story of the loving Good Shepherd.  But one of the sheep wanders off, gets lost in a dark place and becomes helpless.  But the Shepherd loves that sheep so much that He comes down into the dark valley in which the sheep is caught in the thorn bush, and when it cries to Him He picks it up upon His shoulders and brings it home.  And when He does, He rejoices, when He brings it home, even if it is seemingly the least of His sheep, He throws a massive party, He is crazy happy.  And as for the sheep – it is as if it had never wandered off, there is no punishment at all, the fact that it had ever wandered off is erased from history in the mind of the shepherd.  That is Grace, that is the amazing hope Christians have – complete forgiveness by God and complete fellowship with Him who came to save us.
And so, knowing this, let’s have a look at verse nine: ‘“when she finds it she’ll call her friends and neighbours in. “Come and have a party!” she’ll say.  “Celebrate with me!  I’ve found my lost coin!”’  Celebrate with me.  We are called to rejoice and celebrate every time a person repents – including ourselves.  God rejoices so we should rejoice – we should bear witness, with hearts ablaze, to God’s mercy, love, and very real excitement.

 So the question is: does the fact that God came to save you set your hearts on fire with love for Him, does the assurance of your salvation – an assurance that is only offered in the one truth faith, only offered in Christianity - fill you with a passion for His glory?  If it doesn’t then you have to ask yourself –why not?  Why doesn’t this mighty work of God bring joy to my lips?  Do I want this joy?  This assurance? This freedom which is freely offered to me?  These might seem like odd questions to ask a group of Christians taking time out of their lives to sit in fellowship beneath Christ’s word – but I can testify from my own experience and the experience of many others, that sometimes our faith becomes dry like scorched earth, sometimes it was never really our passion but merely our belief.  Isaiah had been a prophet for many years before He actually saw the Lord Jesus – have you seen the Lord Jesus, because truly seeing Him is to live with a heart on fire and a burning desire to share His love…
And if you already have this joy, this infectious and precious salvation, if you have felt the power of the Cross when you have repented, if you have felt the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit, then you have to ask yourself a different question – how do I share this miracle of my salvation to every single person I know!?  When you look around the work place or the lab or the library and see all those sheep, lost and afraid, puffed up but in pain, destined for death and eternal torment, does your heart not pump with compassion for them and the question burns in you – how can I be a witness to my God’s Glory, how can I be a living testimony to the mercy and Grace of Jesus Christ.
 As Christians we are all bound, mind body and soul, to make disciples of all the nations, of all people – and when we know we were lost, but then were found, how can we possibly keep quiet, keep silent, about our Mighty God, our Mighty King – Jesus the Christ!  It is by sharing Him and what He has done in our lives, by sharing our amazing testimonies - and every testimony is an amazing one – and living a life visibly in His Grace and Goodness that we can bear witness to Him, that as a Kingdom of Priests we can share with others our Great God that they may come to be, with us and Him, in Heaven.

Popular Posts