Monday, March 18, 2013

Sermon on Luke 20:9-20, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, "Why did God become vulnerable?"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. This vineyard parable is complex in many ways, but today we’ll focus on why God became vulnerable?
The vineyard owner in the story takes a gamble in sending his son. Not a gamble we’d be willing to take. We’d expect him to opt instead for violence or retribution, seeking justice. Kenneth Bailey tells the remarkable story of King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan: learned from security police that 75 Jordanian army officers were plotting against him that night. Military overthrow. The police wanted to storm the building and arrest the conspirators. Instead, the king had a helicopter pilot fly him to the building, gave instructions that he should fly away immediately without the king if he heard gunshots. Entered the building unarmed, calmly told them he learned of the conspiracy, warned of the devastation to the country, the civil war, the thousands of innocent deaths at stake, offered them to kill him instead so only one man would die. “After a moment of stunned silence, the rebels as one, rushed forward to kiss the king’s hand and feet and pledge loyalty to him for life.” Gamble, calculated risk. Illustrated total vulnerability, that as the most powerful man in the nation, instead of resorting to violence to take down the offenders and plunge the country into civil war, he put himself into their hands.
Very different outcome from the parable, and of course Jesus’ own life—but it shows the intended effect of the action. Boldly threw himself in the way of danger, hoping to stoke some dying sense of honor within them. Shame at their actions, turn from their plotting to loyalty. In a way that gamble risked the king’s life, but even if they had killed him, it might truly have spared great bloodshed. It wasn’t a win-win situation, but the alternatives would have been far worse.
When we understand this parable is about God, we realize it was no gamble, and that He knew the outcome. God suffered no uncertainty about what the outcome would be, as Jesus was predicting the very end of the story by telling this parable where He dies at the hands of the tenants. Jesus knew the sum and total of the risk. He knew the awful suffering, shame, and humiliation He would have to endure. That He nevertheless went forward nobly, vulnerably, peaceably to His own death, is far more remarkable than the story of King Hussein, and far more powerful. God has the power to destroy us, but became vulnerable in Christ and came in mercy.
Jesus didn’t just rescue innocent citizens from the bloodshed of civil war—He rescued guilty sinners from their justly deserved death and eternal punishment. Also, Jesus could not let the power of the religious authorities, the scribes and the chief priests who this parable was about—to stand. It would be to allow sin and wickedness to stand. The servants in the story who were abused and mistreated and sent away before the son were the prophets of the OT, sent by God to warn the people to turn from sin. And far more than 3, there were dozens that were sent over hundreds of years. Their prophetic refrain was to repent of sin, turn back to God, and to watch for the coming of the Messiah, God’s chosen deliverer. Many were abused, mistreated, and sent away by the people of Israel.
From generation to generation, no different from today, people were deaf to God’s call, and their hearts were hardened. The sins of one generation may not have been the same sins as the next, but sin knows no bounds. We’re ever inventing new ways to sin, but it’s all really as old as the garden. Stray from God’s design, His command; sow doubt of His Word, teach falsely, the opportunities for sin multiply and abound, and we know no boundaries. No fruits of obedience from the vineyard.
Sin has no shame, and this story puts human depravity awfully on display—that they would even kill the vineyard owner’s son. When our conscience is hounded by sin and guilt and yet we stubbornly refuse to confess it and deal with it, we may go to remarkable lengths to cover, justify, or excuse our sin. In our sinful depravity, we’re not even above using hatred and violence to get our own way and defend our pride. The worst thing for us (we think, anyhow), is for God’s Word to expose our sin. We spring to defend our sins. But God’s remedy for sin is repentance and forgiveness.
This is exactly the intent of the Father in sending His Son, and opting for such vulnerability in the face of defiance and sin. He sent His beloved Son--that perhaps we would respect Him. The word “respect” here, can actually be more accurately translated, “feel shame before.” That they would feel shame before the Son. It was the same type of vulnerable appeal that King Hussein made to the conspirators—an appeal to their shame over the wickedness and evil planning they were engaged in, and an appeal to their sense of honor—that they would be prompted by his total humility and transparency to do the honorable thing and purge themselves of evil thoughts and motives, and recommit themselves to him.
God sent Jesus His Son, who, by the brightness of His coming, exposed the works of sin and darkness, but who came in vulnerable human flesh, to appeal to sinful humanity. An appeal to all of us, to God’s own people, to our sense of shame—to turn away from our sinful motives, thoughts, words and deeds. That the goodness of God’s Son would compel us to turn away from sin, and toward righteousness. And an appeal to our sense of honor, that prompted by Jesus’ total humility and transparency, we would do the honorable thing and commit our lives to Him, and return to Him some of the fruits of His vineyard.
But what happened instead, was that rather than turning people to repentance and humility before God, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were fostering pride and legalism—they were assuming favored status with God because of their supposed pious works. We should be well-warned not to let false spiritual pride and self-righteousness take hold in our lives, but to remember our place as humble tenants, servants in the Lord’s vineyard. To remember our calling is to bear good fruit from the vineyard.
At the climax of the story, the son comes to the vineyard, and the tenants face their own turning point: submit to the son, repent of their actions, and supply the master with some of the fruit of the vineyard, or—as we know they chose, kill the son. They reasoned that if they killed the son, the inheritance (of the vineyard) would be theirs. This seems absurd to us; how they could possibly think that murdering the vineyard owner’s son could gain them the vineyard. But it’s explained simply enough, if we know that in Jewish culture and law, unclaimed land or property could be claimed by something equivalent to “squatter’s rights”, if they occupied the land for 3 full years. So if the owner was dead, and no one was there to claim it, they might stake their own claim.
But more importantly, when the lone and vulnerable son comes, their shame and honor is not stirred, but they mistake his vulnerability for weakness, and kill him. And of course this is just how Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion went. Mistaking God’s vulnerable appeal through Jesus Christ for weakness, they assaulted, wounded, and unjustly murdered the Son of God. But when Jesus ended the parable by telling those leaders, who would have laid hold of Him that very hour—that those wicked tenants would be destroyed and the vineyard would be given to others, they cried out in protest, “Surely not!” In our sinfulness and in the shame of disbelief, we recoil at the judgment, if we reject God’s Son—His olive branch of amnesty.
But Jesus’ vulnerability, His suffering and death, is no weakness—Jesus warns that rejecting Him is like dashing oneself against a rock. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone...everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” Jesus’ saying is like an old proverb of the rabbis: “If a stone falls on a pot, woe to the pot! If the pot falls on the stone, woe to the pot! Either way, woe to the pot!” (Just, Concordia commentary Luke 9:51-24:53, p. 765). As the book of Hebrews describes Jesus—He has the power of an “indestructible life.” Everyone who stumbles against Him, or on whom He falls, will be broken or crushed. Woe to the pot! We’re the fragile and weak ones. But we all need to be broken through repentance, so that “we can be raised again as new beings, living stones in Christ, the temple of God” (ibid).
Jesus’ crucifixion; His rejection as the “stone”, in a marvelous paradox, becomes the very way in which He becomes the cornerstone, and the foundation of His glory (ibid, 764). While Jesus’ vulnerable appeal led to His own death—the greater good was that He was laying Himself as the foundation stone of God’s living temple on which we are built. When in baptism we’re crucified with Christ, our sinful nature is shattered on the stone, but we’re reborn, rebuilt on Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone.
God’s inheritance that cannot be stolen, wrested away, or held by squatters’ rights in sin, God gives only by His immeasurable grace, after the death of His Son. God gave that inheritance, His vineyard, to those who believe in Him and bear His fruits. After the death of His Son, who gloriously rose and proved God’s honor and glory and self-sacrifice, and who ascended on high and gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:8). After we’ve been shattered and broken with our sin, Jesus marvelously makes us into something new—renewing us in the grace He poured out on us in our baptism, and grafting us into Himself as Vine, to bear good fruit. He gives out His inheritance freely to all who receive Him as Son, and shares with us the good gifts of His Father. Jesus, as the cornerstone, restores the vineyard, the kingdom of God, the church—to its rightful goodness and use. He makes it to bear fruit to the glory of God, and graciously entrusts us as stewards to work in His kingdom. Through His costly and vulnerable self-sacrifice and love, He has broken our sin from us, and secured for us His eternal kingdom. Here is the King we can truly pledge our loyalty to for life! All praise and honor to His name!
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What are the most astonishing things that happen in this parable? Who is the parable describing?
  2. What is the background of the vineyard imagery so common to Jesus’ parables? Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-6; Deut. 6:10-19; John 15. In what way was the vineyard prepared and ready for the people, without their effort? What was expected in return? How were God’s servants, the prophets, treated by the Israelites (tenants)? Jer. 26:20-21; 2 Chron 24:20-22; Mt. 23:34-37; Lk 13:34.
  3. What is so unbelievable about the master of the vineyard’s final plan to collect the fruits of his vineyard? How does this parallel the incredible love and vulnerability of God in sending His Son? In what way was it an appeal to both our sense of shame and honor?
  4. The tenants had the astonishing thought that they could take squatter’s rights of the vineyard if they killed the heir, the son. How does this parallel the thoughts of the Jewish leaders who recognized they were the subject of the parable? Matt. 21:45-46; John 11:45-53
  5. Though Jesus was rejected and killed, how did God honor Him and crown Him with glory? Matt. 21:42; Psalm 118:22-23. What is the consequence of rejecting God’s offered mercy in Christ? Mt. 21:43-44. Isaiah 8:14-15; Dan. 2:34-35. Why is the cross a stumbling block to people? 1 Cor. 1:18-25
  6. How did Jesus’ vulnerable self-sacrifice “pay off” in terms of what it accomplished? What was the result for Him? For us? For those who remain turned against Him?

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