Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22A)
October 4, 2020
Text: Matt. 21:33-46
The issue is, you either receive the preaching of God’s Word in faith, and so receive the preacher of that word; or you reject the Word in unbelief, stopping up your ears, abusing the preacher, even to the point of killing him. That may seem like an extreme assertion to you, sitting as you are, in Moscow, Idaho, in the United States of America, in 2020. But if it does, you are blissfully ignorant of history and the socio-political climate of much of the world today. In other words, this isn’t just a there and then kind of parable. It is relevant precisely today, and even in this place, here and now. The world… as in the unbelieving mass of humanity… follows in its father, Adam’s, footsteps, rejecting God by refusing the preaching and denying God’s Word. This explains the world’s hatred for the Church. This is why, even in our relatively free society, the Church’s voice is unwelcome in in the public discourse. This is why wherever tyrannies exist on earth, the Church must either capitulate by denying the Gospel and endorsing the tyranny, or Christians die. Or both, which is usually the case. And preachers, in particular, are vulnerable, because they always have this nasty habit of preaching the very Word the world wants to extinguish. Just ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But you’ll have to wait to ask until you meet him in the world to come, because he loved not his life even unto death, thus by his martyrdom conquering by the blood of the Lamb and the Word of his testimony (Rev. 12:11). Incidentally, this is something for which we must always be ready, this possibility of martyrdom, even here in America. Because as societies collapse (and we are all nervous of that very possibility in these trying times), the vacuum is inevitably filled by tyranny, by the strongest tyrant.
The struggle between faith’s reception and unbelief’s rejection of the Word is evident from the very beginning. This is THE cosmic issue, at the heart and center of the war between God and the spiritual powers of darkness. In our Lord’s parable this morning, we get the whole scope of the Bible. It is a pattern that repeats itself over and over again. God plants a Garden, a Vineyard. It is the Garden of Eden. It is the Land of Canaan. It is Mt. Zion, Jerusalem, and the holy Temple. It is Paradise, the place provided by God for fellowship with Him, where God can be present with His people, and give them to enjoy the Vineyard’s fruit.
But again and again, there is rebellion against God and rejection of His Word. Adam and Eve listen to the serpent’s preaching, and they take and eat of the forbidden fruit. The Children of Israel adopt the idolatrous practices of the pagans, joining their holy bodies to cultic prostitutes and sacrificing their children to demons of wood and stone. The Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day were, perhaps, more nuanced, but they were too clever by half. In the case of the Pharisees and scribes, a grand show of meticulous effort to keep every detail of the Law outwardly exposed them as hypocrites who worship the idol of self-righteousness. On the other hand, the Chief Priests, which is to say, the Sadducees, reveled in the beauty of the Temple liturgy, the priesthood, and the sacrifices. But it was all show. They denied the substance. They did not believe in angels or miracles or heaven. They were not looking for Messiah to deliver forgiveness of sins. And in particular, they denied the resurrection of the dead. Their god was money and power, to be held at all costs, even if it meant an uneasy endorsement of Roman control over the Holy Land and the Holy City.
In each case, God sent His preacher. God Himself preached to Adam and Eve, but they found the serpent’s sermon more relevant and inspiring. And so they lost their home in Eden. In all the years Israel occupied the Promised Land, they rebelled and denied and went (as God says) whoring after other gods. God sent prophet after prophet, looking for the fruit of repentance and faith. Some they beat. Some they stoned. Most were killed in an effort to extinguish the preaching. Still, God sent more. Prophet after prophet. Even into the exile. The Northern Kingdom taken captive to Assyria. Judah to Babylon. Time and again, when they were cast out of the Vineyard and oppressed by unbelieving tyranny, God’s people cried to Him, and God heard and delivered and restored. Ezra and Nehemiah brought the exiles back and rebuilt the Garden… they rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. More prophets: Haggai. Zechariah. But there was an end to it. There was the famine of God’s Word proclaimed by Amos and other faithful prophets (Amos 8:11). 400 years of no prophecy from Malachi to John the Baptist. And when John arrived on the scene to prepare the way of the Lord, we know how the tenants received him. They didn’t! They rejected his preaching and relieved John of his head.
Now, this is where we might expect God to simply annihilate His people. They have it coming, after all. But that is not what He does. What does He do? “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son’” (Matt. 21:37; ESV). And we all know what will happen. It’s like a horror movie where you’re screaming at the people on screen: “Don’t open that door! Don’t go down those stairs!” Even if we didn’t know the Gospel, we know the pattern, and we know where this must lead. They will not respect Him. They will kill Him. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance’” (v. 38). And that is what they did. They took Him and threw Him out of the Vineyard. They led Him outside the City, to Golgotha, the Place of a Skull. And they killed Him. They put Him to a miserable death, the accursed death of the cross. How could God let this happen? Surely He saw this coming! It only stands to reason that those who rejected the Master’s messengers would reject His Son; that those who reject the Word and murder the preachers, will murder the Word Himself as He comes to them in the flesh.
What do you think the Master will do to those tenants? What does God do to those who reject and murder His Son? It is as the Chief Priests and elders themselves admit: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (v. 41). This is what will happen to everyone who rejects God’s Word. Jerusalem as the City of God has come to an end. The Romans saw to that in AD 70. The Jewish leaders who rejected their Messiah, the Christ of God, have been cast out. They rule no longer. They are dead and buried and must bear their rejection of Jesus forever in hell. That is the fate of those who reject the Christ and His preaching to the bitter end.
But thanks be to God, not everyone rejects. Some are given ears to hear. Some are given faith to believe, and so receive the Lord Jesus and His salvation. The Vineyard has been given to others, those Jews who believe in Him and cling to His Word, as well as, of all people, Gentiles who are baptized into Christ and believe His preaching (and that probably includes most of you). These now constitute the new Israel of God. And as for the Jerusalem Temple? Not one stone is left on another. For the true Temple, the true Sacrifice, the true Dwelling Place of God with man, is that which they tore down, but which Jesus rebuilt in three days: The Temple of His flesh. And see, now, how the Stone that the builders rejected has become the Cornerstone? Is it not marvelous in your eyes? Christ, who was crucified, is risen from the dead! And now, once again, the preaching goes out. The preachers are sent to herald the Good News. And by that preaching, the hearts of sinners are turned from their sins to the living God, and to Jesus Christ, His Son. They are joined to Him as living stones, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ Jesus (1 Peter 2:5).
So this morning God once again sends His preacher to you to herald the Good News: Your sins are forgiven in the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Repent, O sinner, and believe this Gospel. Come back from your exile, East of Eden, and enter the Garden where you belong. “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). That is the prophetic preaching! Be free of the tyranny of sin and death. Be free of the serpent’s oppressive chains. Give up your sins. Don’t believe the devil’s lies. Stop living for your flesh and for the things of this world. Live as forgiven and redeemed children of God. These are the fruits of repentance and faith the Lord gives you to bear. Give your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, for you know that losing your life, you will find it. Bear one another’s burdens. Forgive each other, as Christ has forgiven you. Love and serve, even if it means the death of you. For your life is hidden with Christ in God. It is life abundant. It is life forever in resurrection glory, in your very body. Healed. Restored. Made holy. Made whole.
You have been given to believe this preaching. And so this morning, the Heir Himself comes to you, the very Son of God. He was crucified for your sins, but behold, He lives. He welcomes you to the Vineyard, and He will not cast you out. For He gives you not only to be His tenants. He gives you to be the sons and daughters of God. The inheritance is yours, the Kingdom of our Father. Milk and honey, vines and fig trees. Like Adam in Paradise, work and tend it, patiently waiting, each day by faith. Believe and pray. The fruits will come. The enemies will be cast out. Soon the Garden will be restored. The gates unbarred, all wrongs made right. The Lord Himself walking with you in the cool of the day. The pattern will come to its conclusion, and all will be fulfilled. For here you are, in the Vineyard, by grace. And Christ is all in all. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.