"Christ, Vine with Us"
21st Sunday after Pentecost; 2nd Sunday in St. Michael's Tide
St. Matthew 21:33-46
October 5, 2008
Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Omaha, Nebraska
IN NOMINE JESU
It was Holy Week. The Lord had made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He had overturned the money changers' tables in the temple, doubtless infuriating the Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests—more furious with Him than they had been before. Last Sunday we heard them, also during Holy Week, questioning His authority, asking Him, "By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?" (v. 23b). They did not like what they were seeing and hearing from the One whom they rejected as the long-promised Messiah. They saw Him healing the sick, and they heard Him preaching the kingdom of God—preaching with authority and not as they had been doing, not perverting His Word but giving it the very authority of His Father in heaven, for He and the Father are One. These supposed leaders of the Jews had a red-hot hatred for Jesus. It was becoming white-hot, and they were on the verge of becoming ablaze in their hatred for Him, a hatred that would lead them to put Him to death in a few days. The Lord fanned the flames of their hatred by speaking another parable, one in which they saw themselves, one that serves as our text this morning.
The setting of this parable is a vineyard. Interestingly, it is also the setting of Isaiah's prophecy in our Old Testament Lesson. Vineyards are common in that part of the world, even as they were during biblical times. For those of us who live here in eastern Nebraska, a vineyard is not something we see every day. Having grown up southwest of Lincoln in a town called Dorchester, I did not see any vineyards. I drove by quite a few while I lived in western New York. It wasn't until this past spring that I was made aware of a vineyard northwest of Lincoln. It was there a few weeks ago that I officiated my sister's wedding. Having seen this vineyard up close, I can tell that it takes a lot of detailed work for a vineyard to flourish and produce grapes suitable for making fine wine. In our text, and in our Old Testament Lesson, we hear of the painstaking work that the owner of the vineyard performed in the hope of harvesting good fruit.
The owner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard is the Church. This vineyard lacks nothing, for the Owner, God the Father, has given it everything it needs. He has given the Church His Word and Sacraments. He has given her pastors to administer His Means of Grace through the call of the congregation. As the Owner of the vineyard, the Lord sends out His servants, His called and ordained servants of the Word, to preach the Word and to administer His Sacraments, so that the vineyard, the Church and her members, would bear good fruit, fruits in keeping with repentance, evidence that faith is present in the hearts of the people, fruit of the Spirit, and "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23a), and "the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth" (Eph. 5:9). God has sent His servants to the vineyard to gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown when the vineyard was planted. But according to the Lord's parable, the servants saw nothing of the sort, as the vinedressers assaulted the servants, even killing some of them. Each time the vinedressers beat up or killed one of the owner's servants, the owner would send another one. Such a succession of servants sounds silly to us because none of us would be patient enough to keep sending servants out, just so they could be mercilessly assaulted or even murdered. We would have called the police after the first incident. But the story isn't about us, is it? It's about the patience and mercy of the heavenly Father.
The Lord of the Church has, over the centuries, sent men into His vineyard to bring forth a harvest through the preaching of the Word. Before He sent pastors, He sent the prophets, and they were plenty roughed up, too. As the Preacher says in the Book of Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under the sun." You see, Satan has done some of his finest work in the Church, causing divisions within her and leading men to despise her, such as what the vinedressers in the parable did, such as what the chief priests and scribes had done, and such as what many who claim leadership within the Church have done today. Yes, the Lord spoke against them and speaks against all who seek to destroy His servants and His Means of Grace. He says in the chapters following our text: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the LORD!'" (22:37-39).
And again: "Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation" (23:31-36).
Did the Lord speak these words so that His hearers would repent? This is hardly the case, for the Lord, who knows the hearts of all men, knew that these Jewish leaders would be seething in their hatred for Him. The Word of the Lord has this effect on some people, as if the verse from Scripture was to read: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad. The Word makes us mad, too, for God says things about us that we do not want to hear. We do not like to hear that we are poor, miserable sinners. We do not like to hear that we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We do not like to hear that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We do not like to hear that we have ever offended God and deserve His temporal and eternal punishment. As sinners who are by nature sinful and unclean, spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God, we have demonstrated to God that we do not like to hear His Law. What is worse is that, as these same cold, hardened sinners, we hold equal disdain for His Gospel. Martin Luther said in a sermon preached for this Sunday in the church year: But worse still, surpassing all the rest, is that we who have the gospel snore away during the sermon and then in the same hour amble off to the marketplace by the gate, then into the alehouses, or sit and loll around in the amusement park. Our fellow citizens are steeped in sin up to the ears, despising not only the Word, but also scoffing at the preachers and saying, "Our pastor preaches about nothing else but faith, about love, about the cross!" And meanwhile they shuffle off to destruction. It breaks my heart to see this happening. God will surely punish them horribly because of this, letting false doctrine and factious spirits engulf them, causing dissension and defection of countless people from God's Word. [First House Postil for Trinity 20, A.D. 1532]
Luther again frequently spoke of the spiritual abyss with which the Roman church plagued Germany. He did so in one of the Lutheran Confessions called the Smalcald Articles. The conditions he deplored in Germany are quite similar to what we see here in 21st-century America, within the Church, and, alas, even within the church that bears his name, as our Synod, and even here in Omaha, as he said in the 16th century: We see in the bishoprics everywhere so many parishes vacant and desolate that one's heart would break, and yet neither the bishops nor canons care how the poor people live or die, for whom nevertheless Christ has died, and who are not permitted to hear Him speak with them as the true Shepherd with His sheep. This causes me to shudder and fear that at some time He may send a council of angels upon Germany utterly destroying us, like Sodom and Gomorrah, because we so wantonly mock Him…. [SA, Preface, 10-11]
This desolation is a disease that has spread throughout Christendom, as many churches, claiming to be on fire for the Gospel, have cast it aside in favor of marketing themselves. Even many thought to be leaders in the Church have sold themselves and their denominations out, exchanging the pure preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments for gimmicks with the sole goals of filling the pews and paying the bills, giving the people wild grapes rather than the good fruit. They have sought a divorce, ceasing to act as the Bride of Christ and prostituting themselves as "The Church of What's Happening Now." Synods come, and synods go, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.
These words are to serve as great comfort to us, for the Lord continues to plant new vineyards. He continues to plant new congregations. New church bodies form, which, we pray, will be faithful to the Word of God. He has taken the Word and the promise away from the unbelieving Jews and given it to the Gentiles, and we are the blessed recipients of His gifts this day, for here are the true marks of the Church: His Word is faithfully read and proclaimed, and His Sacraments are administered in accordance with the Gospel. We are the Church, and Christ is our Cornerstone; on Him alone we build. To be sure, He builds us, even as He was being crucified for our sake. For this reason, we preach Christ crucified. We preach a Christ who was stricken, smitten, and afflicted, bloodied, battered, and spit upon, pierced with a crown of thorns, nailed to a cross, and dead. We preach this Christ, for this is what He willingly endured for each and every one of you. To the world He was not pretty, but to us who believe, the Crucifixion is the most beautiful event in the history of the world and the most beautiful event in our lives some 2,000 years later, for "the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes" (v. 42b).
It is indeed marvelous in our eyes, for Christ, the crucified and risen One, is marvelous in our eyes. He is marvelous in your eyes—and your ears—as you see me preaching forgiveness of sins in His Name. He is marvelous in your eyes—and your lips—as you will soon taste and see that the Lord is good, coming to you in His body and blood…in, with, and under the bread and wine, the very fruit of the vine. Our Lord gives us this fruit of the vine that is His blood, for He Himself is the true Vine. He is the Vine, and we are His branches. He has grafted us onto Himself, that we, fed, refreshed, and strengthened by His Means of Grace, would bear His fruits, the fruits of the Spirit, and would tell others of the love our Lord has for us and for them. Our Heavenly Father prunes us through repentance and absolution, that we would bear more fruit for Him. By His grace and by His Spirit, we join with the Psalmist in the words from the Psalm appointed for today, Psalm 80: "Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself. Then we will not turn back from You; revive us, and we will call upon Your Name. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved!" (Ps. 80:17-19). The Lord makes His face to shine upon us and is gracious unto us; He lifts His countenance upon us and gives us peace—His peace. Amen!
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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