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LSB Proper 22A Sermon – Matthew 21:33-46

October 6, 2014

October 5, 2014 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.”

Two stories of judgment are heard in the Scripture readings for today. Judgment is spoken against a vineyard that does not produce grapes. Judgment is rendered against tenants of a vineyard who do not turn over the harvest to the owner. The two stories are similar, though distinct. The similarity is seen in the point of conflict in each story. The vineyard that produces only wild grapes does not live up to what it is meant to be: the owner had planted it to be a vineyard that would allow him to have a successful winery. The tenants who refuse to turn over the harvest do not live up to what they are meant to be: the owner had contracted with them to care for his vineyard so that he could gain profit from his land.

Both stories are parables or allegories. Each one has an explanation given concerning what the imagery represents. Isaiah speaks about the vineyard-gone-wrong: “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant planting; and He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” Jesus speaks about tenants who are removed—the chief priests and Pharisees who refuse to heed His authority: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” These stories are calls to repentance. They condemn the sins committed by the house of Israel and its leaders.

It is important to note that these parables of judgment are not spoken against Gentile nations or against individuals with no connection to the LORD. No, these are in-house matters. The LORD is speaking to His people. He is condemning individuals for whom He had done great things. The planting of the vineyard in Isaiah’s parable is an allegory for what the LORD did for the Israelites during the Exodus and the Conquest of Canaan: the LORD took them from Egypt and led them to the Promised Land. That included giving assistance to the Israelites so they could overrun the Canaanite nations. The LORD also made Himself present among His people: ruling temporally over them through the judges and monarchs, giving spiritual benefit to them through the Temple with its priests. The LORD had made the chief priests and elders of the people His representatives. They were the tenants whom Jesus speaks of in His parable.

But the resulting actions are not what the LORD desired. He had spoken about what His people were to do. He aided them, made them His possession, and set them in a way of life. But when the LORD observed His people, He did not find them carrying out His will. Throughout Israel’s history, there are countless incidents of idolatry and gross sin—from the elite upper class to the common folk. Instead of keeping the Law that Moses gave, the Israelites chose other religions, other ethical systems, other cultural norms. And the individuals whom the LORD appointed to care for His people, to serve as His stewards—like tenants of a vineyard—began to act as the owners of the nation: they established their own codes instead of the Law given by the LORD. The result of this was utter rejection of the LORD and His way. That rejection receives His condemnation.

This understanding of the two parables of judgment show why they are applicable to the Church today. The LORD continues to have His in-house discussions with His people. The parables of judgment are not the first stage in this discussion. No, they are the final stage. Remember what the LORD said He would happen to the vineyard: “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” He speaks about actions that He had been doing for His people. Only after they failed does the LORD put an end to these actions. The removal of the tenants in Jesus’ parable only happens after multiple servants are sent and rejected and even the owner’s son is murdered by them.

The LORD desires to have the first stages of His in-house discussion with you. It starts with a reminder about who you are. That reminder was mentioned in our service. The Invocation told you about your identity: the repetition of the Triune God’s name is a statement about your belonging to Him. That name was placed on you in Holy Baptism. You became part of His household by that. The LORD’s name has been inscribed upon you with the sign of the cross—the means of your redemption, the purchase price of Jesus’ atoning death offered for you. The LORD can rightly say: “I have planted you. My Spirit brought about faith in your hearts and minds. I gathered you into My company of believers. And in the Church, I provide you with care: you hear the message about My work for you; I forgive your sins; I give you encouragement and energy to live out My way of life that I established for you. I speak blessing over you and make Myself present with you.”

You are vines in the vineyard that the LORD has planted. And so the LORD comes around looking for you to yield grapes. But what does that mean? What is the LORD looking for? There can be the immediate thought that the LORD is looking for morality or moral living. And that is true. But to speak of it only that way is to focus on just one aspect of the matter and neglect the rest. Isaiah’s words—“He looked for justice… He looked for righteousness…”—are more than just statements about morality. The LORD was looking for holy living. That includes morality, but holy living is more than that. It includes the right worship. It includes right thinking and understanding. It includes acknowledgment of dependence upon the LORD for all that is good. It includes the recognition that you are not owners but are stewards of what the LORD has bestowed to you: body, soul, clothing, shoes, house, home, family, land, animals, and all temporal goods.

The multiple facets of holy living stand behind the questions asked in the rite that the Church uses when receiving new members—something that you have seen in the recent past and will see in the near future. Individuals are asked to acknowledge the gifts granted in Holy Baptism, to again renounce the devil, and to confess belief in the Triune God: this is done to reaffirm the identity of those people. They belong to the LORD. He has planted them. He has worked for them. But then the questions are asked about the actions that these individuals will do.

This is where the aspects of holy living are laid out so that individuals who join the Church can hear and understand them. They are asked if they will participate in the means by which the LORD bestows benefits to His people: “Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?” They are asked about what will govern their lives: “Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?” They are asked about how they will be stewards of what the LORD has granted to them: “Will you support the work our gracious Lord has given this congregation with your prayers and the gifts God has given you?”

These actions that the questions pose address what a vineyard bringing forth grapes or tenants turning over the harvest look like. They are not questions asked of individuals who know nothing of the LORD and His way of life. No, this is a matter of outlining what holy living is for those who have been made and who identify themselves as Jesus’ disciples. And when the answers are given—“I do, by the grace of God…. I will, with the help of God.”—these responses reinforce the matter: this is holy living that is carried out because of what the LORD has first done for me, what He has made me to be, and what He will assist me to do.

The words of the judgment parables that you heard this morning still stand there for the LORD’s people to hear. They are warnings of what can transpire. Isaiah’s description epitomizes the lack of holy living: “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” Jesus’ words show what a total rejection of the LORD’s authority and the identity of being the LORD’s people can look like: “The tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them…. And they took [the son] and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” When those who claim to be the LORD’s people do this, then the final stage of the in-house discussion will be had: “I’m coming to destroy the vineyard. I’m coming to destroy the tenants.”

But that devouring of the vineyard and miserable death of the tenants is not the LORD’s desire for you. His call to repentance is for you to hear. But the LORD does not only issue a call to repentance; He issues His summons for you to participate in what He grants you. Hearing His parables of judgment this day, the proper response is found in the psalm that you prayed. The LORD wants to hear your call for restoration: “Restore us, O God of hosts; let Your face shine, that we may be saved!” He does not tire of answering such pleas: “Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that Your right hand planted, and for the son whom You made strong for Yourself.”

To such a response, the LORD answers. He gives you “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [your] Lord.” He gives you “a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” He sets you again to strive “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” The LORD calls you to be “a people producing its fruits.” He has planted, watered, and pruned you, His vineyard.

The LORD wishes to see the aspects of holy living in you: right worship, right thinking, acknowledging your dependence upon Him for all good things, and active stewardship over the temporal blessings that He has bestowed to you. These are the fruits, the good grapes, that you will bring forth because of the LORD’s work in you. Bring them forth now in this time of the first harvests, so that when the final harvest comes, the LORD will gather you in.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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