Saturday 24 December 2011

All I want for Christmas is... Love (Matthew 21:33-46)

Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
Matthew 21:37

All I want for Christmas - that’s the title of our Christmas series. And for the past few weeks we have been dealing with expectations. What do we expect from one another? What do we expect from God?

Today we end our series by looking at a passage in the bible which speaks not about our expectation of God, but of God’s expectation of us. Last of all, verse 37 says, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But as soon as they saw him, verse 39 tells us: They took him and they threw him out and they killed him.

What was God’s expectation in sending Jesus? That he would be received. That Jesus would be rejected. Both are true. Jesus should have been received as God’s son. But God also knew that Jesus would be rejected, cast out and killed.

The turning point in the whole story comes in the next verse; in verse 40. Jesus turns to his hearers and asks, “So, what do you think will happen next?” You see, Jesus is telling a story with a conclusion that is so obvious that everyone can see how it is going to end. Look at how his hearers respond - not Jesus, but the people listening to Jesus tell this parable - Look at how they end the story.

He will bring those wretches to a wretched end.
Matthew 21:41

“Ooh, those horrible people deserve to be taught a good lesson!” they said. This was not simply a matter justice. This was vengeance. Payback. Those wretches will be brought to a wretched end. Those soi yan should be squashed like soggy satsumas. Everyone was going, “Yeah! Get them, Jesus! Get those bad guys.”

But then again, Jesus wasn’t just talking about “those” bad guys. He says, “I am talking about you...” Verse 41: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

Happy Christmas! Joy to the world - The kingdom of God will be taken away from you! Not exactly the warm fuzzy story we expected on Christmas day - of love, peace and joy? But let me just say, if we understand this story rightly, it is a story of love - a rejected love. It is a story of peace - a restored peace. And it is a story of joy - an everlasting joy.

It is a story  that begins with a generous landowner who provides the very best for his tenants.

The landowner

“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.
Matthew 21:33

Imagine you were starting up your a new business. Yao, Ben and Lang form a band - the Solid Rockers. Or Winnie and Alana decide to open up an architecture firm together. Or Along starts up law firm in Cambridge. What you would need is lots of money and investment, office space, furniture, advertising, staff.

That’s what Jesus is talking about. I mean, we hear “winepress”, “tower”, “vineyard” - and naturally, we think about farming. But what this landowner does is he builds a business. He develops his land so that it isn’t just empty space, but rather, it becomes fruitful. This is a vineyard - meaning, it’s for growing grapes, and technically, if all he wanted to do was grow grapes, he had everything he needed - land and soil. But what else does he do? He builds a wall - he protects his investment. He digs a winepress - meaning, he builds in the facilities to produce wine from the grapes. And finally, he builds a tower - this is like putting in a high-end security system, on top of the wall that’s already there.

It’s like going to an investor with your business idea and he says, “Right, I’ll give you the money, I’ll buy you all the equipment you need - the fastest computers, the best equipment, a snazzy website. On top of that, I’ll insure and protect your business - I’ll file the patents and get Along to countersign all the legal documents. All you need to do is to move in and start working. Anything and everything you need will be provided for you.

This is a picture of a God who is generous. A God who blesses abundantly - more than we expect; more than we deserve. This is a God who takes joy in his creation. Notice how it is the landowner who plants the vineyard, he builds the wall, he digs the winepress. He gets his hands dirty, because he is invested in his creation and he takes joy in his creation. Finally, he entrusts his joy and the labour of his love to others so that they will benefit from his creation.

The story starts with God. And that’s something we need to realise. Everything comes from God who created everything and entrusts his creation to man. In the story, the landowner rents the business out to some farmers who lease the vineyard, together with the all the added extras. And as we shall see, they love the land. But as we shall also see, this same love for the land, causes them to start hating the owner of the land.

The tenants

When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.
Matthew 21:34-36

At the end of the month, the bill arrives in the post - “Please pay this month’s rent.” Except instead of just ignoring the letter or throwing it in the bin, they tie up the postman and start beating him up! Meaning: this isn’t just ignorance we are looking at, nor is it merely ingratitude. It is contempt for the landowner and anything who represents the landowner. Notice what the farmers do to the servants in verse 35: they beat one, they killed another, and they stone the third. They went all Old Testament on these guys, especially the bit about stoning. Stoning was a communal act of judgement. It wasn’t just a few farmers who didn’t like their boss. Everyone turned up, picked up a stone and threw it at the postman. Everyone took part in the rebellion.

But notice the landowners response. He sent other servants, more than the first time. He doesn’t give up. He sends more and more people - servants, not soldiers - to deliver a message. But each and every servant was treated the same way.

That’s what the landowner did, and that’s what God does in the bible. He sends his prophets. He sends Moses. He sends Isaiah. He sends Daniel and Jeremiah. But each time, the servant is reject, the message is rejected because God is being rejected. Yet, God does not give up. He keeps sending his word and he keeps sending people to speak his word to a world which rejects his word.

But lastly, he sends his Son.

Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
Matthew 21:38-39

What is so interesting about this is that now we start to see why the tenants have been rejected landowner. Look at what they say when they see his son approaching the vineyard, “This is the heir. Let’s kill him and take his inheritance.”

There are two clear reasons. Firstly, they want the vineyard. It’s a fantastic business venture. Everything is good. It is not the case that the landowner is forcing them to work. It is not the case that there was something wrong with the land. Everything was good. That was the problem.

Often times in church, especially during a time like Christmas, we focus on reminding everyone just how good things are. We talk about Christmas as time for family. A time for thanksgiving. A time for rejoicing. And we say, isn’t it amazing how God has blessed us this year? And so much of our efforts at Christmas-time is focussed on making sure everyone has a good time.

Now the last thing I want to suggest is that we make Christmas horrible and miserable! But isn’t it the case with the tenants that they were so focussed on how good they had it with the land and with the vineyard, that they rejected the one who gave them that blessing in the first place? I see this every year at Christmas: people who are so desperate to celebrate all the good things God has given them that they are ironically blinded to God himself. They are so desperate to make Christmas about everything good except God - It’s all about  the food, family, presents, turkey, holiday, TV, sleeping in on Sunday - but mention about Jesus at the dinner table; or bring up the cross in a Christmas sermon - and people will get upset.

The first thing we see from the tenants is: It is very possible to receive God’s blessing and still reject God.

The second thing we see is this: The tenants recognise the landowner’s son. “This is the heir. This is his inheritance.” They wanted to separate the son from his inheritance. “Let’s kill him  and take his inheritance.” But notice how in verse 39, the tenants didn’t simply kill the him, they way they did with the other servants. No, first they took him, then they threw him out of the vineyard. Only after that did they killed him.

What were they doing? They wanted to be sons. Do you see that? They didn’t say, “We will take the land.” They said, “We will take the inheritance.” For them, sonship was about a status. They would own the land, not merely live in it. They wanted to be the landowners.

Jesus is helping us understand what sin actually is. A lot of people might read this parable and think sin is killing the servants. Or that, sin means killing the son. I mean, those actions are sinful. So we might teach this parable in Sunday School and say to the kids, “So kids, we should not be like the bad tenants and beat up the people we don’t like. Understand?” And the kids go, “Yes, teacher!” But that’s not the bible’s definition sin (doing bad things) and that’s not the lesson of the parable (don’t be like sinful people).

Rather, the parable teaches us that sin is wanting to be God. Sin means we’re not happy merely receiving blessing from God. We want to own that blessing. We want to be the source of that blessing. We want to be God of our own lives. And it is out of this deep desire to replace God that flows sinful actions like anger, jealousy and hate and murder. But at the root of sin is this deep desire to be God - to be our own master and to reject God as our master.

When we make Christmas out to be about me - that’s sin. We take the good things that God has given us and we celebrate ourselves. And when we make an effort to intentionally separate Christ from Christmas - to distance him from the blessing’s he has given us, which rightly belong to him - it’s really no different from the tenants kicking the son out of the vineyard. That’s a very dangerous and foolish thing to do.

The Son

“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Matthew 21:40-41

At this point it is very important to recognise who Jesus is talking to. In a sense, yes, he is talking to us and we’ve seen that there are lots of points of application in our own lives. But while it is very tempting to apply this parable directly to us today, it is important to recognise that Jesus is addressing a specific group of individuals in this passage.

Verse 23 introduces the context of the conversation.

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him.
Matthew 21:23

But the more obvious verse to look at is near the end of the chapter.

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.
Matthew 21:45

In fact, for the next few chapters, Jesus is speaking to the same specific group of individuals - the chief priests and the Pharisees. The chief priests were the pastors. They were the guys who led the biggest church in town. If you had a question about the bible or about God, you asked the chief priests. On the other hand, the Pharisees were the bible teachers and experts. Not only did they know Leviticus inside-out in Hebrew and Greek, they tried to apply as much of the Old Testament laws as possible to their own lives and to others. In other words, these were the evangelicals of their day.

The chief priest and Pharisees were church leaders and top theologians of the Jewish faith; and verse 23 tells us that Jesus was engaging them in their home turf - the temple. There he was in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge - talking to the Chinese tourists armed with their Canon SLR’s - about what God was really like; how God’s kingdom was coming; what is meant to understand God’s will in the bible - and the theologians and church leaders in Cambridge weren’t happy. They came to Jesus and asked him - this ex-construction worker without a degree who had from a housing estate up north in Arbury - what business he had to be here.

Jesus answers them. To these experts and religious teachers, he says, “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvellous in our eyes’?
Matthew 21:42

This is a direct quote from Psalm 118 and at first glance it might be hard to see the connection to the parable. Jesus switches from a farm to a construction site. He switches from talking about a rejected son to now talking about a rejected stone.

The builders were the experts in choosing the right building materials - the right stones that they needed to build the walls. From experience and skill, they were the experts who could tell which kind of brick was best. Often this meant choosing the most uniform-looking and standard-sized stone. Yet here, they come across one stone that is unsuitable for use and is tossed out. Psalm 18 says, this rejected stone becomes the captone - literally, the headstone - meaning, the one that caps the entire building and has the most prominence.

Like the builders, the chief priests had rejected Jesus. Like the tenants, the Pharisees rejected the son. Out of all the people in Jerusalem, the religious leaders ought to have recognised who Jesus was, because of their privilege of serving in God’s temple, because of their position as God’s priests. Instead the experts rejected Jesus as unsuitable and unworthy.

It is to the religious teachers that Jesus pronounces the judgement in verse 43:

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
Matthew 21:43

These leaders were unfruitful and unfaithful. All this while we may have been assuming that the tenants were merely unwilling to share the fruit they had worked so hard for. But Jesus sums up the story by saying that God’s kingdom will be given to another people who will “produce its fruit”. This is very telling. It’s saying that they current tenants aren’t producing fruit at all. They were entrusted with an enterprise - a vineyard that was meant to grow in fruitfulness and blessing. But these tenants don’t want to do the work. They want the status as owners. They want to live on the land and to live off the land as landowners.

If you remember a couple of weeks ago, this ties in very clearly to the judgement Jesus pronounced on the fruitless fig tree. It was a tree that was full of leaves, meaning, it had the appearance of bearing fruit. But in reality, it was all empty packaging.

And when Jesus says “the kingdom of God will be... given to another people”, the word that he actually uses is “nation”. It will be taken from you and given to another nation - Jesus says. As in, the Court of Nations, where Jesus drove out the money-changes and dove-sellers. As in, the house of prayer for the nations that he quoted from Isaiah 56:7. Jesus is talking about mission. God’s blessing is meant to go out to the nations.

What is the fruitfulness that God looks for amongst his people - specifically amongst his church - today? It isn’t that your church grows. The chief priests and Pharisees were concerned for their own church - so much so, that they were willing to turn the Court of the Nations into the temple bookshop and to run Alpha courses for their own church members (which really kinda defeats the point of having Alpha courses, if you ask me). And neither is fruitfulness about growing your church finances, having a bigger building, or hosting large conferences in the name of Jesus. Again and again, right through this chapter in Matthew 21 and right through the bible - fruitfulness has to do with the mission of God’s son proclaimed among the nations.
The leaders in the temple were unfruitful. In an effort to preserve their own status and guard their own investments, they had forsaken God’s mission to bring all nations to a knowledge of himself.

But there is another - more serious - indictment that Jesus makes here of the builder. They were unfaithful. They had rejected God and they had rejected his Son. Like the tenants, they saw in Jesus a threat to their status. The last verse reveals very tellingly, their true yet hidden intentions towards Jesus.

They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Matthew 21:46

The only difference was opportunity. The tenants saw the son and they killed him. The religious leaders would have done exactly the same, if it weren’t that they were more concerned about how it would look bad for them in front of the crowd. It is exactly the same with us. We have the motivation. Our hearts are just as opposed to Jesus. We are just too scared to let other people see what we would really do if we had the chance.

That’s the thing about unfaithfulness. We cover it up. Do it often enough and we might even succeed in hiding it from ourselves. But Jesus comes to exposes the unfaithful hearts of the religious leaders, “I tell you.. the kingdom of God will be taken away... from you”. It is amazing how they couldn’t see the obvious truth coming a while away. For them, the parable was a story about those “wretched people” who deserve a “wretched end”. Jesus says, It’s not them, it’s you.

That’s the bad news. But embedded in this is the tremendous good news. God takes our rejection and turns it into the very basis of our salvation. Jesus knew he would be rejected. He was days away from being executed on the cross. He could see that coming a mile away. But he also predicted that he would be raised and resurrected, and in doing so, fulfil the prophecy of Psalm 118.

‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes.

God has done this. Yes, the builders rejected the stone. And yes, the same religious leaders would be responsible for killing Jesus on the cross. But Psalm 118 says that ultimately, the Lord has done this. God sent his son knowing that Jesus would be rejected but that on the cross, he would be taking all of our rejection of God, and all of God’s rejection of us, upon himself. On the cross, Jesus would take our sin and our punishment for sin, so that all who trust in him would be fully accepted before God. For us who look to him on the cross - on Jesus - he is marvellous in our eyes.

What do you see when you look at Jesus? The parable gives us two possible responses.

Some of us see a threat. The tenants see the heir coming to take away the land, forgetting that it was all graciously given them in the first place in trust and in love. The religious leaders see a challenge to their authority and status in the church. Ironically, their love for God’s blessing has led them to forsake God, the source of their blessing.

But I sincerely hope you see Jesus as he truly is. Marvellous. God has sent his son into the world to be received as who he really is - the heir of all things. In his generosity and his wisdom, it is to those who do receive his Son who receive together with him - all things.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Romans 8:32

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