Consider the life cycle of a blade of grass. It does not even exist by itself. It is just a part of a complex network of runners that criss-cross your lawn. And by itself, it is not crucial in any way to the lawn’s well-being. It’s nice enough. If all the blades of grass disappeared, then the lawn would be in trouble. And it contributes with photosynthesis to the life of the lawn. But it will soon grow longer than you like, perhaps in a week. If it’s my lawn we’re talking about then it’s at least two weeks. But then it will be cut off, and dry up, and die. Even if I let it grow to maturity and go to seed, it will only last for a little while. And then it will wither and fade.
And God, through the prophet Isaiah, says that this is like you and me. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.” It is not, as the materialists would have you believe, that there is no part of you that survives physical death. Nor is it true, as the Gnostics have it, that our bodies are trapped in prisons of evil flesh and must escape them. But Isaiah and, later, the apostles use the word “flesh” to refer to all that part of us which is bound to this fallen world, part of its fallen pattern, and therefore not eternal.
St. Peter points out that all this world is under a death sentence. In the end, “the heavens [that is, the sky] will pass away with a rushing roar, and the [very] elements will be dissolved with fire”. Nothing will be left that is part of the warp and weft of this world, and that day will “come like a thief”, without warning. It will sneak up on you, so you must be prepared.
If that day were tomorrow, many of us would not be prepared. Many of us take God and church and Jesus for granted. St. Peter says, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God”. But he also says that God himself is being patient with us, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
Even Isaiah’s non-complementary description of us is set in the context of encouragement. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” “Behold, the Lord God comes with might …. He will feed his flock like a shepherd”. There is no power in flesh, whether it appears mighty or weak. There is nothing that can stand against God. And by the same token, there is nothing that we ourselves can do to extract ourselves from this world of death. But God himself has promised to take care of all that. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned”.
And so we are told, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Mark the Evangelist quotes this passage over 700 years later to describe the mission and service of John the Baptist. And what is the one thing that John requires of people? What, evidently, is the one barrier that we puny insignificant blades of grass can throw up in the path of the Almighty God? The only thing we can do is refuse to repent. The thing that John preaches to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight is “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
“You need to be washed clean,” says John to the people of Judea and Jerusalem. “You may be the people of God, but you are not acting like it. You are filthy, like the pagans, and need to be washed like they do. And I will only wash you if you are penitent. But listen, I may seem intense, living out here in the desert and eating insects and all, but there’s someone else coming after me. I’m not even worthy to touch his feet. I’m just washing you in water to symbolize your repentance. But he will immerse you and bathe you in the power of God himself.”
And here we sit, almost 2000 years later, knowing that all of this is true. Jesus paid the ultimate price for each one of us, and he has bathed us in the power of the Holy Spirit at our baptism. And yet, he still waits patiently, hoping that all may reach repentance. We can do nothing to him in his sovereignty, but he loves us so much that he chooses to wait, rather than simply uprooting us from his lawn.
In this season of Advent, as we approach our celebration of Christmas, the coming of Christ, we pay attention to the cry in the wilderness. Just as the people of John’s day needed to “prepare the way of the Lord”, so do we. Just as they needed to make a straight path for God to work in their hearts and lives, so do we. And the only thing that can mean is repenting for our sins. Taking stock of our lives, paying attention to our patterns and habits, searching ourselves to see if there is anything there that we know is of the flesh, destined for dissolution in fire.
For the most part, you know what these things are. But, for a reminder, there are several representative lists in scripture. There are the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20. Read through those and see if you don’t find yourself described. Then there is the list in Galatians chapter five: The works of the flesh are “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like.” That has something for just about everyone. How about the 21st chapter of Revelation: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” And remember that if you hate any of your Christian brothers in your heart, you are already a murderer. That’s what Jesus says. By my reckoning, we are all murderers and fornicators in Jesus eyes, until we repent and turn to him for salvation.
Do you live the description of Christian love that St. Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 13 in your relationships? Are you patient and kind? Or are you jealous, boastful, arrogant, and rude? Do you insist on your own way? Are you irritable or resentful? Do you rejoice when wrong is done to others, or do you rejoice in what is right? Do you bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things with those you claim to love?
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you haven’t read your Bible. Shame on you. Go read those passages this week. I’m happy to provide them to you again. Or maybe you don’t need to read them, because you already know the sins that you need to turn away from, and you are simply in rebellion, refusing to repent. If that’s the case, look out. The prophet Samuel tells us that the sin of rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft.
But it is never too late. God is not a cosmic spoil-sport waiting for you to repent so that he can gleefully punish you. God loves you so much that he longs for you to repent, and return to him, and receive his blessing. Do it today. Do it now. Allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn away the sinful flesh now, rather than later. We don’t just wait for the end, but “for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, … be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.”
Happy New Year!
The ancient church set this time of year as the beginning of the liturgical cycle, the beginning of each new year. And here at the beginning, we get the most important devotional practice. If we get nothing from the rest of the year, we must get this Advent practice down. And so we read the words of Jesus: “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.” What time, you ask? The time of the Lord’s second coming. “And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds.”
You see, during Advent, we don’t just wait for the coming of a baby at Christmas. We also watch for the second coming of the man who once was that baby. We know that Christmas is in exactly four weeks. But we do not know when the final day of judgment will come. We must not simply wait. We must take heed and watch. Watching is what we do when we are waiting for something to happen any moment. Watching is waiting eagerly and expectantly. Watching is making sure that everything is in order in our hearts. The fact is that this watching is not merely for the end of time. We must also watch for the action of God to prepare us for that day.
We find ourselves in something of the same position as the prophet Isaiah, the same position as St. Paul. Isaiah looks back to the stories of God’s presence in the Torah, when the mountains shook at the presence of the Lord. He knows that God’s coming is something that is frightening in its power. God’s presence is like fire, and if we come into it, we must be prepared to burn and boil away. And yet Isaiah says, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”! He watches.
The prophet sees all around him that the Holy People of God are not holy. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Even the good that we do is not good the way God is good. Our sin is like an infection that corrupts and destroys the whole body. We are like leaves that have ceased to receive life from the tree. And so we will dry up and wither, and we will be at the mercy of our sins, which will blow us away like the winter wind.
Isaiah also sees that there is no one left who even wants to overcome all of this. The only one who has the power to help in this situation is God. But “there is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee”. Our forefather Jacob grasped and wrestled with God, because he knew that without God’s blessing, he was lost. But there is no one left in Israel who will do that. And in his frustration, Isaiah realizes that even that is because God has willed it for some mysterious reason. “For thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.”
And so Isaiah cries out to God on behalf of his people. He longs for God’s frightening and refining presence, because he knows that ultimately, God’s presence, no matter how difficult it is to face, is vastly superior to God’s absence, where we are left to our own puny devices in the winter gales of our sin. God is one “who works for those who wait for him.” “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand.” And so, longingly, we wait for you to turn back the fire of your presence upon us. Make us endure you, so that we may “remember thee in thy ways”, and joyfully work righteousness, and be saved.
St. Paul is in a similar situation. He writes his first letter to the Corinthians precisely because he has heard report of unholy activity in the Corinthian church. And yet, he begins by characterizing them as “those [made holy] in Christ Jesus, called to be [holy ones] together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. And here we are again. Just like the ancient Israelites, we are made holy, and we are called to become holy.
But St. Paul puts it right back in the same context that Isaiah put it. He writes to them “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ”. They and we still wait for Jesus to reveal himself in power, just as Isaiah waited. And we watch, because we know that he will do what he promised to do. We know that, in Christ, God has already given us grace. And we know that he is already working in us. That is why St. Paul gives thanks. “God is faithful,” he says, “by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” And God in Christ “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And so we wait; not only for some far off day, when the sun and moon are extinguished, and the stars fall, and the heavens are shaken; but we also watch for God’s burning presence to reveal itself in us, as Christ sustains us, and purifies us, and makes us finally guiltless.
We watch for the man who, beyond hope, won for us the victory over death and sin. We watch for the Son of Man, who is the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. We watch for him who is the awesome and awful presence of God. We watch for the frightening, burning presence of God right among the tinder and kindling of our own miserable souls. And the most terrifying thing of all should be to think that he might come and find me asleep rather than watching for him. That he might find me ignoring his presence in my life and unprepared to meet him at all. That he might find me a withered leaf on the tree, ripe for the winter winds.
We watch, because it is him and him alone that can bring true life into our lives. Only he can burn out of us what is unholy. Only he can turn our abject misery into joy.
It seems that God’s people never really learn. The prophet Micah lived before the fall of Jerusalem and Judah, even before the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. And yet he complains of the very same thing that Jesus complains of over 700 years later. Jesus puts it this way: “They do all their deeds to be seen by men”.
In Micah’s day, the prophet claims, other prophets prophesy good things for the people who pay them. Whereas they prophesy bad outcomes for people who refuse to pay them. The leaders pervert justice by taking bribes. They pervert the word of God just to make money. And yet they expect God to save them, because they are the chosen people.
In the same way, the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day make a show of their outward piety. They talk a good game about the Law of Moses. The visible signs of their faith are quite prominent. They want people to think of them as good Jewish men. They like to be honored in public. And so they do their religion in public. But what they do in private does not match all of this. There is no change of heart going on. Only the outward practice of religion.
And that’s what is common to the two complaints. Both in Micah and in the Gospel people have everything entirely backwards. They behave as if God is somehow in their pocket, as if they own him. God belongs to them, and therefore they deserve a blessing from him. And therefore they put on a show of faith in order to turn it to their own advantage.
Now both of these passages are directed toward leaders. Micah addresses the rulers, heads, priests, and prophets. Jesus speaks of the teachers who “sit on Moses’ seat”. So it might be tempting to dismiss all of this doom and gloom about hypocrisy. After all, it only applies to those appointed to an exalted rank. It doesn’t apply to all of us down here, does it?
Well, I have some news for you all. What do you think is the rank of those who are sons and heirs of God? What do you think the rank is of those who receive the word of God, those who are part of the body of Christ, those who take the very life of God into themselves? The truth is that we are all princes of the realm. We hold the very highest office possible in creation. And the differences between us are comparatively trivial. Of course that is great and glorious news! But it also means that, in Christ, none of us can escape the indictment handed down to the leaders of God’s people. Yes, hypocrisy is terribly ugly when we find it in our leaders. But it is just as ugly when we find it in ourselves. It’s just less public, and we don’t like to deal with it.
The awesome, glorious, and terrifying reality is that we don’t own God, he owns us. We cannot use God to further our own agendas, whether we are an archbishop, a CEO, or a bricklayer. Rather than expecting God to change the world to suit our requirements, we should expect God to change us to suit his own requirements. Ultimately, he is the only one who has the right to require anything, and by being baptized and confirmed we put ourselves in his hands to do with as he pleases.
St. Paul commends the Thessalonians for accepting the good news about Jesus as “the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” It is not their surroundings that are changing, but themselves. The word is “working” in them. And so we should expect this same work in ourselves. Rather than doing things to be seen by men, we should be allowing God to change our hearts to be more like Jesus. Wherever we see that work being done, we know that the word of God has penetrated the body of Christ. Wherever we don’t see it being done, we can suspect we have a dead limb still clinging to the vine.
Our Gospel reading today is the last of a series of three challenges. You remember from last week the question about taxes. Several factions of the Jews are trying to trip Jesus up and get him in trouble. The reason they’re trying to do that is that they want to get rid of him. He’s ridiculing them in these stories that he tells, like the one about the tenants in the vineyard. He is a challenge to the status quo. And they like the status quo. It’s not that any one faction is in total control. The Sadducees control the temple, the Herodians control the delicate secular political situation with Rome, and the Pharisees control the religious teaching. Each faction has issues with the others, but they have reached some sort of equilibrium with which everybody is more or less comfortable. And they don’t like this upstart Jesus coming in and spoiling their system.
But they can’t just go and throw him in jail, because the people think he’s a prophet, and they might start a riot. So the Pharisees and the Herodians go together to ask him about taxes. He slips through their trap with “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Then the Sadducees give it a try. They think they can trip him up with a question about marriage in the resurrection. So they ask him that question about the woman who was married to seven brothers. He tells them that they do not know the scriptures or the power of God and proceeds to silence them by demonstrating his superior knowledge of both.
After seeing that the Sadducees are stumped, the Pharisees give it one more try. They push one of the lawyers out front to ask Jesus a test question: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” He answers in that passage that we quote in the preparation for every Mass, the Summary of the Law. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
He goes on to confound the Pharisees yet again with his question about Psalm 110. The messiah is understood to be a descendant of King David. But David himself calls him “my Lord”, which presumably he wouldn’t if he were his descendant. Of course, we understand that Jesus was a descendant of David in his human incarnation, but the Lord from all eternity. But the Pharisees couldn’t account for that. The Pharisees are silenced once again, and no one tries to trip him up with questions anymore.
But there is this moment, with the summary of the law, when there seems to be agreement even between Jesus and his challengers. In Mark’s version of this story, the lawyer who poses the question even commends Jesus for his answer. The answer is a combination of a verse from the middle of Deuteronomy with a verse from the middle of Leviticus. Jesus didn’t come up with it on his own. It seems it was a standard answer for those who cared about such things.
And yet, it sits there in the middle of this verbal sparring as a signpost. This is the most important thing. Jesus agrees with the Pharisees on that. He hasn’t changed any of their teaching, really. He has just insisted that they live it. It’s the only serious question of the day, and he answers it seriously. But it doesn’t really further anyone’s personal agenda. And so it doesn’t get applause or attention. It just stands as an indictment of Jesus’ challengers, because they are hypocrites.
The commandment to love God is the foundation of all other commandments. Even the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is subject to this. God does not want bribes. He takes no pleasure in the sacrificial object. He delights in the relationship he has with the person who honors him with sacrifice. The law is intended as a way of knowing and relating to God. The same is true of all moral issues. How many of us, when faced with a moral test, think about it in terms of loving God? But that’s what it is. In every choice we make, every decision taken, we choose to love and honor God or we do not.
But it’s more than that, isn’t it. The commandment is to love God completely. With the whole heart, which is where your will resides. That’s what we’ve just been talking about. But also with the soul, the psyche, the self, the whole being. We’re also to love God with our whole mind, our thoughts. If we were to paraphrase this commandment, we might say, “Honor God in everything you choose, everything you are, and everything you think.” That’s a pretty tall order. But without a commitment to this, nothing else will do. If we do nice stuff for people but don’t love God, it doesn’t help us. We still have no relationship with our creator.
Jesus insists on the relationship between the two concepts. Our love for God means we will love our neighbor. Not the other way around. Love of God is most important. But there is no love of God that won’t involve loving others, because God is love. Many have pointed out that “Love your neighbor as yourself” requires you to love yourself as well. And that is absolutely true. We have no business despising the gift that God has given us in our own selves. But I doubt that’s really what most of us need to work on.
To respond gently when what we feel is anger, to forgive others before they even repent, to pray for our enemies and those who hate us, to give generously and joyously for the spread of the kingdom, to speak the truth when others don’t want to hear it, to keep the peace when others are being belligerent, to disturb the peace when others are being complacent, to do what is right regardless of our feelings or our reputations; these are the sorts of things that people do when they love God. Because it is God whom they want more than anyone else to please. And when we honor him with such sacrifices, he delights in the relationship he has with us.
Those who challenge Jesus with trick questions really didn’t want a relationship with God. They wanted to keep things comfortable and human. Jesus unsettled them, because he demanded that they actually face up to the great commandment. He demanded that they live what they taught and actually pursue a loving relationship with the God they wanted to use as a prop in their political schemes.
And he demands the same of us.
The prophet Isaiah is not known to have had a problem of needing people’s approval. He was not a people-pleaser. Individuals who do have such a problem are not generally called to the vocation of prophet. And if they are, they have to get over the problem quickly. The prophets certainly have positive messages to relate from time to time, but even those messages are usually delivered with implications that are far from comfortable for the people. Such is the message we have read from Isaiah today.
Remember that Isaiah is prophesying in the southern kingdom of Judah, before it is conquered and before the people are all carted away to Babylon for about 70 years. We’re about two centuries before Cyrus the Persian then conquers Babylon and allows the Judeans to go home. Cyrus won’t be born probably for about another century and a half. And here, through the prophet, God is sending him an open letter.
And in the very first line, in the very first clause, we have an affront to the devout Jew. “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, … Cyrus”. Now “the Lord’s anointed” means a prophet, a priest, a king of Israel, and that’s it. “Messiah” also means “anointed one”. And here Isaiah says that this pagan gentile, this king from the Goyim is the Lord’s anointed. In fact, the Lord says that he has “grasped him by the right hand,” signifying a special choosing and intimate fellowship.
But wait. Ought not God to call someone from his chosen people to accomplish his will? This is the way we usually think, isn’t it? Even we, who are the inheritors of such a long history of God’s sovereign activity, think that God works only through those people who already are submitted to him. He works through us, not them. And so God needs us and we’re OK.
But that’s not the message here. Certainly, God desires desperately that we submit ourselves to him, that we be reconciled with him, for our own sake as well as for the sake of others. But does he really need us in that way? Evidently not. For here is Cyrus the Persian, the Lord’s anointed.
God will carve out a monumental path through the world for Cyrus. It’s as if Cyrus just has to show up. God will do the rest. He will subdue nations and turn kings into quivering craven jellies. He will open, or break down, doors and gates. He will throw open hidden treasures and hoards. All so that Cyrus will have to acknowledge that it is Yahweh, the God of Israel, who has done all these things.
Our God is not only the God of Israel. He is the Lord of the whole creation. Though Cyrus does not know him, he is Lord over Cyrus. He says, “I surname you [I give you your title], though you do not know me. … I gird you [I arm you], though you do not know me.” He does not need the permission of Cyrus’ faith in order to make of him what he wishes. Remember that when this prophecy was delivered, Cyrus wasn’t even going to exist yet for over a century. He says, “I am Yahweh, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.” There is nothing that can or will keep him from achieving his purposes. And he will achieve them in his own way with his own methods, whether we like it or not.
And yet there is something that limits God. And that something is God himself. He never uses his complete freedom and sovereignty to annul the promises he has already made. Thus, it is “for the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen” that God calls Cyrus. He has promises of faithfulness to Abraham, to Jacob, and to David to fulfill, even if his people are not cooperating.
And there is another reason that God calls Cyrus. Those of you who remember your Abrahamic covenant will see what it must be. For God’s relationship with the patriarchs and with the nation of Israel was never ever without its missiological aspect. God blessed Abraham so that by him “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” So God called Cyrus, “that men may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west,” that Yahweh is the Lord, the only God.
This isn’t because God is jealous in the way we are jealous. He isn’t throwing a temper tantrum at not getting what he deserves. It is for our sake that he is making such a big deal about who he is. Why do you think that the human race is in the mess it’s in? Because we will not submit ourselves to the truth. As one commentator I read puts it, “So long as we continue to make God in our image, so long as we continue to believe that we can insure our own security and comfort by manipulating the psycho-social-physical world without the surrender of our own autonomy, just so long we will continue in darkness, destruction, and despair.”
But the converse is true as well. God may “form light and create darkness.” He may “make weal and create woe.” But he is always aiming at the former. He may have to chasten or instruct us at times with things that to us are calamities. He may have to allow evil things to occur for reasons we could not possibly understand. But at the heart of reality is a vision for us, a vision so glorious and joyous, and yet so profound and unfrivolous, that we can hardly fathom it.
And here our lectionary has done us a disservice. It has left out the vision. It’s in the final verse, right after our reading ended. “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth, and let it cause righteousness to spring up also; I the Lord have created it.” You see, all of God’s actions are driving toward this goal. I almost said “ultimate goal”, but that would have been wrong. This vision of righteousness pouring from the sky, and salvation and righteousness sprouting from the ground, this is who God is. The heavens and the earth symbolize the whole creation. This is his goal for every thing, even the least of things, not just for the end of things. This is how God is treating each one of us and all of us together. It is us who cannot see beyond the pain of growth as we spring from the soil of creation.
God is in control. That means that he is ultimately responsible for the things that we don’t like, as well as the things we do. It also means that he will almost certainly accomplish his goals in ways that we do not expect and of which we may not even approve. He certainly takes a much longer view of his historical goals than I do. But his goal for us is to live with him in that righteousness and deliverance he is pouring out on us and on every thing at every moment.
To Him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
The prophet Isaiah tells a compelling story in our reading today. The context would have been familiar to anyone in Isaiah’s day, because the growing of grapes was an important economic activity in the southern country of Judah. And he begins in the style of a well-known genre, the love song. The vineyard was a common metaphor in love poetry for the beloved woman. And so what sounds strange to our ears would have created ready expectation for the original hearers. “Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard”.
But the song really does seem to be about a vineyard. If you have seen the vineyards of California, you would probably recognize this setting. It is on a hillside that is well drained and grows lush vegetation. In this area, there is a great deal of limestone, which creates very fertile soil for growing grapes. But it also breaks off in larger pieces throughout the soil, so one must carefully dig out all the rocks from a new vineyard. Remember, this is before the invention of the steel plowshare.
So the man lovingly and carefully cultivates his hillside vineyard. He digs it all up to loosen the soil and prepare it for a crop. He hauls off all the rocks that would prevent his vines from rooting and growing healthily. He piles up the rocks in a wall around the vineyard, to protect it from animals. He works at finding the best vines to plant in his new vineyard. He spares no expense or effort in preparing the vineyard to produce the best. There is nothing that he should do that he does not do.
After all that, it takes two years before a new vineyard will produce a crop, so he goes to work on the other improvements that will make the vineyard more pleasant and productive. He takes the extra stones that didn’t go into the wall, and he builds a watchtower with them. Now he can protect the vineyard from people as well as animals. And what’s the whole point of a vineyard? To produce wine. So he digs out a winepress, which would have been two separate vats dug out of the side of the hill. One to press the grapes in and one to catch the juice that runs off.
The man does all this work, because he eagerly expects the vineyard to produce lots of good grapes. He’s done everything he should to get a good crop and spared no expense. And so he eagerly awaits the produce after two years. But of course the vineyard does not produce a good crop. It produces only sour and bitter grapes, which are worthless.
And Isaiah, speaking in the vinedresser’s voice, asks the people of God to judge the situation. “O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done for it?” The people who originally heard this sermon might actually have answered him. Whether they did or not, the answer would have been clear to them all, because they knew how grapes are grown. There was nothing more to be done. The vineyard was hopeless. And so the owner will destroy it.
Then Isaiah turns the tables on his hearers. Israel is to the Lord as the vineyard is to its owner. The nation of God’s people is worthless and hopeless, in spite of the covenant love and care that God has lavished on it. It does not produce the fruit of justice and righteousness. Instead there is violence and oppression. And God will destroy it.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus takes up this parable and reworks it with a twist. His hearers would have known the story from Isaiah and also the later consequences of Israel’s infidelity. So when Jesus begins his story, his hearers would have thought, “Hey, I know this one. Yeah, the nation of Judah was destroyed in the Babylonian captivity. But then God brought us back. He hasn’t reestablished the nation yet, but he will.”
But Jesus immediately introduces his new twist to the story. Instead of an evil vineyard, he tells of evil tenants. The tenants are to care for the vineyard and send the master’s share of the fruit to him at the harvest. But they refuse, and they beat and kill the servants who are sent to collect the master’s portion. They even kill his son in order to take his inheritance and keep the vineyard for their own.
And Jesus, like Isaiah, turns the parable against his listeners. Instead of the vineyard itself, his hearers are the infidel tenants. The leaders of Israel have not tended the people of Israel in such a way as to produce the fruit of righteousness among God’s people. And so Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”
We here are the people of God. We are the vineyard, and we are the kingdom of God. In the interplay of all these images, one thing is abundantly clear. While God will be entirely faithful to his covenant, if we ignore or resist him, we will eventually cut ourselves off from the blessing of that covenant.
We who follow Christ have entered into the new covenant in his blood, which he sealed in the connection between the last supper and the power of the cross. But, as St. Paul reminds us, many of us still “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” Living in the new covenant is like living in the old covenant in this one particular: It is always intended to produce in us the fruit of righteousness. And if it doesn’t, it isn’t God’s fault. We can still effectively cut off our relationship with God, not by accident, but if we actively resist him.
If we don’t, then God is still actively working in his vineyard to produce fruit. So are we producing any? Are we becoming more patient? Are we becoming more kind and good? Are we learning self-control, eliminating those behaviors we know are not of God? Does our community exhibit gentleness, joy, and peace that are in contrast to the world outside our walls? Are we really trustworthy? Do we truly seek what is best for others before our own desires?
This is not pie-in-the-sky dreaming. I am not a Pollyanna or even an optimist. Ask my family. I am actually a cynic. But I believe that what God says is true. It always has been. And so I trust that it always will be. When God tells us that he wishes to produce the fruit of righteousness in us and that he will spare no expense or effort to make it so, I believe him. And so I trust that he will continue to cultivate the lives of anyone who allows him to do it. And that means that we all ought to be able to answer those questions I just asked in the affirmative.
Or do we corrupt the good gifts that God has given us? Is our god the belly? Do we elevate the gift of our appropriate appetites to an idolatrous level, worshipping and servicing them to the neglect of the God who gave them to us? All of us sometimes do things we are ashamed of. But do we take those things and pretend that they are virtues or rights? Do we wallow and glory in the fulfillment of our pride, our envy, our lust, our gluttony? Do we have our minds set on earthly things? If so, then our end is destruction, no matter how much God loves us and wants us to be whole.
Otherwise, we will press on toward the goal of righteousness. We will work at learning God’s will and doing it. We will not reject the righteousness we have already attained by following, however imperfectly, the way of the cross. We will remember that our allegiance is not to this world or to anything in it, but to the commonwealth of heaven. And in the end, our Lord will succeed in translating us into glory like his own.
G. K. Chesterton famously wrote, “The problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and not tried.” I was reminded of this in reading our epistle for today. St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look … to the interests of others.” It seems that this is part of what it takes to be a healthy Christian family or community. For everyone to serve and love each other beyond what we would normally say is the call of duty. If each of us gave ourselves completely to Jesus and trusted him to take care of us, then we could also give ourselves to serving our brothers and sisters, rather than looking out for number one. But then, of course, we would all have to make the church the hub of our communal existence. Our relationships with each other in this community would have to outweigh our other human relationships. We would have to commit ourselves, body, soul, and spirit, to Christ and his church. And that is a frightening invitation to a powerful existence. It is difficult, and therefore we don’t try it.
But let’s step back a moment and look at the rest of what Paul says in this passage. First of all, why should we try this difficult path of living a Christian life? It’s a reasonable question. Just what makes Jesus worthy of our obedience? We don’t like humility. Why should we do it?
In order to answer this question, we have to bring to mind just who Jesus is. He is the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. Before his Incarnation, St. Paul says, he “was in the form of God”. That doesn’t mean that he was shaped like God. It means he was God, with all the attributes of God. He experienced things as God. He was self-existent and omnipresent. He was infinite and eternal. He was all-knowing and all-powerful.
But although he was all those things, he was also morally perfect. And because of that, he knew his place in the hierarchy of things. He existed eternally in a perfect, loving relationship with the Father. And yet, on earth he will later say, “The Father is greater than I.” And so he is perfectly obedient.
Out of obedience and humility, he gave up the eternal experience of the attributes of God. St. Paul says he “emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men.” Make no mistake. Jesus wasn’t merely God masquerading as a man. He was God. And yet he “emptied himself” in order to become fully human. It was a staggering humiliation that was asked of him, just to be born, to deal with itches and cuts and limitations of strength, to be with people bigger and stronger than he was, to undergo temptation, to actually experience the limitations of the brain.
And then, “being found in human appearance he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” He didn’t just appear as a man. He fulfilled in himself the reality of the appearance. Even though he was God, even though it was already a humiliation even to be a man at all, he humbled himself and took on the office of a human being. He died a slave’s death, a traitor’s death, just as we all deserve.
That is a Lord you can obey without hesitation. That is a master you can love without reserve. That is a captain you can follow into battle, singing for joy. And that is why Jesus is more than worthy of our following him, no matter how difficult it may be. It is no arbitrary, despotic power we deal with in our Lord. We cannot possibly take on any humiliation for him that he has not taken on for us.
“But,” you say, “how can we possibly follow him? He is God. Even if he gave up being all-knowing and all-powerful, he still had an unbroken relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit in prayer. How are we poor sinful creatures to follow that act? If he sweated blood in the garden of Gethsemane, how am I who have already fallen to the devil so many times ever to resist him effectively?”
There are two answers to this. One is that Jesus’ self-emptying was not merely instructive. In going to the cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, he paid out the devil. By dying our slave’s death for us, he forever cut off the devil’s claim on us. The enemy can no longer command us. He must persuade us to follow him rather than Jesus.
Secondly, while it is true that we have changes to make, we are not doing it alone. St. Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for the one working in you is God, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God the Holy Spirit is working it all out if only you will let him. Imagine having a boss who hired you even though you had no qualifications, who worked with you every day to make sure you had everything you needed to do the job, who did the really hard parts himself, and at the end made sure you got a promotion for the terrific job you did. And all you had to do was exactly what he told you. That’s what we have in God.
The only problem is that we don’t always do what we’re told. Sometimes we’re not listening carefully enough. Sometimes we think we can do the job ourselves. And sometimes we feel put upon that we have to work at all. And so we stumble and fall and totter around, instead of growing into the job.
There is a very simple solution to all this. Repentance. Both our Old Testament passage and our Gospel passage are about repentance. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or what anyone else has done. If you’re not doing what you’ve been told, all you need to do is stop, turn around and start doing it. And the boss will still be there, helping you do the job. That still doesn’t make it easy, because it’s hard for us to do what we’re told. But it’s simple and straightforward.
You may be someone who has said “no” to God. If so, all you have to do is change your mind. If you turn around and start doing it, then you are the son that did the will of his father. On the other hand, you may be the son who said “yes”, but never really did it. You’ve never really changed anything about the way you live just to please God. Or you’ve changed your ways up to a point, and then it became too hard, because no one else was doing it and your pastor didn’t expect it and … and … and …. If that’s the case, you are being disobedient. But the answer is the same as for everyone else. Just start again. Stop walking away from God, and start walking with him.
And if you can’t stand to think about the humiliation of admitting you’re wrong and changing your life, just remember that our Lord humbled himself far more than you ever can.
When St. Paul writes to the Philippian Christians, he is in prison in Rome. He is waiting for his trial and sentence and has been waiting for a while. He does not know whether he will be sentenced to die or not. He has been allowed the privilege of paying for his own place to live, but has probably been chained wrist to wrist with one or another soldier of the Praetorian Guard every moment for quite some time. And yet he rejoices that this gives him the opportunity to tell all of the most elite soldiers of Rome about Jesus Christ.
At the same time, St. Paul is thinking about the possible outcomes of his situation. And just before our reading starts, he says, “I shall rejoice. For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that … Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” If he lives, he will continue to spread the Gospel of Christ and encourage the churches. If he dies, his martyrdom will be a great witness to truth of his message. Either way, Christ is glorified.
And so he says, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Paul has counted the cost very carefully, but ultimately, to be in Christ is beyond anything else that he may want. In other words, “Everything that I am and everything that I have belongs to Christ. And that’s the most important thing. At that level, it doesn’t matter whether I live or die.”
As a matter of fact, St. Paul would prefer to die. Not only will his martyrdom be a great witness. It will mean that his earthly task is done. He can “depart and be with Christ”. He even says that that would be “far better.” It is what he desires for himself.
And yet he also acknowledges that for others, there might be more that God requires him to do on earth, even if he is in prison. To live in his broken earthly body “means fruitful labor for me,” he says, and “to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” To continue with the people here, he says, will allow him to encourage them with the story of his deliverance, so that they may have “progress and joy in the faith”.
But for Paul himself, all of it is deliverance. He will be delivered from his predicament one way or the other. And death would actually be a greater deliverance. This is not the stance of someone who is suicidal. It is the stance of a man who has discovered that being in, with, and conformed to Christ is, simply, life. Compared with that, nothing else matters. He welcomes and enjoys fruitful labor. But only because “to live” is completely about Christ. And so the fruitful labor is for Christ. St. Paul’s highest aspiration is that Jesus Christ may be honored in Paul. He wants people to look at his life and read, “Jesus is Lord!” as clearly as possible.
And that brings us to the advice he gives to the Philippians. “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” You see, the only measure of faithfulness is obedience. “Let your manner of life be worthy….”
The word translated “manner of life” here actually has to do with citizenship, the way we behave as a part of the body politic. It isn’t just our private, personal, domestic conduct that St. Paul is concerned with here. The Gospel cannot be crammed into a box labeled “private”, as if we are Christians at home, but not Christians in public. It is specifically our public behavior that St. Paul is talking about.
And this would have been difficult for the Philippians. Philippi was a Roman colony, mainly populated by former Roman soldiers and their descendants. Roman soldiers came from every corner of the Empire. But if they made it to retirement, Rome rewarded them for their service by making them citizens of Rome and giving them land to settle. A place like Philippi would have been a hotbed of Roman patriotism and the people there would have had a highly refined sense of civic duty and public decorum.
But St. Paul is telling the Christians in Philippi that they serve a higher authority than Rome. There is nothing wrong with being a Roman citizen. St. Paul was a Roman citizen. But everything we are and everything we have must serve Christ. And if it leads us away or competes with Christ, then it must be resisted. We are citizens of a heavenly city before we are citizens of an earthly one. We must obey God rather than man.
And that may lead to our suffering. Just beyond our reading, he tells the Philippians that “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake”. It is a common lie that faithfulness to Christ will bring prosperity and earthly happiness. The opposite is true. We serve a master who suffered and died. We also will suffer. He even told us that we would.
But in the end, we must decide whether we can agree with St. Paul. “To live is Christ.” And anything that is not of Christ is death. Do we agree with that? Is Christ life to us? Is all of our life found in Christ? Or do we still want to keep Christ at home? Do we want to worship him and serve him only in private? Only when we all answer that question the same way can we “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”
Our Gospel passage is once again a continuation from where we left off last week. Remember that Jesus gave us the drill to follow if our brother sins against us. First confront him alone, then take a couple people with you, then take it to the church. Only if none of that works are you to treat him like a Gentile and a tax collector, which would mean to not have any fellowship with him at all.
Of course, as I pointed out last week, in order to carry out this program with someone who has wronged you, you have to have forgiven him first. You can’t confront someone and ask him to repent, if you aren’t willing to forgive him and mend the relationship. Peter picks up on this right away when he says, “How many times do I have to forgive my brother, Lord? Seven times? That’s enough, right?”
Of course, we all know the answer to that. Those of you who are into math (or who really want to know when you can stop forgiving your brother) can tell us that Jesus says we must forgive 490 times. If you’ve ever tried counting them, you know that it’s not possible. You’ll never get to 490. Not if you’re really forgiving your brother. So essentially what Jesus is saying is this: Counting and forgiving don’t go together. If you’re counting, you’re not forgiving, so stop.
Now that sounds really hard and perhaps even unfair, until you realize the basis for this requirement. As Jesus tells his story, we realize that he is telling very, very good news. But it is also news that obligates us. If the forgiving king in the parable is supposed to be God, and we are his servants, then Jesus is telling us that we have already been forgiven a huge, monumental, staggering debt. The first servant owes the lord ten thousand talents. One talent was more than fifteen years wages for a laborer. It might take the servant 150 thousand years just to earn that much money, much less to repay it. It’s absolutely impossible. And yet the Lord forgives the debt.
Notice that the king in the story does not simply give the man more time to pay. He does not hold the debt over the man to manipulate him in any way. The man begs for more time, but the master simply “forgives” the debt. It is gone. The master has just given the man 150 thousand years’ worth of wages, out of pity. Now imagine yourself in this man’s shoes. He has just been given 150 thousand years’ worth of wages, because his master felt sorry for him. And now he walks out into the sunshine. He should feel like a new man. He should feel like he just won the lottery. He should feel free.
But then he sees someone who owes him money. Not 150 thousand years’ worth of money, mind you. The sum here is 100 denarii. A denarius was one day’s wage for a laborer. So this is a significant amount. More than your water bill. But it’s only about a hundred days’ worth of wages, less than a third of a year. It’s nothing compared to 150 thousand years. But he seizes the man by the throat and says, “Pay up!”
We are each of us like that servant. We have been forgiven a debt that we could never possibly repay. Even the smallest offense against God is like 150 thousand years’ worth of debt, impossible to repay. But God has forgiven the debt. He has wiped it out, and the evidence for that is up there on the cross, where he bled and died for our debt, so that we could be entirely free. And yet we secretly (or not so secretly) tally up our accounts payable every day against our brothers and sisters.
You see, forgiveness is not about feelings. Unforgiveness is often about feelings. But forgiveness is like erasing a debt. In order to corral my feelings about you into some semblance of order, I have to exercise my will to not hold any of it against you. Remember that that’s what we’re talking about when the bible says “heart”. “Forgive your brother from your heart.” doesn’t mean “Feel all warm and gooey about your brother, no matter what.” It means “If he’s really wronged you, you must decide not to hold it against him.” After all, that’s what God does for us.
The Psalmist tells us, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.” Although he is the king, God treats us as a good father. “As a father cares for his children, so does the Lord care for those who fear him.” “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” In fact, he has already decided not to hold our sins against us. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us.”
And twice in this short hymn to the mercy of God the Psalmist uses the phrase, “those who fear him”. The Lord has great mercy “upon those who fear him”, and the Lord cares “for those who fear him.” And this leads to a problem of definitions. If you think about it, the Psalmist is actually saying, “Those who fear the Lord don’t ever need to be afraid of him.”
Of course, what we mean by “fear” in these two senses is very different. There is fear in the sense of terror at the prospect of danger. And then there is that different kind of fear that we are to have about God. The idea here is that God is beyond anything we really understand. He is powerful enough to squash us into oblivion in ways we couldn’t even begin to comprehend. And yet he doesn’t. And so we approach God with a fear that has nothing to do with hatred. We approach him with awe, and reverence, and adoration, and honor, and worship. We approach him with confidence, and thankfulness, and love. And yet we know the whole time that we don’t really know him; he knows us.
At least, that is how we approach God, if we fear him. But many people simply don’t fear him. They may have a vague idea of God. If you ask them, they will tell you that they believe in God. But they do not fear him. They prove that every day by the fact that their actions have nothing to do with God. Their choices are made without any reference to God. They do not really think of him as he is.
The only question is which kind of person are you? Are you a person who fears God or are you a fool? Because if you are not in wonder and awe of God’s majesty, if you are not in dread of God’s holiness, if you cannot muster up any reverence for God’s perfection; then nothing I can say will have any effect on you. And so you will come to the end of your rope, and you will find that the whole time this unimaginably majestic and perfectly merciful God was simply canceling your debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of years’ worth of earnings, that whole time you were shaking your neighbors by the throat for comparatively petty wrongs.
That doesn’t mean that forgiveness is easy. It is drastically and painfully hard. But what makes it hard is our own sin and imperfection. And God is willing to burn that out of us. He has not only forgiven our debt, he has also made it possible to grow in holiness by following Jesus. He wants us to be free. And freedom is hard work. That’s no excuse for not doing it.
The prophet Ezekiel is a prophet of the exile. While Jeremiah is prophesying the judgment of the Lord in Jerusalem, Ezekiel is giving the same message in Babylon among the exiles. And now, Jerusalem and its Temple have been razed to the ground and the kingdom of Judah destroyed. But even now, God has not abandoned his people. The destruction of Jerusalem is not the end of the relationship, only a new stage in God’s dealing with them. “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
Even in the midst of wickedness and destruction and ruin, God holds out the promise of forgiveness to anyone who chooses to turn back to him. We cannot take refuge in the idea that we have no control over events. We are each accountable for our own response to God. And he will not leave us alone, this side of hell.
That is why God called Ezekiel. God’s people are dying, physically and spiritually, because they will not turn from their wickedness. And so, in his compassion he sends them the prophet. Ezekiel is a watchman for God’s people. When they are in danger because of their sins, he must warn them of it. Or else he will be responsible for their destruction.
Now what does all that have to do with us? Well, from St. Paul’s instructions in Romans, it seems that some of the same message is still pertinent. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” This isn’t rocket science, folks. God is perfectly consistent. Just as to the faithful in exile, God tells us, “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
But there is something more here than in Ezekiel. Not only are we to turn away from our sin and be faithful to the Lord, now we are being pushed beyond that into a proactive goodness that overcomes evil itself. We are to bless those who persecute us and do good to those who harm us. We are to love one another without hypocrisy and live in harmony and peace with everyone, at least insofar as it depends on us. We may not be able to keep others from hating us, but we must bless them when they do.
In fact, we have been promoted. To whom much has been given, much is expected. Each of us has received the Holy Spirit in baptism. The Spirit of the Lord, who came upon Ezekiel and empowered him to speak the word of God to his fellow exiles, that same Spirit now resides in each of us. And if we will allow him, he will boil over in us, empowering us to serve God with zeal and joy. And the service that Ezekiel offered his companions, we will all offer to each other.
Make no mistake; Jesus has made us all watchmen for our brothers and sisters. We are responsible for each other. And that means that we must confront our brother when he falls into sin. We are not allowed to horde the wrongs done to us and hold them against him. Instead, we must tend our relationships with honesty and courage. We have to “keep short accounts” by dealing with our conflicts and not allowing them to fester.
We have the model for this in our Gospel this morning. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Notice that there is something implied by this action. You must have forgiven your brother before you go to him. If you go without forgiveness, you’re just picking a fight. You have no intention of “gaining your brother”, no intention of restoring the relationship. This process is not some sort of spiritual court system in which to sue your neighbor for emotional damages. Rather than going to him to address your grievance, you go to him for the sake of his own soul and for the sake of the family relationship. And that requires that you forgive first.
If that doesn’t work, then you get others involved. Only a couple. You’re trying to save the integrity of the body of Christ, not to punish your brother for his sins. Remember, St. Paul says, “Never avenge yourselves.” So find someone you trust, who isn’t just “on your side”. It’s possible that you are in the wrong. But even if you’re not, it’s still the relationships that you’re trying to salvage.
Only after that doesn’t work do you take your issue to the church, to the whole assembly. If you come to me and tell me, “Mrs. Green really hurt my feelings Friday night. What do I do?” then this is the counsel you will get. First, forgive Mrs. Green. Then, go to her to see if she wants to heal the relationship. Give her the chance to repent. If not, take a couple people with you. And only then bring the matter to me to be dealt with publicly.
The fact is we don’t like to do this, because it seems difficult. We don’t really want to forgive, because we don’t want to restore the relationship with someone who hurt us. And if we go through this honestly, we are really afraid the light will expose our own sin as well. It is much easier to complain about him to the people who we know will agree with us. But if we do that, then our communion is broken, and we have absolutely no business kneeling at this rail together in a lie, receiving Christ’s body and blood as if we were his united body on earth, when really we are just so much dismembered flesh, participating in each other’s destruction.
If we intend to serve God at all, then we must begin to serve each other this way. If we find our way to living at peace with each other, correcting each other, asking and granting forgiveness; then we will forge bonds of relationship that nothing can break. Jesus is gathering us into his body, and members of a body cannot be at war with each other.
It is as a united body that we have the kind of authority Jesus promises us. His promises here are not addressed to individual persons. “Whatever you all bind or loose on earth shall be bound or loosed in heaven.” “If two of you agree together on earth about everything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I.” The only way we can truly agree in the first place is to be gathered together in Jesus, completely united in his will and for his purpose. And once that happens, there will be no force in the entire cosmos that can stand against us.
But in order to be united like that, we will have to start with the basics. Repentance, forgiveness, keeping what I call “short accounts”. Love without hypocrisy. Allowing the Holy Spirit in us to boil over, serving the Lord. Rejoicing patiently in constant prayer. Blessing those who hurt us.