Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB-A)

Matthew 21:33-46; Philippians 3:4b-14; Isaiah 5:1-7

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
As we approach the 500th commemoration of the Reformation at the end of this month, I am reminded of these words of our Lord Jesus which are often read on the Festival of the Reformation: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Now, this ought to sound outright absurd to you, the idea that anyone could take the kingdom of heaven by force. As confessional Lutherans, you know fully well that you must receive the kingdom through Spirit-created faith, and that there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn, to merit, or to take it by your own reason, strength, or even violence. And yet, you have Jesus’ words, and you of the flesh know how truly difficult it is simply to receive the kingdom of heaven as a true, perfect, and holy gift of God’s grace apart from any goodness or worthiness in you. Truly, all human attempts to earn, merit, and take God’s kingdom, are wrong-minded, wrong-hearted, and wrong-spirited acts of violence upon our LORD and His kingdom.
And yet, we are a violent people, are we not? Only consider the recent massacre in Las Vegas, not to mention the daily infanticide we commit under the guise of healthcare and personal rights. We are violent, and we are fruitful in violence, producing works of bloodshed and unrighteousness in our lives, words, and deeds. We bear violent fruit, wild grapes laced with the venom and poison of sin and death, as we refuse to show love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness to others, thinking ourselves righteous and justified as we attempt to take the kingdom of heaven by force and violence. Repent, lest the kingdom of heaven be taken away from you, and the Cornerstone of the LORD, Jesus Christ, fall upon you and crush you when He comes again in glory as judge over heaven and earth.
For, once again, you hear that the kingdom of heaven is like a Master of a house who planted a vineyard, protected it with a fence and a watchtower, dug a winepress in it, and then leased it out to tenants who were to care for it and tend it that He might receive the harvest of its fruit from them in due season. The Master of the Vineyard is God the Father, the Vineyard is Israel, and the vines are His people, His children whom He has called to Himself. The LORD established His vineyard in the fertile soil of His grace, cleared it of the stones of their sin, and planted within it the choicest of vines, that is, the people of His calling and His choosing. Moreover, He protected His people with His providential care and set over them the Watchtower of the Priesthood to nurture and to prune them with the teaching of His Word, that His people would be fruitful in faith, love, and obedience overflowing in love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness for others to the glory of His holy Name. But, when the time for harvest came, the LORD found that His vineyard did not produce such sweet fruit, but rather violent works that were sour, wild, and fit only for the fire and destruction. Moreover, the tenants to whom He leased His vineyard to care for, protect, and prune, that it should be fruitful, beat and killed His servants, His prophets, whom He sent to gather the harvest. Yet, the LORD is patient and longsuffering; He sent even more servants, and the tenants killed them as well.
Now, who of you would be so patient and longsuffering? Who of you would not immediately retaliate in wrath and violence and destruction? Indeed, our LORD did what was unthinkable to us; He sent His own Son. And, upon seeing His Son and Heir Jesus, the tenants, that is, the religious leaders of Israel, the scribes, Pharisees, elders, and chief priests, rallied the people, and they appealed to the Romans, to murder Him. In Jesus’ parable, they thought, that by murdering the Master’s Son, they would inherit the Master’s vineyard kingdom for themselves. Just think about what that means: The religious leaders of Israel knew fully well who Jesus was, that He was the Son of God and the promised Messiah, and as Caiaphas unwittingly prophesied, they concluded that “It [was] better that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish.” Truly, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, as the violent seek to take it by force.
But, you cannot take the kingdom by violence and force. Indeed, violence and force are as antithetical to the kingdom of heaven as are your attempts to earn and merit your way into heaven. There is only one way to enter the kingdom and to remain a citizen thereof, and that is to receive the kingdom of heaven as a gift of God’s grace, to receive His Son Jesus, and to bear His fruits in your lives, words, and deeds in service of others to the glory of His holy Name. Moreover, do not think that your lifelong membership in some human institution that calls itself the church makes you a citizen of God’s kingdom. And, do not think that your service on a board or a committee, your tithing, or your visiting the sick and the shut-in makes you a citizen of God’s kingdom. Truly, if your fear, love, and trust are in such things, things which are the fruits of the True Vine Jesus, then your fear, love, and trust are in the wrong things, for your fear, love, and trust must be in God, and in His Son Jesus, alone. The religious leaders of Israel misplaced their fear, love, and trust in their works, in their descent from Abraham, in their own self-righteousness. You must identify and repent of these same tendencies in your own hearts and lives as well.
For, in His death and resurrection, Jesus, the True Chosen One of the Father, His Choicest and True Vine, even His only-begotten Son, has redeemed the vineyard of the True Israel. By the hands of evil men, the Father planted the Vine of His Son into the earth in death, and, in His resurrection, He has made Him to be a fruitful Vine. Though you were not originally His branches, you have been grafted into the True Vine through Holy Baptism and Spirit-created faith that His life should flow through you and that you might bear His fruits in your lives, words, and deeds to the glory of His holy Name. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this is the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Among the good grapes of the True Vine Jesus was the apostle Paul. Once a zealous persecutor of the Church, he “suffered the loss of all things” in order to “gain Christ and be found in Him,” to “know Him and the power of His resurrection.” Paul vigorously admonished the people to put not their trust in their flesh, in their ancestry and lineage, in their works, zeal, righteousness, or in anything other than Christ alone. Indeed, Paul excelled in all of these things compared to most, but nevertheless he counted them “as loss for the sake of Christ” that he may have “a righteousness [not] of his own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Moreover, Paul did not consider this an accomplished goal, but a work in progress, as he became more like Christ, sharing in His sufferings and death that he might share also in His resurrection from the dead. Here St. Paul expounds upon the mystery of Sanctification, that God has declared you to be holy in His Son, and you are indeed holy, even as He now makes you to be holy as His life is lived in and through you and you bear His fruits.
Agricultural imagery abounds throughout the Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testaments: The Vine and the Branches; The Wheat and the Tares; The Sower and the Seeds; The Cursed Fig Tree; Even Jesus’ death and resurrection are compared to a grain of wheat that is buried in the earth, dies, and bears fruit a hundredfold; etc. In the Gospels, Jesus uses agricultural imagery repeatedly to show that true and living faith is fruitful in good works of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, which are truly borne of fear, love, trust, and obedience to God, created and sustained by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament. Now the Church has been made the vineyard and Jesus Christ the choice vine. You are His branches, grafted in where unfruitful others have been cut off. Pastors have been called and have been given authority to watch over you and to see that Christ’s Word and Sacraments are preached, taught, and administered faithfully so that His branches may be fruitful in words and deeds of love, mercy, grace, compassion, and forgiveness to the glory of His holy Name. The harvest time is coming on a day and hour you cannot know. Therefore rejoice in the day that the LORD has made – this day, in which He is present in grace to forgive your sins, to renew and strengthen your faith, to equip you for service in His Vineyard Kingdom, and to send you bearing His fruit in your lives, words, and deeds in service of others to the glory of His Name. This is the day that the LORD has made; He has not promised you a tomorrow. Bear His fruits today and share them with others. Everyday is the harvest in which you glorify His Name.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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