A Sermon preached by Rev Richard Hutchins – Curate
8 October 2017
Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:9-17, Phillipians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46
Our Old Testament and Gospel readings have a clear theme between them, a theme of vineyards. Actually their shared theme is God’s vineyard. We hear in Isaiah of this special place, nurtured and tended by God into which he placed His vine, expecting a harvest of good things. Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel speaks of the landowner establishing a vineyard that was handed to tenants to care for until the time of the harvest.
The reading from Isaiah is billed as a love-song, and starts out pretty well in that regard. “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill…” and so on. The beloved plants this vineyard expecting a harvest of cultivated grapes from “choice vines”, it says, to use in the wine vat placed in the vineyard. But we hear that “…it yielded wild grapes”; small sour things of little use for anything. The prophet goes on to speak on behalf of God, telling Jerusalem and Judah that God had done everything necessary to harvest good grapes, but still the crop was wild grapes.
There is a real sense of God’s disappointment in this passage of scripture, a sense of unfulfilled expectation. I wonder whether you, like me, find this a curious or even difficult concept; Almighty God being disappointed because things didn’t turn out as hoped? Potentially even more difficult to process are the consequences of this disappointment; that the vineyard is handed over to be in effect destroyed. Today’s Psalm shows that the Jewish nation was certainly confused by things that sound very like the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy; it speaks of the vineyard being established but then asks plaintively of God “Why then have you broken down it walls?” in verse 12. This sounds pretty much like judgement to me, like the withdrawal of God’s blessing on the chosen people, allowing them to be taken into exile in Babylon.
The Gospel reading follows on and develops the theme, with the slaves sent by the landowner representing the prophets who bore God’s warnings to the people of Israel, and Jesus as God’s Son foretelling his own death at the demand of the Jewish authorities and in the hands of the Romans. In common with many other parables, Jesus allows the people listening to draw out meaning from the parable by asking the simple question “what will the landowner do?”. His listeners are quite sure that the landowner in such a situation would treat the tenants that killed his son with due vigour; again this links with a sense of consequence and judgement. Jesus confirms this reading when he quotes from Psalm 118 about the rejected stone being the cornerstone, saying that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from them. These must have been pretty harsh words to hear if you were there!!
So this is all pretty heavy and challenging, God’s disappointment leading to judgement. And what was it that so disappointed God when considering the Jews? Isaiah tells us that God expected justice but saw bloodshed, expected righteousness, but heard crying. There are numerous instances in the Old Testament when God speaks through the prophets to tell Israel to buck their ideas up, to show mercy and justice, to be righteous. Amos and Hosea are both good examples. And yet the nation was incapable of living up to this expectation, to live up to the promise given to Abram that “all the families of the earth would be blessed”. I sense this tells us a bit about what delights God, to see justice and righteousness – and these are both themes that are common in Jesus teaching throughout the Gospels.
So we have God who loves righteousness and justice. I see no reason from the Bible to believe that God has gone off either of these things as time has gone on. So the question for us is “How do we measure up?”. I’ll be honest and say that I reckon each and every one of us is a complicated mixture of success and failure in this regard; sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. I have been thinking about this quite a lot in preparing to preach today, and a fitting word that makes the difference between rightness and wrongness here might be that little word “self”; self-righteous and self-justified. Let me give you an example of what I think I mean…
Imagine that I am speeding on the motorway, not in a massive licence-losing sense but in the casual, commonplace fashion that can be seen every day. What right do I have to judge the middle lane driver who won’t get out of the way when I catch up behind them? The reality is that I have none and yet the truth is that I do. I somehow justify my actions to place myself in the right (making myself righteous in my own mind) and place them in some sort of wrong. In sober reflection it looks and sounds like a case of “look at this person! Yes, they are obeying the speed limit but don’t they know that the Highway Code says that staying out in that lane is wrong as well”. They are now in the wrong in my mind and I have justified to myself any negative feelings of frustration that I feel about them. Wild grapes are small, mean and sour; I sense a very strong parallel with the feelings that arise from situations like this.
Someone asked me the other day whether I would agree with them that just perhaps a lot of what we see in all the bad news is simply our just desserts, living with the consequences of what society has become. Is this in fact God’s judgement on us? Our Creeds say that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, so I am not sure I would see the present litany of bad news as a sign of judgement before time. It feels to me that a substantial proportion of the darkness we witness through the media is down to their failure to present the good, the positive, as this is not what people want to hear apparently.
But I do feel that we see in these stories the consequences of a dominance of self over the righteousness and justice so loved by God. So we see the consequences of mankind neglecting the truth that God offers through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; the consequence of treating truth as an individual thing, different for all, so that my truth is not your truth, my truth comes from within me. At the most extreme end, regardless of obvious motive or not, this results in a man believing in himself that it is somehow right and just to point guns out of a Las Vegas hotel room and pull the trigger. Self-righteous, self-justified. Wild grapes can be devastating in their impact.
So what is the antidote? What pulls us towards the real truth that God loves, to righteousness and justice? Our reading from Philippians provides an answer. We have Paul stating the case for his “self”, his confidence in the flesh, his self-righteousness and self-justification. And then he declares that all of this good standing and impeccable behaviour as a Jew is nothing because of the amazing value of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord. In Jesus he has found true righteousness; not of his own but coming from God, through faith. The result is to know the power of the resurrection, to know new life, true life. This is not some happy-go-lucky nirvana that Paul offers (indeed he says that it will involve suffering) but it is utterly worthwhile, to strain forward towards, to press on towards.
Jesus says in our Gospel that those who fall on the stone will be broken, while those on whom the stone falls will be crushed. Will we allow ourselves to become broken before God, to ask for hearts that love true righteousness and justice; to seek to become holy. In the Holy Communion service there is a prayer that asks for “our sinful bodies to be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood”. Perhaps these are things for all of us to ponder in our hearts more deeply today as we come shortly to take bread and wine, or to receive a blessing.
We know that the Lord is present with us now because of promises made by Jesus. But what if Jesus were standing here, flesh and blood, what question might he ask of us? Would he ask us how our vineyard was growing, how the crop was getting on towards harvest, how much was wild grapes and how much from “choice vines”. I sense that he would look at piles of clothes and smiley bags for Samara’s Aid with the approval of a satisfied gardener, along with so much of what is done amongst his body here; our work in the vineyard that Chris spoke of last week. I am equally sure there might be a few bits where the pruning shears would be out.
Can we do anything to cultivate our individual vineyards, to favour choice grapes over wild ones? Charlie Cleverly, the Rector at St. Aldate’s Church in Oxford, has suggested in this book “The Song of Songs” that perhaps we can; by applying long-established, effective spiritual disciplines in our own lives, and so have our hearts, minds and souls shaped to love righteousness and justice as God does. There is a huge amount of teaching out there, and I am sure a great deal of experience right here, in these ways of spending intentional and focused time with God so my encouragement is to give some of it a go.