Pentecost 18 Isaiah 5:1-7 Philippians 3:4b-14 Matthew 21:33-46
Let us pray: Gracious God, help us to commit to you not simply a part but all of life, asking that you will take who and what we are, and everything we do, and dedicate it to your service, in the name of Christ. Amen.
A number of years ago, there was an ad campaign in St. Louis that made quite a stir. A number of billboard signs went up. They said, "What in God’s name are you doing here?" Just that. "What in God’s name are you doing here?"
"What in God’s name are you doing here?" Now that might be a question we could ask this morning as we heard the Gospel. "What in God’s name am I doing here?" Another vineyard story! For the third week in a row our Gospel uses the illustration of a vineyard. In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah chapter 5 we hear about a vineyard, as a way of talking about God’s great sadness and pain at being rejected by the ancient people of Israel.
"I planted a vineyard," God says. "I tended and nurtured it. But it did not produce fruit. Instead of sweet grapes and the wine that I had expected, the grapes were wild and their taste was sour." "What more could I have done?" God cries. "How could I have blessed you more fully?" It’s a song of sadness and pain, a cry of longing from our God. It’s God’s word saying to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah, ""What in God’s name are you doing here?"
Jesus echoes the same words in his parable of the wicked tenants. He announces God’s judgment. "When the owner of the vineyard returns what will he do? – He will put those wretched to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” Rejection! That’s what this morning’s Gospel is about – the pain of rejection. It’s a feeling that we can all identify with. There is no pain more familiar to more people than the pain of rejection. Who doesn’t remember standing on the playground at recess time or after school when teams were being made up and being chosen last? Who doesn’t remember being left standing on the sidelines while everyone else got their chance to play in the game? Is there anyone here today who wasn’t selected Homecoming King or Queen or who was passed over for promotion? Guys – how about the time you were rebuffed by that special girl? Or gals – what about the time your boyfriend dumped you? The pain of rejection. It pierces our heart with its dagger point and sends a chill into our very soul. And it is this pain of rejection that the Gospel speaks of today.
But it’s not our pain primarily this speaks of – it is God’s pain, God’s deep abiding sadness and hurt that results from lives that are lived apart from God, from our failure as God’s people to live the kind of life we were created to live, by our sinfulness and rejection of God’s truth and holiness. To us as to the ancient Israelites, God asks this morning, "What in God’s name are you doing here?"
Jesus knew that pain of rejection. Misunderstood by his family, rejected by his own townsfolk and even finally crucified by the very people he had come to redeem, Jesus knew what the prophet Isaiah was saying. He knew God’s pain and sadness. He evidenced that as spoke of his own death on the cross.
"What in God’s name are you doing here?" On the surface the parable is not hard to understand. Even the chief priests and Pharisees understood it. (As we see in the last verses of the Gospel reading it enraged them.) It speaks a word of judgment against Israel, and against the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Even those with only a little knowledge of the Old Testament can understand that.
The messengers sent to the vineyard quickly bring to mind the prophets of old, those messengers whom God sent to the ancient people of Israel. Prophets calling the people to repentance and faith. Prophets, largely ignored. Prophets, persecuted and killed for their message. In that sense it is a parable of rejection – the people’s rejection of the Word of God, our refusal to hear God speak to us. Because the question not only confronts the religious leaders of Jesus day, it calls to us today as well: "What in God’s name are we doing here?"
Time and time again, God brings His word of life and hope into our lives. God speaks His desire that we would lead fruitful lives of faith and goodness. And time and time again, God is rejected. We live for ourselves alone. We feel resentful that the church should tell us how to live. We assume that our wealth and possessions are our own. And when the church requests our time or asks for our offerings, we begrudgingly give only what we think we can do without. Like the wicked tenants of the story, we live our lives apart from the Lordship of God.
"What in God’s name are you doing here?" The words from the billboard echo God’s truth for us today. Today we are asked, "What in God’s name are you doing here?" They call us to take a second look at our lives. The wicked tenants of the vineyard claimed the vineyard as their own and refused to give the Owner any of what they had produced. They claimed that everything they had was the result of their own hard work and so the owner had no right to any of it. And so they rejected God, refusing to acknowledge God’s lordship over their lives.
Sound familiar? It should because all too often that’s the way we live our lives. The parable reminds us all we have is not our own, but the gracious gifts of a loving God for us. Our wealth, our homes, our happiness – the good fortune, the good health, the good luck we have – all we accomplish and all we produce in life is not only our doing. It is the blessing of a gracious God, who asks in return, "What in my name are you doing here?" How are you sharing my blessing with others? What are you doing to give praise and worship for the Lord God Almighty? What in God’s name are you doing here?"
Tony Campolo tells a story of a great oil refining plant. The refinery was huge. It employed all the modern techniques of chemical engineering. It was an impressive structure, well maintained. The interior was bright and shiny. The workers were proud to be part of the company. They made sure everything was perfectly clean and in perfect working order. Nothing was spared in caring for the plant.
One day some visitors asked to tour the refinery. At first they were refused. They would get in the way. They might even track the clean floors. But the visitors insisted. They had heard such great things about the plant and wanted to witness it for themselves. And so the plant managers relented and reluctantly gave permission for the outsiders to enter.
The visitors walked through the vast chambers where they saw the processing of the crude oil, the gleaming pipes that carried the refined product from place to place throughout the plant, and the impressive organizational system that had been set up to keep the plant clean. Needless to say, they were greatly impressed. Near the end of the tour, one of the visitors asked, "Where is the shipping department?" "Shipping department?" the guide asked. "Why yes," the visitor responded. "The place where you ship out what you’ve produced here." "We don’t have any shipping department," the guide replied. "We use up all the energy we produce here just to keep the place going. We need it all ourselves."
Could this be the message that God wants us to hear today when we ask, "What in God’s name are you doing here?" Where is the fruit of God’s blessing in your life? Where is the goodness that God wishes you to produce? Where is the blessing that God’s mercy brings forth in your life? "What in God’s name are you doing here?"
This is not our world. It is God’s. This is not our vineyard. It is God’s. And unless we exist for others, unless we produce something of goodness beyond ourselves, unless we build our lives upon that "stone which the builders rejected which is now the head of the corner" we will be no better off than those wicked tenants, who were cast from the vineyard because they refused to share their blessings with God.
Jesus says it well for us today when he said, "The stone, which the builders rejected, has become the head of the corner." God is building a new temple today. It is not a house a brick and stone. It is not made of mortar and steel or cement and limestone. It is a house of faith. And it is built in the hearts and lives of God’s faithful people, built a day at a time as we confess our sins and in worship and faith draw near to God and allow God to work through us. "The stone which was rejected has become the head of the corner" and is the rock of our salvation.
As we allow Christ to live within us, as we seek to do God’s work of love and mercy in our homes and the world around us as we respond to the urgings of the Holy Spirit and in faith produce a harvest of goodness for ourselves and those around us, as we seek to be faithful followers of Christ, we’ll be able to answer the question on that billboard. This, we’ll be able to say, "This is what in God’s name we are doing here!"
Let us pray: Lord, like a faithful farmer, you have planted and nourished this vineyard for us, not sparing anything for our good. Help us to always remember we are the tenants and you are the owner. Empower us to be your true disciples so we may bear much rich fruit for Jesus’ sake. Amen.