This three-part series has been updated from 2017.
June 14, 2015 (You can view a video of this sermon here.)
A high school friend posted on Facebook the other day that wheat harvest has already begun down in southern Kansas. While our harvest up here in Minnesota might be a few weeks out yet, my friend’s comment reminds me that the cycle of planting, cultivating, and harvesting follows a predictable pattern. The steps in the cycle follow the same order, year after year.
Lots of variables can affect the final outcome of each year’s crop: weather conditions, seed quality, disease, pests. But the cycle of planting, growing, and harvesting is still the same cycle that’s been in place since God created plants. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses the very familiar process of plant growth to teach some important lessons about the Kingdom of God.
Whoever has ears to hear, Jesus says, listen to the Word of the Lord as given to us in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 4, beginning at verse 26. Jesus is already talking:
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “”With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:26-34)
Jesus told lots and lots of parables. These stories that drew on familiar, everyday events and circumstances were his primary teaching tool. On the surface, a parable might seem to be the same as a fable – a story that has a moral, like “slow and steady wins the race,” in The Tortoise and the Hare. But they aren’t exactly the same thing. Continue reading
October 5, 2014
Today’s passage follows immediately the one we heard last week, and it offers us, for the third week in a row, a story about a vineyard.
“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 moved to another place. 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. 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.
“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.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
“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. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 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 21:33-46, NRSV)
Even though we are hearing this parable a full week after the story of the two sons whose father sent them both into the vineyard, the original listeners heard it in the next instant. Jesus is still in the Temple court, it’s still Tuesday of Holy Week, the Temple Rulers are still standing there glaring at Jesus, challenging his authority to kick out the money changers and teach openly in the Temple courts. They are getting more and more angry, because Jesus has just clearly labeled the Temple rulers as worse off than tax collectors and prostitutes. But Jesus isn’t finished with them yet. He takes a breath, and starts in again with a new parable. The setting is still a vineyard, but this time, Jesus draws on an image that would have been familiar to most of those gathered around, especially those who had been trained in the scriptures. As Jesus begins this new parable, he purposely uses language from the fifth chapter of Isaiah, language that immediately tells everyone this isn’t just another vineyard story. Listen to the first two verses of Isaiah 5, and see if you hear the connection:
“My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.”
The chief priests and Pharisees immediately heard the connection. They knew this would be a story about the relationship between God and his chosen people. They instantly recognized that this vineyard represented the Temple, and the servants sent by the vineyard owner represented God’s prophets.
We will have an opportunity to dig deeper into the parable of the wicked tenants another time. Today, let’s take a closer look at the proverb that Jesus uses as a punch line for his parable. Let’s think about what he means when he draws on the image of a rejected stone becoming the very cornerstone.
This familiar saying comes from Psalm 118, and it reminds us that the parable in chapter 20 about the workers who all received the same wage, no matter how long they worked in the vineyard, also ended with a proverb. This quotation from Psalm 118 would have been well known to the people who heard Jesus that day. Psalm 118 closes the “Full Hallel” that begins in Psalm 113, the songs of praise that were sung as the Passover lamb was being slaughtered. And Psalm 118 begins the “Great Hallel” that ends in Psalm 136. These were the songs of praise sung on the first night of Passover, as the meal was about to be eaten. Remember that this is Holy Week, and the feast of Passover is about to begin. This Psalm reference held significant meaning for those who heard Jesus use it, even though they did not know, as we now do, that he was referring to himself as the rejected stone.
What would cause a stonemason to reject a particular stone as a cornerstone? What attributes does a stone need to have in order to become the cornerstone? What is a cornerstone anyway?
My stepdad had two cousins who were bachelor stonemasons. They built a structure on the farm where they grew up that is a work of art. Each stone is fitted perfectly into its own space, like pieces in a puzzle. And on the northwest corner of the building, at the very base of the foundation, lies the cornerstone. The cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All the other foundation stones are set in reference to this stone, which means that the cornerstone determines the position of the entire structure. For the building to be sound, all the foundation stones must line up with the cornerstone as their reference point.
The other stones may be of various shapes and sizes, but because of its function as a reference point, the cornerstone needs to be of fairly good size, and relatively square. It needs to be a solid chunk of good quality rock, without defects. The whole building is going to rest on this stone, or be lined up with it, so most stones will be rejected for one reason or another. And this quotation from Psalm 118 about a rejected stone is the key to understanding the parable of the wicked tenants.
In Aramaic and Hebrew, the word for “stone” sounds almost like the word for “son” so this wordplay between the vineyard owner’s son in the parable, and the rejected stone in the proverb would have been quite evident to those who heard Jesus tell the story. When he identifies the builder who rejects the stone with the Temple rulers, it comes as a shock to his audience. Biblical scholar Klyne Snodgrass writes: “No Jewish listener would identify himself or herself with the tenants. Rather, the tenants would be evil people, possibly the Romans, who were violating God’s vineyard … The quotation says explicitly and dramatically what the parable intends: the religious leaders have rejected the son, … but this rejection will be reversed by God and the leaders will lose their role in God’s purposes.”
So the parable, and the proverb from Psalm 118 that follows it, are primarily about response. How will we respond to the claims God has on our lives? Will we align ourselves with the cornerstone, or will we reject Christ in favor of our own desires, as the wicked tenants did? Are we willing to accept the responsibility that goes with the privilege of living in covenant relation with God? Can we give God our all, in response to the limitless grace we are offered?
The answers lie in our alignment with Christ as our cornerstone. Staying in line with Jesus keeps us in line with God and his purposes for us. God has laid the cornerstone in Jesus, but the foundation and the building of the kingdom of God must be made up of other stones, what Peter called “living stone.” In 1 Peter 2:4-6 we read,
“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
We are those stones, when we are arranged in perfect alignment with our cornerstone, Jesus Christ. But how do we do that, exactly? How do we stay in line with Christ? Of course, we could always fall back on the answers of reading the Bible regularly, and praying without ceasing. We could talk about maintaining fellowship with one another. Those answers are all good, and those activities are certainly part of staying aligned with Christ. But even more, I think, it requires intentionality on our part. We must desire to be in God’s will. We must make a conscious effort to line up with our cornerstone, Jesus Christ.
The parable of the wicked tenants shows us that God is persistent in seeking his people. God sent his own Son, who has been rejected by many. God will eventually reject those who reject his grace, but God will always seek those who are willing to live in right relationship with him. That relationship depends on our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we will align ourselves with Christ, the cornerstone, we will be in right relation to God the Father.
John Calvin said that we should expect people, especially religious leaders, to try to hinder the reign of Christ. But whatever obstacles are raised, God will be victorious. Christ will reign, “a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” Amen.
 Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 290.
Another sermon on this text can be found here. It’s focus is on the first verse of the passage: “Have no fear, little flock …”
Last week, we considered what it means to be “rich toward God” and this Sunday’s text picks up almost where we left off. As we join the disciples in trying to figure out how to be rich toward God, Jesus continues to teach us what the Kingdom of God is like, and how different that Kingdom is from anything we might imagine. Jesus must have noticed some looks of concern around him as the disciples tried to grasp this up-ended view of how the world should be. He addressed this concern with assurances that we each matter to God, so we can stop worrying about our basic needs, because God will provide for us. If he feeds the birds and clothes the flowers of the field, God can be depended on to care for every detail of our lives, because God loves us so very, very much. Let’s join Jesus and his disciples again, as they travel toward Jerusalem, and the story continues.
Hear the Word of the Lord.
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” – Luke 12:32-40
This passage offers us three things to consider, as we continue to learn how to be rich toward God. First, do not be afraid. Second, store up heavenly treasure, and third, be ready for the Kingdom of God. I have to tell you that this might be the first time I’ve ever preached a standard, three-point sermon, and on the surface, it may seem that these three points have very little to do with one another. In reality, they are closely connected. Let’s figure out how.
We heard the opening phrase, “Do not be afraid” earlier this morning, in the reading from Genesis 15. When God spoke to Abram, his very first words were, “Be not afraid, Abram.” Just like Mary, when the angel Gabriel appeared to her, Abram probably was shocked when God spoke to him. Just like Mary, Abram accepted the Word of the Lord on faith, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
The Greek verb phobeomai gives us the root for our word “phobia” and it means “fear” or “be afraid.” But me phobou means a bit more than “Fear not,” or even “be not afraid.” A better translation might be: “Stop being afraid,” or “fear no more.” We aren’t talking about hypothetical fear that might occur sometime down the road here. This isn’t even a warning against becoming afraid. The angel Gabriel didn’t say, “Heads up, Mary, I don’t want to startle you, but I’ve got a Word from God for you.” We are talking about real fear that is already present, fear that has been with us for some time already, fear that won’t let go of us. And Jesus says, “Stop it. Stop being afraid.”
What are we afraid of?
Despite Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inspiring words, we’re pretty sure we have more to fear than fear itself, right? We fear what we can’t see, what we don’t know. We fear losing control of our lives, making ourselves vulnerable to someone else. We fear getting hurt. We fear what others might think of us. We fear shame.
We may try to escape our fear by ignoring it, or by building elaborate fantasies to hide from it. We may even try to escape our fear by “drowning our sorrows” or “getting high.” We may try to stockpile comfort to offset our fear. Maybe we overeat. Maybe we seek attention, even if it’s negative attention. Have you ever heard of “the law of the soggy potato chip?” Back in the late 70s, Psychologist Fitzhugh Dodson wrote a parenting book called, How to Discipline With Love (1977). His premise for the Law of the Soggy Potato Chip was that children would rather have negative attention than no attention at all, just as children would rather have a soggy potato chip than no potato chip at all. But potato chips won’t get it, no matter how crisp they are. None of these things will take away our fear.
Yet Jesus says, “Stop being afraid.” Just stop it.
Fear motivated the rich farmer from last week to stockpile all his goods. He was willing to tear down all his barns right before harvest, in order to build bigger barns to keep all his stuff for himself, remember? It’s easy to call him a fool, since Jesus did, but are we any better?
Bruce and I have been “purging” our belongings as we prepare to move to New Ulm from the house where we’ve lived for fifteen years. At first, we carefully selected items that we thought might have value to someone else, and we sold many of them on eBay and Craigslist. This weekend, we held a garage sale to get rid of even more things. We have noticed that it gets easier and easier to let go of stuff, the closer we get to moving day. We wonder why we didn’t do this sooner. And we wonder how we managed to accumulate so much stuff in the first place. Are we afraid we might need something and not be able to get it when we need it?
Yet Jesus says, “Your Father in Heaven knows what you need.”
And Jesus also says:
Store up treasure in heaven
Get rid of your fear
Get rid of your need to be in control
Get rid of your stuff
Instead, deposit your treasure into the bank of the Holy Spirit
Remember what Paul wrote to the Galatians? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
In ancient Rome, gifts were given to create a sense of obligation for repayment. It was the way one climbed the social ladder – making sure others were in your debt and owed you favors. But in Kingdom Economy, God lavishly gives away his entire Kingdom to us, and when we, in turn, give without expecting anything in return, we participate in that Kingdom and receive even more from God. More love, more joy, more peace, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more faithfulness, more self-control, more, more, more.
More … treasure.
Your treasure is the Kingdom of God, which he has already decided it is his pleasure to give you. What stands at the core of this Good News is not the fear of shame, but God’s amazingly tender concern for us, his own little flock. This is an invitation to trust that our future rests in the gracious promises and presence of God. The Gospel invites us to put first things first. The Gospel says, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”
Because it was God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom in the first place.
This is the same good pleasure (or “delightful decision”) that the angels announced at Jesus’ birth when they sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” It is the same good pleasure God announced at Jesus’ baptism when he said, “You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.” And this good pleasure, or “delightful decision” has already happened. God has already given us the Kingdom through his Son, Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God is not just eternal life in the sweet by and by; the Kingdom of God’s active and current reign over heaven has begun on earth through Jesus’ ministry, and continues to the present time. It is here, now.
God has already given us the Kingdom. We respond by carrying out the values and standards of that Kingdom, which include getting rid of possessions, giving to the poor, and making purses that contain ultimate, inexhaustible, heavenly treasure.
Instead of getting rich by accumulating human treasure, our hearts are set on what God ultimately treasures, which is compassion and mercy for those in need.
Since God, in his own good pleasure, has already given us the Kingdom, we are called to be prepared for its fulfillment when Christ comes again. While Jesus is certainly talking about the end of time, when he will come again in glory to reign over a new heaven and a new earth, we should not be distracted by attempts to pinpoint the day and the hour this will happen. We should also not be lulled into passively twiddling our thumbs while we wait for Jesus to return.
Luke offers the certainty that Christ will come again, and the uncertainty of when that will be. This certain uncertainty focuses on the point of this passage: instead of twiddling our thumbs – or, at the other extreme, living wildly – because the end is near, we need to be faithful and alert.
Stop being afraid. Invest in the heavenly treasure of God’s kingdom, and be ready for Christ to return.
“Being ready for Jesus’ coming is less about any actual time and place and more about imagining Jesus’ activity in the world, when and where you least expect it or imagine seeing it. In other words, waiting around, waiting for instructions is not going to cut it. Being without fear, knowing the sources of your treasure – that is, your identity, your worth as a child of God – makes it possible to be prepared for full participation in God’s Kingdom.” In this passage, the focus is not so much on the end times as on the end ways. The consistent message throughout the passage is not “be ready so that you will avoid punishment,” but rather, “be ready so that you will receive blessing.”
It is like keeping your house staged like a picture out of Better Homes and Gardens, because you never know when the realtor is going to want to show your home to a prospective buyer. This kind of “being prepared” is less about being on high alert 24/7, and more about focusing on the things of God, while developing our peripheral vision in anticipation of being happily surprised when the time comes.
Have you ever seen the kitchen of a really excellent restaurant? Every tool, every ingredient, is within easy reach of the chef who prepares the food. Everything has a place, and there is a place for everything. What you may not notice is the army of prep cooks, dishwashers, and other staff who make sure that every tool, every ingredient is within the chef’s reach. Meals leave the kitchen with elegant precision because the kitchen is prepared to anticipate every guest’s order. The room hums with activity. Maybe you’ve seen the joke “Jesus is coming back soon. Look busy.” Looking busy isn’t enough. Our waiting is an active participation in the Kingdom.
Remember how Luke likes to flip the tables of our expectations? He gives us one more image in this story to do this again in the short parable about the master returning from the wedding banquet. To understand this parable, we need to know what it means when the master “Fastens his belt.” Older translations called this “girding the loins.” This quaint term simply means to gather up your robe, your garment, and tuck it into your belt so you can run, or do physical labor.
According to first-century wedding customs, the bridegroom would go out to meet his bride and return with her to his own home. His servants would be properly attired, ready to serve, and their lights burning as they waited eagerly for him to bring his bride back to his home. But when he arrives, what does the master do? He girds up his own loins, and serves his servants!
Look at the image of Jesus in our window here above the chancel. Is he looking at you with love and compassion? As you look on this image, has it ever occurred to you that you might be viewing the reverse side of it? That maybe the direction of Jesus’ gaze is outward, over the city of New Ulm, as much as it is inward, looking down on us gathered here in this sanctuary? The light shines through the glass in both directions. Are we being bright enough in here to let Christ be seen out there?
Stop being afraid.
Know that your treasure is the Kingdom of God, which in his own good pleasure God has already given to you.
Be prepared for his coming, with all the spiritual tools and ingredients you need within easy reach, and your garment tucked up into your belt so you are ready to work. Then look out the window and see who Jesus sees. Be prepared. The Kingdom of God is at hand.