Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Parable of the Wicked Servants (Luke 20:9-20)

In the name of Jesus

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Chronologically, the Gospel for this Sunday belongs after next Sunday, after Palm Sunday. So what's it doing on this side of the palm waving and hosanna shouting? Why has the Christian Church (the historical, creedal, liturgical Christian Church) placed this section of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke here, this morning, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent? That's a good question to ask this morning as it is on any Sunday in the season of Lent. "How is God in Christ through the Holy Spirit using this passage his Word to better prepare me for the pivotal events just around the corner, beginning with Palm Sunday and cumulating on Good Friday and Easter Sunday? As we heard on Ash Wednesday: "Let us pray that our dear Father in heaven, for the sake of his beloved Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit, might richly bless this Lententide for us so that we may come to Easter with glad hearts and keep the feast in sincerity and truth." (Lutheran Service Book Agenda 483)

May the same Spirit that inspired the prophets and apostles attend us this morning as we hear, read, learn and take to heart the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

The situation? A day or two after Jesus had arrived at his destination - his final destination. He hadn't left his carry-on luggage on the plane for a short pause before resuming his flight again. This time he knew he wouldn't be leaving Jerusalem to continue another three years of his public ministry. It would all end here. It would all be fulfilled now. And the only luggage he would carry out of the holy city this time around would be what he lugged to the hill outside the city gates: the crosspiece of his won cross and a plackard around his neck announcing the charges laid against him.

Jesus had arrived with fanfare, and although this week he spent the nights outside Jerusalem's walls, every day he walked the city streets, wrapping up his three year ministry in and around the hub of the city's social and political and religious life: the Temple. Jesus had hinted at the finality of this visit to Jerusalem when he had repeated the same action with which he had inaugurated his three year ministry - his cleansing of the Temple.

And now, in a way that would cap his entire public teaching, he would announce to the crowds who followed him one of the most unexpected, one of the most shocking parables that had ever come from his lips: the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-20)

Well, that parable didn't go over very well . . . . . . Maybe Jesus should have stuck with the sayings about the lillies of the valley or the birds of the air. But now the situation was so much more critical. The time was so much shorter than it had been even a few weeks ago. Everything was now so close at hand. Jesus knew his "earthly story with a heavenly meaning" would not be joyfully received by the vast majority of the Jewish religious leaders, but even though he had meant it as a clear and unavoidable warning for them, his heart was now upon those he wished to strengthen and shepherd, those who were already ripe to produce and place before God's emmisary the fruits of true faith.

We are told in verse seventeen that Jesus looked straight at the crowd. He looked with eyes of compassion and mercy and self-sacrificing concern. And it was to their Word of God-generated faith that he ultimately addressed this parable.

Now at first blush, the meaning given in this parable seems pretty cut and dried. We could outline it in three simple lines: Bad people do bad things to good people sent by the King. Bad people do even worse things to an even beter person sent by the King. Good king comes and wipes bad people out. Fairness and justice prevail. But is this really where Jesus is going with this parable?

Yes, the reaction of the religious leaders who were listening in seems pretty predictable, but wht of the crowd's reaction? "Lord, fobid it!" "May it never be!" "Tell me it will never happen like this!" Why all the shock and inability to accept this parable as a window into the realities of salvation? Because it wasn't all justice and fairness. Something in this parable was far from just and far from fair. That's why the parable took the crowd's breath away, and that's why this parable should do the same with each of us.

Now Jesus would have gotten a much more successful reaction from both the Pharisees and the crowd if he would have first formed a focus group or took a poll, but the script had already been written, the die had been cast long, long ago, back in the Garden with Adam and Eve. God had promised these two and all their children that the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent despite the fact that the serpent would bruise the heel of the Man. Jesus was announcing in this parable the way in which this promise would all work out, and it is to that "way" that the crowd drops its jaw.

Jesus is announcing that he is completing what is lacking in Isaiah's "Song of the Vineyard" (Isaiah 5:1-7). Here Israel is depicted as the vineyard that received grace upon grace, but, nevertheless, produced only bitter fruit for the Lord of the Vineyard. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants simply unfolds what Isaiah had already proclaimed. In offering this parable, Jesus completes his public ministry the same way he began it in Nazareth: in pointing to the words of the prophet Isaiah and announcing: "In me this Word shall be fulfilled."

Jesus tells this parable to frame his entire ministry. In it he gives his followers a clear picture of how his followers are to approach his arrest, his trial, his suffering, his death, and his resurrection, ascension and second coming. This is not a parable of fairness and the world's brand of justice, but a parable that reveals the twin themes of humiliation and exultation, rejection and fulfillment. Here we see the unexpected reversal of fortunes as God's redeeming plan unfolds toward its completion in Christ.

More shocking are two elements that make this parable unique to Christ and his unique mission of redemption: the willing desire of the servants to carry out what they've been called by the King to do, and the irrational, reckless, seemingly wasteful will of the Lord of the Vineyard.

Countless Old Testament prophets went out, sent by God, not because they were so blindly obedient but because they put their faith in the irrational, wreckless, seemingly wastelful behavior of their Lord. The prophet's behavior was a direct result of faith saying, "Despite all appearances, it must happen this way. This is the way my Lord's plan of salvation will be fulfilled." In this way the Old Testament prophets foreshadow the sending of the Son, the beloved. He was finally called to go, and knowing full well the probable outcome, he went, whole-heartedly trusting the Word and will of his Father. Jesus rode into Jerusalem resolute. He set his face towards the vineyard and he never looked back.

As Jesus neared the walls of Jerusalem, he undoubtedly knew this was the place where palm branches and cloaks would be strewn for his triumphant arrival. He also knew, however, this was the place where the prophets before him had been dragged and thrown out as they announced, "Give to the Lord of the Vineyard the first fruits of his harvest."

And what were those firstfruits desired by the servants and their King? For a clear understanding we go to the greatest of the prophets, the last of the prophets, John the Baptist. At the Jordan River, John addresses unbelief and faith, judgment and grace, the present and future tenants (Gentiles were derogatorily refered to as "stones" by the Jewish contemporaries of John and Jesus) of his vineyard in these words:

And [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. ’ ” Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:3-14 ESV)

The fruits desired by the Lord of the Vineyard? The first fruits of faith: repentance. That's the major theme of this parable, and that's a major theme of the Lenten season and our entire life as believing Christians.

But not all to whom Christ came were interested in giving the Lord of the Vineyard such fruit. Through the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist — and ultimately through Jesus himself — God came looking for what was "meet, right and salutary" and found, instead, bloodshed. God came looking for what was proper and true and found only the cry of his mistreated servants (Isaiah 5:7).

On this Fifth Sunday in Lent we hear again that whenever God's Word is sent to us, that divine Word creates a "critical time," a "right season" for the fruits of repentance and faith.

Why did Jesus, hours before proclaiming this parable, weep over the inhabitants of this God-chosen city?

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44 ESV)

They will not, they refuse to recognize the appointed time of God's visitation to the Vineyard in the person of his Son. Lent is to teach us and further our conviction that when it comes to our redemption, there has been and will never be any more critical season than this last journey made by God's Son to his wayward and rebellious people. In this passage Jesus is announcing that the critical season for faith and repentance has ultimately arrived. Now Jesus will take upon himself all the beating and the shameful treatment and abuse and rejection of every prophet sent before him (Romans 15:3). Jesus willingly rides into Jerusalem. God does the unthinkable, the reckless, the incomprehensible. He sends his only-begotten Son, his beloved Son, to the vineyard.

In an act that will fulfill the sacrifice of Abraham's only-begotten, Jesus will be offered up just outside the city walls for the undeserving, unfaithful tenants as a testimony to the kind of treatment Jesus would receive (Hebrews 13:11-12).

It is no coincidence that Christ asks the crowd the same question the king asks in the parable: "What, therefore, shall the Lord of the Vineyard do with those wicked tenants?" Unbelief and rebellion, will, after the time of grace has ended, be done away with, that faith and its fruits might have opportunity to appear. This is the same saving work God has begun in you, at your Baptism. The drowning of the old, rebel nature, that a new, fruit-producing nature might arise and live to God.

This is how the Lord of the Vineyard saves: exultation through humiliation, redemption through rejection, the bringing down of those who believed they had plenty of their own self-produced good works to parade before God, and the lifting up of those who confess they have nothing in their hands save their many sins, all through the lifting up of the Son upon the cross.

In this season of Lent we hear of our Lord's agony in the garden, his shameful treatment at the hands of evil men, and we cry out, "Let it never be!" "God forbid that such an unfair, unjust, unacceptable thing happen!" "So many mistreated prophets sent! And now, the spotless sacrifice comes to be bound and shorn and killed."

Only God-given faith can confess a week before Palm Sunday — Passion Sunday — that the sending of God's beloved was the reckless act of a reckless God. But such is his grace for me and all people. He loved me that much. And for that I will respond freely in repentance and faith and a heart-felt "Amen" to the sacrifice of his very life outside of the holy city.

Jesus comes to you this morning and announces through this surprising parable that only his final journey to Jerusalem, only his own suffering and death, only his sacrifice can rightly interpret this quite disturbing parable (or any other passage of Holy Scripture).

You see, Jesus' rejection will be the very means by which he will become the Cornerstone upon which God's eternal kingdom of salvation will be built. The Stone's rejection by the tenant-builders is the Stone's own glory — its exultation — as he bears the weight of the entire building, of all the building's stones.

Jesus has come to bear the weight of my sins and your sins and the sins of antire fallen people. Let him bear your burden. Let him carry your load. Trust in him and his rejection for you, and with it offer to God the fruits of faith: repentance and trust that truly believes, "Though Christ breaks, he will heal; though he drowns me, he will raise me up to eternal life."

In his abundant mercy and overflowing grace, may God continue to prepare us through his Word for the coming of his very Son to receive not only our firstfruits, but our very souls into his eternal care.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Luther the Orange Monk Products Now Available

Point your browser to for products with my redo of Albrecht Durer's engraving as Martin Luther the monk.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Blessed to be a Blessing.

The Dead Sea is 48 miles long and between 3 and 11 miles wide. Noting lives in it. No plants and no fish. Technically, the Dead Sea is dead because the salt content of the body of water is almost six times that of the world's oceans. But how did it get that deadly? Has the Dead Sea always been a dead sea? Experts believe that long, long ago the Dead Sea was much bigger and much less salty, but even then it began suffering from a fatal flaw: while the Jordan River and some small canals feed into it, there is no outlet for the rainwater, carrying minerals from the surrounding mountains, to escape. The result: a slow, shrinking death as the only escape for the stagnant water is through evaporation.
Yes, the Dead Sea is great if you're merely afraid of drowning, but today it cannot sustain any form of life in its waters -- and so it is with any congregation that calls itself "Christian."
A few Sundays ago we hear of God continually coming to his chosen people, looking for the God-enabled fruit of repentance. To the tree's judgment, God didn't find any. Like the Dead Sea, the tree was found without any outlet to share the nutrients given it from the ground and in the air. It was an unfuitful tree beacuse it was a stingy tree. It drank in water and food from its roots and sunlight from its leaves, but kept all these blessed things to itself. No fruit. No sharing. No fruit of repentance and thanksgiving.
Christ has come to dig around our roots and aereate the ground, to fertilize the ground and water us with his Word. He comes to shine the bright beams of his mercy on our leaves and sprinkle us with the forgiveness of sins. He nurtures us and, sometimes, even prunes us that we might produce even more fruit.
Our Gracious Savior has poured out his lifeblood and given his all for us, even the gift of faith that believes and receives with joy and thanksgiving his unbelieveable, unreasonable, unimagined gifts.
And miracle of miracles, our Lord gives us the ability to reach out and share these treasures with others. He comes with the promise of breaking down the walls that make us a dead sea with no outlet to allow the waters of God's mercy to spill over into the lives of others.
I've served in congregations where God's chosen people have not allowed the Word of Christ to dwell in them richly and spill over into their families and neighbors and community. Congregations can give into the temptation of receiving the bounty of God's good and gracious gifts and then turning around and becoming stingy with sharing salvation with those who are in spiritually lifeless situations.
The pastors and the congregational leadership are committed to helping us as a church family stay grounded in the good soil of God's Word, drink in the life-giving food of eternal life, forgiveness of sins and salvation. Why? So that each of us, as God himself gives opportunity, can make a difference in this community and beyond by sharing the Gospel as freely as it has been shared with us.
Pray that, in the light of Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter morning, we may, by God's all-sustaining grace, not become a Dead Sea, but move forward with courage to individually and corporately allow Christ to bubble up and spill over into the lives of others.
God promises that in Christ through his Spirit he will work in us faith and the fruits of faith through his Holy Word, Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Don't hold back the work Christ desires to do through you become the stagnant pond. Place yourself where you will be blessed to be a blessing. See you at servies and study!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"I must go my way." (Luke 13:32a, 33)

In the name of Jesus
Dear brothers and sisters redeemed by Christ:
"And [Jesus] said to [the Pharisees], 'I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following." (Luke 13:32a, 33 ESV)
Feigning care for the well-being of their enemy, the religious leaders advise Jesus to run away from the Holy city.  "Save yourself." they command.  "Herod, the one who threw God's final prophet into prison and delivered his head on a plate, Herod, who comes from the family of ruthless rulers bent on keeping their power at all costs, Herod, supporter of the pagan Roman Empire and its oppression of the Jewish people, is out to get you."
During Lent we are reminded again that only Christ Jesus himself and his Father in heaven understood fully the way that he was sent to willingly walk.  Jeremiah, the most Christ-like prophet of the Old Testament, got a sense of it.  John the Baptist, the embodiment of all the prophets before him, struggled and ultimately accepted his role of foreshadowing the way of Christ.  But the world, and the world's religious leaders, and the nations of the world, and the human natures of the world just didn't get it, and ultimately didn't want to get it.
Jesus' way had been marked out for him by the One who had called him.  And Jesus, knowing full well what that road entailed, had said, freely, willingly, "Yes Father, I will do what you have asked of me. I will walk the road you have laid before me."
The best advice of financial gurus following the billions of dollars lost in the stock market last week: set on a plan, and then, come what may, stick to it. That was also Jesus' approach when it came to living out what he had been called to do.
The resolve shown by Jesus here before the Pharisees is unimaginable.  As we saw last Sunday, Jesus' resolve is the fruit of his prefect trust in the Word of his heavenly Father.  In the wilderness it was all he had.  In our wilderness it is all we have.  His call to us, his will for us, his way for us and for our salvation.
But what is this way that Jesus must walk if he is to consequently give us the undeserved gift of heaven?  The way of example for us to imitate?  The way of encourager and cheerleader?  The way of moral teacher?  The way of ..... ?
That's the million dollar question during Lent -- and any other time of the church year -- and any other time of our life here on earth.  What is that way Jesus set out to walk? Where do we turn to find the answer to this life and death question? The Scriptures? The Discovery Channel?
Well, Jeremiah reveals what it isn't.  (Read Jeremiah 26:8-15)
As Jesus knew from the first days of his public ministry at Nazareth, everyone loves a prophet, until our favorite haunts are judged desolate and empty and without the ability to save. Everyone loves healing without accompanying repentance, miracles without confession of sin, Easter without Lent, the empty tomb without the Cross.
Jesus learned that very quickly as he walked among the porticos of the Jerusalem temple and discussed the way of salvation with the Pharisees and Saducees and scribes. "The little kingdom you have set up here will become desolate." Jesus revealed to the religious leaders of his people. "Your desire to be saved by your own glory and good deeds and outwardly spotless life is, literally, a dead end. You will not embrace by faith anyone's righteousness other than your own. That is why you silenced the prophets and killed those sent to you to announce the Word of the Lord. Therefore, you have been warned. Do what you wish. Attempt to build your own ladder into God's holy presence. But know that I must do what I have been sent to do: accomplish salvation for all who would confess themselves as sinners and offer it freely --irregardless of social position or pedigree."
We all have our memorable scenes and lines from the movies. As we were reminded during the Youth's talent show after the Spaghetti Dinner this year, Star Wars continues to influence even the youngest among us. And what was the struggle portrayed throughout each intergalactic episode? More than simply the battle between good and evil, it is the personal struggle presented to each of us: the acceptance or rejection of our God-given calling. Who can ever forget the towering figure of a tormented father crying out to his wounded son: "It is your destiny, Luke."
We will never know, even in heaven, the full extent of the temptation presented to our Savior to run away or side-step or utterly reject the calling he was sent to faithfully fulfill. Whether in the wilderness without food and water, among well-meaning but misguided disciples, before rulers of earthly kingdoms who demanded a performance, or religious leaders who pretended to be concerned for Jesus while actually plotting his demise, Jesus was constantly tempted with the possibility of trading in his undying love for you in exchange for saving his own hide.
"And [Jesus] said to [the Pharisees], 'I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following." (Luke 13:32a, 33 ESV)
One of the most frightening things in the Lenten season is the bone-chilling realization that the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem thought they were doing a great service to God and the state by placing Jesus upon the Cross and leaving him there alone -- desolate and deserted and destitute. They bartered away Jesus' very life to save their own necks.
This was the destination of Jesus' way of salvation: alowing himself to be driven out from the loving presence of even God himself, that God would relent of carrying out what we had, by our own thoughts, words and deeds, deserved.
Desperate people do desperate things. Do you find yourself in desperate straits this morning as you realize anew that you are completely unable to fix your own fallen spiritual condition? Are you at your wits end trying unsuccessfully again and again to bail out your own spiritual boat and paddle you way into the calm waters of God's almighty favor?
Look to the One who walked your road, put on your weakness, clothed himself with your failures and frailties and your sin-wrought fate. Look to the One -- the only one -- who was called to establish an everlasting kingdom and make satisfaction for the transgressions of an entire fallen race. Look to Christ and his indestructable love for you.
Look to the One who was faithful in completing his way -- for you.
Look to the One proclaimed from the pen of Jeremiah and Isaiah and hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt, who's 400th birthday we will celebrate in one week:

A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth,
The guilt of sinners bearing.
And laden with the sins of earth,
None else the burden sharing;
Goes patient on, grows weak and faint,
To slaughter led without complaint,
That spotless life to offer.
He bears the stripes, the wounds, the lies,
The mockery, and yet replies,
"All this I gladly suffer."

God gather you under the outstretched arms of his Son, at the Cross, at his Supper, at the end of this life. Amen