October 8, 2017 “In the Valley” – Matthew 21:33-46

Matthew 21:33-46
“In the Valley”
October 8, 2017 –
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I know absolutely nothing about wine. You wouldn’t need more than the fingers on your two hands to count nearly all the glasses of wine I’ve had in my life. I know even less about growing grapes and making wine. So I feel pretty stumped when I come to Scriptures like we have today, full of all this imagery of God’s kingdom as His vineyard.

I feel even more stumped by the task I set myself this fall of preaching through our vision statement by connecting each phrase with the Gospel lesson for that Sunday. Two weeks ago, for “walking with Jesus,” I just threw up my hands and switched to a nearby passage in which the idea of following Jesus was present. This time I couldn’t find an easy out like that, so I’m sticking with the assigned Gospel text I just read. I’m just going to imagine that vineyard was in a valley, like all the vineyards here in our own Willamette Valley.

This parable was told in the same context as last week’s. Jesus was debating Jewish leaders, the chief priests and elders. They knew the Scriptures. As soon as He mentioned planting a vineyard in verse 33, they thought of the Old Testament text we read this morning. Isaiah 5:7 says, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in.” They remembered Isaiah, but did not apply Jesus’ parable to themselves.

In Isaiah 5, Matthew 21, and our psalm for today, the point is fruit. Like every entrepreneurial soul who plants a vineyard along some sunny slope here in Oregon, God planted His people in this world, in this valley, to produce fruit for Him. In all three texts, the fruit is compromised or lost. Isaiah pictures it as the fault of the vineyard, which grows wild, sour grapes. Psalm 80 verse 12 asks God why He let the wall of the vineyard be broken down so that the fruit is plucked and stolen and wild animals invade. But Jesus placed the blame squarely on those who care for the vineyard, the landowner’s tenant grape farmers.

The tenants in the parable vineyard are totally irresponsible and vicious people. They not only do not pay their rent of fruit from the crop, they mistreat and even kill servants sent to collect. As Matthew recorded it, the owner sent several servants twice, but in Mark 12 they’re spread out, one at time. At least four times the owner tries to collect his rent, only to have his men beaten or killed.

Since it was foreigners who broke down the “vineyard” of Israel in Isaiah, the elders and priests may have thought Jesus was talking about the Romans or perhaps about the Seleucids who desecrated the Temple in the second century B.C. It certainly wasn’t about them,  the spiritual leaders of the people, or so they thought.

We may have the same inclination reading this parable. It’s about people who reject God, who ultimately reject His Son Jesus, but it’s not about us, faithful members of the family of God, walking with Jesus, seeking His kingdom, to review our vision statement so far. But the next phrase we’re considering this morning, “in the valley,” is here to remind us that our part in the family of God, our relationship with Jesus and our seeking of God’s kingdom is supposed to have tangible results right where we are, here in the Willamette Valley, here in all the valleys through which we walk in this world.

In terms of the parable, our Lord, the ultimate owner of the very land on which we live, wants to see some fruit from us. He expects all His investment in you and me to show some results, that our lives will be different, better because we walk with Jesus and seek His kingdom. Christian life is not just about getting to heaven someday. It’s about producing something good here and now, in this place where we are today, “in the valley.”

So I’d like to ask us each to think about how we are being fruitful for our God. In the Willamette Valley people grow grapes and grass seed, filberts and fir trees. What are we as Christians growing here in this valley? What is the fruit of our lives as God’s people placed here by Him?

You have a tool to help you answer that question this morning in your bulletin. As you look over that Time & Talent sheet, consider it in terms of being fruitful. What will you do? How will you serve the Lord in ways that bear fruit? When Jesus comes to see what’s growing in His vineyard here, what will we, what will you have to show Him, to give back to Him?

The four categories of service on that sheet come from our mission statement. The first fruit we grow and give to God is our worship. Your offering of music, your reading of Scripture, your flowers on the Lord’s Table, your very presence on Sunday morning is fruitful living for Him.

I could go on and on about the second category of community. A vineyard isn’t just a single grape vine by itself. It’s an orderly, faithfully watered and cared for community of vines all bearing fruit together. Our life together as a church, coming together faithfully, caring for and watching out for each other is fruit that God wants to see from us. Bringing snacks for after worship or praying for one another or getting together to maintain our buildings and grounds is another variety of fruit God wants to see growing among us.

When I first came here and we created our mission statement, it only had three parts, worship, community and outreach. We just assumed everyone would be studying God’s Word and learning how to put it to work in daily life, but we didn’t name it explicitly. Now we do. To be fruitful for God we study. Fruitful Christian life means a life together where we are all students. None of us have learned all the answers. So we keep opening our Bibles, listening to teachers, seeking deeper understanding, both individually and in classes and small groups.

The fourth category of service, of fruit there on your Time & Talent sheet moves us toward next week and the final phrase of our new vision statement. We are fruitful for our Lord through outreach. The problem with the tenants in the parable was that they wanted to keep all the fruit for themselves. But our Lord calls us to share the blessings we have received, to reach beyond our own church community and offer His fruits to the people who surround us here in this valley where we live. That’s why we’ve been doing a week of family shelter for nearly thirty years. It’s why we became an Egan Warming Center almost ten years ago now. It’s why some of you invite your friends to church or tell them the story of what Jesus did for you. It’s why we regularly hear about and hear from missionaries serving far from this valley. As we will explore more next week, the fruit we bear is for the whole world.

It’s not always easy to be fruitful. And it can take a long time. The valley can be a hard place to live sometimes. As Bryan and Kristin crafted that vision statement, they deliberately left the designation of the “valley” unclear. I’ve been talking as if it means our beautiful Willamette Valley, and it does. But it can also mean the kind of spiritual valleys we’ve all experienced, what the 23rd Psalm calls the “valley of the shadow of death.” In that kind of valley, growing fruit can be a lengthy, difficult process.

Even in our literal valley, fruit and life are not always quick and easy. As we said in our call to worship, some people find it hard to breathe here. Others have a terrible time finding work to do. Several of us get depressed in the dark days of winter. And while we suffer very little actual persecution compared to other places in the world, the spiritual climate of our valley is apathetic. Many people around us see little use for being in a church. They see little fruit in worshipping God.

So being fruitful in that deeper, darker sort of valley is tough. It takes time. When Beth and I moved into our current house nine years ago, we planted at least a half-a-dozen blueberry bushes. Like grape vines, newly planted blueberry bushes take a while to produce. In fact, for the first year or two, you’re supposed to pick off all the blossoms before berries set, letting the bushes get established before you try for fruit. But after eight years our bushes still only produced a handful or two of berries, until this year. It took nine years, but a few of our bushes were finally loaded down with that beautiful blue-purple fruit that we love so much. God’s fruit among us, in the valley, can take a long time like that.

The darkness of the valley and the difficulty sometimes of producing fruit is the reason we must definitely remember how the rest of the parable goes. In the final scene beginning in verse 37, the landowner sends his son. Mark and Luke tell us that this is his “beloved” or “dear” son. Mark implies this is his only son. That rings all sorts of bells for us as Christians, but for Jesus’ audience then it was only part of the story.

The response of those tenants just seems stupid to us. In verse 38, they plan to kill the son and take his inheritance. Why would they think killing the heir would make them the inheritors? Because it was just as true then as it is now that possession is nine tenths of the law. The owner was far away, perhaps, they thought, too old or too busy to come himself. With the son out of the way, no one would challenge their right to squat on that land. They would “inherit” the vineyard for all practical purposes.

In technical, Bible scholar language, Jesus made His story “juridical.” It was designed to have the hearers pronounce judgment on themselves. So He asked the leaders a question in verse 40, “Now, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They judged themselves out of their own mouths with their answer in verse 41, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Like we are often tempted, they thought to pronounce judgment on someone else, like the Romans, but Jesus applied the parable to those leaders. In verse 42, he quoted Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” In Aramaic or Hebrew, it was a play on words, “stone” was eben, which sounds like ben, the word for “son.” It’s the Son that has been rejected and it’s the Son who is the very cornerstone of God’s new building. We read that Psalm on Easter, remembering that though God’s Son was rejected and killed, He was raised again to be the cornerstone of our salvation.

Jesus makes it clear in verse 43, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.” Once again, it’s about being fruitful. The Jewish leaders saw that this story of wicked tenants was, just like the parable of the two sons last week, about them. That’s what verse 45 tells us. The beaten and murdered servants were God’s prophets. The son was Jesus Himself.

This parable is not just about unbelieving Jews back then. It’s about anyone who fails to respond with faithful and fruitful living to God’s gift of His beloved Son. It’s about us and our fruitfulness or lack thereof. His gift and our fruit has been bought with an awful but awesome price. The very death of the Son which our rejection of Him has caused has become our salvation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

Last week we heard in the news yet another story that demonstrates how dark it sometimes is in the valley in which we live. A madman took the lives of nearly 60 people and injured hundreds more in Las Vegas. Last Sunday was the two-year anniversary of a shooting not far from here in Roseburg in the Umpqua Valley. Sometimes the valleys in which we live are valleys full of blood.

Yet the irony and paradox of this parable is that it is in blood that we receive our salvation and are given fruitful lives. This vineyard story was about to come true. Look at the chief priests’ and elders’ in verse 46: “They wanted to arrest him.” Ultimately they got what they wanted. They had Jesus arrested and then killed. This parable that infuriated them is the truth about them. Jesus was going to die just like in the parable.

Good Christian theology teaches that everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, is responsible for Jesus’ death. Romans 5:8 says Christ died for sinners and Romans 3:23 says we are all sinners. We are all tenants living on God’s land in His valley and refusing in both small and large ways to offer Him the fruit He wants. You and I had as much to do with Jesus’ death as those Jewish leaders did, because of our sins. Every cheat or lie or hurt we do denies our Lord His fruit and nailed Jesus to the Cross. The elders and the priests were wicked and obstinate in their murder of Jesus, but you and I are as much sinners as they were. The Son’s blood was shed for everyone’s sins, for yours and for mine.

The blood, however, is what saves us. Last week at the pastors’ retreat, my friend Don who has a little hobby vineyard, told me a story about a famous wine called “Bull’s Blood.” It came from Hungary, but it’s made by at least one vineyard here in Oregon.

The story behind the “Bull’s Blood” name comes from the little town of Eger in Hungary. In the sixteenth century, the Turks led by Suleiman the Magnificent attacked the castle in Eger with a force of 150,000 soldiers. There were only 2,000 defenders in Eger. So they decided to get drunk. They went down into the wine cellar beneath the castle, hacked open the barrels and drank and caroused, getting covered with the dark red wine.

When the Turkish attackers arrived, the Hungarian soldiers were out in the streets fighting with each other. To the Turks it appeared that a host of madmen, covered in blood, were battling and even eating each other. The Muslim Turks had little experience with alcoholic beverages and the scene filled them with such horror that they turned and fled, and the town was spared. Another version of the story says that actual bull’s blood got mixed in the wine and it gave the defenders of Eger incredible strength. In any case, being covered with what looked like blood saved the people of Eger.

Our Christian faith is that Jesus the Son of God came down into the valley of this world with us and that His blood is our defense, our salvation. He let Himself be rejected and killed on the Cross so that His blood could cover and cleanse our sins.

We also believe that Jesus did not just shed His blood and die. That would not have done us much good, any more than the blood spilled in mass shootings around America does any good. But our faith is that God raised Jesus from the dead so that He could give new life to those whose sins are covered and forgiven. Anyone who believes and trusts in Jesus begins a transformation into a new person, a person with a new and fruitful life.

We live in a valley, both literally and figuratively, that is both beautiful and dark. God created it to be a place where new life springs up, where fruit grows, but trouble and sin can keep us in the dark and keep us from being fruitful. Maybe you have experienced that darkness, that fruitless kind of life. By the grace and gift of Jesus the Son’s sacrifice of Himself, you can have a new life in Him. You can be fruitful. Together, we can bear the fruit that belongs to God and offer it back to Him. Let’s make that fruit the aim of our church, of our life with each other as the family of God here in this valley.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj