[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio earlier today.]
You’ve probably heard the story about a day when the pastor visited a church member who was a farmer. The farmer had been incredibly successful, against all odds turning his farm into a money-making machine. The pastor was impressed. “God has really been good to you,” he said. “Yes, pastor,” the farmer answered, “I suppose you’re right. But you should have seen how bad off this place was back when God was running it by Himself.”
Among the unique qualities of being human is that we, unlike any of God’s other creatures, have been made in the image of God. None of God’s creatures are closer to God or more like God than human beings. With that privileged position goes the responsibility of faithfully and creatively using all the gifts that God gives to us. After creating our first parents, Adam and Eve, the Old Testament book of Genesis says that God told them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Later in Genesis, we’re told that God put the first humans in the Garden of Eden “to till it and keep it.”
God never planned on running this universe without our involvement. He always planned on showering the human race with all we needed to play our role in the universe and we were always meant to respond to His blessings with lives of faithfulness to His ways and His will.
But the human role in God’s plans—our partnership with God—became impossible to fulfill faithfully or fully when the condition of sin entered the human gene pool. The condition of sin is more than just doing bad things. It is, as one Lutheran pastor points out, “the attitude of selfishness [that thinks it] needs no God.”
The condition of sin introduced all sorts of things into life in this world that God never intended for human beings to experience. Things like suffering, aging, and death, for example. And the futility that makes it hard for us to do jobs well or on time; that make relationships challenging; and that subjects all of us to decay and illness. The Bible teaches that because of the condition of sin that has infected God’s most important creatures, the entire creation for which God has made us responsible has been “subjected to futility” and “in…bondage to decay” as the apostle Paul puts it in the New Testament book of Romans. It’s not a pretty picture.
Yet, God has refused to give up on you, the human race, or His creation!
That’s why He has personally come into this world to plant the Kingdom of God, a new and eternal creation in which there is no more sin, death, or futility. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, told people, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of has come near, repent, and believe in the Good News.”
Followers of Jesus believe that while this world will inevitably do its worst to us, that because we live in this world,we will die, that doesn’t have to be the end of our stories.
As Jesus put it when speaking with a grieving friend, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
The New Testament book of Second Corinthians promises: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”
Through His death and resurrection, Jesus makes it possible for all who repent for sin and believe in Him to live in fellowship with God now and in eternity. God grants those who follow Christ an eternal do-over! And it will be a do-better, infinitely better!
In the Garden of Eden, God asked Adam and Eve to respond to Him with trusting faith. He had given them everything already; all they needed to do was trust in Him. Those who have been reached by the Kingdom of God through Jesus are asked to daily turn our backs on the old ways of selfishness and sin and in trust to Christ.
The Bible teaches that when we repent and trust in Christ, our lives are re-oriented away from sin and self and out toward God and neighbor. We become part of the Kingdom of God and our lives are imbued with new purpose. We want to live and work with God and for God’s aims.
This is what Jesus calls “bearing fruit.”
Each day we live trusting Christ, our lives are being transformed from deserts of futility to gardens burgeoning with the life of God.
Some find this hard to understand. In 1809, the same year that Abraham Lincoln was born, a Scotsman named Robert Morrison headed for China as a missionary. While on the way, the captain of the ship was skeptical of Morrison’s dream of carrying the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Chinese. The captain derided Morrison. “I suppose,” he said, “you think you’re going to make an impression on China.” Morrison replied, “No, sir. I believe God will.”
Morrison was in partnership with God. Are you?
It’s to exactly this kind of partnership that Jesus calls us in today’s Gospel lesson. Pull out the Celebrate inserts and turn to the Gospel for the day, Matthew 21:33-46. The lesson incorporates one of a string of parables (or stories) that Jesus tells in this section of Matthew’s gospel.
You know the story: A landowner planted a vineyard. He went all out. He fenced the vineyard in, dug a wine press, and erected a watchtower. He created a perfect place--an Eden--for the tenants to whom he leased it to work, make a living, and raise their families. After that, the landowner went to another country. Time passed and the landowner sent slaves to collect his share of the vineyard’s produce. This was only right because it was his land, his vines, his wine press, his watchtower.
But the tenants didn’t want to fulfill their responsibility to the landowner. They wanted to keep everything for themselves. So, they either beat, stoned, or killed, the landowners’ slaves, on two different occasions.
So, the landowner decided to send his son. He was certain that the tenants would respect him. But, Jesus said, the tenants killed him too.
When Jesus asked His original listeners—members of the religious elite, priests and Pharisees—what should happen to the tenants, they were clear what the rightful punishment for the tenants would be. Each, they said, should be given miserable deaths and other tenants should be given their land and produce.
I believe that Jesus told this parable for several reasons.
First, He was telling the religious elites of first-century Judea that they were just like the religious elites of previous centuries who had killed prophets who, in the Name of God, had called people to respond to God’s love by turning from sin and trusting in God. Jesus knew that in a short time, these very elites would arrange for Him—the Son of God, the Creator of the universe—to be killed, too.
But Jesus also told this parable for you and me. It’s so easy and so tempting for us to get caught up in living and measuring our lives by the standards of this world, so easy to forget that through our Baptisms, God has made us part of an eternal kingdom, so easy to think that the God Who seems to live in “another country” is impotent in the face of all that troubles us in this country.
In fact, I think that it’s sadly true that many Christians most of the time live as functional atheists. I once heard Pastor Paul Cedar tell the story of conducting a Bible study with the leaders of the congregation he served, passionately imploring them to make prayer a regular part of their lives. He was shocked when one council member told him he didn’t have time to pray because, he said, “Prayer doesn’t work.”
Whether from cynicism or despair, we all may be tempted to feel that way sometimes. The sin of this world may tempt us to believe that nothing about our faith is true. I know that was especially true for me back when I was locked in the despair of atheism. In those days, I wrote songs and for me, God wasn't the living Maker and Redeemer of the universe, but a symbol for all that was wrong with the world. In one of my songs, I found myself singing, "Sometimes God, I feel like I'm a million miles from heaven and I can't find my way back home."
There are times, I have seen, when even the most committed Christian may feel like this. Those are good times for us to remember a few things. When our prayers aren’t answered or we’re accosted by grief or heartache, we remember that God knows our grief and heartache first hand; He understands and cares.
We remember that He died for us, a death He didn’t deserve and we remember that He did it to take a punishment that, because of our sin, you and I do deserve.
We remember that He rose from the dead so that all who believe in Christ will one day awaken to an eternal day with Him and all the saints.
When we remember the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, God will awaken faithfulness in us and we will, as Jesus puts it, “bear fruit,” living lives of dependence on God’s grace and power.
When Jesus is in our lives, we live less like the victims of sin and more like the conquerors of death Christ makes of those who trust in Him!
Jesus has brought His kingdom to you and me and He wants to forge a partnership with us that lasts for eternity. It’s a partnership He wants to have with us even now in this imperfect world.
Some of you may know that when our friend Karen Hendrickson was dying of cancer, she called me up and said, “I understand that our church council vice president has resigned. I would like to be appointed to that position.” “Karen,” I said, “are you sure you want to do that?” “Mark, I’ve decided that whatever time I have left on earth, I want to give it to God.” We appointed Karen to council and she served there effectively almost until the end of her life.
Karen bore the fruit of God’s kingdom even as her earthly body was being ravaged. Assured of eternity with Christ, she decided that she didn’t want to waste any time living the way this world says we ought to live—looking out for ourselves or those we decide to care about—and she decided instead, to live and work with God in building up the Kingdom that will live long after this universe has burned up and burned out.
Jesus wants to be a partner with you in building and enjoying the Kingdom of God with Him for all eternity. Turn from sin, trust in Him, seek to live in sync with God’s will and bear good fruit. Let Jesus be your partner in all of your life. Amen