The Festival of Reformation, Observed
(The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity)
Rev. Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus
St. Matthew 21.33-44
25 October 2020
Soli Deo Gloria!
A teacher once said to a pupil, “You are a very gifted boy.” The boy blushed and became flustered. He was very self-conscious because he thought his teacher had praised him. He attributed some great quality to himself, yet he could have not been more mistaken. He thought that he produced these qualities. He did not understand giftedness. To be gifted is to be entrusted with something. Gifts are given by someone else. In this case, this boy’s abilities were given by God.
A couple of weeks ago I stood in the checkout line at a local store and the woman ahead of me had this message on the back of her shirt: “Everything is earned. Nothing is given.” I don’t know the context of her statement because I didn’t see the front of her shirt. Maybe she was a teacher and was making a statement about working hard in the classroom. But it wasn’t absolutely true. Some things in life are earned but most are given.
The metaphor of the vineyard was understood by the Jews as referring to the nation which God had planted. God took Israel out of slavery in Egypt and planted them in the Promised Land, yet it was not really about the land; it was about God and his people. It describes a relationship.
The vineyard was a gift of God. Jesus makes it clear that everything about this vineyard was given: the land, the fence, the winepress, the tower to guard it, and even the fruit. The prophet Nehemiah may well have summarized the whole history of Israel:
“But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. (Ne 9:16).
Throughout that ninth chapter Nehemiah used the phrase “and You gave them” (Neh. 9.13, 15, 20, 22, 24, 27, 35, 36) some eight times positively speaking. Yet, God’s people presumed upon God’s gifts.
This is a parable of judgment. It was meant as a warning to the religious leaders that they must repent from their sin of presumption. They had presumed to steal God’s vineyard and make it their own. The chief priests and the Pharisees well understood that Jesus had spoken it against them. They had not yet fulfilled the final act of rebellion by killing the Son of God, just as Jesus predicted.
Christianity is pure giftedness. The Apostle James writes:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights . . . [James 1.17a].
And you know well the words of Jesus:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son . . . [John 3.16a].
In the Nicene Creed, which we confess every Divine Service, are these words of the Third Article:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and giver of life . . .
All life, physical and spiritual, is given by God the Holy Spirit.
The Christian faith proclaims what God has given for our salvation. He bestows gifts to unworthy servants who have nothing of their own. It includes all of the material blessings of life as well as forgiveness, life, and salvation. There are no works that you must do because your works are like a polluted garment, or as Isaiah’s words read literally, “a garment of menstruation.” [Isaiah 56-66, CPH p. 359] Those rags are stinky and must be thrown away because they have no further use. So, too, any supposed righteousness of ours. All that you have has been received. Some things in life might be earned but it is God who has given you the ability to earn them. That’s where that woman’s slogan broke down.
When my wife’s grandmother died these words of the hymn were on her lips:
“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling” [LSB 761.3]
Fitting words, indeed! God’s forgiveness is pure grace. He gives it; you cannot earn it, nor can the saints lend it to you from a supposed treasury of good works. Neither can you buy it for money through an indulgence. It is bestowed only by what Christ has done.
These tenants presumed to steal the vineyard but it would take the death of the owner’s son. In an act of incredible rebellion they seized him and threw him out of his Father’s vineyard and killed him. You see the picture! Christ is the only Son of the Father who came to claim his good fruits but was thrown out of his vineyard and murdered. And so Christ was thrown out of the holy city and put to death on Golgotha. Jesus foretold exactly what would happen to him.
Yet, the greatest crime of all brings the greatest good to the world. God turns the most shocking evil into the greatest gift ever given. Christ brings life to a fallen world through his death and resurrection. Salvation is pure gift! As we celebrate the Lutheran Reformation let us remember that!
And then let us also remember that the vineyard which is the Holy Christian Church does not belong to us. Long is the list of accounts of congregations and pastors which have usurped what belongs to Christ. The Church, this congregation, does not belong to you individually nor collectively. It doesn’t belong to the pastor, either. It is not his. I’ve heard many pastors refer to the congregations they serve as “my congregation.” I’m not sure there is evil intent in that term but it makes me uncomfortable. I made it a rule never to speak of Immanuel that way to keep myself from presuming upon God’s ownership. I found it better to say, “the congregation I serve.” It is still God’s vineyard.
On this Sunday as we celebrate the Reformation I’ll ask you to take a look at the cornerstone on the outside of this sanctuary. It’s in German and unfortunately very few of us know German these days, a pity to be sure! It reads:
Immanuel’s Evangelisch=Lutherische Kirche
That’s Immanuel with an apostrophe “s” to indicate ownership. Immanuel’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. This congregation as well as every other Christian congregation belongs to Christ. She doesn’t belong to the Holy Father in Rome nor to any other ecclesiastical consistory. She belongs to her husband, the heavenly bridegroom. She is his wife and he guards her jealously.
But what’s the point for us? We have already made the point that God is the owner of his vineyard. First, we need to repent daily for our sins against God for our presumption and neglect of his vineyard. Of that Luther lists in his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, or as it is more commonly known, the 95 Theses, one about repentance. It’s the first one. I might add that there was no debate because no one showed up to debate him. Our so-called presidential debates are not really debates but are moderated press conferences. We never really get to the point of a real Disputatio, or debate, where the disputants face each other and speak only to each other and not a moderator who asks questions. Forgive me about this but I’m old school and participated in Disputations in my seminary training. Luther wrote in that first thesis:
In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 31, p. 25). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
There are not a lot of words these days about repentance but there are plenty about rights and privilege. The Christian always begins with repentance. Grace is not earned, it is given. Keeping the Law redeems no one and no one can keep the Law as God demands it be kept. Everything we do and say is covered with uncleanness.
Second, forgiveness is the goal and the outcome of repentance. The perfect righteousness of Christ alone makes us clean, Sola Gratia, by grace alone. This grace and its effects are received by faith alone, Sola Fide. Faith, too, is a gift of God the Holy Spirit. He gives spiritual life. God does the planting of his vineyard and he does the growing and harvesting. Salvation is by grace for Christ’s sake received through faith revealed in the Holy Scriptures, Sola Scriptura. Again, gift.
Yet, God never simply leaves it at that point. God wants fruit so God the Holy Spirit works in us to produce works pleasing to God. These are the fruits of repentance about which the Apostle Paul writes:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; (Ga 5:22–23).
In his Small Catechism Luther directs us to the Table of Duties where we are instructed and admonished about the way Christians are to live according to their positions in life. It covers the entire social order.
These are the fruits that God seeks from his gifted ones, from you and me. You bear fruit because you have been grafted into Christ who is the true Vine. In the great “I Am” words of Christ we hear:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (Jn 15:1–8)
In the Name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit.