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Sermon for 5 October 2014


Isaiah 5:1-7, Philippians 3:4-14, Matthew 21:33-end

There was a time when the Greek myths were taught to every school child, so that Zeus, Hermes and Poseidon were as familiar to every 10 year old as Simon Cowell and Wayne Rooney are today. But then that stopped - I’m not sure when, or why, but I was never taught them, and I feel that I missed out. 

That is changing though - not because Michael Gove put them back on the curriculum - but because of a series of books which are wildly popular with children aged about 8-13. They are all about Percy Jackson, a 12 year old misfit living in contemporary America. But all is not as it seems - Percy, it turns out, is son of Poseidon, the God of the sea and he is therefore a demigod! Like most demigods, Percy has ADHD and dyslexia, the former because of his godly instinct for violence and battle, and the latter because his brain is tuned for Ancient Greek rather than English. 

As a result of these books - and a spin off film - my kids, and thousands like them, know more about Heracles, Chiron and Medusa than I ever will. These ancient stories are alive again, but in new ways.

Well today we hear a parable in which another ancient story is brought alive in a new way. Jesus tells a story about a vineyard, and in doing so breathes new life into a story first told hundreds of years earlier by the prophet Isaiah. In a minute, I want to tease out some of the things that emerge from Jesus’ retelling, but first it’s worth pausing to note what he is doing.

Jesus, John’s gospel tells us, is The Word. He isn’t just the one about whom words are written and stories are told - he is the story itself. In him, the stories of the Old Testament find a renewed meaning- find their deepest meaning. In him, the stories of the gospels, Acts and the epistles take breath, leap up off the page and begin to live. Throughout his ministry Jesus took the stories that all his fellow Israelites would have known and said - you thought these were about that, but actually, they are about me! In me, these stories are fulfilled. By one count the New Testament makes more than 4000 references to the Old Testament and in the vast majority, the point is to say - this ancient story is now fulfilled in the man Jesus.

And this is what Jesus is doing with the parable of the Tenants and the Vineyard. The original story in Isaiah is a love song - ‘let me sing for my beloved’ it starts - this is God singing from his heart to His beloved people. And the song unfolds to tell a story of hope and expectation as a new vineyard is planted. But then, at the end of verse 2 the love song takes a twist - all is not well in the vineyard it seems and instead of producing grapes, it has produced wild grapes - which are hard, bitter and useless for eating. This is a relationship that has gone horribly wrong, and in the next section the singer pours out his heart as he asks ‘what more could I have done?’ before describing the consequences of this failing relationship. 

And then at the end, the explanation - who are the characters in the story? They are God and Israel. This is God singing his broken hearted love song to His people. And we learn what precisely it is that has broken his heart so badly. In verse 7 - ‘He expected justice but saw bloodshed, righteousness but heard a cry’. Israel’s failing is that they responded to being given everything by God by hanging on to it, and failing to share it. And worse, by bringing violence and poverty. They were expected to bear a great harvest of goodness for the world, and they have done the opposite.

And so we fast forward 900 years to Jesus. And he tells the same story but with something new - as if someone has found an original edition of Oliver Twist or Hamlet or Pilgrims Progress, but with a new character written in. 

Jesus also tells a story about a man who plants a vineyard and ends up profoundly hurt. This time though his pain is caused by those who care for it. It’s as if Jesus is saying that, back at the time of Isaiah’s song, just when God was saying it was all over, he gave them another chance. Like a broken hearted lover determined to give the relationship another go, God didn’t see through his threat to walk out, but instead tried over and over again to make it work. He sent prophet after prophet to warn, cajole and challenge Israel to pull themselves together, but it didn’t work. Now, he has taken the greatest risk of all and sent his son. 

And the way Jesus tells it, we know what’s going to happen - like watching a damaged relationship from the outside and knowing that it isn’t going to get better. A relationship in which one person is always behaving badly, and the other keeps on trying and trying, and you can see where it’s heading, but still the innocent one tries to make it work until finally it’s over. 

This is where it’s going says Jesus. This is how the love song unfolds. God created and nurtured and tended his people, and their response was violence, and he sent people to turn them back, but they refused to change, and now this chapter is ending, and the love song is going to be sung somewhere else instead, ‘to a people that produce the fruit of the kingdom’. 

And that’s the challenge and invitation that the parable lays before us - who are we in this story? Do we look at Jesus and see a cornerstone - the one who holds everything together, or do we look at him and see damaged goods - a stone that will never carry our weight? Do we hear the love song that God has been singing to his people since the very beginning, and sing it ourselves, and in doing so produce good fruit for the benefit of the world. Or are we like the Pharisees and chief priests, protective of what we have been given and threatened by anyone who tries to get in, unwilling to join in God’s song.

Or, put the question another way. If Jesus were to retell the story again today, how would he tell it this time?

Posted: 07-10-2014 at 11:07
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