Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sermon: 5 October 2008

Sermon: 21 Pentecost (5 October 2008)
(Isaiah 5:1-7/Psalm 80/Philippians 3:4b-14/Matthew 21:33-46)
This Particular Messiah

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Shortly after his baptism in the Jordan and his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus decides to return to Galilee, where he will establish his headquarters and conduct the majority of his ministry. Before he leaves the Jordan valley, he calls some disciples of John to come with him, to follow him instead of John; among them are Andrew and Philip.

Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” (John 1:44-46a)?

Like many good Jews of the day, Nathanael is looking for, perhaps even expecting, the Messiah. Why else would his friend Philip seek him out to announce the good news? Nathanael is ready for a Messiah, just not for this particular Messiah, this rabbi from the provinces, from the backwaters of Israel, from the country, from Nazareth in Galilee. Yes, Nathanael is ready for a Messiah in the abstract – one he can create in his own image – but not ready for this particular, flesh-and-blood Messiah from Nazareth.

This particularity of Jesus is a stumbling block from the very beginning of his ministry, and not just for Nathanael. The Pharisees long for a Messiah, for a son of David who will deliver them from pagan oppression and usher in the righteousness of God. Then Jesus comes to their synagogues, heals the sick and casts out demons – often on the Sabbath – feasts with tax collectors and prostitutes and other notorious sinners, and proclaims that God’s messianic age is reaching its fulfillment, is even now present, in him. Yes, the Pharisees are ready for a Messiah in the abstract – one they can create in their own image – but not ready for this particular, flesh-and-blood Messiah who up-ends all their cherished notions of law and righteousness and judgment.

The priests – at least some of them as evidenced by Zechariah’s song – wait expectantly for the Messiah, for a mighty savior to be raised up in the house of David, a savior spoken of by the holy prophets, a savior who will deliver the people from their enemies and from the hand of all who hate them (cf Luke 1:67-79). Then Jesus comes to the holy city, to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey at the head of a coronation parade: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Save us, son of David!” Then Jesus comes to the temple and drives from it all who profane that house of prayer by making it a den of thieves. Then Jesus comes claiming authority over “church and state.” Yes, the priests are ready for a Messiah in the abstract – one they can create in their own image – but not ready for this particular flesh-and-blood, whip-wielding Messiah who usurps their authority and challenges the priesthood and Herod and Caesar.

It is the particularity of Jesus that is always the problem. The world knows it needs saving. It reaches first for this savior, then for that one: a military savior, a political savior, an economic savior, a scientific savior, even a spiritual savior. Yes, the world is ready for a Messiah in the abstract – one it can create in its own image – but not ready for this particular Messiah who was crucified, buried, and resurrected and who now sits enthroned in heaven, from which he will one day come to judge the living and the dead: not this particular Messiah, Jesus.

Even the church falls prey to this scandal of particularity. This particular Jesus of Nazareth – the Messiah, the son of David – has been replaced by the more universal Jesus the Christ, son of God, personal Lord and Savior. And, of course, when Jesus is removed from history, when he becomes primarily a personal article of faith, then he can be – and often is – recreated in one’s own image. Sometimes the 21st -century church seems to have little interest in a 1st-century Jewish Messiah, to that particular Messiah rooted in a history and culture and context not our own. The church seems concerned that the more Jesus is placed in his particular Jewish setting, the less meaning he will have in our setting and lives.

Yet, that is precisely what Scripture insists upon: a very particular Messiah firmly rooted in a very particular story – Jesus, son of David, Messiah of Israel – through whom God will sort out all that is wrong with all of creation. It is an inescapably Jewish story. God chose to work through a particular people, to work in and through their history to deal with sin and death and to reconcile all creation to himself. It is the particular story of covenant, exile, deliverance, law, land, kingdom, judgment – and finally of a particular Messiah, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.

The particularity of this Jewish story and this Jewish Messiah are central to the gospel text (Mt 21:33-46). Jesus’ parable is filled with ancient, prophetic imagery which links him to the work of YHWH in and through Israel, and which points to him as the fulfillment of that work.

Some 700 years earlier, in a time of national decline and growing threat from Assyria and later Babylon, Isaiah received his prophetic call while in the temple: a vision of God enthroned in heaven, thrice holy and lifted up; a vision of seraphim and living coals from the altar in heaven; a commission to speak to a people who would hear but not understand, see but not perceive (cf Isaiah 6). And Isaiah sang – a love song to the Beloved, a song of the vineyard (Isaiah 5).

5Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;righteousness, but heard a cry!

For sins of greed and injustice and idolatry – for failure to be righteous Israel, a blessing and light to the nations; for failure to recognize and honor God – the vineyard of Israel will be judged, trampled down, and left desolate: and this at the hands of a pagan people.

24Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
25Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them; the mountains quaked,and their corpses were like refuse in the streets. For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still.
26He will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth; Here they come, swiftly, speedily!
27None of them is weary, none stumbles, none slumbers or sleeps, not a loincloth is loose, not a sandal-thong broken;
28their arrows are sharp, all their bows bent,their horses’ hoofs seem like flint, and their wheels like the whirlwind.
29Their roaring is like a lion, like young lions they roar; they growl and seize their prey, they carry it off, and no one can rescue.
30They will roar over it on that day, like the roaring of the sea. And if one looks to the land—only darkness and distress;and the light grows dark with clouds.

As in the song, God whistled for nations far away: Assyria came for Israel and Babylon came for Judah, and the Beloved’s vineyard was trampled down.

And now Jesus, this particular Messiah, takes up Israel’s story and sings Isaiah’s song of the vineyard anew for a new generation – a new chapter and a new verse (Mt 21:33-46, NRSV).

33 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘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.’

This is Isaiah’s song with a twist, and rest assured that the priests and elders to whom Jesus “sings” it recognize it as such. It is a song of judgment. Those to whom God has temporarily entrusted his vineyard – the very priests and elders God raised up to shepherd his people – have failed to hear the song of Isaiah and the message of the prophets; they have rebelled against God by rejecting the authority of this particular Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own son. And now, they will be judged and trampled down and cast out.

But there is yet more to this parable. Israel, as God’s covenant bearers, has been entrusted with the vineyard of the nations; the covenant was to Israel but for the world. Israel was blessed in order to be a blessing. And now that Israel has rejected the authority of this particular Messiah – Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own son – Israel, too, will be judged and trampled down and cast out. As before with Assyria and Babylon, so now with Rome: forty years and Rome will come to destroy utterly the temple in which Jesus now stands to tell his parable, the priesthood who now hears and rejects him, and the city and nation over which he this week wept great tears. This parable – this variation of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard – is the story of Israel, and Israel’s particular Messiah.

But, this is not the final verse of the song or the final image of the parable. There is yet a promise of redemption. Yes, the vineyard is trampled; the son is killed. Before the week is out Jesus will lie dead in a borrowed tomb, crucified at the instigation of the priests and by the hand of the empire. Yet, this particular Messiah will rise again on the third day, defeating sin through his death, defeating death through his resurrection, reconciling all creation to God through his ascension. This, too, was part of the song, part of the parable, kept hidden from the foundations of the world but revealed in these last days. And those who disdain the particularity of Jesus – of this particular Messiah – and the particularity of the Jewish story, are now confronted with the great truth that only by fulfilling his vocation as Israel’s rejected Messiah – only by being this particular Messiah – could Jesus fulfill the covenant, deal with sin and death, sort out all that is wrong with creation, reconcile man to God, and become Jesus the Christ, the universal Lord and Savior of all the nations. There is no, and can be no, personal Lord and Savior apart from this particular Messiah, this particular story, this particular song, this particular parable.

And so Isaiah sings another song, a song of restoration, a song of fruitfulness restored to God’s vineyard, a song of a particular Messiah.

3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you,because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;
7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off (Is 55:3-7, 12-13, NRSV).

Isaiah sings of an everlasting covenant, an irrevocable promise between YHWH, Abraham, and the numberless offspring of Abraham – a covenant of reconciliation and restoration. We are among the blessed children of Abraham. We are joint heirs with faithful Israel of the promises of God. We are in-grafted to the root stock of Israel and reconciled to God: and all this only through this particular Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

You’ve heard it said that the devil is in the details. Maybe so; but the Lord and his Messiah are in the particulars.


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