Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 8, 2023
Does God ever suffer a broken heart? Does God ever feel hurt by what we do or say? I think our Old Testament reading today offers us a glimpse into the heart of God. And at the center of this text, this parable from Isaiah is the passage which reads, “What more can I do for my vineyard beyond what I have already done?”
Now the basis for this parable was the people of Israel. We know where Israel came from, what God had done for them, how He had set them apart from early on, from the time of Abraham, to be His people, that He delivered them from slavery, led them to a great land which riveled Eden itself, that He protected them, gave them His Law, instructed them on faithful worship, that He even dwelled with them, that they could always see His presence among them whenever they looked up to the tabernacle or temple and saw the “glory cloud”, the presence of the Lord watching over them.
No one else in all of creation had this but Israel. No one had the Word of God, the prophets, the judges, the kings and the presence of God except the people of Israel.
And as the Lord continued to tend to His vineyard, the people of Israel, what did He find generation after generation after generation? Rebels. People living in manifest/open sin. Idol worship. Greed and lust for wealth and power, and not just among the people but among the priests, the pastors, the leaders and rulers. The poor were being treated like animals as the rich got richer. The widows were being ignored, the hungry were starving and not being helped. All the while, the people of Israel were walking around as if there was no god, or as if they were each their own gods. Sure, they went through the motions; they did the sacrifices, but it all meant nothing. It was more or less a thing they did because it’s what a good Jew did.
But there was no faith, and because there was no faith, there was no love, no mercy, no good fruits, but only wild people bearing wild, useless fruits.
Did the Lord suffer a broken heart, did He feel hurt by what He saw? Of course, absolutely! “What more can I do for my vineyard beyond what I have already done? Why won’t you respond, O Israel? Why won’t you give thanks? Why won’t you express your faith by helping and serving your neighbor? I’ve given you everything and helped you in every way and done everything I can to make you into good grapes, but all I see is sour grapes.”
And the consequence for their lack of faith, their rebelliousness, their stubbornness? Destruction. When God takes down His protection and help, the consequence for them was destruction. Of course, this is Isaiah’s prophecy of the Babylonian/Assyrian invasion and exile.
What led Israel to be so rebellious? What led them to be a people without faith? Consider the Lord’s judgment against the people of Judah and Jerusalem in Isaiah 3. According to the Lord’s words, who was mixed in with the people? False prophets, magicians, soothsayers, foreigners who worshipped false gods who were bringing their false beliefs into the land of promise and leading the people astray. Because of this, and because of the people’s total lack of discernment, the youth became insolent and treated their parents and elders with dishonor and disdain.
Everything was topsy-turvy; because of the faithlessness and idol worship of the people, what was evil was called good and what was good and godly was considered detestable. People without faith and who denied that God even existed were their political and spiritual leaders. Money, power, prestige, creature comforts, possessions…the wealth and glory of Israel became the very chains and prison bars which led to their destruction.
They took the help and protection and presence of the Lord, and they abused it for their own ill motives.
Now, we could look at this as ancient history, right? We can say that it doesn’t apply to us, that we’re in a different place, different time, different people, and that we are under God’s grace and not under His law.
But then we come to our Gospel reading where Jesus actually takes the Isaiah 5 parable and brings it into His time. It’s almost the very same parable, isn’t it? We see the master of the house, the vine dresser. We see the vineyard and the fence and the winepress and the tower in the midst of it.
But we also see differences. In Isaiah, the Lord tends to the vineyard Himself. In the Gospel, the master leases his vineyard to other tenants. And these are among the most foolish of tenants one could ever experience. They keep killing the master’s servants, beating them, chasing them out. Why? Because they want the vineyard! They want the profits, the credit, and complete control over the wine. They want their name on the bottles, and they are so obsessed with this that, even when the master’s own son, the heir comes, they kill him thinking that it’ll all be theirs.
Of course, no one with half a brain would think that killing the master’s own son would lead him to forget about his vineyard and let the tenants have their way. In fact, what he does instead is kill those tenants with overwhelming force and give the field to others.
Now we know this parable is teaching about the religious leaders, the pharisees of Jesus’ time who were not being faithful in their call to teach the people the Word of God, to serve the people, to lead the people to faith, who were not exhibiting a life of forgiveness and mercy. They, in fact, were greedy, self-centered, focused on looking good on the outside even though their insides, their hearts were corrupt and so very far from God.
And we know, if we read the Book of Acts, that these Jewish religious leaders continued to persecute and murder and beat God’s messengers, the Apostles and leaders in the Christian church. But once more we must ask, “what does this have to do with us, today, in the year of our Lord, 2023, on the outskirts of Milaca, Minnesota in a confessional Lutheran church? And further, where is the Gospel, where’s the ‘good news’ that Lutheran pastors are known to zealously preach week after week?”
First, let us consider the law, the warning, in these texts.
The warning our Lord gives us is for both the leaders and the layfolk, the pastors and the congregation, the synodical leadership, and the churches.
The warning for the leaders, for us pastors, for district presidents, for the synodical leaders, theological leaders and professors, is that we must not do as ancient Israel. Foremost to this warning is that we must not abandon sound doctrine, sound teaching by giving into the pull and temptation of the world.
The world has been calling into God’s holy places since the serpent spoke to Eve, calling God’s messengers and prophets and preachers to abandon the Word, to compromise sound doctrine, and to allow…other ideas and opinions and beliefs into the assembly. Idols, false worship, practices that have nothing to do with God but everything to do with the worship of the flesh. Like ancient Israel, the draw of the world to make worship about the world, like the world, for the world abounds, and many, many have fallen into this trap. Though we may not have idols adorning our sanctuary, it is very easy to make idols of things we think helpful yet stand opposed to the Word of God. Pastors and priests and clergy who give into the passions of the flesh and preach to stir the passions of the flesh, this no less breaks God’s heart as ancient Israel did when they made their sacrificial worship to be about externals and not about repentance and heart-change and faith.
Pastors must remember that it is God who grows His church – not man. It is God who preserves His church – not the many programs or ideas pastors dream up on any given day. There are times in the history of God’s people when His church consists of tens of thousands – an entire nation walking in a desert for 40 years, times when, among a nation of millions only 7,000 remain faithful and have not bowed knee to Ba’al, and times when His church is but 7 people living on an ark atop a world of water. There are times when God’s church grows by leaps and bounds with a new Lutheran church being planted every week, and times when thousands of churches close each year, year after year, where Lutheran churches become fewer and fewer each day. Much of the time this is simply God’s work as He tends to his vineyard, pruning, grafting, cutting away bad branches so that new branches grow and thrive.
Pastors and church leaders should always seek to put the best construction on whatever goes on in the church, in the congregation. They should be slow to speak, quick to listen, and always trying to be faithful to God and His Word in all things even when being faithful to God doesn’t seem pro-growth or pro-self-interest, even if it means they suffer for trying to do good.
The warning for the leaders, for us pastors, for district presidents, for the synodical leaders, theological leaders and professors is also that we do not get into this business in order to pad our pockets, to make money, to thrive off the backs of the poor or the weak. Rather, we are to use the gifts and talents afforded us by the Lord to help, to serve, to minister to the people as best we can, and to give them the encouragement and strength to be people of mercy and forgiveness in their homes, families, and communities. They must call people to repentance, to clearly call a sin sin and not seek to deceive people into thinking sinful lifestyles are acceptable to God just to get people in the church.
Pastors excel in different areas of ministry. Pastors are not cut out of a lump of dough with cookie cutters. I have my strengths and I have my weaknesses, just as every pastor has had who has served this church. Some pastors prune while other pastors till while others water while others watch guard or pluck off destructive bugs from the leaves. And when you call a pastor, you are calling the very pastor God wants you to have, along with the gifts and talents he has, as well as the baggage, the weaknesses, the blind spots, the sins, and the things that torture him and cause him to suffer.
You will never have the “perfect pastor,” but you will always have the pastor God wants you to have even if you can’t quite figure out why.
Thus, the warning in our readings is also for you, the people, the congregation. Do not do as ancient Israel and abuse God’s messengers, God’s servants. Do not cast them out of the vineyard whenever they become an inconvenience. Instead, with prayer, with humility, with openness, and with a respect for the call and the office and yes, even the man who fills it, speak to your pastor with love, kindness, understanding, gentleness, fairness, always trying to put the best construction on whatever he says and does. Speak to him in the way Christ Jesus speaks to you and helps you and serves you, even though we hardly deserve such kindness and love.
This is how God’s kingdom works. God’s kingdom does not work like worldly kingdoms. Worldly kingdoms punish and destroy, they are heavy handed, they are intentionally blind to circumstance and seek to judge and carry out punishment equally. Worldly kingdoms rise and fall, they’re here one century and gone the next, and there is most often much corruption and evil at the center of worldly kingdoms.
But the kingdom of God is very different. The kingdom of God is built on the foundation of grace and mercy. And while God is a just and holy God and His justice must be carried out against all those who rob and steal and fornicate and defile, His great mercy and love for His people means that His justice, His wrath, must instead be laid upon His only Son.
None of the prophets who were sent to Israel, not Isaiah, not Jeremiah, not Ezekiel, not Daniel, none of the prophets could bear the weight of God’s justice, though they all bore much suffering and persecution for speaking the truth to a very rebellious people. None of the pastors or priests of today, not me, not any pastor that has ever served this congregation or any congregation of the LCMS or any congregation of Christendom throughout time, could bear the weight of God’s justice, could bear your sins upon our backs, though we all bear much suffering and persecution for speaking the truth.
Throughout history, many pastors, many priests, many apostles, many prophets have been persecuted, beaten, thrown out and murdered because of the Word of God and because of a people who refused to believe.
But God has sent His only Son to bear the weight of it all, and His Son was put to death by evil men, only His death was not in vain, but His death forever means life and salvation for all who believe.
Even when the Lord took away His protection and hedge from the ancient people of Israel, He still had a plan. His plan was ultimately to save the world. And He did it according to the rules of evil men by allowing evil men to make good on their threat to kill the heir. But the death of God means life for all. The death of the only Son of God means we are all sons and daughters in His kingdom, hedged in and pruned and worked to bear good fruit that will last.
Historically, the Christian church has followed a pattern of growth and decline, growth and decline. But what we must keep on learning over and over again is that God has the sheers; He holds the cutters in His hand and for the health of His vineyard, He will prune and cut away when He needs to so that His vineyard grows strong and with good fruit. We don’t always see how He works, but it doesn’t matter. God calls us to believe, to have faith, and to continue steadfast in His Word and promises even when things seem grim. What is the one thing we learn from Isaiah 5, if we don’t learn anything else? God is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS with us! He will NEVER, NEVER, NEVER leave us or forsake us. He is in charge of this church, and He is here with us even now.
Let us humble ourselves, repent of our sins and desires to live like those ancient people who grew as sour grapes worthy of nothing, and let us instead trust and hold on to the mercies of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, so that on the Last Day we are not judged as wicked grapes but as a people of faith who exhibit our faith by good works, love, and mercy.
Knowing and believing that God is over this church and He prunes when He wills and plants when He wills, what should our response be, what should our prayer be in times of growth, in times of decline, in any time? Our humble prayer should be, “Lord God, heavenly Father, you build up and you break down. You prune and you plant, you till and weed. Help us to remain faithful to You in any circumstance, and help us to be a people who, above all else, are concerned about the salvation of souls, the souls of our children, our grandchildren, our neighbors, our friends. Teach us to open our mouths and confess the faith so that Your Word might bring people to repentance and to glory in Your cross.” Amen.