Such a Stony Story: A Crushing Account from Your Closest Ally

What is it like to be doggedly pursued by God himself and see a day coming for crowning as he insists that you shine in his splendor everlasting?  It’s all there in this story from Luke 20:9-19: “Such a Stony Story: A Crushing Account from Your Closest Ally.”  April 7, 2019.

When the doctor returned to the room, my diagnosis was already on his face. “You know, your liver is like a maid for your body, cleaning out all the toxins and storing up good nutrients for the bloodstream to pick up and deliver where needed... But you have cirrhosis of the liver,” he said, “the loss of healthy liver cells and irreversible scarring. It's the alcohol problem you have. It explains the swelling in your legs and ankles. Basically, your maid's in a coma, and all the messy toxins in your body aren’t getting vacuumed up before they reach important places like your heart. Unfortunately, yours is very advanced and there’s no cure, so without a liver transplant, you’re looking at a year left, maybe two.”

“But, doctor,” I objected, “that’s impossible. I’m not an alcoholic. You must be wrong.”

I thought of this because...how do you think Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants sounded in the ears of those at the temple that day - the ones who responded saying, “Never! No way!” and others responded plotting to end his life?

When Jesus stood in the temple courts but three days from death, the Great Physician of the Soul and a general crowd mixed with religious experts together one last time, was the diagnosis already on his face? “You know, it’s your heart. It’s stone hard, like tenants who won’t give the owner his own due at harvest time. So stubbornly anti-owner that you murder his own Son without flinching. There’s no cure for this evil, but there is Christ; but without him, you’re looking at being crushed by God - “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

“Unthinkable, doctor!” they object. “We’re in the temple, not the tavern. You’re not looking at pagans, but God’s picks, his chosen ones, his pride and joy. We don’t abuse his Word, we memorize it. We’re not those wicked former generations that threatened Elijah and sawed Isaiah in half and struck down Zechariah in the temple. We are their best teachers, the ideal tenants the owner could have! We’re not idolaters, you must be wrong!”

How could there be such a huge disconnect between God and his own people? We’re not talking today about some far-off world religion and its principles that get it wrong. Here, the builders, Jesus says, who should care the most about getting the right stone in the right spot, the perfect cornerstone for the job, the best capstone to use over the doorway...these builders he says reject the one rock they need!

If the hearts of the builders, the tenants, the insiders, can be off, there’s something wrong with all of us. It demonstrates that the problem is a human problem, a global problem. Brothers and sisters, just a week before Palm Sunday and all God has to say to us this time of year, we need to know why that we might not be found on the wrong side of this story and the wrong side of this Stone! We’re going to hear this crushing account from the one who is our closest ally.

How did this go wrong? Start with how Jesus sets up this parable with an owner who plants a vineyard and rents it to these tenants. The story always starts with a gift - always with grace - always with God as the source of it all … solely responsible for the existence of the vineyard and all it has going for it; the expenses were all his...  and yet somehow not he’s getting recognized. You begin to sense how abused the situation is when the owner sends his own servant but the treatment by the tenants is shocking. There is no respect, no reciprocation. And it happens once, twice, three times.

And now we really get to see what’s going on here in what happens next. We get to spend time in the inner circle of both parties. First, again first! - is the approach of the owner. [And you know by now this is no typical employer and employee relationship - it’s a parable, not here to teach business, but to teach God’s business, his ways.]  ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’

Now you know why he sent servants a second and third time after the first was abused and unsuccessful - this isn’t about fruit per se, it’s about the tenants!

If you think the church just cares about money or elders send me a note just to get better attendance or the church only cares about behavioral outcomes, morality police with a wickedness watchdog that only wants to correct and control outward behavior and all we talk about is trying to “do better…” You need to spend time sitting in a chair next to the owner’s far away desk and he wonders what to do with these tenants. He treats them like family, he gives them his best, he culminates his love, his grace only increases as their sin increases - on full display is his great longing for them to continue working with him! Re-imagine the owner based on this - the owner who sends them cards on special days, who fills their phones with kind and encouraging text messages, his heart is opened wide to them with an eternal love and now, after so much abuse, yet he will give them the ultimate Word - I’ll send them the Son I love.” Could you be any more important to him? Are YOU not the apple of his eye, the fruit relationship he longs to have with you?

And now we get to see the ins and outs of the other side:  “But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’  So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

This life in their eyes, was not rented, it was their right, their freedom, their happiness. They completely flip the script. They owe the owner nothing. They are already treating this vineyard and its harvest as their own. Of all things, they assume that the owner doesn’t care - even though he sends his Son - he’s just a big Softie in the sky. “We kill the son; the owner won’t send anyone else. He’ll give up.” Life without any accountability, no holy ground, the higher authority that poses any threat, no day of reckoning or judgment to deal with that says, “The Word of the Lord” but the word of a wimp.

This is that sin when you treat a friend like you want to treat them and not demonstrating the fruit of the Word of God. We could see Jesus in the eyes of the weak, instead we see opportunity to get what I want and do what I want. This is that evil of behaving a certain way around the pastor, but nowhere else does it matter as much - can say and do what you want - it’s your ground not holy ground. And when someone dare to serve my soul by holding me accountable according to the authority of the vineyard owner and the Word of God, how do you respond?

We need to get more involved at church...

Couple: our communication has to get better

Why opposition that rises up in your heart when someone brings a correcting word, rebuking word? And not “God has sent his messenger to faithfully share this with me. Please, speak whatever the owner has given you to say - your tenant is listening.” Why is my default position that “I’m right, you’re wrong?” And all hell will break loose if you keep saying otherwise… This is a humanity thing - a fallen, diseased thing - that “I will not be owned. I am independent, I am good and I have glory worth preserving.” We just want to be god.

Today, Jesus helps us see just how mightily we will fight to insist we are misdiagnosed - “May this never be!” - horrified that such a story could be true. He helps you see the unholy insider in all of us - says we are wise when we aren’t, says we know when we don’t, claims to be good when it’s not good enough for God, stays comfortable when I should be afflicted, at ease when I should be on the lookout, relaxed when this is a war.

Might I suggest a better response to the parable: “Lord, save us” - any other view of it continues the slaughter of the Word and those who live like that will be surprised when the owner finally shows up again, and the stone they rejected is the Stone that crushes his enemies eternally.

Only my closest ally would tell me this. Would you have guessed the owner to be such an ally? The true story our hard hearts by nature is not just “what the pastor has to say every sermon”. It is a wound from friend you can trust. The word you can’t trust comes from an enemy inside, always ready to whisper with the devil. If only there were a story, a parable to save you from that lie…give you an unthinkable diagnosis so we see the emergency but also make us ready for a transplant.

Holy Week is that new heart. “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” Jesus just gave the people a parable that interpreted all the sad events of the next few days as the culmination of the Owner’s love in sending his Son, and the stone rejected that nevertheless will serve as a capstone - the one, singular, perfectly balanced and weighted stone to hold the gate of heaven’s door open for sinners.

To help us see what he had to do, deal with sin and guilt, face death, why we struggle with fractured identity and broken hearts and lives, to discern all the evil we see around us - recognize the Bible as a love letter - one simple thing these servants come to say to the tenants - “remember me” - That beautiful “fear, love and trust in God above all things” that is the first-fruit of any commandment - why is that the first to go? May it be the first commandment we think about.

Maybe you should have a favorite parable...at least one you know really well and can use to reorient yourself by the Spirit or one that gives you the chance to tell the whole story. You have a lot of good options, but this one ranks right up there. Jesus found a way to say it all in this stony story - you can think in full color about your 80 years and your tenant time with such a gracious God: what is the glory and goal of life but to do his work and return the fruits of his Word? What is the blessing of having servants around you, by his kind sending, to minister to the great needs of your soul? What is it like to be doggedly pursued by God himself and see a day coming that’s not for crushing, but for crowning as he insists that you shine in his splendor everlasting?  It’s all there in this stony story - The Lord help you keep telling it! Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI on April 7, 2019