The landlord and the tenants

This sermon from October 2nd was preached by Jaylene Johnson

A sermon on Exodus 20:1-20 and Matthew 21:33-46


y four-year-old niece is quickly becoming one of the most quotable people in my life. A few weeks ago, she was outside with her nana who had given her a plastic container of “bubbles” to play with. She said to her, “Nana! Let’s go to the driveway and blow bubbles up to Heaven so God can play with them!” This is a vastly different image of God than what we read about in the passage from Exodus 20; a thundering God of lightening and loud trumpets and trembling earth – a God of whom the people were terrified. “Moses, you speak to us” they said, “because if God speaks to us we will die”. For me, this is a sad depiction of the problem of sin and the distance it creates between mankind and the Creator who desires that we know Him. The people didn’t see that God was reaching out to them in approaching them at all…Moses tells them to not fear – God was revealing himself in this way that they experience awe and in doing so, be helped to not sin. But they did not understand God’s heart. “Moses, you speak to us…not Him” …For them, Moses was a whole lot easier to deal with…on their level…less scary.

In our community, there will be many different beliefs about God, who He is and who we want or need Him to be. We filter ideas about God through our experiences and our education, and perhaps through our desires and ego as well. At times we construct a God that feels safe to us, that makes sense to us, that seems fair to us, that works with our ideas about life and the way we’ve chosen to live. I daresay that sometimes we even “cherry-pick” our theology and “pet” scripture verses accordingly. I wonder if, in a conceptual way, this is not unlike carving for ourselves a household god…a graven image-one we find easier to deal with; one who suits our preferences, tastes, opinions. Our varied beliefs might fall somewhere between a four-year-old’s Father God, playing with bubbles, to a distant, unknown or even terrifying God. Some may even question that there is God at all. We are a diverse and fickle human community, with some who will go to their deaths for what they believe, and others who will plant their flag and declare that faith is for fools.

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But what has struck me with great conviction of late and brought me a lot of comfort, is that GOD IS GOD, regardless of our beliefs, our definitions, our theological, denominational, philosophical agreements or disagreements about Him…HE IS. He is what and who and why and HOW He is, calling himself Y-hweh which translates “I AM”. “I am the Lord your God” He says – “I AM” – utterly indefinable by finite minds, however brilliant we perceive ourselves to be, or how inadequate. God is God, and He is unchanging. Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Almighty, creator, everlasting God. He is beyond our constructs, definitions and systems…and not “on our level” And God reaches out to us in mercy and love and reveals Himself to our hearts. He gives us revelation of who truly He is. The Word is a love story of His pursuit of us, His creation, and His heart to redeem us, which ultimately led to the limiting of Himself in human form as Jesus Christ: God…our Saviour. But the revelation of who He is – a deep knowing and understanding of Him – is His work, and not dependent upon our intellect or ability to figure things out…For me, this is where there is such comfort, because I trust that He loves us, and wants us to know Him. I trust Him to teach me, and I am not any more special than anyone else He loves.

As humans, we can be a bit like ostriches with our heads in the sand. We stick our heads inside what feels comfortable to us about God, and deny Him access to our hearts. We are okay with having a relationship with religion, or even religious people, but opening ourselves to an actual relationship with God, let alone being open to the mind-blowing, life-changing, sometimes even awkward or challenging work of His Spirit in us…well, that is just too much. But with our head’s stuck in what suits us, we run the risk of missing “Him”, and He is the prize: our hope and salvation…magnificent and glorious. There is no work of religion that could compare to His majesty…He is beyond compare. Why would we want less than Him, at work in our lives? Let’s not be arrogant in our thinking, but humble in our posture…bold in grace, yes, but recognizing that God is God, and not who we decide He is.

The religious leaders and others around Jesus missed him entirely. They knew that the parable Jesus told about the wicked tenants was referring to them, but they were blind to the heart of God. In the parable, Jesus spoke of a benevolent landlord (that alone would peak the interest of those present…a benevolent landlord?) who prepared an amazing situation for the tenants. He planted the vineyard, built walls of protection, a watchtower, dug a winepress – all of which would provide the tenants economic means through making wine, a very lucrative industry at the time. When He sends a servant to collect His share in the harvest, they behave wickedly, and continue to do so with subsequent messengers, even killing the landlord’s son. Note: the landowner did not bring force against the tenants, despite their disobedience…He sent His son, not soldiers. This, however, seemed to fly over the heads of the listeners, whose focus was more on what the tenants were doing, not the landowner. In fact, when asked what should happen to the tenants, the Pharisees replied (Matthew 21:41 – Amplified Bible)

…put those wretches to a miserable death and rent the vineyard to other tenants of such a character that they will give him the fruits promptly in their season.

They don’t just suggest execution, but a miserable death. Then put people in who would do what they were supposed to. Just lease the vineyard to better people.

42Jesus asked them, Have you never read in the Scriptures: The very Stone which the builders rejected and threw away has become the Cornerstone; this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?

Jesus’ wonderful response goes right to the heart of God. He knows the answer is not in “better people”, but rather the work of God’s grace, referencing Psalm 118, a Psalm the Pharisees should have known well. It is a Psalm of salvation, which repeatedly praises God for His enduring love, mercy and salvation. It speaks about how the stone that the builders rejected, (which we know is the manifest love of God in the person of Jesus, Messiah). would become the chief cornerstone. “This is the Lord’s doing – Marvelous in our eyes” wrote the Psalmist. This cornerstone of grace is the strongest stone, the foundation upon which all else in the Kingdom of God is built, and nothing can come against it or be in it’s way. It crushes any belief, ideology or system that would challenge it. And it is “God’s doing”…not the work of “better people”. The Pharisees had their head’s in the sand of religion and ego, and failed to recognize who Jesus was and what He was about…Of course He was the stone they rejected…what He was about wasn’t a fit for their religious construction. His  way is the way of grace: unmerited favour…Their construct was works, legalism and meritocracy. I wonder if we sometimes toss God to the rubble because He just isn’t right for what we’re building.

Jesus then indicates that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to a people who would produce the fruits of it (v.43).  He did not refer to a “better” people, who, by their own self-made character, would do the right thing, but to whomever would be part of the new thing that God was building through Jesus. God’s work of grace and transformation is His alone…His doing, not ours. All glory to Him. What a wonderful, benevolent Saviour, lavishing us with goodness and love. As we are drawn close to Him, experiencing Him in greater fullness and acknowledging Him for who He is, we can’t help but love Him back.

God is God. May we never be more enamoured with our own ideas about Him than we are with God Himself, and in being so, miss actually knowing Him. May we not think that we simply can be the “better people” May we abandon ourselves to His work of grace in our lives and hearts and community, and may we accept whatever He chooses to reveal about Himself, the Almighty God who also just might delight in a four-year-old’s “bubbles”.

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