Sunday, 5 October 2014

What God, and So What?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
5th October 2014 11.00am

Matthew 21.33-46   "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 watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.  34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.  35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.  37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.'  38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.'  39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"  41 They 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."  42 ¶ Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'?  43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."  45 ¶ When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.  46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Isaiah 5.1-7  Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.  4 What 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?  5 And 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.  6 I 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.  7 For 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!

I'll put this as plainly as I can:
            the answer we give, to the problem of human sinfulness,
            reveals the nature of the God in which we ultimately believe.

But I'll come back to that.

A friend of mine, who used to be a lecturer at Spurgeon's college [John Colwell],
            often says that there are two key questions that we must bear in mind
            when we come to try and understand a biblical passage.

The first question is: what God?
            And the second question is: so what?

What God, and So what?

Firstly, what God do we encounter through this text?
            And secondly, what difference does that make? 

These are not trivial questions.
And there is no straightforward way out of them,
            for example by asserting that there is only one God,
            or that we all believe in the same God.
To give you an example, the God that Richard Dawkins claims not to believe in,
            is very definitely not the same God
                        as the one that I do believe in.
If I thought that God was what Richard Dawkins thinks God is,
            then I'm fairly sure that I wouldn't believe in him either.
However, Dawkins' God is not the God
            in which I do very firmly believe,
as those of you who have read my poem in this month's Church magazine
            will know by now.

This question of "What God?" is never an easy one to answer,
            because there is none so deceived in this life as thee and me.
The level of self awareness that is required
                        to be honest about our view of God
            is something which most of us, most of the time,
                        find hard to achieve.

And so sometimes we need some help.
Sometimes that help can take the form of a friend,
            someone who comes alongside us and asks us gently
                        why it is that we are finding it so difficult to be tolerant
                        of those who differ from our own perspectives.
In this way they might gently help us towards the insight
            that our own intolerance of others
            has its roots deep in our fear that God will judge us harshly.

An insight such as this, once it has been reached,
            opens the door to the possibility of transformation and change,
            and the friend who helps us gain it is a friend indeed.

But sometimes we need more than a kindly hand on the shoulder
            to release us from our self-deception.
Sometimes we need to be actively shocked from our delusions,
            if we are to have our eyes opened
            to an alternative and more healthy reality.

Think of King David,
            at the depths of his murderous adultery with Bathsheba.
Had the prophet Nathan simply confronted him
                        with a challenge about his behaviour,
            it would, surely, have been,
                        "off with Nathan's head too!"
So Nathan wisely chose a less direct approach,
            and instead of a direct confrontation,
            he simply told David a story, a parable, about two men,
                        one who had everything,
                        and one who had nothing except a tiny little pet lamb
                                    which he loved and kept as part of his household.
When, in Nathan's story, the rich man took the tiny lamb
            from the poor man to cook it for a guest,
                        rather than taking one of his own flocks,
            David was hooked into the story.
Little did he realise, of course that the rich man was him,
            the poor man was Uriah,
            and the little lamb was the beautiful Bathsheba
                        whom he had stolen for himself.
So when David, caught up in the story,
            pronounced that the man who had taken this little lamb deserved to die,
            he was of course condemning himself out of his own mouth.
When Nathan turns to David and says "you are that man",
            the way is open for David's repentance and transformation.

This kind of parable has a name, it is known as a 'juridical' parable.
            These are stories where the reader is forced into the circumstances of the parable,
                        and only once they have become complicit
                                    in passing judgement on characters in the story
                        does the lens drop, and they realise
                                    that they have actually pronounced judgement upon themselves.
Kierkegaard describes these parables as,
            "thoughts which wound from behind".
And this is exactly what we find going on
            in Matthew's version of the parable of the unfaithful servants in the vineyard. 

We know this story so well, don't we?
            A man, a landowner, plants a vineyard,
                        puts a fence around it and leases it to tenants
                        whilst he is away in another country.
            When the time has come for the harvest, he sends his slaves,
                        but they are beaten and killed and stoned.
            So he sends further slaves who are treated in the same way.
            And then finally he sends his son,
                        who is also killed by the tenants. 

This is a story which those listening to Jesus
            would, like us, have found intensely familiar.
Not only did they live in a world of vineyards, tenant farmers, and absentee landlords.
            But also the chief priests and the Pharisees to whom Jesus addressed this parable
                        would have known well the story of the vineyard from Isaiah chapter 5,
            and they would have known that Isaiah's parable
                        draws a clear parallel between the vineyard in the story,
                                    and the nation of Israel.
If you were a first century Jew,
            you heard ‘vineyard’, and you knew that what was meant
            was the nation of Israel, the people of God.
However, the other aspects of the parable that Jesus told
            would have taken rather more thought and creativity to decode.
You see, Jesus' parable is different enough from Isaiah's
            for them to clearly not be the same story,
but it is similar enough for those listening to Jesus
            to think that they might be able to guess
            where he might be going to go with his vineyard story.

Let's hear it as the Chief priests and the Pharisees might have heard it.
            The vineyard is Israel, that much seems clear.

They would probably also have assumed that the landowner was God,
            a reasonable assumption on the basis of Isaiah's parable
                        where the planter of the vineyard is clearly identified as the Lord.
They would probably also have identified the servants of the landowner
            as prophets and messengers sent by God to Israel,
            to call it to fruitfulness.
They may even have seen themselves in this role;
            as the religious custodians of the nation,
                        they and their predecessors had, for generations,
                        been calling for Israel to recover its zeal for the Lord
                                    in the face of the constant pressures and temptations
                                    to compromise and collaborate with whichever imperial power
                                                held sway in the region.
            From the Assyrians to the Babylonians,
                        from the Hasmoneans to the Seleucids to the Romans,
            those who had tended the vineyard of God's people down the centuries
                        had done so by oppressing its people
                        and demanding compromise and tribute at every turn
                                    from those who had been called to be faithful to the Lord
                                                and to the Lord alone.
You can see why the Pharisees and Chief priests liked Jesus’ parable, at least at first.
            The way they heard it, they were the tragic heroes,
                        the ones who suffered for their prophetic task
                                    of calling the nation to faithfulness,
                        in the face of the unfaithful tenants
                                    who repeatedly kept trying to steal
                                    the vineyard of God for themselves. 

So it is no surprise that when Jesus springs his trap, they walk right into it

You see, using this story,
            Jesus has drawn the Pharisees into inadvertently revealing
                        what God it is that they actually believe in,
            because his parable poses the key question
                        of what the appropriate response should be to the problem of human sin.

The question, as Jesus poses it, is this:
            if God looks like the landowner,
                        what will his response be to the avaricious and unfaithful tenants
                        of his vineyard.
And it is at this point that he hears from the Pharisees' own lips
            that they believe in a God of violence and vengeance,
            a God of wrath and retaliation.
The chief priests and the Pharisees believe in a God
            who will kill the unfaithful tenants
            and hand the vineyard over to someone else.

Of course, what they were hoping for here
            was an ending to this story where God takes out his wrath on the Romans,
                        handing the care of God's nation over to the faithful,
                        and previously persecuted, Pharisees.

What they encounter instead
            is a turning of the tables against them,
            as they are revealed to be the unfaithful tenants of the story.

Like David before Nathan
            they have condemned themselves out of their own mouths.
Is it any wonder they start to want to rid themselves of this troublesome man?

These people who have just revealed themselves
            to believe in a God of violence
then do that which comes most naturally to them;
            they opt for a violent solution to their presenting problem.

The Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf,
            whose theology was forged in the crucible of the Croatian civil wars,
                        says that if you believe in a god of violence,
                        you will tend to prefer a violent solution.
And so the Pharisees, having revealed just such a view of God,
            then immediately take the steps required
            to bring the tragic conclusion of Jesus' story into reality,
                        and they start to plot to kill the Son.
In doing so,
            they reveal themselves unambiguously to be the unfaithful tenants,
                        condemned by their own theology
                        to the wrathful judgment of the God they have created. 

Meanwhile, of course,
            the reality inhabited by the Pharisees is not the reality of God.
Because God revealed in Christ Jesus
            is not a God of violence and retribution,
            but a God of peace and forgiveness.

The Pharisees had got God wrong.
            God is not the landowner of Jesus's parable,
                        he does not kill the Jews and take away from them the kingdom of God,
            and any attempt to read this parable in that direction
                        runs a profound risk of capitulating with anti-Semitism.
If the Jewish leaders are condemned,
            it is on the basis of their own theology of condemnation.

God is not the landowner of the Pharisees’ imagining.
            Rather, he is the one who offers forgiveness to those who betray him,
                        the one who reverses the horrific effects
                                    of the worst violence the human heart can conceive
                        by raising his son from death to life.
            And in so doing, opening the door for new life
                        for all those trapped in the psychotic spirals
                        of violence and counter-violence unto death.

This is the God revealed in Jesus,
            and it is a very different God to that feared by the Pharisees.

So, "what God?"

Do we worship a God of violence, or a God of peace,
            do we worship a God of vengeance, or a God of forgiveness?
Do we worship a God of justice, or a God of bloodshed,
            a God of righteousness, or a God of weeping and crying,
as Isaiah posed it?

Well, as Jesus said to his disciples earlier in Matthew's gospel,
            "You will know them by their fruits" (7.16).
Our answer to the "so what" question
            may well offer us our insight into "what God" we actually worship.
It certainly did for the Pharisees,
            who discovered “what God” they believed in
            when they were confronted with their default answer
                        to the question of what the appropriate response should be
                        to the question of human sinfulness,
            encapsulated for them in the horrific actions
                        of the unfaithful and violent tenants. 

But what about us?
We don't live in an agrarian society,
            and analogies based on vineyards don't carry such rhetorical force
                        in our technologized world.

But consider this... 

A man went to a foreign country
            to bring help to those who were suffering there,
            because this country had been torn apart by war for many years.
He was taken prisoner by some of those who lived there,
            people who wanted to take control of the country for themselves.
They brutally murdered the innocent aid worker
            and posted a video of his beheading on the Internet.
Now, what should the leader of that man's country
            do to those who had killed the man?

I suspect that the answer we give to that question
            may tell us more about our view of God than we want to know.

Those who imagine a violent God
            have a predisposition to seeing violence
            as the divinely legitimated solution to human sin,
and those who see violence as the answer
            may well discover that this reveals
            “what God” it is that they worship.

Jesus invites us all to imagine God differently,
            he invites us to step into a world where God is the God of peace and justice,
                        and not the God of vengeance and bloodshed.

So, what answer should we give to the problem of human sinfulness,
            especially when the latest personification of that problem
            is committing terrible atrocities before our very eyes?

Well, our response will be shaped by our view of God.

Is our God a God of war,
            fighting for the right,
            baring his holy arm before the nations in a show of divine defiance,
                        and demanding obedience and compliance to his holy path?
If so, then send in the drones!

But if our God is a god of peace,
            whose response to human violence is to absorb it into his own body,
            and to go to the cross of broken flesh and spilled blood
            to enter into and redeem the worst excesses of human sinfulness,
then we too are called to be people of peace and not war.

This coming week is the Week of Action on Drones,[1]
            and the Times has reported recently that British armed unmanned drones
            may well be in the skies above Iraq before the end of the year.[2]

If we are the people of God,
            then we are the vineyard of the Lord of hosts.
And the words of the prophet Isaiah echo down the millennia to us:

‘He expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
            righteousness, but heard a cry!’.

So what fruit will be found among us?
            “What God” do we worship,
            and “So What?”


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