The Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost October 5, 2008
17, 404, 443, 48
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Now let me sing to my Well-beloved a song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard: My Well-beloved has a vineyard on a very fruitful hill. He dug it up and cleared out its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, and also made a winepress in it; so He expected it to bring forth good grapes, but it brought forth wild grapes. “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, please, between Me and My vineyard. What more could have been done to My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; and break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned or dug, but there shall come up briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it.” For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; for righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.
In Christ Jesus, who is always faithful even when we are not, dear fellow Christians:
If you’re a gardener, this time of year is the moment of truth. As the growing season comes to an end, you take stock of how things went. Did the Miracle-Gro do its job? Did the new variety of beefsteak tomato produce the gigantic fruit pictured on the seed packet? Was there a bumper crop of peas, or did the deer nibble off the vines before you could get your hands on them? If the garden did well you will try to duplicate your efforts next year. If not, you will want to figure out why and make corrections. We want to see results from all the hours spent planting and weeding, not to mention the blisters and mosquito bites.
God, too, is a gardener. But He is much more than just an average one. He is passionate about His vineyard! No amount of work or expense is too much to invest. He puts all His effort into it, and wants nothing but the best results. But His vineyard was not producing. He asked the people of Judah and Jerusalem why that was. He wasn’t asking for advice. He wanted the people to look at their own lives and hearts for God’s vineyard was His people of Israel. Today the Lord leads us to look at ourselves and ask the same question: “Why aren’t we more fruitful?”
Did the problem lie with God? Had He forgotten or neglected something in His gardening? Not at all! If you have ever seen the vineyards of California you know how well cared for they are. It’s a beautiful sight: rolling hills covered with terraces of grape vines planted in neat rows. Each vine is perfectly spaced, pruned, and trained to grow on its support. There is not a weed to be seen. Everything possible is done for the vines.
God did the same for His vineyard. He cleared it of rocks, loosened the soil, planted the very best vines, protected it with a watch tower, and made a winepress for the grapes. It is a beautiful picture of His love for Israel. The Lord rescued them from slavery in Egypt, led them through the wilderness, drove out their enemies, and planted them in Canaan, a land “flowing with milk and honey” (cf. Exodus 3:8, etc.)
He hedged them in and protected them as His own special people. He provided them with prophets and priests who spoke His Word, and reminded the people of His promise to send a Savior to be born from their nation. He asked the people, “What more could I have done for you?” He had blessed Israel in every conceivable way! There was unlimited potential for a bumper crop of spiritual fruit.
What more could God have done for us? He broke up our stony hearts and planted the seed of faith. Throughout the years He has lovingly nurtured that tender plant. He loved us so much, that He sacrificed His holy Son so that we would not have to die eternally. He declares us to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people. He gives us a fuller revelation of Himself in His Word than He gave to the Old Testament Church.
He has given us the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to create and sustain faith. He gives us the freedom to worship together without fear of arrest or torture. He preserves our earthly lives by providing health, jobs, families, and friends. Think about it—did God miss anything? Did He leave anything undone? No! He did everything needed for an incredible crop of fruit in us. Why aren’t we more fruitful? It is certainly not God’s fault!
If you had spared no expense or effort in planting and caring for a vineyard, you would naturally anticipate a great harvest of large heavy clusters of sweet, plump grapes. The Lord looked for that kind of fruit in Israel. He expected that the love He had shown would produce the fruit of loving obedience and love for one’s neighbor. But it didn’t. Instead, all He found were wild, sour grapes. “He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; for righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.” [v.7]
The people were filled with greed, and took advantage of others to add field to field and house to house to their possessions. Some got up early to drink and didn’t stop until they collapsed in a drunken stupor late at night, only to repeat the cycle the next day. They lived for immoral pleasures and mocked God. They accepted bribes and denied justice to the innocent. They rejected the prophets God sent to warn them. Tradition says that Jeremiah was stoned to death and Isaiah was sawed in two by King Manasseh. Centuries later they even crucified God’s Son. Israel despised all that God had done for them.
Because of that the Lord would abandon His vineyard. He would take away its protective wall, so that the vines would be trampled. He would no longer send the showers of His blessings. The vineyard would die. Only weeds and thorns would grow. Jerusalem would be ransacked and looted. The temple would be leveled and the people would be carried into captivity.
How fruitful are we? Does the Lord see huge clusters of juicy, ripe grapes in every area of our lives? Do we give Him the first fruits of our time? Every minute and every breath we take is a gift from God, but how much of that time do we devote to praising Him? Do we set aside time each day for prayer and Bible study, or is that time pre-empted by work, TV, or other activities? How many minutes did you spend with the Lord yesterday—60, 30, 10, none? What about our hearts? What is your “passion”? What gets you excited and motivated? For what would you sacrifice your time? What do you like to talk about? Is it the Lord or things like football and our newest possession? Are we eager to serve the Lord with all of our talents or have we become lukewarm like the Laodiceans of Revelation (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)? How do we use the money the Lord gives? It still belongs to Him. We are simply His managers for a time. Do we budget for the Lord first and produce the fruit of willing, generous offerings for His work? Or do we hold back, anxious that there might not be enough left for us? What about our congregation and church body? Does the Lord find a bumper crop of ripe fruit or just a few shriveled sour grapes?
We haven’t produced as we ought to have. The fruits have not been there in the measure God has a right to expect. Why not? Various excuses could be made. We could argue that God has given us too much to do. We’re too busy to think about fruits of faith. Or we could say that we don’t have the opportunities, or that it is too hard to love and get along with certain people. We could even use the Gospel as an excuse and defend our lack of fruitfulness by saying that since we are saved by grace alone through faith alone and not by works,. fruits are not important.
The truth is, there is no excuse. We have fallen short of being the fruitful branches the Lord wants us to be. Fruits don’t save us, but they are still a vital part of the Christian life. They are the evidence of a living faith in the heart. Jesus says, “Every good tree bears good fruit…Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:17). James wrote that faith without works is dead (cf. James 2:17). Yet we have to confess with Paul: “The good I want to do, I don’t do. The evil I don’t want to do, that’s what I keep on doing” (cf. Romans 7:19). We deserve to be abandoned to eternal death as much as anyone. Why aren’t we more fruitful? The fault is ours. We have no excuse.
God desires to find fruit. Why aren’t we more fruitful? How do we become more fruitful? Could Israel try harder and make things up with God? Can we reach deep down inside ourselves and with our own sheer self-determination produce God-pleasing fruit? We can’t. We would fall flat on our faces. “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV). We have no strength in ourselves.
Our hope is in God’s mercy. Even when we are faithless, God remains faithful. There is no situation so hopeless, no life so bad, no opportunity so wasted that the Lord cannot rescue and renew. Even though Israel had turned her back on the Lord, He still said, “If My people…will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14ff). We look at the puny, pitiful fruit we produce and it emphasizes our unworthiness. We cannot produce good fruit on our own.
We need to be attached to Jesus—the Vine. He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God for us. He is our peace and forgiveness. We draw life and strength from Him. He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches…No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me…If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit…This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be My disciples” (John 15:5ff NIV).
The more we are in Jesus, the more fruit there will be. Look to His Word and what He has done and the fruits will naturally follow—fruits like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). Christ living in us by the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to say, “no” to sin, to forgive rather than hold a grudge, to be gentle rather than impatient, and to be self-giving rather than self-centered. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV). Those works are never guilt-driven, but love-induced. “Christ’s love compels us,” Paul says (2 Corinthians 5:14).
Why aren’t we more fruitful? The problem is not God. His love and faithfulness are unwavering. He has done everything needed for an incredible harvest of righteousness. The fault is ours. We have no excuse. We have not lived up to our high calling as God’s holy people.
But praise God for His continuing grace in Christ Jesus! He invites us to come to Him anytime and anyplace with all our sins, confess them, and receive full forgiveness. “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20). “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). And where there is forgiveness and faith, there will be fruits.
May the beautiful song of God’s love for His vineyard play over and over again in our hearts. Then when the owner of the vineyard comes looking for the grapes which He has prepared for and has a right to expect, may He find them…May they be us! Amen.
For souls redeemed, for sins forgiven,
For Means of Grace and hopes of heaven,
What can to Thee, O Lord, be given,
Who givest all?
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.