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Matthew 21:33-43

I can remember visiting several vineyards around Santiago, Chile in 2007. I was there for a five-week Spanish-immersion program, and we would take excursions on the weekends. Since Chile is known for its wineries, the group I was with decided to go do some taste testing.

I like vineyards. I am not a wine connoisseur, but what attracts me to vineyards is how much hard work and delicate management goes into producing a glass of wine. They type of soil the vine is planted in. The exact time when the grapes are harvested. The fermentation process.

I guess the wine was good wine. I only buy $5 bottles of wine on occasion. But it must have been high quality, for these wineries were still going after a hundred years. Obviously, the vineyards they tended produced good fruit.

The parable before us today likens the kingdom of God to a vineyard. In Isaiah 5 God describes Israel as a succulent and ready-to-be-harvested vineyard. Israel is God’s own vineyard, and he gave her everything she needed to be prosperous.

But rather than producing a good harvest, Israel yielded only a bad crop, although God had set her up for success. Where God looked for “justice”, he found “bloodshed”. Where he looked for “righteousness” he found “cries of distress”. So, eventually God decided to tear Israel down and give it to the believing Gentiles.

We, in this congregation, are part of God’s New Testament vineyard. We are not the only vineyard on earth, but we are one of them, for God’s vineyard is his kingdom made up of believers who gather to hear his Word. Through this Word God rules their hearts. And his desire is to see fruits of faith spring forth.

The landowner in this parable is God. Notice how God entrusts an already-built-vineyard to the tenants. The tenants don’t construct or purchase the vineyard. It is provided for them. All the landowner does is ask that the tenants work the vineyard so that it has success.

The tenants, or workers, are the individual people who lead the church. Specifically, the pastors and lay leaders. In Jesus’ time it was the priests and the teachers of the law. They were the ones to whom God had entrusted the well-being of Israel. But they failed at cultivating the hearts of the people, so that throughout Israel’s history God’s chosen vineyard had primarily produced only sour grapes.

And this was the status of Israel in Jesus’ day. The religious leadership would have disagreed with such an assessment, but that was entirely the problem. So, Jesus speaks to them directly and says, “Not only did your forefathers reject and mistreat God’s prophets, but you also have done the same thing. You are the wicked tenants of this parable. And in a short while you are also going to kill the son.”

Verses 34 and following: “When the harvest time approached, he [the landowner] sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit [notice that it is his fruit, not the tenants’ fruit]. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other. ‘This the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”

Now, why would Jesus speak so directly to the leaders of Israel? Because they lacked self-awareness. They had forgotten that the vineyard they were tending was God’s vineyard and not their own. They were just the tenants whose job was to work the vineyard so that it produced fruit for the landowner. That is also our task today.

You and I are very privileged to be able to take care of this congregation and this building. It is not our congregation, and it is not even our building. It is our church in that legally it belongs to us and not to another human entity. It is our church in that God has entrusted it to us. But the vineyard is still his. We are just the tenants.

Now, why does the landowner entrust his vineyard to the tenants? Because obviously he is looking for a harvest. It takes work to yield a good harvest. It takes a conscious effort to live a life that bears fruits of faith. This stuff doesn’t just happen automatically. If you don’t carefully cultivate a vineyard the grapes are going to be bad. And if you are the steward, the owner is going to replace you and give the vineyard to someone else to manage.

Jesus tells the Jews in this parable that God will hold accountable all those who mismanage his vineyard. Actually, Jesus doesn’t tell them that at all. They end up saying it themselves. In verse 40 Jesus asks them, “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time” (vv. 40, 41).

The religious leaders themselves said that! So, Jesus warns them, “Watch out! Have you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes’? … He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed’” (vv. 42-44).

Jesus is the stone the builders rejected. If God’s kingdom is his beloved church, the Jews tried to build God’s church without Jesus. They rejected Jesus, the capstone, or the cornerstone—the most important stone of the building from which everything else is measured and built. Well, you’re not going to get a building built without the cornerstone. Neither will you have a real church without Jesus. You will have a dead church. You will have a dead vineyard. But not one that produces fruit.

Because the greatest fruit that God looks for in his vineyard is the fruit of faith. Where faith is truly found an abundance of other fruit follows. An entire harvest of grapes! Jesus is saying to these church leaders, “Look, my Father put you in charge. He’s given you everything you need. All he asks is that you work the vineyard. All he asks is that you build the church upon me, God’s Son and your Savior. Yet you refuse. You think it is your vineyard. You think it is your church. And so, God will give it to someone else.”

Immanuel Ev. Lutheran Church has existed for more than 125 years. We give thanks to God for the previous generations that took care of and cultivated this congregation by building it upon Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of our faith. We especially give thanks to God for the many pastors, teachers and lay leaders who have tended the vineyard here in Waukegan so that it is still producing fruit.

Is it producing as much fruit? I don’t think that is the issue to God. There is no talk about quantity in this parable. The landowner doesn’t punish the tenants and take the vineyard away from them due to there not being enough grapes. We don’t even know how large or small this vineyard was.

The thing that really becomes the last straw for the landowner is how the tenants treat his son. For, you notice, he doesn’t take the vineyard away when the tenants mistreat the servants. I’m sure Immanuel has mistreated its pastors and leaders over the years. God has blessed this group of families despite that. But what about the Son?

Loved ones, the key to cultivating God’s vineyard here in Waukegan is to remember that it is not ours to do with as we wish. It is God’s church, and the people are God’s people. And some of those people aren’t even a part of our congregation yet, but they will be as we continue to work the vineyard.

But a church without Jesus is a dead vineyard. God the Father sent his Son into the world so that the world would embrace him. The Son still comes to the world through Word and sacrament. May we never despise him. Rather, as faithful workers who have been entrusted with the care and cultivation of God’s kingdom here in the world, may we receive the Son with hearts of faith and share him with others.

Notice how patient God is with the tenants in this parable, even though they are not good tenants! He sends servant after servant to them until he finally sends his son. Notice how patient God was with Old Testament Israel even though they were unfaithful workers. He sent prophet after prophet to them until finally he sent his Son.

And consider how patient God has been with Immanuel. Consider how patient God has been with you and your family (and with mine). He has sent us messenger after messenger. Pastor after pastor. Leader after leader. And he still, daily and weekly, sends us his Son to forgive us our sins.

What a gracious God we have. He not only gives us the kingdom; he gives us the privilege of working in it. And he is patient with us. He is patient in receiving his fruit, whether that fruit be our individual fruits of faith or our collective crop as a congregation of believers.

So, let’s get to work! Let us cultivate his kingdom. Let’s cultivate our own relationship with Jesus. Let’s cultivate our family’s relationship with Jesus. Strong families make for strong churches. When we cultivate ourselves, we cultivate God’s kingdom. And God takes care of the rest. He takes care of enlarging his vineyard whether in size or in quality. We will either grow in size as a congregation or we will grow in quality (maturity) as a congregation. Hopefully both! But either way God will make it grow. He’ll produce the fruit. It’s his vineyard. It is his fruit. God grant that he finds an abundance of it when he sends his Son a second time on the Last Day. Amen.