Return to us and Save Us Oh Lord! (Ps. 80:7-15; Isa. 5:1-7; Matt. 21:33-46)

This Sermon was preached at East Chestnut Street Mennonite church on October 2, 2011
by Nelson Okanya

The title of the message today came from reading and reflecting on the three texts listed in the bulletin this morning; Psalm 80:7-15; Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46. Immediately I began reading Psalm 80, I was captured by the community’s cry to God. They were in a desolate situation with no relief in sight. Their only hope was in God’s rescue. Their cry for restoration reminded me of our own status as a world community. Today on this world communion day as we gather around the table in remembrance of our Lord Jesus who gave his life for the salvation of the world we also cry out to God, joining our voices with this worshipping community in Psalm 80 saying, “Restore us, God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”

We live in a troubled world. Recent events have reminded us that in spite of all the impressive progress we have made as humans, we are still vulnerable. For example, a slight movement of the earth left us all scared and scarring for shelter. Last year’s devastation from the earthquake in Haiti was a stark reminder of our vulnerability. A similar event occurred in many other countries as well. In addition to natural disasters, there are human made suffering from injustice, war, selfishness and greed here at home and around the world. People in our own communities are still recovering from the recent floods that destroyed their homes, took lives and left them without hope. These and many other devastations in the world ought to lead us to join with the community in this psalm and cry for God’s salvation. But as I read the psalm and reflected on the life of tthat community especially as I read the next text, it was clear that things weren’t always that desperate for God’s people.

Isaiah 5:1-2 describes a wonderful relationship between God and his beloved vineyard, the prophet speaking on behalf of God wrote, “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it, and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, he hewed out a wine in it.” This farmer did all the right things for the vineyard. But as we read further, things begins took a turn in the opposite direction.

The farmer came to harvest the grapes but instead of getting what he expected after hard labor, found fruit but was not pleased by the fruit the vineyard had produced. The pleasant description of the vineyard in the first two verses was replaced by negative description; disappointment, rejection and judgment became the new descriptive words.
At the end of the text, the situation got worse. Not only was the owner of the vineyard frustrated, he became harsh in tone, decided to withdraw his protection and abandoned the vineyard. The text tells us that the resulting situation was caused by the vineyard’s failure not to produce fruit, but to produce or yield the kind of fruit the owner expected. The text then explains in clear terms that the vineyard is Israel and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting. God was disappointed with the fruit that Israel had brought forth; God expected justice and righteousness but found injustice and un-righteousness.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann brings this poem home to us by naming the expected fruit and what God actually found in away that ought to cause us to reflect on our ministry as local churches and as mission agencies.

He writes, “The two terms together (justice and righteousness) concern Yahweh’s command to Israel, that Israel should be a community that practiced generative, positive social relationships without abuse or exploitation. That command and expectation of Yahweh, however, are profoundly disappointed by the course of Israel’s life. Israel has not produced justice but bloodshed. The term bloodshed…means the “outpouring,” thus the outpouring of lifeblood through exploitative social practice; that is the kinds of economic transactions that abuse, injure and slowly bleed the poor to death…. Yahweh expected righteousness, that is equitable to, generative social relations; but instead Israel produced “outcry”, that is, the feeble social protests of those who are victimized by rapacious social policy. The prophet is not content to speak generally of injustice and unrighteousness, but takes up terms that are brutally concrete in asserting that Israel has completely reneged on the most elementary social relations between the powerful and the powerless that Yahweh “expects” from this beloved people. It is no wonder that the vineyard is abandoned to destruction.” (Walter Bruegemann, Isaiah 1-39: Westminster John Knox Press 1989 pg. 48)

This text ought to remind us of our work as the body of Christ. It is not just enough that we are bearing fruit, but rather whether the fruit we are bearing pleases the Lord. In the ministry of Jesus the parable of the tenants and the Son reflects this same theme. The focus here now is not on the vineyard but rather on the owner’s son who is murdered by the tenants after the killing of the previously sent slaves. When Israel failed to produce the kinds of fruit God expected, God kept his word and still sent forth the prophets to remind them to return to the covenant faithfulness and therefore produce the kinds of fruit the Lord expected but they grabbed them and killed them one after another.

It was now Jesus’ turn to claim his father’s rightful property; and the rebellious tenants were ready once again to kill him. This was Jesus’ point in the parable and the religious authorities got what he was saying and attempted to arrest him there and then but refrained for fear of the people that had regarded him as a prophet. In Isaiah, God planted Israel like a vineyard, watched over her with hopes that good grapes would come forth but in the end the grapes that came forth were wild; Israel had gone bad like wild grapes despite the care given by God. All that was abandonment and judgment; the vineyard was broken down, and wild animals came and took over, heathen people exiled the community. But, these people remembered their God amidst distress and cried out for salvation. In the same way, as God’s people in mission, we ought to cry for God’s salvation that we may be transformed and be ready to bear acceptable fruit to our Lord. We must remember that although the Lord may be frustrated by us, God will not abandon us all together and hence the need for messengers to go forth to our communities and around the world with the Good news of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the stone that was rejected but has become the corners stone. God’s anointed one was sent forth to rescue the world and hence bear the fruit that are acceptable to God. He is the one who commissioned us to go forth and produce the fruit of the kingdom, which includes, justice and righteousness, what kinds of fruit are we producing? Are we ready to turn over the ministry to the Son or are we holding on to our kind of fruit and therefore reject him? Let us draw near this morning in our remembrance of him who died for us and left us this table to remember his whole story until he returns. As we do that, ask yourself what way God is sending you as messenger of the kingdom in your community and around the world.
Amen!

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