What does God look like? And what does God desire for the world? In many ways, our whole religion is about responding to these questions. The chief priests and elders in Jerusalem thought they knew all the answers. Sometimes we do. But Jesus always keeps surprising us.
17th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) – Sunday, October 5, 2014 – Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“God Is One of Us”1 – Pastor Evan Davis
What does God look like? You know, our whole religion is about responding to that question.
If he was walking down the street, would we recognize him? And what does his kingdom look like? That too has been asked in century after century. What does God desire for the world? For you and me? For people we’ve never met?
When I was a teenager, one of the things that kept me really, seriously connected to God and helped me develop in faith was hearing real musicians on the radio who actually asked and explored questions about God. My youth group leader played a song that has stuck with me to this day, called “One of Us” sung by Joan Osborne. She asks, “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, tryin’ to make his way home?”
What if God was one of us? What if God came as one of us and did things like touch lepers and bless prostitutes? What if he dined with sinners and tax collectors? What if he worked on the Sabbath? What if he fed all the undeserving masses? What if he laid out the welcome mat for Gentiles crossing the border into sacred Israel? What preposterous questions! …so thought the chief priests and elders of the people. They’d been in a nearly non-stop argument with Jesus since he showed up in Jerusalem on a donkey while people waved palm branches as he passed by. They knew that God was so holy, so untouchable, so beyond our world that anyone who would describe God in human terms was guilty of the greatest blasphemy. They also knew that they were in charge. They were in charge of defining for the people of Israel who God is, what God is like, what God desires, what his kingdom was all about. They were, in their minds and in the minds of most people, literally the people with all the answers. It was like a landowner had left and put them in charge of the whole vineyard.
Oh wait, somebody else made that connection too! In the heat of his 9-round debate with the temple authorities, Jesus takes that story from Isaiah (that we heard today) about the vineyard Israel that doesn’t produce, a story he knew his opponents would immediately recognize, and Jesus plays with it to drive home his point. There were tenants who had been put in charge of the vineyard but acted like they owned the place, which is what they desperately desired. They beat, stoned, and killed the servants of the landowner, and even his son, thinking somehow this would mean they could, by a legal technicality, take ownership. It’s a pretty bad plan. I mean, what judge is giving them the property?
And as Ira Brent Driggers points out, it’s not that the priests and elders don’t get the parable.2 They just don’t agree with Jesus about who the characters are. They thought of themselves as the faithful ones. So they felt quite secure that in Jesus’ little story they were the mistreated servants of the landowner (or even his son? or even sometimes the landowner himself?), constantly opposed by the wretched tenants. They worked so hard to keep Israel in line, inside of the holiness they defined and controlled. Shouldn’t they get some credit? Shouldn’t this blaspheming Galilean show some respect? They see Jesus as the usurping tenant, not the very son of the landowner, the Son of the Father, the presence of God in their midst. That’s why they could reply with gusto to Jesus, yes, put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to tenants who would actually give the correct produce to the landowner! After all, that’s exactly what they were plotting right then and there to do….to put Jesus, that wretched tenant, to a miserable death on a cross.
But God was one of us, and they couldn’t see it. They couldn’t see that a poor, homeless, wandering preacher from a one-horse town like Nazareth in Galilee was truly the Son of the Father. That his barrier-breaking, sinner-including, food-for-all, Gentile-welcoming message was the very will of God for the world. That the fruits of his ministry were the produce that God really desired from his vineyard. They couldn’t see it because, as Driggers points out, “the restoration of God’s creation meets opposition from those with a vested interest in the brokenness of this world.”3 They liked things just the way they were – with them in charge. They had made God into their own image, and they weren’t about to allow themselves to be transformed by Jesus, who actually was the image of God.
So here’s the question: are we ready to accept that God was one of us? That God could be so scandalous? So vulnerable? And if Jesus still comes to us as the least of these, as the one who is hungry, or angry, or in prison, or sick, can we see him? Can we hear his voice still speaking today? Who are we in this story? And whom do we think we are?
We are blessed to look back at this story from the other side of the resurrection. When Jesus really wanted to stick it to the priests and elders, he quoted the 118th psalm, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” He’s basically saying, the one you have rejected, God has not. When Jesus is raised up on a cross, and then raised up from the dead by his Father, and becomes the cornerstone, we all get to see who he really is, and therefore who God is. We get to see, clearly, that God can be known mostly fully and clearly in the person of Jesus – the one who dined with sinners, the one who welcomed foreigners, the one who blessed prostitutes and fed the multitudes. And Jesus says that when he is raised to become the cornerstone he’s not sending anyone to a miserable death, he’s just taking the kingdom out of the hands of those who cannot see God at all. They’re not in charge of the answers anymore. They don’t get to charge admission to the kingdom anymore. God gives the kingdom to all who see what God is up to in Jesus.
So yes, through the witness of the church we have seen the rejected stone risen as the cornerstone of heaven and earth. We know who God is. We see him washing over us, broken for us, poured out for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Sometimes we are servants of God, serving in the Way of Jesus, scorned by wicked tenants. But we are also sometimes tenants who cannot recognize God’s many servants, and sometimes I’m sure we walk right by God’s Son without thinking twice.
Can we see when God comes to us as the stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home? Asking us for money? As the person who challenges us with new perspectives? As the one we have mistreated? As the one who needs to be seen and heard? And yes, as the one who seems sent from heaven directly into our lives right when we needed him or her.
Hear today that God recognizes you. Know that our God the landowner saw his servants beaten and killed and still sent more, and then even sent his son, knowing they would take his life. God will keep showing up in your life at unexpected times. Though we may sometimes miss God right in front of us, God will keep on coming, keep on showing up with an invitation to work together in the vineyard. Because while God doesn’t need us, God wants us to be the ones who recognize him and work with him. So we will keep our eyes open for God who is one of us in Jesus Christ, the One who looks always like love in action. Let me know if you see him! Amen.
1Credit goes here to Joan Osborne for her 1995 song, “One of Us,” which inspired this sermon. The song was written by Eric Bazilian. Background information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_of_Us_(Joan_Osborne_song)
2Ira Brent Driggers, Commentary on Matthew 21:33-46, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=145 (accessed October 4, 2014).