Sermon 10-04-2020: “Are We a People Producing Fruits?”

Scripture: Matthew 21:33-46

I know that we often think of people in the Bible, our heroes of the faith, as being far more righteous than we are. Consider David; he was a “man after God’s own heart.” He did so many great things for God’s kingdom—he slew Goliath; he wrote most of the church’s prayer book, the Book of Psalms. And yet… he was also an badly flawed sinner. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in his dealings with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah. After David was king, he had an affair with Uriah’s wife and got her pregnant, while Uriah was off fighting in a war as a soldier in David’s army. When David finds that he is unable to cover up his sin, he literally arranges to have Uriah killed in battle. So he takes Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, as his own. 

Mission accomplished, he thinks. “No one found out about my secret sin… I covered it up successfully!” Until… David gets a visit from the prophet Nathan, who tells him a story. It’s about a poor man who, aside from his family, had nothing of value except “one little ewe lamb,” which he loved as much as I love my sweet little English springer spaniel, Ringo. Nathan says that this lamb was like a daughter to him. 

Meanwhile a rich man who lived near the poor man needed to prepare a meal. And even though he was rich and had all the lambs he could ask for, he didn’t want to pay to use one of his own lambs… so he steals the poor man’s lamb and, well… serves the lamb as dinner for his guests at a dinner party.

David, in hearing this story, becomes angry: “As surely as the Lord lives,… any man who would do such a thing deserves to die! He must repay four lambs to the poor man for the one he stole and for having no pity.” At which point, Nathan the prophet says, “You are that man, because you did that and much worse when you committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed!” 

And at that point, David sees how guilty he is of his great sin, he experiences godly sorrow, and he repents.

But do you see how Nathan uses this parable: He lays a trap for David, and David falls into it. “Oh, no! This story is really about me!”

And Jesus does the exact same thing in today’s scripture. Please note: Jesus is not talking to his disciples here. They’re listening to him, of course, but they’re not his main audience. He’s talking to religious leaders in Jerusalem, including chief priests and Pharisees—deeply religious men from different Jewish “denominations,” if you want to think of it that way, who are openly hostile to Jesus’ message; people, indeed, who, in a matter of days, will put Jesus on trial for blasphemy and conspire with the Roman government to have him crucified. 

Jesus lays a trap for them just like Nathan did with David. Let me show you… Jesus tells a parable about a rich landowner who invested his capital in creating and planting a vineyard. He himself leased his land to people who would work the land, grow and harvest the grapes and produce wine to sell. The owner would pay them wages and give them a home to live in, but in return, every year the tenants would turn over the profits to the landowner. 

So when harvest time comes, the landowner sends servants to collect the rent. The tenants were unwilling to pay, so they mistreated and beat the servants, even killed some of them. The landowner sent more servants… with the same result. And he sent more… the same result. Finally—instead of sending in an army to give these wicked tenants the justice they deserved, he sent his son: “They’ll respect my son.” Yeah, right. Instead, they decide to kill him, too. “Come, let us kill him, and we’ll have his inheritance.” In other words, they say, “If we kill him, we’ll take ownership of this land that we merely rent today.”

And you might wonder how likely this is… How does killing the landowner’s son entitle these evil tenants to the son’s inheritance. But… you have to understand something called “squatter’s rights,” which existed in the ancient world. If the landowner fails to collect rent for a certain number of years, the land becomes the property of the tenants who are living on the land. We don’t know how much time has passed, but the landowner hasn’t collected rent for a while. Finally, when the tenants see the son coming—the heir to the property—they likely think that the owner of the property has died, and the son is coming to take possession. By killing him, they think, there won’t be anyone else to claim the vineyard, and all this property will belong to them!

So it’s not unrealistic that evil men might behave this way… But what is unrealistic is the continuing grace and mercy and, above all, patience that the landowner shows to these tenants. Why does he put up with them? Why does he care about them so much? Why does he love them so much. It would only take one servant to get beaten up or killed before—by all rights—the landowner should have punished these tenants. Not to mention multiple groups of servants getting beaten and killed. To say the least, these tenants are taking advantage of the rich man; they are presuming upon his grace, his mercy, his patience. Their behavior is shocking… it’s inexcusable… it’s unheard of!

So when Jesus finally asks these priests and Pharisees the question in verse 40, he has laid the trap, just like Nathan did with David: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

And the religious leaders answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out [or rent out] the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

And Jesus is like, “Exactly… You’re exactly right! That’s exactly what the landowner do!” And then, in verse 43, Jesus’ intentions in telling this parable become clear even to the chief priests and Pharisees, when he says to them, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.”

Now it’s clear what Jesus is getting at: He’s no longer talking about a merciful, gracious, and patient landowner and his wicked, ungrateful tenants who farm the land: He’s talking about his heavenly Father, and his relationship with his people Israel… Jesus is no longer talking about the way tenants have beaten, stoned, and murdered their landlord’s servants: He’s talking about the way God’s people, especially their leaders, like the chief priests and Pharisees, have beaten, stoned, and murdered the prophets whom God sent to them—instead of heeding their warnings to repent. Jesus is no longer talking about a rich man sending his son to die, he’s talking about his heavenly Father sending his only begotten Son to die on the cross!

Finally, when Jesus quotes Psalm 118, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” he’s talking about himself… and he’s pointing to his atoning death on the cross and his resurrection—and he’s telling them that the new people of God will consist of everyone—Jew or Gentile—who “confesses with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in their heart that God raised them from the dead.” The religious leaders probably didn’t understand that part yet—but we do.

My point is, just like Nathan said to David, “You are the man… This is how you behaved,” Jesus is now saying to these religious leaders, “You are these wicked tenants… This is how you behaved.”

So… Jesus’ parable had a specific warning for the religious leaders living in first century Israel. 

And the warning sounded something like this: “You are not bearing fruit the way you’re supposed to. Instead of giving every part of your life in love and service to me and my heavenly Father, you are living to please yourself… Instead of recognizing that everything you possess, including your very life, is a gift from my Father, you act like everything belongs to you—you’re acting like you own your life, instead of understanding that my Father owns you. Instead of fulfilling your special calling to bear witness to the world about who my Father is, you seem intent to exclude most people in the world from being in a relationship with him. Instead of trusting in his grace alone to save you, you’re trusting in your own good works, your own righteousness—without realizing that you are just as much a sinner as many people you look down upon and feel superior to. So you’re going to face God’s judgment in the short run, when the Roman army comes and destroys Jerusalem and the Temple—about 40 years from now. And you’re going to face Final Judgment and be excluded from God’s kingdom eternally… because you won’t repent of your sins.”

In a nutshell, that’s the warning of the parable to the most religious people of Jesus’ day. Is there a warning here for us

Yes! The warning is found on the lips of Jesus’ own enemies in verse 41: “he will let out”—or rent out—“the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” 

And that’s precisely what God has done for us, those of us who have been born again through faith in Christ. We have been made part of God’s new people through faith in his Son. But the expectation on God’s part is… what? That God’s new people would do the same thing that God’s people Israel two-thousand years ago were supposed to be doing: We’re supposed to produce “fruits.” Or else… we risk being cut off in the same way that these chief priests and Pharisees will be cut off unless they repent… That’s a heavy message, I know, but earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about the necessity of his disciples to bear fruit. Listen to what Jesus says: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And by “fire” he’s talking about Final Judgment and hell.

So I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s urgent that we understand what “bearing fruit” looks like—because we need to be doing it!

First, let’s talk about people in Jesus’ day who were bearing the kind of fruit that the Lord requires: If you have your Bibles—and you should—notice two groups of people that Jesus was just talking about in the two verses leading up to today’s scripture passage. Look at verse 31: 

Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

Tax collectors and prostitutes… In the minds of Jews living in Jerusalem in the first century, tax collectors and prostitutes were literally the worst kinds of sinners that Jesus could have named. Yet somehow, Jesus says, they’re producing fruit that was not being produced by the two most outwardly righteous groups of people in the first century that Jesus could name—the chief priests and Pharisees. And this fruit that tax collectors and prostitutes were producing was apparently “good enough” to enable them to enter the kingdom of God. So what was that fruit and how can we make sure that we’re producing it?

Well, notice Jesus says that tax collectors and prostitutes believed the message of John the Baptist. That gives us a clue… because we look at John’s message in Matthew chapter 3: The same kinds of religious people are coming to be baptized by John in the Jordan River, and he says to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Because John and Jesus were on the same page: they both understood the problem with the so-called “righteousness” of religious people. But John says to these religious people: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” 

So what is John saying… and what is Jesus saying… since their message was the same: They’re saying that the kind of fruit that we must produce is fruit in keeping with repentance.

That means, first of all, we realizehow hopeless our situation is—apart from God’s grace. It means we realize that we can do nothing to save ourselves. It means we realize that we can do nothing to make ourselves worthy of admission into heaven?

That’s the first and most important step! And then we look to Jesus, who can give us the grace we need to find forgiveness and have eternal life!

But make no mistake: God’s grace is offensive. It offends people! The message of the cross offends people!

It offended people in Jesus’ day, including the chief priests and Pharisees, who wanted to kill Jesus on the spot; and it offends people today.

If you don’t believe me, let me share this recent example of how offensive the cross is. I follow a Twitter account that’s run by Christians. And what they do is, they take memes that atheists create and post on social media—memes that are intended to make fun of Christianity—but which, ironically,end up showing how amazing Christianity is. Let me give you a great recent example: Two weeks ago, an atheist meme featured a recent picture of David Berkowitz, the infamous “Son of Sam” killer from the ’70s. The picture shows him in prison, smiling and holding a Bible. In small print, the caption reads:

My name is David Berkowitz. I was the most feared man in New York City in the ’70s. Known as “The Son of Sam,” I was the serial killer that murdered six people and wounded ten others. Now in prison for life, I found the love of Jesus.

Then in large print, it reads: “Guess Who’s Getting Into Heaven?” 

Again, an atheist group posted this meme originally. Why? Because they were offended that the gospel of Jesus Christ says that even a former serial killer like Berkowitz—who, in our day, we can all agree is about the worst sinner that anyone could name—I mean, rightly so—but they are offended that someone like him is getting to heaven, because he has sincerely repented and believed in Jesus as his Savior and Lord!

And I mean, this sort of thing happens a lot… Mark David Chapman, the guy who killed John Lennon, is outspoken Christian who believes that his ministry is to his fellow prisoners… And I could hardly be a bigger Beatles fan… Tex Watson, one of the Manson Family members involved in the Tate-LaBianca murders, he’s an outspoken Christian—he runs a ministry from prison.

I hope and believe that these men are sincere in their repentance and faith… and if they are, then by all means, they will spend eternity with Jesus!

Does that offend us? 

Because let’s hand it to the atheists who posted this meme: by posting this meme they have put their finger on the pulse of the gospel, and they have said, “We cannot accept this! If this is what Christianity is all about, I want nothing to do with it! Even if it’s true I want nothing to do with it! Because killers like David Berkowitz deserve nothing but punishment and death for his sins! And if there is a hell”—these atheists might reason—“then people like him ought to go there! And the idea that people like Berkowitz or David Chapman or Tex Watson—among the very worst sinners we could name—the fact that they could go to heaven… It’s not fair!”

And you’ve gotta admit… they’ve got a point, right? Grace offends our sense of fairness!

Meanwhile, you know what I wrote in the comments section of this post about David Berkowitz?

I commented on the meme: “Are you trying to make me love Jesus more?” Because if so… Mission accomplished!

But these atheists are right! In a way, it’s terribly unfair that Berkowitz and David Chapman and Tex Watson, of all people, are going to heaven! Because it’s terribly unfair that Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, who was perfectly loving, who was without sin, choseto go to the cross,willingly and out of a love that we can scarcely comprehend, and received every bit of the capital punishment that these men deserved to receive, and he suffered every bit of the hell that they deserved to suffer—and he gave them—stone-cold killers that they are—new hearts, hearts that are capable of loving God and, yes, doing good works for God’s kingdom!

This is precisely what Jesus means when he says, in verse 43, that we who are his disciples must produce fruit! It offends most people to know that these murderers are forgiven and have eternal life.

But you know who it doesn’t offend? The men who are in prison alongside Berkowitz, Chapman, and Watson! Many of them are happy to know that even former stone-cold killers can find salvation in Christ! That means there’s hope even for sinner like them! 

And to say the least, that means there’s hope for sinners even like you… and me?

Do you know that hope? Do you know why you should have hope? Do you know how you can have hope?

Last week, one of you shared with me the results of a national survey which confirmed what I already know: It said that half of all Americans believe that “a person who is generally good, or does enough good things for others, will earn a place in heaven.” Even 41 percent of people who identify as evangelicals and 70 percent who call themselves Catholic subscribe to this position.

Friends, if that’s true, then it’s obvious that at least half of all Americans—including a majority of people who call themselves Christians of one variety or another—don’t even know what the gospel is.

How is this not an urgent wake-up call? What have we “the church” done wrong that so many people are confused? What can we do to fix it? 

I’m afraid right now that there are people even right here at Toccoa First United Methodist Church who have never truly responded to the gospel… and who, like the chief priests and Pharisees, are counting on the fact that you’re a “good person,” that you’ve done all these good things in your life, that you’re at least a “better person,” in your judgment, than all these other people, and on that basis God will accept you when you face him in Final Judgment.

If that describes you, please repent! When you die and face God in judgment, your only hope is not what you’ve done, but what Christ has done for you! 

You don’t need good works to be saved; you need a new heart to be saved. You need a new birth. And that’s what you only get by trusting in Jesus for your salvation.

There’s an old hymn that puts it well when it says this:

Cast your deadly doing down—

Down at Jesus’ feet

Stand in Him, in Him alone,

Gloriously complete.

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