Welcome, friends. As we journey with Jesus through this Lenten season, Christ is challenging four false assumptions about sin and guilt. Through parable and direct teaching, he insists we all must change – rather than simply looking for others to do so. Click the videos below, as we discover together that, when it comes to scapegoating and blame-shifting, Jesus will have none of it.
Almighty and ever living God, you invite us deeper into your world, your people, your Lent. May this time be one of outward focus; seeking you in those we often ignore. Help us live a Lent focused on freedom, generosity, and encounter. Give us hearts hungry to serve you and those who need what we have to give. Amen.
Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it, cleared away its stones, planted it with excellent vines, built a tower inside it, and dug out a wine vat in it. He expected it to grow good grapes— but it grew rotten grapes. So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes? Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard. I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Common English Bible)
God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel and Judah are the beloved. The Lord graciously chose them, gave them divine promises, and set his steadfast love upon them. God sang over them with affection and took care of them.
The Lord God put time, effort, and love into the relationship. God anticipated good things, looked forward to a bright future, and expected a flowering of justice and righteousness from the people.
It didn’t happen. The relationship went sour. Nothing but rotten grapes.
God builds. God gives. God sustains…. God destructs. God takes away. God ends it.
The Lord didn’t put all that work into the people to have them perpetuate injustice toward the poor and disadvantaged. God didn’t choose Israel so that they would then neglect God’s law by mistreating others and ignoring the right.
The bloodshed of the people was that they squeezed and bled the poor to death. Their cries and anguished responses were ignored. There was no mercy. So, God was not about to idly stand by and let such rotten grapes abuse and ruin the good, the just, and the right.
The relationship between and God and God’s people was an ancient love song that went off key and struck a minor chord. The Lord has extreme love and patience… until he doesn’t. There’s no way the just and right God is going to put up with abusive, ignorant, and bad folks forever.
Jesus had this allegorical image of Isaiah in mind when he spoke in parables about the impossibility of good fruit coming from bad vines and trees, and the necessity of removing dead branches. (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-17)
If the grapes are bad, the vine is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, mean, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.
Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.
Isaiah 1:17, NLT
Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others and act hatefully with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words and actions, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.
The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words with loving deeds wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair for their plump juicy grapes.
The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.
The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.
The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.
The just and right person uses their hands and feet to build good things for others, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us. They willingly meet needs without bitterness or with a begrudging heart.
If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy.
If there is an issue with actions, it will not do to merely enforce a change in behavior. That’s because it’s a heart problem. And the heart desperately needs to acknowledge sin and repent from evil.
Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.
Oftentimes something needs to be destroyed for a building to be erected. There always needs to be a death before there can be a resurrection. New life cannot occur without forsaking an old life.
In this Christian season of Lent, believers in Jesus are mindful that our life of faith, hope, and love comes from a death. So, we journey with Jesus along the road of suffering, up Calvary, and are crucified with him so that we might rise with him.
This is the way.
It is the way of repentance, of genuine change, of new habits, of Christianity. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come. (Hebrews 13:13-14)
May justice, righteousness, and peace be yours in abundance through him who gave himself for us and for our salvation.
“Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out, until you have paid the last penny.” (New International Version)
Relational problems and conflicts are endemic to the human condition. And, along with it, comes our anger.
Sometimes, I wonder if some church buildings have an aisle down the middle, is so that one group of people can avoid associating with the other group, like some childhood bedroom squabble where a line is drawn that the other is not to cross.
I also wonder if all schoolteachers’ lounges are a hot mess of anger. I’ve certainly been in plenty that are. And I don’t really have to wonder if most families have relatives they are estranged from – sometimes for years, even decades. Lord knows I’ve counseled plenty of them.
It’s inevitable that any group of people, complete with individual sinful natures, whether a church, a neighborhood, a family, or a workplace, will experience relational difficulties. After all, we live in a fallen world with a bunch of fallen people.
Relationships are important to God. And we need them. We cannot live without them because we’ve been created in the image and likeness of a relational God. So, God is concerned that we have good relations with one another.
Jesus is in the business of stripping away the layers of self-righteousness and peeling back the built up human rationalizations toward our sour relations with one another. At the heart of it all is our contempt for others and our misplaced anger. The only real solution to it is reconciliation.
Anger in and of itself is neither bad nor good; it just is. It’s a normal human emotional response to injustice. Yet, how we express our anger is very much an ethical affair.
Bitterness, nursing a grudge, bearing resentment, saying speeches to somebody in our heads we will never give, and flipping the finger at someone behind their back is the sort of angry response that completely sours relationships and drives wedges between folks.
Those inner attitudes are the factory where the anger will eventually come out sideways in verbal or even physical violence toward another.
Harboring resentment that comes out in name-calling kills people. And when we verbally decapitate people, there is a mess to clean up. Judgement is the lot for people-bashing. (Matthew 5:21-26)
“The holiness of God is at war with all bitterness and hatred and hurting. And where this holiness collides with our hostility the crash is called the wrath of God. God’s wrath is God’s war of love against everything that unnecessarily hurts others. God’s love would not be love if it did not work to remove all that ungraciously hurts. The wrath of God is the proof of the love of God; God’s love is a love that is not merely sentimental, for it grapples with inhumane forces.”
Frederick Dale Bruner
If you think to yourself that you have a right to nurse a grudge because that other person deserves it, you need to know that your hatred will not go unnoticed by God.
If you have ever wished anyone was dead, hated anyone, treated anyone with contempt and belittled them; then, you have assassinated that person in your heart and come under the judgment of God.
And that’s the reason why we are to work hard at making things right with others.
There is no need for you to live with regret for the rest of your life because of stubbornly refusing to reconcile, and to have to stand before your Creator someday with nothing but hatred and contempt for another person.
Whenever personal relations go wrong, nine cases out of ten, immediate action will usually mend the problem. But the longer it goes, the harder it is to reconcile. The problem grows and festers. Eventually, if reconciliation is not sought, it eventually spirals out of control. Then, there is full blown bitterness in which more people will be hurt.
Bitterness becomes gangrene of the soul. It poisons us within and ends up making trouble for others. Its better to reconcile than to have God amputate a part of you. So, seek amends.
If you become angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin, and do not stay angry all day. Don’t give the Devil a chance…. Get rid of all bitterness, passion, and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort. (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31, GNT)
We always have a choice when relationships are strained: Deal with it immediately, or let it fester. Maybe the reason why so many folks live without peace is that they have chosen unwisely.
Choose wisely, my friend.
Lord God, bring us together as one people, reconciled with you and reconciled with each other – healed, forgiven, and spreading peace rather than enmity, as you called us to do, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.” With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
In that day you will say:
“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.” (New International Version)
The large Old Testament book of Isaiah is thick with a message of judgment for both Israel and the surrounding nations. The sins of ancient Israel, seven-hundred years before the birth of Christ, were many. The primary offenses were injustice toward the needy; the have’s taking advantage of the have-not’s; and empty worship rituals toward God.
Social and spiritual corruption was rampant. God pleaded with the people through the prophets to stop doing wrong and start doing right by encouraging the oppressed and defending the powerless. (Isaiah 1:10-17)
Although God’s judgment was imminent, via the powerful Assyrian Empire, God would not annihilate the people. God promised a Righteous Branch would grow from the seemingly dead stump of Israel. A child will be born, a Messiah given. There will be hope in Israel. Heartfelt praise, and proclamation of God’s great name, will again fill the air.
For me, what is so remarkable about all this is the grace of God. The Lord made promises to Israel not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to the people by God’s own radically free love. This wasn’t a matter of playing Let’s Make a Deal with God saying, “If you get your act together, then I will be good to you.” No, before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be merciful.
I am absolutely convinced with the firmest conviction possible that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are all about God and God’s own unbounded, unfettered, free, crazy, illogical, and wildly wonderful grace. Because God is love, the Lord constantly goes out of the way to be gracious so that we will be together and enjoy our divine/human relationship.
If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation – because only grace can save us. Without grace, we are lost. Today’s Old Testament lesson is full of praise because it’s a response to the undeserved grace which God freely gives.
Any Christian preacher worth their salt is a preacher of grace. Grace is the very thing that is distinctive about Christianity. Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is recklessly generous. Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics. Grace never demands – it only gives.
That is what God did for Israel… and for us. And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, our hearts become bubblers of praise.
The prophecy of Isaiah is an adventure of God’s reckless love toward unlovable people, which is why it is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus. Jesus came because of grace.
Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and our demands to be respected.
Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort to justify and validate ourselves before others. The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer. And with but a glimpse of it, we are forever undone by its mercy.
Grace causes us to praise God.
There was once a pastor who had a three-year old daughter who was going around the house singing the chorus “We Exalt Thee” except that she kept mispronouncing one of the words: “I exhaust thee, I exhaust thee, I exhaust thee, O Lord!” Perhaps she was right. Maybe too many folks are exhausting God with folded arms instead of hands raised in praise and worship.
Grace causes us to trust God.
Grace alleviates our fears. For, if God is for us, who can be against us? God takes care of us despite our weaknesses and failures.
Grace causes us to have joy in God.
With joy we draw water from the wells of salvation. Jesus is the Living Water we can continually draw from and drink. Grace keeps giving without an end in sight. We get to keep coming to God with an inexhaustible supply of fresh grace.
Grace causes us to give thanks to God in prayer.
Gratitude to God ought to characterize our corporate gatherings. Expressing thanks is more than for the individual in their prayer closet – it is to be offered in the gathered assembly of believers. Grace eliminates self-consciousness altogether because there is nothing to be self-conscious about with God. The Lord has seen you at your worst, and still loves you.
What’s more, we need not be self-conscious about appearing ignorant, looking silly, or not having all the answers in making known among the nations what God has done. If we are influenced by grace, then we can freely speak of God to all kinds of people we encounter.
“God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them.”
George Whitefield (1714-1770)
Grace causes us to sing together to God.
When grace takes hold of a congregation, there is no mumbling of songs – there are loud shouts and singing for joy because God is good! God wants some noisy worship!
Grace brings such gladness that we don’t care how we appear to other people; we are going to shout, sing, and express our joy! Yes, there is an important place for contemplative, reverent, and reflective worship. And there is also a place for letting go, becoming unhinged, and dancing before Jesus!
The world mostly ignores God. Even some Christians take God’s grace for granted. Israel’s greatest sin was assuming everything was fine. But it wasn’t. There was no grace. And with no grace there is no God. Eventually, Israel found joy in the most unlikely of places – in exile. God’s grace would transform a terrible time of trouble into raising of voices in song.
Isaiah’s prophecy is about returning to the Lord. The season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness.
Let us, then, return to the Lord. Let us be captivated by grace. Let us renew our love for Jesus. Let us lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us. Let us worship Christ the King. Let us proclaim the name of Jesus as exalted over everything.
Great God of grace, be merciful to us as we limp to you with all of our wounds and brokenness. We have made such a mess of our lives with our bad attitudes, ugly words, selfish actions, and our ignoring of you through it all. So, we come to you with nothing but ourselves in all of our sin. Forgive us, cleanse us, renew us, revive us, refresh us, and reform us according to the ways of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your undeserved grace. We give you praise for the lengths you went to secure our forgiveness. With a joy too deep for words, we humbly offer to you our lives so that the name of Jesus will be exalted in us individually and corporately. Amen.