A Grace Note in a Symphony of Judgment

In music there is a thing called a “grace note.” A grace note is a short little skip of a note attached to the front part of the main note as an embellishment that isn’t part of the melody or harmony. That’s what we have in this morning’s parable from the Gospel according to St. Luke. A tiny little note of grace riding a symphony of judgment. Unlike the musical grace note, this note comes at the end, not the beginning.

With the parables, you always have to pay attention to whom Jesus is speaking. Is it His disciples, the crowds, the religious Pharisees and teachers of the Torah? In this case it’s the people who were gathered in the temple to hear Jesus teach. Off on the sidelines with their ears carefully tuned to Jesus’ every word are the chief priests and the the Torah teachers. They had unsuccessfully tried to trap him, and now they were listening. So you might say that this parable is both heard and overheard. That’s true for us today too.

“A man planted a vineyard.” The people would recognize the vineyard as a picture of Israel, God’s vineyard in Isaiah. The man leased it out to tenant farmers and went away. At harvest time, he sent servants to collect his share. The servants represented the prophets whom God had sent to Israel seeking the fruits of faith and faithfulness. The first servant was beaten and sent away empty handed; the second beaten and humiliated; the third severely wounded.

Then the owner does an outrageous thing. He sends his son. His beloved Son, in case you missed it. Now whom do you suppose this stands for? Somehow the landowner has the idea that the tenants who beat up three of his servants would honor his son. Do you think? If you reject the Word of God through the prophets, do you think you’ll respect the Word of God in the flesh?

The tenants have different ideas. “Let’s kill the son, and the inheritance will be ours.” It sounds farfetched, but perhaps not. If the son was coming to claim his property and was killed, the land would be without owner and revert too the tenants. Kill the son and claim the prize. So that’s what they do. And what will the owner do, Jesus asks. He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.

The people knew exactly what Jesus meant. They are shocked at the thought. “No! Surely not! May it never be!” The thought was unbearable to think. Israel’s favored nation status was coming to an end. Israel was about to kill the Beloved Son of God and wind up losing everything. Israel, the bearer of the mystery of salvation, God’s chosen people, were about to lose their land, the temple, and everything that was theirs by promise, all because they rejected the Son’s authority and refused to deal in faith with the Lord, the owner of the vineyard.
There is a dire warning here. God’s grace is undeserved kindness for Jesus’ sake, not for our own sake. Without Christ, there is no mercy, no grace, no forgiveness, no kindness. We have a new sign and a board with letters now. Someone suggested we put a Bible verse on the sign. I noted the letters were big so they could be read, and you couldn’t put up much of a verse, at least one that would fit. Someone suggested “God loves you.” But that’s not enough. God loves you for the sake of Jesus Christ; He loves you in Jesus’ death and resurrection; He loves you as you are in Christ and covered with Him. And we just don’t have enough lines on the board to cover all that so I guess you’ll have to come inside and listen.

There is a warning for the church, God’s Israel of the new testament, and for all who would rest securely in the “the church, the church” apart from Christ. You can’t have a bride without a groom, and you can’t have a church without the Lord Jesus Christ. The church today that doesn’t proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness, life, and salvation of the sinner has the same fate in store for it as OT Israel.

And we’re also reminded of our own non-necessity. We aren’t owners but tenants, who can be booted off the property without so much as thirty days’ notice. God is perfectly free to entrust the proclamation of the mystery of salvation in Christ to whomever He pleases. That’s why we can say that the Church, as the visible and audible sign of Christ’s saving death will always remain in this world. Our prayer is that we always be a part of it.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of a time when the Lord would do a “new thing.” He would make a way in the wilderness among the wild beasts; he would put water in the dry desert and give drink to His chosen people. Something new. A new covenant, a new chosen people, a new way, built on the old foundation, but new nonetheless. And those who would cling to the old thing will miss it, their ears won’t hear it, their eyes won’t perceive it. Those were the religious of Jesus’ day; and the religious of all stripes in our own day.

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul laid out his religious credentials, and they were mighty impressive – circumcised on the 8th day under the Law of Moses, a card carrying member of the tribe of Benjamin, a “Hebrew of Hebrews” as Paul describes himself. As Jewish as it gets. With regard to the Torah, a Pharisee, trained under the great rabbi Gamaliel. Paul memorized the 613 principles, the 40 kinds of work forbidden on the Sabbath. He was zealous like no other – a persecutor of the church who rounded up Christians in the synagogues and hauled them back to Jerusalem in chains. He was, by his own personal testimony, “blameless” under the law. He kept all 613 principles perfectly and taught others to do the same, and considered those who didn’t to be “sinners” and outcasts.

Then this zealous “Hebrew of Hebrews,” this religious Pharisee encounters the risen Christ on the Damascus road and everything is changed. He counts it all as nothing, loss, literally “raw sewage.” That’s what Paul considered his whole religious life, a bucket of raw sewage, when compared with having Christ, and being found in Him, and having a righteousness that is based not on what you do but on what Jesus has done for you. It means quite literally life from the dead.

That’s what the religious Pharisees missed when they looked at Jesus. They missed the grace note. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” It was right there all along in the psalms. That little note of God’s grace. The messiah of Israel is a rejected messiah, one the architects and builders of Israel thought unfit to be the cornerstone. But not the way God sizes up the angles. The rejected messiah is God’s chosen, beloved Son. And in Him, you are chosen and beloved too, even if the religious world thinks you’re crazy or not doing enough to save yourself.

This Jesus, born of the Virgin, crucified and risen, reigning at the right hand of God, the One who baptizes you and forgives you and feeds you is the rejected Rock of Israel and the Cornerstone of your salvation. Little wonder the religious world has no use for Jesus! Little wonder that His name brings ridicule and persecution! Grace notes never get the attention they deserve.

But don’t be deceived. In the end, the judgment of the world centers entirely on Him and His death which is the judgement of the world. Everyone who falls on the rejected Rock will be broken to bits, and it will crush whomever it falls upon. There is no avoiding this rejected Rock. Oh, you may succeed for a while in this life, but in the end it’s Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. Either fall on Him and be broken to bits in repentance so that will raise you up as surely as He is risen from the dead. Or resist Him and His will to forgive and save you, attempt to justify yourself with your religion, and you will be crushed under the weight of salvation rejected.

Almost every parable has in it something chewy, a little something for the observant of faith. I find it in that crazy plan of the wicked tenants: Let’s kill the son and the inheritance will be ours. Of course, that’s not the way it works. But, in a backhanded way, it’s the way it worked, much like when the crowds yelled, “Let his blood be on us and on our children” as Pilate tried to evade responsibility for Jesus’ death. That is how it works in the upside down economy of God’s grace. In the death of God’s beloved Son is our inheritance and the life of the world. The Son’s rejection is our acceptance, our life. Jesus’ death is the trump card that makes every hand a winner, no matter how big a loser it might have been. Take the biggest loser of a life filled with sin and despair, and it comes up a winner with Jesus’ death laid over it. Religion hates this kind of talk. But to faith, this is a note of sheer Gospel grace in the midst of judgment.

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:22-23)

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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