If you have a Bible with you, please open it to Luke 20.
We've been going behind the scenes this Christmas. The Christmas story is astounding, but I find that I'm so familiar with it that it's easy to lose the wonder of what really happened. That's why this year, we've been going behind the scenes. We've been looking at the rest of the story.
If you were here two weeks ago, we looked at the fact that Jesus came at just the right time. Conditions were perfect; God said, "It's time." Last week, we looked at the generosity of Jesus in coming to earth. He was rich - we looked at how rich - yet for our sakes, he became poor.
Today we're going to look at another story behind the story. It's not usually one that we think of at Christmas, but it does capture the big picture behind why Jesus came to earth. It also warns us of the greatest danger that we face as we approach Christmas.
Let me give you some background to the story. It was the last week of Jesus' earthly life. Jesus knew that his death was imminent. He was constantly clashing with the religious leaders of the day. Right before he told this story, the religious leaders questioned Jesus' authority. They asked him, ""By whose authority did you drive out the merchants from the Temple? Who gave you such authority?" (Luke 20:2). They were challenging his ministry.
Jesus responded, and then told the story we're about to read. Jesus told a lot of parables and stories. This one is almost allegorical. It answers their objections, but it also gives us the reason he came to earth. The story was so direct, that everyone seemed to understand what it meant right away. We don't usually think of it in terms of Christmas, but it's easy to see how it relates. Let's try to unpack it and see how it applies to Christmas.
Verse 9 says, "Now Jesus turned to the people again and told them this story: 'A man planted a vineyard, leased it out to tenant farmers, and moved to another country to live for several years.'" The whole act of planting a vineyard was an act of faith for the landowner. It used untried soil, and involved great expense. You had to build a winepress and a watchtower. It would take four years of cultivation before the vines began to bear grapes. It was definitely a long-term venture.
The landowner would support the farmers, buy manure and supplies, hoping that in the fifth year he might turn a profit. While the vineyard was being cultivated, the man would probably not be in close contact. In this case, he disappeared for a few years. Let's see what happens after that period is over.
Verse 10 says, "At grape-picking time, he sent one of his servants to collect his share of the crop. But the farmers attacked the servant, beat him up, and sent him back empty-handed." This is probably the fifth year now. The servant shows up to receive the income from the vineyard. Contacts between the owner and the tenants had probably been minimal. You can see how bad attitudes may have developed: "We've done all the work. He hasn't even called, except to collect the money."
The landowner wasn't even asking for a lot: just a sample of the fruit. But it didn't go well at all. We don't know why there was such hostility; they probably thought they owned the land. Things continued to escalate. Verses 11-12: "So the owner sent another servant, but the same thing happened; he was beaten up and treated shamefully, and he went away empty-handed. A third man was sent and the same thing happened. He, too, was wounded and chased away."
This story is also included in two other Gospels. They probably came with copies of the original agreement, which spelled out the terms of the relationship. In Mark's account, more servants were sent, and some of them were even killed. The message: the tenants had no intention of paying the income from the harvest. They were claiming possession of the crop.
Question: What would you have done? I know what I would have done. There were lots of options. The man who owned the land could have met force with force. I would have hired some mercenaries or something. He could have declared the contract null and void, as the farmers had done. He could have pursued legal options. But that's not what he did.
The man thought, "The problem is that they think they're the rightful possessors of the property. Surely, when they're confronted with somebody from my family, they'll recognize my authority and finally respect the agreement." He did the unimaginable: instead of meeting them with force or hostility, he sent his son.
Verse 13 says, "'What will I do?' the owner asked himself. 'I know! I'll send my cherished son. Surely they will respect him.'" You know what's going to happen next, don't you? Verses 14-15: "But when the farmers saw his son, they said to each other, 'Here comes the heir to this estate. Let's kill him and get the estate for ourselves!' So they dragged him out of the vineyard and murdered him."
It's possible that when they saw the son coming, they guessed that the owner had died, and the son had taken his place. If that were the case, then little would stand in the way of full possession of the vineyard if the son was out of the way. They could say, "We haven't paid rent in years; the legitimate owner has died; we've cultivated the crops; it's ours."
So they kill the son and take inheritance. But they don't kill him within the vineyard; they kill him outside, so that they don't defile the vineyard. They killed him, and then they left the body just lying there.
They made a terrible mistake. They had gone to far. Finally, the owner's patience finally ran out. Verse 15 says, "'What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do to those farmers?' Jesus asked. 'I'll tell you-he will come and kill them all and lease the vineyard to others.'" He did what I probably would have done in the first place.
The people to whom Jesus told this story immediately got the point. Verse 16 says, "'But God forbid that such a thing should ever happen,' his listeners protested." It's not a happy story. It's not one you would pick to read on Christmas morning. But the religious leaders got the point. Verse 19: "When the teachers of religious law and the leading priests heard this story, they wanted to arrest Jesus immediately because they realized he was pointing at them-that they were the farmers in the story."
The Story Behind the Story
Jesus was saying, "Let me give you the story behind my arrival in earth. Let me give you the story behind Christmas."
From the creation of the world, God's desire has always been to be in relationship with us as people. If you read the Bible, from Genesis 3 on, it's the story of us resisting God and fighting him. Even today: our lives are generally in opposition to God.
But God didn't leave us alone. The Bible is full of stories of God sending his servants - prophets, teachers, leaders - to his people, so that his relationship with us could be restored.
Here's the Bible in a nutshell: God reaches out, we reject him, God reaches out again. Next chapter: God reaches out, we reject him, God reaches out again. That's a pretty good summary of the Bible from Genesis 3 to the end of the Old Testament. It's our pattern time after time. And yet God continues to reach out, he continues to send his servants and his prophets.
How were the prophets received? Not too well. They were stoned, killed by sword, put in stocks, beheaded. They were sawn in half. Hebrews 11:38 says, "The world was not worthy of them." Tradition says that most prophets ended up being killed. If God picked you to be a prophet, you'd pretty well know how it was going to end up. "We've never yet had a prophet who outlived the pension plan."
Time after time, God reaches out, and time after time, we reject him. How did God, who created this world perfect, and us sinless, react to this continual rejection? Not by breaking the relationship with us. Not by meeting force with force. He responded by sending his Son - his only begotten Son (means: "o ne and only" - used of an only child, unique, highly praised).
This is the story behind Christmas: God said, "Nothing else had worked. I'm not ready to give up yet. Maybe they'll listen to my Son. Maybe they'll recognize his authority."
Here's what's amazing. God could have said, "I've sent all these others, they rejected them; surely they will reject my Son too. They don't deserve another chance." God knew Jesus would face rejection and death, but he sent him anyway.
Christmas is all about the seemingly unending patience of God that's extended to those who oppose him - a patience that ends only when we reject his greatest gift, the gift of his one and only Son.
God said, "Even though they've rejected me, I'll send my Son -that which is most precious and unique to me - so that I can have a relationship with them."
There's another verse that fleshes this out some more. 1 John 4:9-10 says, "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."
"Showed his love" literally means to reveal something that was previously hidden. That's what Christmas is about. It's the unveiling of God's heart. It's something that God has never done before. He never did it for the angels. But for us, he sent his Son, his one and only Son. God's love for us initiated the sending of Jesus. It shows us his unlimited patience and love for those who had rejected him time after time.
It also contains a warning for us. What's our track record like in receiving God's gifts in the past? Pretty poor. We don't receive God's servants and prophets very well. We have a history of rejecting them and killing them. Human nature is to mistake and reject God's gift, but God sent him anyway. God sent us his best. There's no one left to send after Jesus; there's nothing better to give. The greatest mistake would be to fail to recognize who Jesus is, to fail to respond appropriately.
It's my wedding anniversary today. We've been married twelve years. We haven't hit the peaks yet like some of you - 40 or 50 years. But Charlene's done pretty well staying married to me for this long.
I sometimes feel that a lot of life is like a giant male conspiracy against women. A lot of things just seem to be weighted in favor of men. But whoever invented the traditional anniversary gift list had to be a female. There's very little on that list that a guy cares about.
This year, it's pearls and silk. I thought I would be generous this year and spend a grand total of $100 buying my wife a wonderful pearl or silk present. I thought, "I know were I can go to get a good, reasonably priced gift!" So I went to Birks. My wife had warned me that she doesn't like fresh-water pearls, so I went to Birks to look for cultured ones with my budget of $100.
I asked to see a bracelet. The lady showed it to me, and explained that the fresh-water pearls go up to $1,000, and the cultured pearls start from there and go up. She then asked me what my budget was. I hummed and hawed a little. At one point, she asked me when my anniversary was. I faced a choice. I could either tell her that we were celebrating our anniversary tomorrow, and I couldn't afford her overpriced, snobbish jewelry. Or, I could lie and tell her it wasn't for a couple weeks. As your spiritual leader, I knew what to do. I lied. I know, I was wrong. I blew it.
I looked around for silk sheets and found that they're $600 and up per sheet. Who sleeps in these things? Finally, I found a nice pearl bracelet for more than I had planned to spend, but everything looked cheap after Birks.
Here's the point. It's easy to mistake the value of something. It's easy to see something that's valuable, and have no real idea of its worth. It's human nature, in fact, to not recognize the value of God's gifts, especially the greatest gift that he could have given: the gift of his Son.
Suppose I had given Charlene this gift, but she had lost it or broke it. Then next year, I give her a more expensive gift, and she leaves it behind in the restaurant. Year after year, I keep giving her more gifts, but she either rejects them or undervalues them. Eventually, the gifts would stop.
God never did. Even though we rejected gift after gift, God said, "I know what I'll do. I'll send them my best." Don't mistake the value of the one who came at Christmas. Don't reject the last and best gift he will offer.
Thank you for the coming of Jesus, the proof of your love. Thanks for the gift of your one and only Son, the unveiling of God's heart, the proof of your love.
Commitment to respond by giving you our lives.