“God Is Not Distant”
Text: Matthew 21:33-46
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The purpose of parables is to convey to us how God is acting, and interacting, with His people. Parables are often referred to as earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. Sometimes that earthly story with a heavenly meaning has a happy ending. Like a fairy tale. One sheep is lost and the Shepherd goes out and finds it and keeps it safe before it’s devoured by wolves. The Good Samaritan walks past at just the right time to save the man who fell among the robbers and was left for dead. The prodigal son is at his lowest point when the father comes out to greet him and welcome him home with a wonderful feast. These are just a few of the parables with happy endings. The parable you heard today doesn’t resolve so neatly. Everything’s not wrapped up in a perfect box, topped off with a neat bow. Here Jesus warns of what’s to come for those who have rejected Him and care nothing for the amazing gifts the Heavenly Father has given to them.
But even though Jesus is warning of the dangers of being like those tenants who “beat one of his servants, killed another, and stoned another,” what He’s really doing is saying a whole lot about Himself. He’s saying a lot about who He is, and also what He’s not.
This is the culmination of a series of three vineyard parables, told by Jesus, that Matthew relates to us. They begin with the Laborers in the Vineyard, who go out into the field at different times, but each get paid the same wage. The second is the Two Sons, one who refuses at first to work for his father in the vineyard, but then goes, and the other who happily agrees to go to work, but then stays home and slacks off all day. The finale in this set of parables is the one you heard this morning. And as I said, it tells us much about who God is and what He’s not.
We’ll start with what the parable tells us about who God is. First of all, God is extremely generous. A vineyard would have been a multi-year project to even get started. Clearing the land. Buying the plants. Getting them into the ground. Building the fence. Digging the winepress. Erecting the tower. And hiring the tenants to care for it all while he was away tending to his other business. This master left nothing out. He provided absolutely everything to make this vineyard work. He does the same for you. As you look around, God has richly blessed you with all the tools necessary to produce beautiful fruit for Him. Luther’s explanation to the First Article of the Creed provides a long list of things God has provided and blessed us with. Body and soul, eyes, ears, food clothing. All that we have. For those in confirmation right now, we reference this quite a bit. If you’re not currently in one of those classes, look it up and be reminded that all we have is from God. And that He is unbelievably generous to us.
Secondly, God is persistent and loving. Even though those tenants continue to do horrible things to the master and His servants. They plot to steal the master’s crop and even kill some of the servants, the master continues to love them and come to them with opportunities to do the right thing. In the same way, God loves you beyond what any of us would think is reasonable. Despite the things we do and the ways we turn our back on Him, He continues to come to us desiring that we would recognize that great love, shown to us in Christ Jesus. And when we do, he rejoices that His lost sheep have been found.
So, God is generous and He’s persistent and loving. We could also talk about how trusting He is to give this well-appointed vineyard into the care of the tenants. God is long-suffering, giving these tenants multiple opportunities to produce for Him and return to Him what is His. The parable also shows how He’s just, He’s purposeful, and he’s present. But there are also a few of things this parable shows us that God is not. He’s not a pushover. The tenants think that the master is going to give up after a couple setbacks, but the master will never give up. They think he’ll just fold and let them have the vineyard. They’re not prepared for the lengths to which the master will go to save what’s His. God is not a pushover. He will never give up on you. In fact, He did the unthinkable for you. In order to redeem you; to win you back; he sent not a servant or a stranger, but His very own Son. The world and our sinfulness took the Son and killed Him, but the amazing thing is that God would not stay dead. He rose from the grave, overcoming sin and death for you. If God was satisfied with having only some come to Him, He would have walked away, counted His losses and licked His wounds. But He didn’t. He gave everything so that You could be with Him.
One other thing many people think about God is that He’s got more important things to worry about than us. This was probably the thinking of the tenants. The Master has other businesses to tend to. Other people to manage. Remember he “went into another country.” How much could He really care if he doesn’t stick around to see how things are going and to keep an eye on the operation? We can easily fall into this trap as well. Feeling like God has more important things to do than to listen to us, or to tend to our problems. I tell you God is not distant from you. He’s not far away. On days when life seems to overwhelm you, and nothing seems to be going your way, it can seem that God must have more important things to worry about than you. Like He’s left you on your own to do it all by yourself. He doesn’t do that. While He gives us the free will to make our own choices, He’s also never far off, always ready to respond to any need we might have. He is an ever-present help in trouble. And He is ready to be as close to you as you will allow Him to be. It’s been said that if God seems far away, it’s not Him who moved.
I think we’ve been conditioned to think of God in terms of a being that’s always just a little too far away for us to reach. We’ve created this idea of heaven as the place where God dwells, and we’ll be able to have this close relationship with Him when we get there, but that for now there will always be this uncrossable divide. It’s not just Christians who think this way either. Australian aborigines pictured heaven as a distant island beyond the western horizon. The early Finns thought heaven was a distant island in the faraway East. Mexicans, Peruvians, and Polynesians believed they went to the sun or the moon after death. Of course as Christians, we understand a bit better where it is we long to be when this life is over, but the details are still a bit hazy. Even so, we don’t need to wait for that final day to experience the fact that God is not distant. In fact, our closeness to Him is never more real than in this very place. Where He has spoken to us through His Word. And where He will serve us His meal.
He comes to us. He closes that gap. Just as He continued to send His servants to those wicked tenants. Even as they continued to be beaten and killed. His desire to be close to us is immense. To see and to receive the fruit that we produce and bear in His name and to His glory. Unfortunately, we’re too often like those tenants. Wanting to keep the generous gifts we’ve been given for ourselves. Shunning the persistence and love of our Heavenly Father. And not believing that no matter how far we try to move away from Him, He will continue to pursue us, because His desire is never to be distant from His beloved people.
As I said at the beginning, the purpose of a parable is to convey to us how God is acting, and interacting, with you, His people. To use an earthly story to convey a heavenly meaning. While this parable might not have a fairy tale ending, it does clearly show us who God is, and what He is not. He is generous, persistent, and loving. And He’s not a pushover. Nor is He ever far off from you. Although this particular parable may seem a bit over the top, parables don’t have to be realistic to make a point. The fact that no landowner had ever done, or would ever do, what this Master did, only makes the illustration more powerful. After losing so many servants, only a Father with an incomprehensible, radical love would do what He did. Send His very own Son. That’s our God, who is never distant, and who would do anything, even the inconceivable, to be close to you. Rejoice in the fact that we have a God who is all this and so much more for all of us. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.