Decaf Christmas? audio (4MB)
This week a number of articles have come out, commenting on the push to get Christ out of Christmas. The best I read called this the decaffeination of Christmas. Carols that are all about trees, snow, reindeer, not about baby born in a manger. Why do we do this? For some the story of Christmas is unbelievable. For some it’s a conspiracy or myth. For other’s it’s just nice to celebrate something at the end of the year, but there’s no connection between Christmas and the rest of their lives. It’s just a nice tradition, with no meaning. But underneath all that, I think this article got it right. The real reason we decaffeinate Christmas is because we don’t want Jesus intruding on our lives. Don’t want to admit that we need help. Little baby Jesus is OK, but he’d better not get out of the manger.
We’ve seen the same attitude displayed as we’ve worked through Mark. Everyone has their own ideas as to what the Messiah would be like and do. The disciples struggled with the idea that the Messiah must suffer and die. As we saw vividly last week the religious elite weren’t prepared to accept that Jesus had any authority or power. They engaged in fierce debates with him in the Temple, hoping to trap him, to bring him down.
It’s in the midst of all those debates that Jesus stops and tells the story that we’ve just heard. Unlike some of the other parables, the meaning of this one seems pretty clear. Even Jesus’ opponents understand it. It’s a great parable for us to look at just before Christmas. It’s a bit like Dickens’ Christmas Carol. This parable explains Christmas past, present and future!
Jesus begins, “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time.”
Those listening in could hardly have missed the meaning of the vineyard. Throughout the Old Testament it’s used as a metaphor for the nation of Israel. The image was so deeply rooted, that the gates of the Temple were covered in a golden carving of a grapevine. But the vineyard wasn’t always a good image. In Isaiah 5, God says he planted a vineyard but when he came to harvest it all he could find was bad fruit. When Jesus told the parable, the crowds would’ve also been reminded of the failure of Israel.
And as the parable goes on, we meet the bad tenants. They were meant to care for the vineyard in the owner’s stead. Instead their actions are pretty incredible. I’m embarrassed to admit that we’ve received a few yellow, or even pink, reminder notices from utility companies. They usually come with a polite note that if you don’t pay up, they’ll have to resort to debt collection measures. That’s the role the servants play in the parable. When we get one of those letters, we never resort to the tenants methods and kill the messengers!
It’s clear that Jesus is pointing the finger at those who were meant to be leaders of the nation. The failure of Israel is pinned on them. Elsewhere Jesus accused them of being no better than their forefathers who’d killed the prophets. Now he says they’ll even go one further and kill God’s Son.
At first the parable suggests their only motivation is greed and rudeness. But as it progresses we discover their true motivation. In verse 14, ‘But when the tenants saw the son, they discussed it amongst themselves and said, “This is the heir; let’s kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’” Greed plays a part, but there’s something more. Although they’ve been placed in the vineyard as tenants, they don’t want to acknowledge the true owner of the vineyard.
I’ve lived in rental houses for many years. As a tenant, you have to look after the place like it’s your own, but you know it’s not. You have to get permission, even to put a hook in the wall. It’s quite clear you’re not the owner.
In the parable, the tenants weren’t willing to just look after the vineyard. They wanted to be owners themselves. So they took the drastic step of killing the rightful heir.
The danger when we read a parable like this is to think it’s just a condemnation of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. It’s easy to think the parable is only about them, their failure to respond to God, to respect his Son. We think all it tells us is a history of the nation of Israel and it’s failings. We think it’s only about the past. But that’s to miss the sting in the tail. Because it’s also about Christmas present.
That’s because Jesus isn’t just describing the condition of the religious leaders of Israel. He’s describing the condition of every human being. The vineyard isn’t just a picture of Israel, but of the whole world.
We’ve been put here as God’s tenants, to care for his vineyard. That’s what God said to Adam and Eve when he placed them in the Garden of Eden. They were to tend, to care for his creation. But how did Adam and Eve react? They decided it would be good to be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil.
And human beings have been doing the same thing ever since then. We’ve been trying to wrest control from God! We all want to be the owners, not the tenants. We don’t want to follow anyone else’s agenda, let alone God’s! We want to rule, not to be ruled by God.
Did you notice the insolence of the tenants in the parable? Their plan is crazy, yet they seem to think they’ll get away with it. This is a rebellion that’s doomed!
How can we puny creatures think we can shake our fists at God and get away with it? Or that we can make God go away, just ignoring those who’ve been sent to remind us how much we owe him? How could we ever think that we could wrest control from God? There’s no way God will put up with that sort of thing! Is there?
Isn’t that the really incredible part of the parable? Not the actions of the tenants, but the owner? He sends slave after slave. The first they beat, the second insulted, the third they killed, and then we read in verse 5. “And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed.” The owner tolerates their rebellion for so long.
This is the amazing thing about the bible story – God tolerates our rebellion for so long. His concern for us is almost incomprehensible. God goes to such great lengths to keep us on track. He gives us opportunity after opportunity to turn back to him. God does everything he can to maintain contact with us, despite our stubbornness and ignorance.
In the parable the owner’s response to the repeated refusal is to send his son. It’s his last ditch attempt to talk sense into the tenants. Isn’t that what we celebrate this Christmas? That God sent his Son on a rescue mission. He sent his Son into this world to save us!
Notice how Jesus here answers the question the Sanhedrin put to him last week? They’d asked what authority he had to teach and minister. He’d answered in a round-a-bout way by asking them where John’s authority had come from. But now, in the parable, Jesus identifies himself as God’s Son. That’s where his authority comes from. Jesus is the Father’s Son, the unique, beloved Son of God.
It’s just as important a claim today, as it was then. It’s tempting to downplay Jesus’ deity. To say he was just a man, a good teacher, a good example. That he was especially holy, blessed, endowed with the Holy Spirit. Or he’s just one of the messengers of God, but not God himself.
Or we try to limit Jesus, to ‘decaffeinate’ him, by only thinking of him as that little baby in the manger. He’s nice and safe there. We don’t want to think about what he came for. That Christmas is all about the owner, about God, giving us one last chance to turn back to him.
Of course, the leaders of Jesus’ day weren’t willing to accept that’s who he was. And so they put him to death.
Last week in our children’s talk Ruth presented a modern retelling of the nativity story. She asked what it would be like if Jesus came today, if he was born in a little town outside Melbourne. Have to think, that end result would be the same. People today would be just as unwilling to believe that he was the Son of God. We’d be just as resistant to him having any claim over our lives. In the end he’d still be put death, because we still don’t want to submit to God’s authority and rule. We want to be owners, not tenants.
Jesus’ understanding of the Future
So this parable doesn’t just summarize Israel’s past. It also tells us about the present, our current situation. But it also looks to the future. It’s clear that Jesus understands what lays ahead of him in that week. He’s clearly predicting his death at the hands of those God had put in charge of his people.
But just as clear, is that Jesus knows what will come in the long term. He knows that the eternal gospel doesn’t allow anyone to run the vineyard except God himself. As hard as we try to take over the vineyard, in the end we’re doomed to fail.
The angels in Revelation 14 proclaim this:
6Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” - Rev. 14:6-7
The eternal gospel, which has been proclaimed from beginning to end, is this: God is to be worshipped and glorified. It’s what Jesus said the greatest commandment is, that God alone is to be loved, worshipped and obeyed. And the end of history will see God finally losing patience with those who continue to rebel against him. God will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.
This is the answer to all the evil and terrible events that we see in our world today. God is doing something about it. It’s a warning that we actually can’t get away with doing evil in our own lives. We can’t sin with impunity. God will not be mocked. He won’t be pushed out. He won’t let us take control away from him. We need to be careful. Divine patience isn’t the same thing as divine indifference. His patience is merely to give us more time to repent. But the day will come when that time has run out. When he returns to judge the world.
And notice the basis on which that judgment takes place. After he’s told the parable, Jesus says to them;
‘Have you not read this Scripture: "the Stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; this was the Lords’ doing and it is amazing in our eyes.’"
The scripture he’s referring to comes from Psalm 118, a Psalm about the Messiah. The crowds quoted the end of this Psalm when they cheered Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. But it also says the Messiah might appear defeated, even dead, yet God will lift him up and make him King. He’s the one on whom people will stand or fall. Will we be with him, or against him?
When the owner comes, he will treat the tenants on the basis of how they treated his Son. The basis on which God will judge the world will be the way people have responded to his Son. The basis on which God will judge me and you is on our response to Jesus. Have you believed in him as God’s only Son? Have you called on him in repentance and faith, asking him to forgive you?
In a sense, we’ll be judged on how we understand Christmas! If it’s another holiday, if Jesus is just another baby, then we’re in trouble. We have to see that this little child, this babe in a manger, is God’s anointed chosen King. This is God the Son, come into the world.
As we celebrate Christmas we have to remember that he rules the world, in truth and grace. I pray that for everyone we submit to Jesus, giving him the honor and obedience that he’s due.