SCRIPTURES – Isaiah 5:1-7; Phil. 3:4b-11; Matt. 21:33-46
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” Matt. 21
Eight days ago Mount Ontake, a volcano in Japan, erupted without warning and spewed ash and rocks on unsuspecting tourists. At least 48 people died: most from rocks that were blown into the sky and fell on them; some from falling over rocks as they ran and being overcome by poisonous gases. What a terrible way to die!
Jesus speaks of Himself in such terrible terms in Matthew 21: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone… The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” Jesus says He is not only an essential stone, a cornerstone; He is a stone that destroys. He will either break you to pieces, or He will crush you.
Jesus is a hard preacher, not a smiling preacher of self-improvement and victorious living. Why does He speak this way? He’s distressed that the people of Israel are not producing the fruit that God desires, and so He preaches the parable of Isaiah 5 to them. But, they’re not producing fruit because their teachers are not proclaiming God’s truth and planting it in them. And so, Jesus intensifies Isaiah’s parable and directs it at the priests and Pharisees.
What is He saying? Does Jesus want you to be sad and die? There’s no hope for you; is that what He’s saying today? Not at all. He wants you to live with Him and in His joy! But, to do so you must first be broken and die to yourself.
How do you do this? Does Jesus want you to kill yourself? Of course not! But, you must consider yourself and your life dead – useless and unproductive and without value, deserving only of hell – apart from Him. Only in God, relying on His mercy and love and forgiveness in Christ, do you and your life have lasting value.
This is where Israel’s Priests and Pharisees went wrong and why they were so harshly rebuked by Jesus. They were preachers of self-improvement and victorious living. Like so many preachers today, they proclaimed that you could overcome temptations and your sins, serve and honor God with a life of obedience to His commands, and in this way please God and gain His blessing. They believed that God would send His Messiah. But, He would come with power to reward the righteous and destroy the sinners! Jesus, a rabbi who received tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners who came to Him – and even Gentiles! – was not a Messiah they could accept.
And so, Jesus spoke out against them. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone… The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” What was He saying to them? What is He saying to us? No more thinking that God will be happy with you and bless you because of the good you do, or as long as long as you try to be good and your intentions are good. In fact, no more trusting in yourself at all. Apart from Christ you are lifeless and unable to do anything good. You are unable even to love God!
Harsh as this sounds – and is! – remember that it comes from one who sought out and welcomed sinners to Himself. How often did Jesus receive those whom the “good” people in Israel shunned, and who would end up only hurting His reputation and causing Him trouble! “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” He told the Pharisees. “I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners.” Finally, He gave up His life on the cross for sinners. Christ’s death on the cross declares that our eternal hope is not in the least in ourselves. Our hope is only in Jesus: the mercy of His life lived for us and His death for the forgiveness of our sins. In Him God loves you!
What kind of life, of fruits, does such preaching produce? It produces repentance: a turning away from self and to God for His mercy and forgiveness in Christ. It produces a desire to receive that mercy and forgiveness as it is declared and given in the preaching of Christ crucified and His Sacraments. It produces empathy for other sinners and their struggles, and the desire to reach out to them in mercy. It produces a St. Paul.
Paul was a man whose life should, according to the Pharisees, have gained him many blessings from God. Circumcised on the eighth day; a Jew, and a Hebrew of Hebrews at that, for he became a Pharisee, a student of God’s Law, and he followed it so closely he could not be accused of breaking it. He was very careful to do everything right, and was a great example of victorious living. But, when Jesus confronted him, he stopped focusing on himself and the things he had done.
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Take to heart what he says. Righteousness comes from God, not you. Apart from Jesus our works and lives are rubbish, deserving only of the trash heap. But, through faith in Christ God forgives us and makes us holy. All that we do (apart from sin, of course) is now considered holy and is of great value to God. In Christ, then, we are freed from the burden of seeking to live victoriously to please God – He is already pleased with us! – and are freed to love God, live joyously in Him, and help others.
This is the fruit which God desires, the fruit which comes only as you turn completely away from self to trusting in God’s mercy in Christ alone. This is the fruit He works so hard to bring forth from you. This is ours all in Christ, and in Him alone. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!”